On Fire Like Old Dry Garbage: On Charles Bukowski

In moments of grouchy introspection, I’ve divided the cultural detritus of my world into two categories: (1) things tedious pomo hipsters love that I just can’t stand; and (2) things tedious pomo hipsters love that I also love. In the first category I would include Will Oldham, Leonard Cohen, Thomas Pynchon, White Stripes, Jeff Koons, Tom Robbins, Nick Cave, Greil Marcus, Jacques Derrida, and Chloe Sevigny.

But then there’s that second category, the hipster detritus that always surprises me with its cornucopia of riches: Elliott Smith, Dave Eggers, Belle & Sebastian, the Roots, Nick Hornby, Julie Doucet, Pierre Bourdieu, Moldy Peaches, Spoon, Lili Taylor, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Todd Solontz, WWJJD tee’s, anti-WTO petitions — this is some great stuff! Perhaps I should just drop the act and come out of the closet as a pomo hipster. I don’t think I’d make the grade though, not when the pomo paratroopers start soliciting loyalty oaths and brainwashing me into buying the dull new Beck LP.

One artist beloved of pomo hipsters who I’ve alternately loved and hated is that strange soused old man of the American Century: Charles Bukowski. He is the ugliest, drunkest, stinkiest, least complicated, wordiest, narstiest little poet this freedom-loving nation has ever offered the world (yeah, yeah, I know he was born in Germany, but they ain’t claimin’ him).

Back in the moonbeams of my youth, while I squeezed pimples, slumped my way past the girls, and cautiously stood with my back to the locker, I thought ol’ Hank was a delicious, transgressive force. He didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. He banged out poems about fucking, fighting, and boozing (and his stained underwear), without regard to meter or rhyme. His was the freest verse the world had ever seen. It was almost as if he drunkenly hit the carriage return by accident every time a synapse flashed in his stormy brain. And he was funny as hell — a rare feature among poets.

Later, pretending to be jaded, world-weary, and misanthropic, I tired of Bukowski. All the most annoying hornrim hepcats I knew had his Black Sparrow Press books carefully displayed on their shelves, and you can tell they only took ’em down as a prop to seduce gullible girls. His poems struck me as repetitive and too straightforward. Maybe he was just a charlatan, a phony, a drunk hack! Certainly he was a one-trick pony. I mean, the poet-singing-in-his-cups act is as old as language itself, and John Berryman literally ran that shit into the ground with his boozy stop-start epics and knotty bearded voice-of-God recitations, culminating in a frigid reborn-Catholic suicide off the Washington Avenue Bridge.

A sad tale, and at that time Bukowski was too busy counting royalty checks and getting laid between beers to ponder suicide or even redemption. I dismissed him, even as I laughed at his hilarious cigar-oven-gas suicide poem.

Now I’ve come full circle. I crave simplicity and authenticity. I dig any poet that speaks for the working classes. Bukowski’s poems are engaging and surprisingly clear-headed. Reading his work aloud is invigorating. I think the key is to hear him as a fun poet, rather than a Great Poet. His poems are more in the tradition of Ogden Nash, Gregory Corso, or Edna St. Vincent Millay; witty, droll, tragic, simple, smirking, memorable, and exuberant. The same sorts of characteristics that made 16th century English poetry classic, but makes modern literary theorists go spastic with sneering discomposure and fussy nonchalance. Sure, Hank probably wanted to be taken seriously. But he never tried to take his poetry to the next level. He never tried to be ponderous, formal, or ambiguous. He kept everything very basic, and he churned it out on autopilot. He was an over-saturated, pungent, weed-choked swamp of words.

Browsing through my local library branch this week I came across a book, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, by Howard Sounes. The definitive biography! I was entranced, first of all, by the photographs which feature a hideous, bloodshot, beady-eyed, pot-bellied man in various stages of decrepitude. And then the pictures of his various lovers — all of them beautiful and intriguing (except for his fascinating, deformed first wife Barbara Frye). One such lover, Joanna Bull, merits the following caption: “Joanna Bull felt so ill after having sex with Bukowski she threw up.”

Well, hey, for that reason alone I needed to read the book. How could a man so remarkably revolting, so pockmarked and dissipated, so caustic and selfish, so perpetually drunk, boorish, and repugnant . . . how could he be so lucky? And why would women risk digestive trauma to sit in this dirty old man’s rocking chair? Unfortunately the book gives only modest insight into this fascinating line of questioning. Bukowski was a god among hipsters of the 1960s. Both post-Beat and post-hippie, his visage served as a wizened signpost to a simple, effortless, poetic future, like an entire poetry slam rolled up and simmering in an old cracked cask. And in a bizarre reversal of feminist empowerment, allowing this mumbling ethanol windbag to paw at you only made you stronger. Or at least it was a pretty attractive thing to add to your resumé.

Indeed, Dionysus sat by smiling as Hank’s grimy and rapid fornication recycled itself, over and over (the book hints that either his appetite or the bottle overpowered his sack talent almost every time). Still, the carnal mysteries of Hank are pretty lame, despite the bait in the book’s photographs. I wanted to know the essence, the real key to his appeal. Because his truckloads of words don’t reveal that much of it.

His adolescence does, though, and I was shocked by the self-evident answers revealed in Sounes’ biography. He had an abusive father and a mother who was constantly going pie-eyed and putting her hands to her mouth whenever dad and son got into one of their one-sided knock-downs. His dad is a frequent topic of the later poems, but it’s a boring and obvious motif.

I think Hank had much bigger, more powerful foes during his adolescence: homeliness and acne. The boy was ugly. He looked like a heavy-browed missing link, a gurgling simian target for anyone who wanted to smack the ugly out of a mealymouthed teen. On top of that, he had one of the worst cases of acne ever to erupt in America. The poor boy had to go to special medical treatments, with tolerant nurses wiping oceans of pus flooding from lanced pimples throughout his face and down his back. He would wake up in the morning with a new ruddy ostrich egg between his brows, tender and painful to the touch, keeping everyone from looking him in the eye, forcing him to the shy corners of his school. He was an exaggerated version of the quintessential ugly, socially awkward kid from a bad family. He stared vainly at the girls. Boys made fun of him. Would he ever transcend this?

No, he never would. Adolescence has a set of rituals: male bonding, glamour, competition, phoniness, cars, third base, touchdowns, and sex. Hank never experienced or understood these rituals, not while he was a teenager. Only later, when he lost his virginity as a young adult and began to write seriously, did he see that life could have the glistening crescendos that teenage Hank missed.

As an adult working at the post office, he was so shy, so hideous, and quiet that at least one co-worker thought he was mentally retarded! Writing was his other self, his liberating force, his grounding in reality. And in his writing, adolescence became his literary identity. Despite the pretense to worldly wisdom that his later work adopts, Hank always remained an enthusiastic, decadent, rebellious, beer-spitting, word-spinning teenager. He craved sex like a teenager. He drank like a teenager. He banged his head in jealousy like a teenager. He smirked like a teenager. He started unnecessary fights like a teenager. This is the key to his appeal. He was Dick Clark in reverse: an American adolescent whose body grew repellent and fetid while his brain and gonads trundled along at a loping teenage gait.

The deep scars from his teenage bout with severe acne not only weathered his face prematurely, but they inscribed him as Our Teenager, the ultimate annoying and inspiring little troublemaker. It’s no accident that between the caps-lock and the free verse, many high school boys tend to type or scrawl poems with the same bloodshot vigor and unembarrassed simpleminded fury that was Hank’s trademark.

If Bukowski has any meaning for Culture, I think that’s where it is: stay young, think simple. Too many poets and poetasters embrace the ponderous, puritanical, frowning mindset of Adulthood, and the results, like most self-conscious Contributions to Civilization, are boring, tedious crap. I would rather read absorbing and funny crap. And that’s what Bukowski tended to write. As he memorably intoned in a moment of jocular wisdom, “The more crap you believe, the better off you are.”

Still don’t believe me? Listen to the man himself:

why do we go on
with our minds and
pockets full of
like a bad boy just out of
school —
you tell
you who were a hero in some
you who teach children
you who drink with calmness
you who own large homes
and walk in gardens
you who have killed a man and own a
beautiful wife
you tell me
why I am on fire like old dry



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