Adam Cohen, contributing here for the first time, is a student at Hunter College in New York City, a bookstore employee, a Brooklynite from Long Island, and a poet whose work has appeared in The City Poetry, Thieves Jargon, Wandering Army, and Zygote In My Coffee. — Levi
There is something irrational and impractical about the beauty of the late Charles Bukowski’s work. His writing is unfriendly, solitary and blatantly subjective, yet unabashed for its own cause in its steady delivery. Few have ever put themselves so out there, on the line. He wrote of his own life, blue-collar America, with all the flaws and scars exposed, his vices on open display. He is remembered as the “Poet Laureate of Skid Row.” His poetry, along with much of his other works, goes well beyond the limits of “good taste” with topics such as drinking, fighting, gambling, dying and fornicating.
To myself and many others, he is a “drunken Romantic.” Romanticism was described in “An Outline of American Literature” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren as “a movement which elevated the individual, the passions, and the inner life. It stressed strong emotion, imagination, freedom from classical correctness in art forms, and rebellion against social conventions.”
Bukowski’s literary alter-ego Henry Chinaski lacked almost every reputable trait of character. He awoke in cheaply rented bedrooms, probably hostels (if he was lucky enough to afford them). Typically, he stumbled out of bed, towards the toilet, and got sick, his binging now turning into purging. Walking back into the bedroom, heaving in-and-out large breaths of air, he’d sit down at his desk and pull another bottle of beer from a mini-fridge at his feet. While sucking back and gasping at the bottle, his female counterpart rises out of bed and follow his path towards the bathroom, where she too becomes sick. After finishing, she comes out to meet him in the bedroom, sits down on the disheveled bed and lights a cigarette.
“How do you feel?,” she asks him, to which he replies, “I feel bad. I wanna be alone.”
“You don’t have enough love,” she cries out, “it’s warped you!”
“People don’t need love. They need success of some form or another. It can be love, but it doesn’t have to be.”
“The Bible says ‘Love thy Neighbor.’”
“That can also mean: ‘Leave him alone.’”
I suppose I find beauty in how Bukowski could be such a beast and yet have a gentle grace about him, all at once. He pulls you in both directions, and you can share in the madness that he was always writing about. To read and love Bukowski is to know the true ugliness of beauty, “the desert of the living,” and the last breaths of a drunken Romantic.
He continues to have many enemies and critics, some of which I’ve spoken to, who tell me, “Bukowski belongs in the toilet.” Well, I’m one of his biggest fans, and I’d have to agree. Many of his books are kept in my bathroom. The business of the toilet just doesn’t seem fit to be reading those beauty magazines anyway, just the same as it doesn’t seem fit to be conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra or baking hot apple pies in there either. It seems to me more fitting to do away with fancy language and flowery metaphors, which Bukowski often did not waste time with – he wrote right at you, like a boxer throwing lefts and rights. Roger Ebert once said that Bukowski “wrote poems as if the words were bricks to be laid.” I’d have to agree with that too, adding that bricks are the perfect complementary element of a good bathroom read.
The first time I found a Bukowski book, my perception of poetry changed. It was really special, almost a “cosmic miracle” that I found him the way I did. I was a young man, trying to live my own way, as honestly as I could. Like Bukowski, I’d spent a good portion of my life looking for something that wasn’t there. It’s a bit unclear what I wanted, and why I stopped, but I think it may have had something to do with a “means to an end.” Everybody, most often, accounts that they exist for an end-remainder, a collection of ideas such as love, happiness, family, health, success, or wealth. I, myself, was a young man walking through a bookstore, searching for my own combination of goals, as well as trying my hardest to create an art-work which might help other people like myself along their way, although I had no idea where I was going or how I was getting there. I had never before heard of Bukowski, I knew very little about poetry, but I thought it was a good place for a beginning writer to start. I thought poetry was about form, stances, and ultra-cryptic language. As Bukowski once sarcastically wrote, “if you don’t understand a poem, it must surely be good.” The day I happened to take a gander down the poetry aisle was the same day that his postmortem book, “Come On In!” was released, and it sat there facing me on the shelf.
I fell in love with Bukowski’s arrogance, his treachery against the given world around him. As if he knew something I didn’t, I kept reading on and on. He never mentioned, oddly enough, what it was he know that I didn’t. On the contrary, I’ve learned just how dumb Bukowski was, how so many of his problems were self-inflicted, and he’s even said himself that he didn’t write out of knowledge.
So, was his life’s work meaningless? He often wrote about the masturbatory nature of poetry reading, and once, after a cousin of mine read some of his work, said, “oh, I don’t like it. He just contradicts himself, first with this poem about the meaninglessness of poetry readings, and then this very next one, just about an old memory he’s describing, and it too, means nothing.” So I replied, “but who says a poem about an old memory is nothing?” “I did,” she said… and I thought to myself, you’re an English graduate? She continued, “his memories are only his own, they’re too subjective to believe in, and he’s just as masturbatory as any poetry reading. “But, Diane,” I asked, “how can a poem be about nothing?”
Bukowski backs me up, in “A Poem is a City” from “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses…” he writes:
A poem is a city filled with streets and sewers, filled with saints heroes, beggars, madmen, filled with banality and booze, filled with rain and thunder and periods of drought. A poem is a city at war. It’s a barber shop filled with cynical drunks. A poem is a city. A poem is a nation. A poem is the world.
It feels like it is being read to me. No matter where I am in my day, or what I am doing, the words take me to a safer place, lost somewhere deep inside. I can hear the writer’s voice, steady as always. I look up from the floor of my mind; I see an old, worn out pair of shoes, brown and faded, still smelling like leather. I see his dark gray slacks, a crease down the middle until it flattens-out where his fat thighs bulge, like old lady’s bags around his torso. I recognize the untucked, short-sleeve button-down. We must be in Southern California; it’s warm, but not like a bar, though I’m drinking and he’s drinking, so we must be at his home. His face is large and heavy, his nose sits like an anchor. What hair he has left has gone gray, streaks of white, pulled back and curls around his ears. His breath is horrible, even worse than I imagined. He has deep ridges and furrows all over his face, especially his forehead and underneath his furry eyebrows, but under that I see his eyes, and they are something new, like polished metal, dark and gleaming. They are like railroad tunnels, they seem to say: it’s alright kid, I won’t hurt you, but I do mean serious business. He drinks from his little cup of red wine, hits a hand-rolled cigarette down to it’s bitter end, ’til his fingernails are brown, blowing puffs of smoke out into the night air. Sadly though, all good (or bad) poems must come to an end.
Thanks for the good times, Mr. Bukowski, I’d say. I’m sure if we could really meet, you’d snarl and call me an “arrogant kid,” and that I got it “all wrong anyway,” but I’d just stare back and grin, and say something like, “you’re right, Mr. Bukowski. You’ve always been right.” So, I’d walk away, and if I was lucky enough, you’d turn me into dust in one of your next poems. This is luck, Mr. Bukowski, because your poems were never really about anyone else, they were always truly about you. You made sure you got to be the hero, the one getting the last laugh, at least somewhere or sometime in your life. The poems weren’t even written for us. You know, sir, you wrote them for yourself. Even the ones titled to your women, your ex-lovers – even those were written just so that you could gain a peace of mind, to perhaps understand a bit more about the pain you felt. I really appreciate that, Mr. Bukowski.
Mr. Bukowski, one of my favorite poems is “The Shower,” because of how you can turn the most grotesquely pornographic operation into the most heart-breaking reflection. I think of that poem in my head, and if I’m alone at the time, I feel like I might cry. The same goes for “Bluebird.”
The most mind-splitting of poems, however, are the reflections on people’s hopes and desires, and the ways in which they work desperately, and too short-sighted for their “means to an end.” The best are “Roll the Dice,” and “Air and Light and Time and Space.” They ring in my ears like wake-up-calls. Finally, Mr. Bukowski, I want to thank you for controlling my insanity with the world. I no longer take it as seriously as I once did. I am happier knowing that we live in a miserable hell, but that if you look closely enough, you can’t tell the difference between pain and laughter.