Charles Bukowsi has long been a looming and controversial figure here at Sendb00ks. A few years ago on a holiday, we took and read Women (pictured above) in the bath looking out over the mountains of Morzine. There were more than a few heated discussions about this man, his writing and his language. We would swing from repulsion at his blatant misogyny and disregard for women in his writing to marvelling at his self awareness, his lack of pretence and shame and his shocking self deprecation and dedication to his work. It's a very modern problem that affects most of the creative industries today: can you continue to love and respect the work of an artist when you realise that the person was a bigot? That they were racist? Sexist? Homophobic? When we were younger we figured it best to just stop reading him to avoid all of the anger he would evoke with his writing, but if we did this with every problematic writer, what would there be left to read? With Bukowski especially, we had to think about the way in which he employed this type of aggressive and shocking language in the reasoning behind his style, his honesty, his grim refusal to sugar coat his opinions and his life.
“If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”
When we are constantly reminded as artists, or simply as human beings, that authenticity is key, it becomes clear that here is a writer utterly dedicated to portraying his authentic experience of life in his work. No one ever said this experience needed to be easy to swallow. Bukowski is famously buried under a tomb that reads “Don’t Try” per his request. It is a damning reminder of his lifelong belief that an artist is ruined by praise, that education and revision and judgement and shame of your own thoughts will destroy every person’s own valuable core truth in their work. He believed fiercely that society was rotten at its core and that to live as an artist in the modern world required a total rejection of its values and beliefs: “Some lose all mind and become soul, insane. Some lose all soul and become mind, intellectual. Some lose both and become accepted.” It is in this fact that we can begin to understand the work of Bukowski, despite resenting it at the same time. His motivation in life was never success and through his writing we can clearly see that for him, success has nothing to do with self improvement. While the truth of one artist may reside in a book about love, about marriage or about work, it’s clear that this is not relevant to the life of Bukowski and that his authenticity lies in the gutter where he saw himself living and where he analysed himself struggling to survive. He was the antithesis of what he saw as “Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people.”
Despite the grizzly passages of misogyny, the sometimes unreadable descriptions of sex and intimacy, his work is marbled with a dazzling clarity that jumps from the page. There is no degraded description of somebody that is not preceded by a violent degradation of self, no analysis of another human being that is not counteracted with a tortured segment of self analysis. Of course issues such as this apply to every author, every artist, as no single human being exists in perfection on earth; so it is up to us as individuals to gather as much information on the artist as possible in order to come to our own conclusions about the individual and the work, both connected and isolated from one another. After all, he never claimed to be interested in what society dictated for the modern man, who he saw as paralysed and mundane: “for me, obedience to another is the decay of self. For though every being is similar, each being is different and to herd our differences under one law degrades each self.”
“there are worse things
than being alone
but it often takes
decades to realize this
and most often when you do
it's too late
and there's nothing worse
than too late”
His gift was in his perception of the absurd, the ridiculous and the troubled. His style of prose is tough and relentless, a mirror to the way that he experienced life, and by refusing to shy away from these facts, he so brilliantly and poignantly conjured the desperation and absurdity of ordinary life that has left an enduring mark on modern culture. Charles Bukowski, despite his many faults and offenses, strove tirelessly to immortalise his experiences, his love, his fear and his shame, without bending to criticism and without fear of rejection, which deserves recognition if only for its own sake. To begin with, there was always a conversation to be had about his approach to women. It’s almost impossible to open any of his books or scan any of his poems without pretty quickly stumbling across a jarringly offensive description of a woman, whether that be his wife, one of his lovers, a prostitute or a stranger. He is famous for having stated:“Don’t wait for a good woman. she doesn’t exist. There are women who can make you feel more with their bodies and their souls but these are the exact women who will turn the knife into you right in front of the crowd. of course, I expect this, but the knife still cuts. the female loves to play man against man. and if she is in a position to do it there is not one who will not resist. The male, for all his bravado and exploration, is the loyal one, the one who generally feels love. The female is skilled at betrayal. and torture and damnation.” While these sentiments towards women are echoed throughout his writing, a little knowledge around the man that said this goes some way to explain, but of course does not excuse, the reasons behind his language. Bukowski was born in Germany and moved to LA when he was three with his family after the economic breakdown in his home city. His father was extremely abusive towards him and his mother, who was neglectful of him. He passed his childhood with extreme shyness and chronic dyslexia, making his time at school miserable, compounded by crippling acne and a growing disdain for those around him, in their growing numbers, that rejected him. Moreso in his poetry than his prose there can still be found the essential seed of his feeling towards women, who we can begin to feel that he much rather strongly fears than dislikes:
“I will remember the kisses
our lips raw with love
and how you gave me
everything you had
and how I
offered you what was left of
and I will remember your small room
the feel of you
the light in the window
our morning coffee
our noons our nights
our bodies spilled together
the tiny flowing currents
immediate and forever
your leg my leg
your arm my arm
your smile and the warmth
who made me laugh
He tried to begin publishing his work in his early twenties, assisted by his first wife, whose sporadic success led nowhere. He gave up writing and went on a decade long break where he drank himself almost to death. When he realised he had to return to his true purpose in life he worked a remarkable array of jobs to supplement his writing, including dishwasher, truck driver and loader, mail carrier, guard, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouse worker, shipping clerk, post office clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly and elevator operator. He also worked in a slaughterhouse, a cake and cookie factory, a dog biscuit factory and hung posters in New York's subways. The very fact of this work for Bukowski is a testament to his belief in the redemptive powers of literature, who often worked long into the night between jobs and was known to sleep very little. There is a unignorable gift in his writing that he worked tirelessly to realise in himself, and in much of his writing (despite his relentless bravado and masochistic facade) he struggles to conceal the sadness and the sensitivity of his spirit that gives his work such depth and emotion: “I felt like crying but nothing came out. it was just a sort of sad sickness, sick sad, when you can't feel any worse. I think you know it. I think everybody knows it now and then. but I think I have known it pretty often, too often.”
Despite the obvious melodrama and domestic violence that is prolific in much of his poetry and prose, Bukowski often stated that his work was not autobiographical but just influenced largely by his life. Bukowski wrote for the downtrodden in a voice that was not his, a character, a performance. From this point of view we can view his artistic expressions as an act intended to shock and disgust its audiences. Through this prism of analysis we can read his work as dramatic and exaggerated representations of his own gender identity that voiced the woes of the poor man. He lashed out by writing a violent counter system philosophy that attacked everything that had ever attacked him, most notably women. Some people argue that his relentless misogyny was a parodic construction that he carefully created to mock rigid societal gender laws. Regardless of this reading it seems difficult to imagine anybody who he intended to read his work recognising such a complex and aggressive satire in favour of idealising him and his acceptance of the violent mistreatment of women that was already rife in LA at the time. In King Kong Theory Virginie Despentes takes apart the social hypocrisy regarding gender and sexuality, using Bukowski as the figure head of the lazy, perverse, power hungry, sex mad, women hating attitudes that continue to plague our society:
“Pleasing men is a complex art that involves erasing everything that smacks of power. Meanwhile, men - at least those who are my age or older - have no bodies. They can neither be old nor fat. Any sleazy, balding, booze-addled, pot bellied fucktard is entitled to make vicious comments about the physical attributes of girls he doesnt find sexy, or sleazy remarks if hes frustrted that he hasnt got a chance of fucking her. These are the perogatives of his sex. Men want to palm us off with the sleaziest shit as though it's noble and instinctive. But not many men get to be Bukowski; most are just bog standard scum bags.”
Regardless of what our thoughts are on this extremely provocative and rebellious author, his legacy as a huge figure in counter-culture literature remains to this day and he continues to be read by millions each year. Below is one of our favourite poems by him, that captures the sadness, the bleakness and the relentless self belief that came to characterise him as an artist.
The Crunch too much too little too fat too thin or nobody. laughter or Tears Haters Lovers strangers with faces like the backs of thumb tacks armies running through streets of blood waving wine bottles bayoneting and fucking Virgins. an old guy in a cheap room with a photograph of M. Monroe. there is a loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock people so tired Mutilated either by love or no love. people just are not good to each other one on one. the rich are not good to the rich the poor are not good to the poor. we are afraid. our educational system tells us that we can all be big-ass winners.
it hasn’t told us about the gutters or the suicides. or the terror of one person aching in one place Alone Untouched unspoken to watering a plant. people are not good to each other. people are not good to each other. people are not good to each other. I suppose they never will be. I don’t ask them to be. but sometimes I think about it. the beads will swing the clouds will cloud and the killer will behead the child like taking a bite out of an ice cream cone. too much too little too fat too thin or nobody more haters than lovers.
people are not good to each other.
perhaps if they were our deaths would not be so sad. meanwhile I look at young girls Stems flowers of chance. there must be a way. surely there must be a way that we have not yet Thought of. who put this brain inside of me? it cries it demands it says that there is a chance. it will not say “no.”