“Some lose all mind and become soul, insane. Some lose all soul and become mind, intellectual. Some lose both and become accepted” ––– Charles Bukowski
What’s not to like about one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Plenty, of course, but Charles Bukowski was a man, a man’s man, with a plague of demons constantly gnashing away at his soul. He was a poet, novelist, and all-out alcoholic bastard. But through all his sins, he’s still one of the greatest, wittiest and intelligent writers I’ve ever read. Though dead and gone, his words live on.
By the end of Bukowski’s tormented life, he managed to complete thousands of poems, multitudes of short stories, and six novels. Most of these works were accomplished with heavy amounts of alcohol flowing through his bloodstream, that’s when he felt most ingenious. Thoughts bled from his brain like the liquor seeped from his pores and he left a glorious stench on the snobby literary world. His words flowered from the crevasses of the paved road of life, flourishing into a despicable thing of truth and beauty. His poems were hymns for the disenfranchised, lonely, and despaired. His contentment was found in the shadows of the midnight hour, drunkenly isolated, where his love of hatred and hatred of love bloomed under the raging moon.
Charles Bukowski was born in Germany and moved to California when he was a lad. His childhood memories were stained with thoughts of the ill-treatment he received from his father and howling insecurity due to his horrific acne–which he spent the rest of his life drinking to forget. He was a well-read young man who despised the intellectual snootiness that came from the collegiate world. His reactionary response was to become a self-taught, autodidactic type. And he became that indeed.
Bukowski started writing short stories and poems while in high school. After his school years, he became a type of drifter moving around from city to city, trying to gain material for his writings through intense living. He was an utter madman who was regularly harassed by depression, suicidal thoughts, and excruciating hangovers. But that didn’t stop his writing.
The writer sums his way of life up in his own words when he said “I’m a cheap drunk. Get a few bottles in me and I can whip the whole world…and I want to.” He took his rage out on the lame condition of society by hiding in isolation and diluting his imposition with strong drinks and cheap women; this was his freedom and rebellion against the dull 9-5 lives people were starting to adopt as a way of existence.
This is the time in the poet’s life that gave birth to his legendary, mystical and celebrated reputation: the drinking, whores, gambling, bar fights, carousing, and the bum life poor artist living.
His delight was found in two settings; dive bars and empty, cockroach-infested rooms in the pitiable parts of town occupied only with a typewriter, desk, and a bed. He loathed the typical American family life of manicured lawns and boring jobs. He despised the thought of factory men coming home to demanding wives and Cheetos stained, crying kids. It made him sick in his gut. His pleasure was in dark, smoky bars accompanied by a constant drunk vibe. His justification for drinking was to shake off the boredom of everydayness and to save himself from himself. Why kill yourself when you can just go and drink yourself numb? Chronic, slow suicide was his mission. It was his escape. It’s ironic that the poison which he used for a self-inflicted demise ended up being the juice that kept him alive, it got him through “the same stale yet fluctuating factors” of another day.
Bukowski was no stranger to passing out annihilated at lunchtime hours behind diners, sleeping in the middle of roads, and shack’n up with Los Angeles street-walkers. This he considered his art form. The drunken writer roamed around the filthy parts of whatever town he was in at the time, delineated as a type of magnificent loner who valued his solitude and strong drink. He wanted nothing else.
Every town he entered, he was completely broke…deliberately. Bukowski always wanted to learn a new and strange town “from the bottom” and breathe it in from a bar stool. Bukowski’s idea of paradise was “where the black pimps are, where the music is playing, where the jukeboxes are playing in the bars, where the lights are on, that’s where life is”. He believed that “black pimps, prostitutes [were] the flowers of the earth.” He thought whenever you cleaned up and fixed a city, “you killed it.” Busowski’s heart and soul were in the slums where people acted with passionate pursuits, even if it was considered immoral or insane. His constant bar fighting can be explained in my opinion, as an indirect craving for human connection, even if it meant a rapid fist to the temple. Pain was pleasure, pain was a friend, and the pain was love.
His writings are highly autobiographical and amplified with a little exaggeration here and there. When he lodged his alcohol saturated body behind his old typewriter, he was known to go at it for hours. He always sat two six-packs and a pint of whiskey right next to him and just typed out poem after poem until he passed out, with classical music in the background. He loathed the rhyming poems and thought them to be out of date; he thought poetry should be the voice of the fringe folks from the desolate streets. Real people with real struggles.
When writing, he usually only ate one meal a day (usually just a peanut butter & jelly) and then spent his off time with his alcoholic, barfly whore named Jane…who had demons of her own. Their days usually consisted of an all-day drink fest with a few sessions of drunk love-making thrown in…She actually drank more than him, if that was possible. By the time Bukowski was in his 50’s, he reached fame and became a sort of Rock Star in the literature world. He was performing intoxicating poetry readings across the universities, writing scripts for movies, and hanging out with celebrities. The Poet often became a victim of erotic seductions from sexy, young, college girls whose only desire was to have a one-night stand with the overweight, drunk, aging man of words. He ate it up.
Bukowski’s last few years on earth were pretty docile. He still drank like a fish, replacing beer and liquor with white wines. He stayed up late writing and drinking, usually waking up around the noon hour and going to the horse track (his lifelong passion) and gambling. He eventually achieved the middle-class status that he spent his life ranting and rebelling against.
His genius was found in simplicity. He could poetically simplify life in one line of a poem. Bukowski’s art was the “ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”
His mind was hampered with unthinkable thoughts and his soul was in a constant fiery rage that could only be tamed by the poison he drowned himself with. He believed his purpose-and everyone’s purpose- on earth was “to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” Charles Bukowski was finally overtaken by the trembling burden of Death in 1994 at the age of 73. I’d be willing to bet though, you could still find the ghost of the drunken Poet roaming under the L.A. streetlight among the factory workers, corner pimps, addicts, prostitutes, and barstool philosophers… his middle finger waged at the boring, conformed world, with a mocking smile upon his calloused face and a bottle of wine in his relentless left hand.
Here is one of his greatest poems–
there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day
and the best at murder are those who preach against it and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace
those who preach god, need god those who preach peace do not have peace those who preach peace do not have love
beware the preachers beware the knowers beware those who are always reading books beware those who either detest poverty or are proud of it beware those quick to praise for they need praise in return beware those who are quick to censor they are afraid of what they do not know beware those who seek constant crowds for they are nothing alone beware the average man the average woman beware their love, their love is average seeks average
but there is genius in their hatred there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you to kill anybody not wanting solitude not understanding solitude they will attempt to destroy anything that differs from their own not being able to create art they will not understand art they will consider their failure as creators only as a failure of the world not being able to love fully they will believe your love incomplete and then they will hate you and their hatred will be perfect
like a shining diamond like a knife like a mountain like a tiger like hemlock
their finest art ––––