Leukemia felled American poet Charles Bukowski in 1994, but not before a long and eventful life battling a legion of demons: acne, booze, bad women, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear, aging, and the literary establishment. Though Bukowski penned some of American literature’s finest poems in his career, literary respect and recognition never materialized. Somehow, Bukowski never seemed to achieve poet status. In essence, whatever criticism did attend to his work steadfastly withheld the acknowledgment that Bukowski was a poet at all.
Instead, numerous critics dismissed him as a bad tempered drunk with accidental flashes of literary astuteness, mostly alcohol induced. To this day many critics view Bukowski as a juvenile poseur who simply published his autobiography over and over (Ulin 1). Over the years, the sustained popularity of his work seems to have done little to shift this interpretation. At the heart of Bukowski’s contentiousness lies the perception of poetry’s value, its relevance, and its purpose. Is poetry an academic pursuit meant to be studied and analyzed critically, or is poetry a rare and simple form of human communication best recorded, like Bukowski’s work, unpretentiously, some might say brutally? This paper explores the persistent bad reputation that continues to haunt Bukowski and his work, and offers some insight as to why his work fails to attain its fair share of academic respect and recognition.
Bukowski’s entrance into the American literary canon remains barred, according to some critics, thanks to his audience. One of the most consistent criticisms hurled Bukowski’s way, and one of the justifications for his bad reputation, appears as the observation that his work appeals to those who don’t understand, or value, the true rigors of poetry (Kirsch 132). Bukowski is not a poet, apparently, because his readers and fans are not poetry aficionados. In his critique Smashed, Adam Kirsch writes, “nowhere to be found in the canonizing Norton anthology, however, is the man who occupies the most shelf space of any American poet: Charles Bukowski” (Kirsch 132). Bukowski remains one of the bestselling American poets.
In fact, Kirsch writes, Bukowski “has sold millions of books and has been translated into more than a dozen languages – a commercial success of a kind hardly known in American poetry” (Kirsch 132). However, Bukowski’s commercial success in this regard seems to have actually degraded the critical relevance of his work, and made critical acceptance harder to come by. In Kirsch’s words, “even at his most unheroic, [Bukowski]…is the hero of his stories and poems, always demanding the reader’s covert approval. That is why he is so easy to love, especially for novice readers with little experience of the genuine challenges of poetry; and why, for more demanding readers, he remains so hard to admire” (Kirsch 136). In the New York Times book review of Bukowski’s 2007 collection The Pleasures of the Damned, author Jim Harrison admits his surprise at “the number of poems characterized by fragility and delicacy” (Harrison 1). Tellingly, the critic immediately confesses, “I’ve been reading Bukowski occasionally for 50 years and had not noted this before, which means I was most likely listening too closely to his critics. Our perceptions of Bukowski, like our perceptions of Kerouac, are muddied by the fact that many of his most ardent fans are nitwits who love him to the exclusion of any of his contemporaries” (Harrison 1). Insults to Bukowski’s readers aside, the critical argument here appears to be that Bukowski merits neither the title of poet, nor entry into the literary canon, due to the unsophistication of his fans.
This assumption that commercial success equates to mediocre art represents an ancient bias. The larger question, however, remains, what is the purpose of poetry? Is it to be canonized and studied and by a handful of academic theoreticians, or to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible? For Bukowski, the answer is definitely the latter. His commercial success makes his work available to millions, yet also ensures that his bad reputation endures, and that his work remains even further estranged from the respect and recognition of the academic community and the literary establishment. Bukowski’s own scorn for literary intricacy, not to mention literary criticism, adds another explanation as to why his work stays outside the canon. Bukowski held an ideal, a very rigid definition, of the work appropriate to the male gender, with which he identified fully and completely as an artist. Bukowski guarded his maleness like a state secret.
In Bukowski’s mind, complex poetry became tantamount to a loss of manliness, and Bukowski resisted it until his death. Bukowski echoed this in numerous interviews. “Bukowski…constantly proclaims his contempt for mere bookishness. “Shakespeare didn’t work at all for me,” he told one interviewer.
“That upper-crust shit bored me. I couldn’t relate to it” (Kirsch 134). Art, for Bukowski was maleness in all its unadorned plainness and boorishness. His poems consistently “detour around emasculated, fussy artistry – “We’re all tired of the turned subtle phrase and the riddle in the middle of the line,” he declared to another interviewer – and plunge deep into life itself” (Kirsch 135). What this meant, in terms of academic respect and recognition, is that Bukowski’s poems essentially remained too simple and experiential to be taken seriously by literary criticism and the literary establishment – another reason his bad reputation persists.
In Kirsch’s observation, Bukowski “rejected on principle the notion of poetry as a craft, a matter of labor and revision. Against the metaphors prevailing in the New Critical atmosphere of the nineteen-fifties, when he started writing in earnest…Bukowski posed his own, entirely characteristic image for writing: “it has to come out like hot turds the morning after a good beer drunk” (Kirsch 134). Bukowski wrote for a popular audience. He wrote to be read and enjoyed, not analyzed. As such, Bukowski remains outside academic approval, because just as “others might write for the high-brow, Bukowski writes for the crowd. Others see poetry in a flower or symphony, Bukowski sees poetry in whores standing on a street corner, a man mowing his lawn or boxcars sitting in a railroad yard.
For him, as for Walt Whitman, poetry is everyday life” (Press 1). Another element that bears discussion here is the physical location of Bukowski’s work. Critics view Bukowski as a regional poet, and posit his regional affiliation with the West Coast and the city of Los Angeles as the main engine of his success. This also keeps him his bad reputation as a mediocre non-poet intact, and keeps his work out of the canon. In author Stephen Kessler’s words, “the literary establishment has rejected Bukowski’s work as beneath any decent New Yorker’s dignity…partly because his writing resists any form of text-worship or cocktail-party appropriation, partly because he’s published by a small press on the West Coast…and partly because…he’s from Los Angeles” (Kessler 61).
Bukowski spent his life in Los Angeles, and rarely addressed the rest of the United States in his work, except to dismiss it gruffly. Though Bukowski exhibits “great faith in democracy,” he also shows “no patience with those who complain about the political process: “fellow citizens/the problem never was the Democratic/System, the problem is/you” (Press 1). As a result, critics such as David Ulin read “his place in [the] literary pantheon [as] more a matter of opportunity than of talent; when Bukowski started writing full-bore, in the mid-1950s, few people were creating an authentic local literature, which, for better or worse, is what he did” (Ulin 1). Bukowski’s compassion for Los Angeles, however, underpins the core validity of his work, and underscores the value of his voice. As a Los Angeles insider, Bukowski’s work never glamorized the city. He simply wrote about it, as he saw it, and not from the perspective of someone trying to “break in” to the industry there. As a result, Bukowski’s poems manage to accurately and empathetically “map the nervous energy of LA’s streets, its car culture, its architectural pathos, the truly mundane and unglamorous side of its Hollywood facade” (Kessler 61). One of Bukowski’s supporters, Kessler champions the “sense of frenetic desperation that permeates the City of the Angels” in Bukowski’s work, as well as the authenticity of the poet’s voice when describing Los Angeles (Kessler 61).
In Kessler’s mind, because Bukowski “was raised in Los Angeles and knows its people—its real people, not the mosquitoes buzzing into the beams of its klieg lights—his portrayal of the city and its inhabitants lacks the bitterness and contempt so often found in the writings of outsiders taking a jaundiced peek into the dream factory” (Kessler 61). Bukowski’s poem, A Poem is a City, published as part of The Pleasures of the Damned collection, exemplifies this simple, calm acceptance of Los Angeles as it is, not how others would have it be. “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” (Bukowski 1). Charles Bukowski likely will never receive the respect and recognition of the literary establishment. In his review of The Pleasures of the Damned, critic David Ulin dismissed the “bulk of this 500-plus page collection [as] …not up to…standard – not even close. Rather, the 274 poems here affirm a sense of the author as a hit-or-miss talent, capable of his own brand of small epiphany but often stultifying banal” (Ulin 1). As a poet, Bukowski kept his focus small, simple, and human.
For certain critics, the simplicity of his poems equates to simplicity of talent, and solidified his bad reputation as a boozer who stumbled into a literary career. There will always be critics who dismiss his compositions as “a series of declarative sentences broken up into a long, narrow column, the short lines giving an impression of speed and terseness even when the language is sentimental or cliched” (Kirsch 133). However, this presupposes that good poetry must possess a complex structure. In Kirsch’s mind, Bukowski is “best read as a very skillful genre writer… a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing” (Kirsch 134).
On the contrary, Bukowski wrote about real people in a real city, in a way that did neither degraded them nor made them into saints, and for this reason his bad reputation is undeserved. As an academic point of interest, his style precludes his acceptance. However, as a poet, he communicates on the most human level, and for this reason, bad reputation or not, his popularity shows no indication of fading.
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