By: Tyler Jackson
Credit: New York Times
Introduction to Charles Bukowski:
“Don’t try.” Those are the words written on the gravestone of the late American poet Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. A famous poet and a man with a tough background, Charles Bukowski etches this cynical-sounding worldview within his poetry. He is considered very controversial by most due to his belief that people should not change themselves and live as they are. However, while many find ways to criticize his ideas, some find his brutal honesty and unashamed attitude to be refreshing, making him both famous and infamous at the same time. Much of his writing has been informed by his tough life living through the Great Depression, early failures in his writing career, and a feeling of helplessness as he moved through life. In this article, I will detail the life of Charles Bukowski and his philosophy, break down the meanings behind his poems, and highlight his effect on the world.
The Life of Charles Bukowski:
To truly begin to understand the writings of Charles Bukowski, we must start by looking at his life story. A controversial, yet highly successful, poet, Bukowski lived most of his life in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. Born in Germany in 1920 to an American serviceman father and a German mother, Bukowski was raised in Los Angeles in an abusive household. Bukowski’s father was often unemployed during Charles’ childhood because of The Great Depression occurring in the U.S. at the time. Bukowski’s father would often take out his frustrations on him, regularly subjecting him to cruel punishments if he displeased him in the slightest. After graduating high school, Bukowski briefly attended a local community college before dropping out and moving to New York City to pursue his passion for writing. Soon after leaving L.A. however, Bukowski returned.
Despite early success in his career, with two of his articles being chosen for publication in a nationally distributed magazine, Bukowski slipped into despair. It was in his early twenties that he began his self-described time as a “ten-year drunk”. During this period of his life, Bukowski stopped writing entirely, frequently moved between low-wage, blue-collar jobs, lived in squalor housing struggling to get by, and became an alcoholic (the last of which would remain with him for the rest of his life). Bukowski credits this period for providing much of the inspiration for his poetic and literary works.
Around the age of 35, following a stint in the hospital in which he nearly died because of a bleeding ulcer, Bukowski began to write once again. It was a turning point in his life, and Bukowski began again to actively pursue his passion for poetic writing, maintaining an extremely high level of consistent creative output for the rest of his life. Over time, Bukowski eventually managed to get his works published in print and from there rapidly achieved great success and fame as a poet.
Charles Bukowski’s Philosophy:
“Don’t try” represents Bukowski’s philosophy on writing, all creative pursuits, and life in general. In several interviews during his life, Bukowski discusses how he believes the highest good a human being can achieve is living exactly as you are, in accordance with your internal nature. “Don’t try” is an extension of that belief. The idea is this: if you must force yourself to do something, particularly something creative, the work you produce will be uninspired and you will continue to struggle in your creative output. Rather you should only produce creative work when you feel compelled, despite all the circumstances of your life which might inhibit you, to write, draw, paint, sculpt, photograph, etc. (this is documented in his poem “so you want to be a writer?”). It should flow out of you. Below we have provided video to help illustrate his core philosophy:
Charles Bukowski Poetry Analysis:
Time magazine called Bukowski a “laureate of American lowlife”. The topics of his poems often center on a semi-fictious character named Henry Chianski, who represents Bukowski alter-ego. His poems draw a lot of inspiration from his experience living in relative poverty at the edges of mainstream society in L.A.’s grimy underbelly. The topics of his poems often include Bukowski’s volatile relationships with women, death, the absurdities of life and his own feelings of depression. Bukowski wrote his poetry in free verse with declarative sentences being split apart into multiple lines. A few of his more famous poems include “Bluebird”, “Alone with Everybody”, “so you want to be a writer?”, “the crunch”, and “Let It Enfold You”. The following is a Bukowski poem that I have chosen to examine in detail named “Alone with Everybody”:
Alone With Everybody:
the flesh covers the bone and they put a mind in there and sometimes a soul, and the women break vases against the walls and the men drink too much and nobody finds the one but keep looking crawling in and out of beds. flesh covers the bone and the flesh searches for more than flesh. there's no chance at all: we are all trapped by a singular fate. nobody ever finds the one. the city dumps fill the junkyards fill the madhouses fill the hospitals fill the graveyards fill nothing else fills.
This poem reflects Bukowski’s general cynicism towards modern life and society. The poem itself presents a bleak view of the world. In Bukowski’s opinion, the individual’s search for meaning in life (“flesh searches for more than flesh”) is hopeless (“there’s no chance”). People’s attempts to find fulfillment via the search for “the one”, i.e., the perfect romantic partner that will provide life with meaning, he believes will always come up short. As Bukowski believes that we are incapable of finding true contentment or fulfillment in life, we will all die wholly unfulfilled (“we are all trapped by a singular fate”). It is due to this fundamental nature of human existence, that is the inability to find meaning that would provide fulfillment, that most people are driven into despair.
This sense of hopelessness is, in Bukowski’s estimation, perceptible in our society through the pervasiveness of hollow consumerist culture (“the city dumps fill”), the large numbers of people driven to insanity or mental illness (“the madhouses fill”) and the pervasiveness of so-called “diseases of despair” among populations which includes drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, and obesity (“the hospitals fill” and “the graveyards fill”). Bukowski’s message is that people will never find true fulfillment in life and therefore they will die having never been fulfilled or satisfied. However, it is important to note that while there is a cynical view of life present throughout many of Bukowski’s poems, this cynicism is often tempered by a glimmer of hope (which is not present in the above poem) in the face of what Bukowski perceives as meaningless suffering.
Charles Bukowski’s Effect on the World:
There are a number of criticisms of Bukowski and his work, especially among a section of elite poets and poetry critics. These criticisms typically include a belief that he has a misogynistic view of women, a lack of self-criticism (due to his portrayal of himself as a kind of folk hero), and a lack of artistry in his poems due to the way they are written in direct language and rather simple prose. Despite these criticisms, Bukowski’s works have gained an immense mainstream audience (especially for a modern poet) and garnered a cult-like following. Bukowski has sold millions of copies of his poetry collection books, and there are hundreds of fan-created websites devoted to all things Bukowski.
Charles Bukowski: Conclusion:
Bukowski’s poems are not for everyone. His crass and explicit way of writing could be off-putting. However, it is this mostly unfiltered portrayal of himself and his life that makes reading Bukowski’s poems enjoyable for most. He is refreshingly honest about his flaws and this has helped him become a relatable figure to those who know about him. Bukowski’s years of rough living and a constant battle with various addictions have not only allowed him to express himself through poetry but also have given those who read his works a new perspective on life.
More on Charles Bukowski;
If you are interested in reading Bukowski’s works or learning more about him I have left some resources below:
Read more of his poems at:
Learn more about his philosophy on life here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5GhdZIG5kQ