20 years after his death, the undisputed heavyweight of modern verse remains relevant and popular. What’s his appeal?
An Exclusive Essay by S.A. Griffin
What sort of cultural hangover keeps Charles Bukowski in print and popular more than twenty years after his death? In the light of the fact that a good portion of what has been published since his passing in 1994 may not the man’s best work, along with some heavy editing at times, why does Charles Bukowski remain relevant well into the 21st Century?
An undisputed heavyweight of modern verse, he influenced uncountable numbers of emerging wordsmiths; he certainly turned my head. Some academics and critics argue that he wasn’t a writer at all, but a drunk hack, bar room brawler and misogynist, especially in today’s warming climate of left, right and center political correctness. As many who have read his work perceive much of what he wrote confessional, and therefore, “real”, the art and artist have been unfairly confused, many seeing the horse and rider as one. I would suggest that this may reflect hero worship by some, and professional jealousy from the critics and scholars that invest so much time, money and intellect to be as well read and admired. Then there are the confused legions who continue to believe that if they embrace what they perceive to be the hard life with an easy pen, they will be rewarded a flaming star on the walk of fame. Don’t bet on it. Charles Bukowski was the dean of another academy with an indestructible bluebird in his heart, apart from the crowd, an American maverick.
His deceptive, accessible and easy style is not to be taken for face value as he consistently achieved what is embedded within any timeless art by delivering the humanity common to us all, embracing the ordinary in an extraordinary way and presenting the result in an ordinary enough form that most readers get it, got it. In the end, he reaped not only artistic reward and a good life in his chosen home of San Pedro, but in his own time rose to iconic status.
Whether they were aware or not, the bells rang and many of his readers related heavily to the working class struggles reflected in a great deal of his work. Tough on the surface, his words reflected his own deeply felt sense of humanity by openly commenting on what he experienced as the lack of humanity around him. Working in close range with what seemed liked broad strokes for those that skated along the surface, he regularly employed stand up humor generally resulting in poetic turns of irony, successfully reporting on a life among the ants, helping others to look beyond circumstance, to reach inside themselves and throw their heads back laughing at life’s bad hand. To pause and reach inside for the music that makes the dance.
Years ago a young woman seeking insight was referred to me. She was writing her Master’s thesis on Bukowski’s Bluebird. As we began discussing the poem over the phone she eagerly suggested that it was about drinking, a stunning assumption. How could a person working on their Master’s not see what seemed so obvious? She had taken the bait and swallowed the hook, however, with as little criticism on her shallow observations as I could conjure, I gladly proposed to her that it had nothing at all to do with a skid row poet drowning in booze. I asserted that Bluebird was one of his best and most personal pieces, that within the context of the piece the poet is praising the indestructible poem and undeniable songbird inside of him, “nice enough to / make a man / weep.”
In poetry, short story or novel form, his work celebrates the common and “ordinary madness” in a world of “war all the time”. Popular with unemployed bums, the well heeled, celebrities and academics, his sales don’t lie; proving that his words have reached every strata of global culture achieving international rock star status, first in Europe, and then here in the United States.
For those who were turned on by his work, he spoke a universal truth, touching upon the humanity that we never had as his lines broke out of jail free and they listened: the lonely man at the end of the bar tugging on a long neck, the couple fighting over the rent and the long shot player at the track.
In this no-holds-barred arena of relentless “reality” programming pandering to the cynic in us all with crap like Who Wants to Blow My Grandpa or cute little Baby Boo Boo debating the merits of pig shit on a stick, Bukowski’s work has sturdy legs. A bit of an admitted leg man, “The first thing I noticed about you, were your legs” “(the legs go last)”, the universal musings in his work should hold him up, walking him beyond this increasingly dark period of growing unemployment and political fear mongering with fascist overtones, into the strange new world unfolding just ahead where his uplifting, entertaining words may transcend and continue to work their magic. A strange new world where the man’s work may quite possibly be even more relevant than when Detroit had wheels and terror lived on Agony Way.
Join Three Rooms Press as we celebrate poet Charles Bukowski with the 9th annual memorial reading on Friday, January 8, 2016, 6 pm at Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC. Click for details.