Charles Bukowski: Rebel Among Losers
A piece of profound anger and rare beauty that shows us that flowers can bloom out of a swamp.
Heinrich Karl Bukowski went by the nom de plume Charles Bukowski, but as is the case of every great poet, the best way of truly know him is through his books, and he was prolific. Living as a proscribe in filthy rooms, full of cigarette butts, emptied bottles and cockroaches, Bukowski wrote some of the most interesting books of poetry, novels and short stories of last century’s American Literature, which was not short of brilliant authors.
Aside from his literature, Bukowski forged a legend of himself through a life of alcoholism and marginality, jumping from one job to the next while pounding on his typewriter as if he was fighting for his life. It was precisely Bukowski’s explosive character —a character which can flow from sublime to violent in the same poem—what he contributed to the poetry and narrative of the mid-twentieth century.
With the publication of his first short stories and poems in low budget fanzines in California during the 60s, Bukowski became a password among his fans ––a recommendation they made with utter precaution as if recommending a medicine that beyond certain dosage can be lethal. He was a poet that, without concessions for the poetic tradition in English, and free from the guilty pathos, portrayed the working class’ situation, which perceived cheap entertainment and alcohol as the only ways to escape the prevailing monotony after the utopias of the late 1960s.
Unlike the Beat generation poets, which despite their disenchantment with the state of affairs would never fully abandon the ideal of a utopian lifestyle (such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac), Bukowski wrote of desperation and defeat, of life’s festive crudity and above all, of self-determination and a blind trust in writing and in the possibilities of art to redeem the mechanism of the human condition.
Bukowski, however, would not have accepted said description of his work. To him, writing was simply a way of not going insane, of expressing with words that which drove him insane: the son of an incredibly violent father, Charles thus grew up as a shy and resented child, that nonetheless was able to sublimate said childhood angst into artistic forms that inspired and that made sense of many people’s pain.
Recognition came late for this poet, but when it did it was unstoppable. Since an early age he was a follower of horse racing, which is reflected in his poems and interviews under the concept of luck, “a mixture of talent and circumstance”, which was why, despite years of rejection from American magazines, he never stopped sending his manuscripts until an editor with an excellent sense of smell signed him at Los Angeles Free Press with the mythical Notes of a Dirty old Man.
The editor of Black Sparrow Press, John Martin, offered him the deal of his life in 1969: after publishing a couple of poem collections, Martin asked Bukowski how much money he needed to live for a month. Based on some superficial maths, the writer answered “$100 dollars”. Martin promised Bukowski he’d give him one hundred dollars a month for the rest of his life if he completely devoted himself to writing and gave him all of his manuscripts. By then, Bukowski was 49 years old and had spent many of them working as postman at the postal office. Perhaps that was the reason why a few weeks later he would write Post Office, the first novel of many novels that would follow, such as Factotum, Women, or Pulp to Martin.
His devotion to writing and his odd faith in luck made him persevere and impose himself as a redeemed rebel ––a triumphant symbol for losers from inside the very system that rejected him his whole life. Although he did not look as a hero, for hoards of declassed and confused Bukowski is a fruitful source of contradictions: the renegade without desire to overcome, the invincible of defeat, and the bad man that did not know how to express his emotions towards others unless it was through writing:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
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