Literature, Recommended, Review

Bukowski: Recommended Reading for the Damned

There is enough treachery, hatred, violence,
Absurdity in the average human being
To supply any given army on any given day.

So begins one of Charles Bukowski’s most iconic poems, “The Genius of the Crowd.” Even though it was first published in 1966, it seems particularly poignant in our era of outrage.

Beware The Knowers.
BEWARE Those Quick To Censure:
They Are Afraid Of What They Do
Not Know

Bukowski, born in 1920 in Andernach, Germany to a German-American father and German mother, moved to Los Angeles when he was two years old and would live there for the rest of his life. Although his novel Ham on Rye, an autobiographical account of his abusive childhood, is an American masterpiece, and his short story, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” a sad tale about a woman who gashes her face to make herself less beautiful, is comparable to anything Hemingway or Cheever wrote, it was in poetry where Bukowski’s strength really lay.

Bukowski died 25 years ago. Were he still alive, he most certainly would not meet the demands of today’s “sensitivity readers,” nor those imbedded in the big publishing houses who scan a writer’s work for transgressions, nor those on social media who do the same with a writer’s personal life. Nor would he meet the demands of today’s small press poetry magazine mission statements, which not only require a poet to be talented, but to also be a morally exemplary person.

Then again, Bukowski never was a model citizen of the poetry community, or any other community for that matter. He was a misfit and an outlaw. Unlike many contemporary poets, he never completed college and didn’t take a job in academia—instead, he worked in a post office for 15 years before quitting to write full time. He also drank a lot. And he could be violent and abusive. Ardent fans who saw John Dulligan’s 2003 documentary Born into This (or the original interviews Barbet Schroeder conducted with Bukowski in the early eighties, on which Dulligan draws) and were not appalled by the scene in which a belligerent Bukowski lunges at Linda Lee Beighle (whom he’d marry a few years later), calling her a “whore,” might need to reassess their cultish fandom. Of course, a great artist can be both angel and devil, both sinner and saint. A great artist is often a contradiction and many are prone to bad behavior. Ginsberg advocated pederasty. Mailer stabbed his wife. Burroughs shot his. Anne Sexton allegedly subjected her daughter to sexual abuse. Whitman was a defender of eugenics-based racism. Céline, T.S. Eliot, and Amiri Baraka were all antisemites. Often a great artist is a contradictory figure, both creative and destructive, both loving and hateful. And Bukowski was no exception.

I suppose he could have forbidden Barbet Schroeder—who also directed Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical screenplay for the 1987 film Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway—from ever releasing the interview tape, but that wasn’t Bukowski’s style. He didn’t hide his warts and he didn’t hide his wars, especially those inner ones.

“The problem with Bukowski,” says Timothy Green, editor of Rattle poetry magazine, “is that he’s not just a writer, but a lifestyle for a lot of his fans, and an excuse to be abusive. A great poet, but I don’t like the way he’s often used. It’s one thing to appreciate the poems of a convicted murderer but it’s another thing to use that as an excuse to go kill people.” “Hard Pass,” tweeted poet Kaveh Akbar—one of the most widely celebrated young American poets of our moment—about Bukowski recently.

Other young and particularly male poets, even if they do like him, aren’t especially eager to say so publicly out of fear of being labeled a “broet,” which is as derogatory as it sounds and means exactly what you think it does, even though this is a gross mischaracterization of Bukowski’s work. Bukowski was never a “bro” and despised overt displays of hyper-masculinity.

It’s true, of course, that his (mostly male) lifestyle imitators can be annoying and maybe it’s not a bad thing that most of them disappear, often only imitating his drinking habits while ignoring his deep compassion for humanity, or sense of humor, or work ethic, or extensive cultural knowledge of the literary, artistic, and classical music worlds. Because if there is anything Bukowski writes about more than drinking or women, it’s art: other writers, painters, and composers. It was from Bukowski that, as a young man, I learned about so many important writers from Carson McCullers to Sherwood Anderson to John Fante, from Dostoevsky to Céline to Sartre, D.H. Lawrence to Knut Hamsun to Catullus. It was from Bukowski that I received a literary education far greater than anything I’d get in college, majoring in comparative literature.

Of course, in college, nobody talked about Bukowski. The professors scoffed at the mention of his name. But, generally, he wasn’t even mentioned. He wasn’t dissertation worthy. He was a lowlife. Uneducated. And his words were simplistic, easy to understand, so there wasn’t much to excavate. The dislike was mutual. “Buk hated academia,” says longtime friend and fan of Bukowski’s, Joan Jobe Smith, poet and editor of Pearl and The Bukowski Review. “[He] called them ‘in-bred snobs.’”

I ask Smith why we should still read Bukowski. “His voice,” she replies. “His vernacular. His existential grit, been there-done-that human comedies and tragedies, told boldly, sometimes brazenly. His old wise man wit: world weary and wary. I love his depictions of time and place and his love of my L.A. He writes about women more than any male writer I can think of. Women who are his heroines or distressed goddesses or kick-butt beauties and hot mamas who get the last laugh. But yes, dear young feminists today: I know, I know: not all is paradisal poesy and prose of praiseworthy palaver while reading the bombastic, sometimes dirty rotten s.o.b. Bukowski…”

Was he a misogynist? “Not at all,” says Smith. “The times he does exhibit misogyny in his writings it’s pure b.s. and wishful thinking. The real women in his life—his women that I became friends with—gave him ten times more hell than he ever gave them.”

It was Bukowski who encouraged Smith to write her true-life experience as an inexperienced young writer in the 1970s. Smith had been a go-go dancer on the Sunset Strip in the late 1960s and early 1970s but had been discouraged from writing about it by her male university professors.

“Though my conservative academic mentors slut-shamed me (as it’s called today), thought my bikini-clad, dancing go-go girl life prior to going back to college ‘tawdry’ and best kept a secret and insisted I write about something else, more respectable and more acceptable, Bukowski applauded my courage to have done what I did for 7 long, hard-working years (1965-1972). My academic mentors, when they’d first read the go-go tales, thought my first-person narrative a literary device and were shocked to know that it was not fiction but all true. Whereas, been-there, done-that former barfly Bukowski encouraged my first-person tell-it-like-it-was voice—because he, too, an outsider, had walked on the wild side.”

It’s this interplay between that first-person-tell-it-like-it-is-voice and a fictional persona that sometimes confuses people about Bukowski, and leads to a fixation on the man himself, often overshadowing the work, some 25 years after his death.

“Bukowski, privately, in his personal, platonic relationship with me was the same man as the Poet Man who wrote his poems,” says Smith. “He lived what he wrote. He wrote the truth—his Truth, that is, according to him. And he was insightful, intelligent and had a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh and made you laugh with him.”

What is fiction and what is autobiography when it comes to Bukowski? What is persona and who is the real man? Sometimes the author of a tender poem like “The Bluebird” gives way to the drunken, badly behaved bard and confusion abounds. Perhaps the “real” Bukowski was both of these things—the conflicted, sometimes abusive man, but also the compassionate and honest writer full of empathy for the downtrodden and forgotten. Though he bragged that he liked to make himself the hero in his writing, he never really did. He was more like the court jester. The joyful mischief maker. The provocateur. Always pivoting himself between the fool and the wise old sage. Often, instead of making his narrator a hero, the joke is on him. And, like the court jester, Bukowski was there to entertain. Which often meant making us laugh even when it’s at his (or his character’s) expense. This is something his joyless critics seem to miss.

A couple months ago, David Orr, in a review of the latest posthumous Bukowski publication for the New York Times, would take the opportunity not to review the artistic merit of Bukowski’s work, but to pen a diatribe about the author’s bad behavior: “It’s interesting to go through On Drinking and note the many things that Bukowski either omits or wants the reader to avoid thinking about.”

In the not-so-ambiguously titled article, “What Charles Bukowski’s Glamorous Displays of Alcoholism Left Out,” Orr takes particular issue with the poem “night school,” which is set in a “drinking driver improvement school.” Though certainly not one of Bukowski’s strongest poems, Orr seems to question the behavior of the speaker, who leaves the class on a break to go have a beer and comes back to find he’s the only one who scored 100% on a test everyone takes to check if they’ve been listening to the instructor. “I am the class intellectual,” the speaker jokes. This is Bukowski at his most sardonic. But this kind of black humor clearly doesn’t appeal to Orr who prefers to play inquisitor:

Why was he in that class?  Did he hurt anyone? Did he kill anyone? This is one of several times that Bukowski talks about plowing around hammered in a car, yet every episode carefully avoids any sense of the possible horrific consequences for other people…

And if that weren’t bad enough, Orr adds another platitude: “…people think about drunken driving much differently in 2019 than in 1981 when ‘night school’ was published.” By the end of the article I’m not sure if I’m reading a review of Bukowski’s work or a public service announcement about the perils of drunk driving. Is this written by a literary critic or a member of M.A.D.D.?

“There’s a problem with the way we idolise drunk male writers,” is the subtitle of another review, written by Ceri Radford for the Independent and published a few weeks later. Like Orr, she has trouble keeping Bukowski’s fictional characters separate from the man himself. But she also doesn’t seem to have read much of Bukowski’s work beyond the excerpts in the book she’s reviewing. She doesn’t question the wisdom of the publisher or the author’s estate for trying to make a buck by repackaging these excerpts under such a gimmicky title. Instead, like Orr, she chooses to scold Bukowski for his personal misbehavior, while warning readers about the health consequences of drinking: “Though he lived to be 73, a lot of other people who drink, don’t.”

It seems to me that some of Bukowski’s critics could use a drink. I dread a future in which our artists must meet the high moral standards of a David Orr and Ceri Radford. How boring the future of fiction or poetry will be when its value depends upon the rectitude and responsibility of its author. Or has it already come to that? Could a Bukowski be published today? Not likely. What goes missing then is the chance to glimpse the darker and messier side of life, which is still there no matter how many “sensitivity readers” try to edit it out, and no matter how many Twitter mobs try to suppress it.

What is perhaps even more alarming about these reviews is the insinuation that art is something to be feared because it can influence people to do bad things. How is it Bukowski’s fault that some people become alcoholics? That’s quite a responsibility for a man who couldn’t even control his own drinking. Not to mention the familiar assumption—such a common narrative of our day—that readers need to be protected by those who know better. When art is framed by fear and moral grandstanding, it always leads to censorship. Today, of course, it isn’t so much a religious concern about obscenity that drives censorship and informs taboos, but deviation from politically correct orthodoxies.

In an article for Reason magazine entitled “Cancel Culture Comes for Counterculture Comics,” Brian Doherty writes about the recent attempts to send comic illustrator Robert Crumb down the memory hole, and the problem of what Doherty calls the “social justice re-evaluation of artists”:

…Appreciating a creator isn’t—or needn’t be—a matter of being “down with” the actions portrayed in his every work. One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition…Portraying darkness and evil in art is not the same as celebrating darkness and evil, even when the depiction is not safely anchored to a clear statement of the artist’s anti-evil sympathies. Offense and transgression can be a vital part of how expression stays lively, fresh, startling, moving, and true to the human condition. That transgressive art is hard to defend in sober, sensible ways is precisely the point.

It’s no coincidence that Crumb has illustrated the covers for three of Bukowski’s books. Both artists use humor and satire to explore the grittier side of the human condition. Like Crumb, Bukowski’s artistic transgressions are not meant to be a celebration of decadence or evil, but rather a mirror held up to humanity—a reflection that makes many uncomfortable. Bukowski didn’t just give us the pleasant parts of the human condition. He refused to put a shine on what he saw. He poked around in those dark corners. He emphasized the “condition” part, as if it were a sickness:

if we take what we can see—
the engines driving us mad,
lovers finally hating;
this fish in the market
staring upwards in our minds;
flowers rotting; flies web-caught…

These things, and others, in content
show life swinging on a rotten axis.

At the same time, Bukowski doesn’t just despair, but celebrates what he can:

But they’ve left us a bit of music
and a spiked show in the corner,
a jigger of scotch, a blue necktie,
a small volume of poems by Rimbaud,
a horse running as if the devil were
twisting his tail…

Orr argues that, although Bukowski lived a “life much darker and hungrier and more desperate than that of most writers” he “paused at the black threshold and backed away.” On the contrary, Bukowski led his readers across precisely that threshold. His dark honesty isn’t bleak and it isn’t desperate. In fact, it is many of today’s poets who back away, whether in fear of themselves or in fear of revealing too much and receiving backlash within the community. One poet writes a lot about his sobriety, and often refers to the bad person he once was before getting sober, but never shows you any of it. Another writes a beautiful antiwar epic about resistance, but never questions the fragility of his own virtue, or the possibility that any fallible person may end up on the wrong side of history. Bukowski didn’t back away from the messiness of existence, he just doused it with Rabelaisian humor, inspired perhaps by Henry Miller’s description of “a world without hope but no despair.” For Bukowski, that world was both cruel and beautiful.

If he were alive today, he’d surely get a kick out of any attempts to cancel him or erase him or send him down the memory hole or whatever the latest phrase is that damns someone to hell. “Iconoclasts and literary phenomenons often exhibit bad behavior,” says Smith, when I mention how some young poets are turned off by those unsavory elements of his character. “To not read Bukowski today is a mistake.”


Clint Margrave is the author of Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Threepenny ReviewNew York Quarterly, the Writer’s AlmanacRattleCimarron Review, Verse Daily, the American Journal of Poetry, and Ambit (UK), among others.  He lives in Los Angeles, and you can follow him on Twitter @clintmargrave

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Bukowski did not attend college. He attended Los Angeles City College briefly, but never earned a degree. Apologies for the error.


  1. Johnanon says

    Excellent. This’ll get the goat of some of the conservatives here, whilst also pushing their anti regressive left buttons. Wish I could see their heads spinning… Go folks!

    • Andrew Vanbarner says

      Not this conservative. A man’s life is his own, and few people knew that better than Bukowski.
      Troubled as he was, he was always much more grounded and much more honest than writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, or Hunter Thompson.
      You can’t really picture living your life like those men, nor like other writers like Mailer, Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, or Foster Wallace. Their lives always appear fantastic and strange, and their works, of varying quality, appear equally remarkable and inaccessible.
      You can easily picture yourself living as Bukowski, and even for the most privileged men a life as penurious as his is just a failed marriage or a lawsuit or an illness away. Bukowski lived as most of us lived, in a dismal and precarious reality.
      He said once that he hid in taverns because he didn’t want to hide in a factory. Today most of us hide in offices, or in our clinics, classrooms, workplaces, etc.
      But hide we do. Bukowski knew this, and knew reality, and showed us how to make a sort of peace with it. Perhaps that’s the essence of conservativism – to make peace with reality.

    • Memetic Tribe says

      There are still only two genders.
      It’s still okay to be white.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Why would a conservative care?

    • Defenstrator says

      Not sure why you would think this. A man’s life is his own business until he imposes it on others.

    • “This’ll get the goat of some of the conservatives here,… Wish I could see their heads spinning… Go folks!”

      Sorry Skippy, I’m probably far to the right of many of the folks you consider conservative & I’m even published in some of the literary mags back in the day, right next to Bukowski. I enjoyed his work back then and I still do now. If anybody’s heads are spinning it the ‘woke’ virtue signalers, as Clint notes in the essay.

  2. islamaphooey says

    So depressing. So freaking depressing. Sometimes I’m glad I’m an old guy and won’t be around to see just how bad it gets.

  3. Grant says

    I think there will always be a fascination of Los Angeles as there is of New York. Bukowski’s childhood LA burgeoned from about 500,000 to 1.5 million between 1920 and 1940, and the population continued to grow at that breakneck rate. Combine that with the diverse and desperate folks fleeing other parts of the country during the depression and you have millions of interesting stories to tell. So Bukowski was a chronicler of sorts.
    Most everyone suffers, but some people suffer with style which makes much more interesting reading.
    Writers have unique perspectives on the world, but often suffer the delusion that most others don’t. They just bother to put it down on paper.

  4. So typical of the two modern reviewers quoted to focus on Bukowski ‘s drinking when it was the least interesting thing about him. The film of Factotum seems to be the only interpretation of his life I have seen that doesn’t also use the obvious/clichéd pegs on which to hang its narrative. Bukowski was neither a ‘heroic’ drunk nor, as frequently depicted, a nihilist He let the world leave its marks on him and simply recorded them for all to see.

  5. dirk says

    What I remember from my literature classes in the NLs, long ago, that the descriptions and judgements of the authors dealt on never touched the personal. Was he married? Was he leftist or rightist? Religious or secular? A family man, misogynic or maybe even homosexual? Naughty,misbehaving in the social? A racist maybe? Antisemite? Nationalist or universalist? We were not told, it was always only on the quality, the technical details of his work. Never beyond that.

    That has changed a lot in the meantime! Now, it looks like that the personal aspects (the looks, the age, his/her affairs, affinities, identity are even more important than the literary qualities itself. Are we progressing??

    • dirk says

      And also, again, very good picture, Bukowski in the midst of….what?? Flowering onions? And why caressing one of these big balls? In his own garden? Did he plant them himself?? Great!

      • Chris says

        “Not much cock but look at the size of his balls” I read ham on rye maybe 30 years ago, haven’t seen a copy since but that little quite, or near quite just popped into my head.
        Bukowski had some of the great titles – south of no north, war all the time.

        • dirk says

          Thanks Chris, yes, I also thought the scene highly metaphorical, and can hardly imagine him fondling a rose or a tulip, this one more in style. Somewhere he wrote, after my first glass of wine, the grass looked greener, the flowers bigger, but what I,m curious to know now, did he ask the photographer to shoot this picture? Did he plant the balls for that reason?

          Another thing, what meaning and associations has rye in the US, why e.g. that -Catcher in the Rye- (btw, a very similar story, in style and content)? In the NL, ryebread was the bread of the poor, rich people ate white bread (in the meantime, rye bread as a snack is again stylish).

          In my youth I read -Childhood-, of Maxim Gorky. Also very similar to that Ham & Rye. Not the most sublime prose for a youngster, I tell you.

  6. scribblerg says

    Don’t they understand? Every masculine voice they suppress fuels the opposition. Every SJW clampdown is recruiting for the alt right. Wanna create more conservatives? Keep doing this.

    Not a huge Bukowski fan. I’m not into being shocked or endless presented with transgressive behavior and having my views subverted. Bukowski does it better than most, and does give voice to masculine aggression in a way that is interesting, and offer social commentary too – but for me it’s colored by the Bukowski’s seeming depravity.

    I felt the same way about Lolita and Nabakov. To me, you have quite a hill to climb when you deliberately offend my sensibilities nonstop. I’d rather be uplifted than ground down.

  7. “He writes about women more than any male writer I can think of. Women who are his heroines or distressed goddesses or kick-butt beauties and hot mamas who get the last laugh. ” So I guess nothing the least bit negative about women.

    • Grew up reading Bukowski. From a much older, different experienced perspective, he is much different than the writer I first encountered in Film Threat magazine at 17. He was a deluded, self-loathing misogynist damage case who wrote, to my mind, probably 20% good stuff, 40% average, and 40% utter crap. He repeats himself a lot and his later books of churned-out ‘poetry’ (watered down by his cunty publisher John Martin after his death) are clearly just shunted out production-style for cash.

      In Women, half of which probably existed only in his head, he presents himself as some sort of ‘master of women’ who cuts through the outer shell of a woman and finds the true inner core (or words to that effect) to write about it. If he had been able to read his book from the perceptive perspective of somebody else reading it, he would have been mortified.

      The portrayals of women in his book are often one-dimensional; his women are ‘saggy-bellied whores’ to be railed at and battered (he was a real-life wife batterer) and get drunk with before kicking them to the kerb. It’s creepy. I am not imposing any retro morality on him; we all have our good and bad sides. The man was a cunt, and a survivor of a difficult early life of beatings and extreme acne. He wrote some good stuff, and a lot of crap.

      You have to wonder, given the excellent quality of The Genius of the Crowd, quoted at the start of this article, if he had managed to sober up what the quality of his work might have been; probably much better, more complex and original. Still, Bukowski without a bottle is like Burroughs without a needle, day without night, dark without light. The Buk is still a big headspinfluence on my own writing, but I can see past him these days. Will always be grateful for his mere presence in the writing world, mind you. It would have been a helluva lot duller without him.

      Couple of links that may be interesting to Bukowski enthusiasts, presenting lesser-known info on the man and his life and work: (links at bottom of first page to parts two and three)

    • dirk says

      And especially positive about those ephemeral, jolly waitresses, between one stop and the next of the Greyhound Bus stations. Enchanting, really!!

  8. Meh says

    I agree with the point regarding priggish reviewers. Re: Bukowski, not so much. By my reading, half his poetry is actually pretty good; half reads like he wrote it drunk, which he probably did. I can’t decide whether it’s intentional (a massive prank on forgiving fans or some such). “Pulp” (“Dedicated to Bad Writing”) is ostensibly a parody of hard-boiled detective novels a la Raymond Chandler, but is maybe more a self-deprecating comment on himself. He owes a debt to Chandler, arguably (depending on how strictly you judge these things) even lifting metaphors:

    “We wrapped up in the car and her tongue flicked in and out of my mouth like a tiny lost snake. We unwrapped and I drove down the coast.” – Bukowski, “Post Office”

    “When I got to her mouth it was half-open and burning and her tongue was a darting snake between her teeth. – Chandler, “Farewell my Lovely”

    But he wasn’t half the writer Chandler was. Maybe he knew it and was bluffing half the time.

  9. Fred Voss says

    People who argue that Bukowski was a misogynist or a womanizer haven’t read him closely enough. This essay by Clint Margrave does a great job of making this point, as does Joan Jobe Smith, the poet whom Margrave quotes in his essay. Smith knew Bukowski well and also read him closely and persuasively makes the point that in his writing and in his life Bukowski was very romantic and sensitive when it came to women he knew or was involved with. His poetry contains many examples of his contempt for women abusers and wife beaters and he was always a great defender and celebrator of the charms and beauties and strengths of women. They were his great muse.
    Also, Margrave does a fine job explaining the fact that great artists are often very complex, conflicted people who are not always exemplary in their daily life. An artist like Bukowski is a misfit by definition, a rebel and a creator of new modes of vision and behavior. But I would argue that Bukowski was in fact in his writing a highly ethical, idealistic person who had a great sense of humor. He portrayed what he saw and lived with as much honesty as he could, and battled hypocrisy and told truth to power the way all great artists do.

    • dirk says

      Considering him yes or not a misogynist? Reminds me what I recently read about Houellebecq! Writers and poets can make it pretty difficult for us to find out whether they are A or Z.

    • Fred, he broke his wife Linda’s nose when he was drunk one time by punching her in the face. That doesn’t need any ‘closer reading.’

      • dirk says

        Question: has wife beating anything to do with whether you are misogyn or not? Imagine, somebody never hitting his wife, is he therefore filogyn? Bukowski did not beat her because she was female, but because she was, on that moment, for some reason, higly irritating him as a person/partner.
        In my youth, all boys were hit (mostly by their father, also by schoolmasters, chaplains, trainers etc etc. Were these people now misochild? The opposite, I think. We have a saying- who cares for his child, uses a rod-.

        • Nakatomi Plaza says

          You aren’t helping, dirk. That’s the stupidest defense of physical assault I’ve ever read.

          • dirk says

            I,m not defending, Nakatomi, just observing and trying to give it a place in my mind, as Bukowski did. All those spanking and hitting people of my youth, I think, loved these boys (or their wife) as much, or may be even more, than the parents right now, though, spanking is no longer en vogue, and probably much more offensive right now, because of that. We had a TV program of soldiers, with serious post traumatic stress and wild dreams daily even 20 yrs after some minor exces in war situations on peace missions. I wonder whether that would have been so if they would have had a good spanking in their youth.

          • dirk says

            By coincidence, this weekend in my newspaper an article on the so called Maria de Penha law, only valid since 2015 in Brasil. It’s about feminicide and sex inspired domestic violence, quite common there. It is caused mostly by men feeling superior to women, jealous where their wives go with other men, whereas they themselves think they have the natural right to do so, also quite normal in the macho wordl there , land of telenovelas and macho folk song and dance in the favelas, and as normal as cachaza. This, of course, is typical misogyne behaviour. In case that Bukowski hit his wife for that same reason, I must admit I,m wrong, but did he? I doubt so, and just only because of his honest and straightforward literature, unlike the ordinary, unrestrained macho behaviour in the favelas!

  10. Denny Sinnoh says

    “Buk … rhymes with puke”
    I remember him telling a lady that when asked how to pronounce his name.

  11. I wonder what sensitivity readers would make of Bukowski’s writings. What would be left, if anything? Thomas Bowdler died in 1825 but Neo-Bowdlerism is flourishing.

    • What ‘sensitivity readers’ would make of Bukowski’s work is unimportant. What they make of ANYBODY’S work is unimportant. The publishing industry is dead. Deranged ideas like the very existence of ‘sensitivity readers’ have killed it. DIY or die now for any uncompromising artist who doesn’t want their work watered down by art-blind fools.

  12. Bukowski did go to college in Los Angeles for a while, he studied journalism in Los Angeles. Article states he didn’t.

  13. jimhaz says

    Reading this makes me feel like I need to listen to Tom Waits again. Been a while.

    Loved Barfly as a young lad.

  14. people run from rain but
    in bathtubs full of

    ― Charles Bukowski

    Wow how deep Mr. Bukowski you have such penetrating insights into the human condition; its like I always say people eat food but duck when I throw apples at their head, see I am deep too. For real though dude is lame AF you old folks think he was edgy cause he was a low life, he doesn’t even register as mildly interesting for people who grew up on the internet. I expect this kind of boomer cultural navel gazing on The Atlantic you are better than this Quillette.

    • Graham says

      Teenager, off to bed, it’s past your bedtime. 🙂

  15. Fuzzy Headed Mang says

    I very much like his book “Post Office.” He writes about human nature. The dark side. Kind of like Houllebeq does today. Internet people might not like him, as lit says, but there’s plenty of navel gazing identity struggle stories for them to read. Well, Buk was a bit of a narcissist too, alcohol will do that…. the more things change, I guess the more they stay the same.

  16. Cynthia Ford says

    …If you follow

    any of the fallen far enough

    –the idolaters, the thieves and liars–

    you will find that beauty, a cataclysmic

    beauty rising off the face of the burning landscape

    just before the appearance of the beast, the beauty

    that is the flower of our dying into

    another life.

    Like a Mobius strip: you go round once

    and you come out on the other side.

    There is no alpha, no omega,

    no beginning and no end.

    Only the ceaseless swell

    and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.

    Watch the way brilliance turns

    on darkness. How can any of us be damned.

    From “The Revelation,” Lucia Perillo (1958-2016)

    “The road of excess leads to wisdom” William Blake

    “Where there is danger, that which will save us also grows” Friedrich Holderlin

    (quoted by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and
    the Making of the Western World)

    • Just Me says

      “Forget your perfect offering
      There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
      That’s how the light gets in”
      Leonard Cohen

  17. House of Shards says

    Seems to me that the reason why the “woke” believe that readers will do what the writer does is due to the aim of the post on social media. In other words, they confuse storytelling with imperatives, e.g. the post that decries racism as the way not to be. We are what we post, I mean. Increasingly, content I offer in class, clearly stating the option to respond to it any way students like, is being taken as the gospel of what I personally believe. Therefore, the life of a drunk is what Bukowski BELIEVES, and if one were to read it, that becomes what the reader BELIEVES. EVERYTHING IS GOSPEL to the woke.

    On another note, perhaps one of my most valued memories is the discovery of Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness on a train from Switzerland back to Amsterdam. I recall barely suppressing my giggles at Animal Crackers in My Soup, a dirty story of a woman who has sex with animals. I loved it — never thinking, for even a second, that Bukowski was telling me to go fuck a lion.

    Online reading has destroyed the value of nuance. It apparently has destroyed the concept of living vicariously (ironically). As I work towards the end of my own reckless novel, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m up for the task of dealing with the monsters of the woke.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      I have no idea what “woke” has to do with any of this. Your personal boogeyman, I would guess.

      And people have always been influenced by literature. This isn’t a new or particularly debatable point. People killed themselves after reading Werther. People have always taken style, social, cultural queues from art, so what do you gain by denying this? You’re probably right, however, in arguing that this doesn’t generally extend to sex with jungle animals.

      Good luck with your book.

  18. fdsfdsfsdfds says

    There is enough treachery, hatred, violence,
    Absurdity in the average human being
    To supply any given army on any given day.

    very good observation. when you think you know people, think again.
    inside each person is a nasty wolf just waiting for a reason to emerge.
    that is perhaps the metaphorical meaning of the wearwolf

    • Lee Mequet says

      Bukowski would love looking for the metaphysical “wearwolf” inside the person. I can hear his werewolf howling!

  19. cincybaby1 says

    Excellent article on Bukowski. He’s been misunderstood for way too long.

      • dirk says

        And, Graham, what do you think? Has that understanding to do with literary quality? Or more with lifestyle and affinity? With feeling well or less well? I would think, when feeling well in the Dark Web, you have more chance to understand him too.

        • Personally, it was always to do with both literary quality and lifestyle and affinity. He articulates depressed hopelessness (cf: Let It Enfold You) with just a tiny eternal light ray at the end in a way that few can. And I suppose some of that depression and bleak blackness with him was self-administered, in that alcohol is a depressant, but those looking down their noses at Bukowski here forget that he was an abused (terrible, prolonged physical beatings by his father’ both parents cold and distant) child who suffered from severe acne vulgaris that rendered him anathema to the female. He lost his virginity at 24 to a fat black whore he erroneously accused of stealing his wallet. He grew up during the Depression. He was self-educated, an autodidact, and he inspired many people to take up writing literature and poetry, because his style was so clear and easy and not convoluted (‘As the spirit wanes, the form appears,’ as he put it), though his style was more imagistic in his earlier work. I have probably been more influenced, personally, by Bukowski, in some ways, than by any other writer, for good or bad. I recently have started rereading his stuff, some of which I have not read in 20 years. Women was creepy, and confused and misogynistic (fantasising about putting out matches on a 19-year-old girl’s back as he fucks her at the beach, surrounded by others). Would personally say his best novels are:

          Post Office
          Ham on Rye

          As for his collections, well, they’re just totally fucking superb: Tales of Ordinary Madness, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town (made into a not-great film) and Notes of a Dirty Old Man are just great, to me. The first two are short story collections, and sui generis. They sometimes come off as written drunk, probably were, but there are always poetic zinger lines in every story that just stick in the throat and eye. Notes of a Dirty Old Man is his collection of columns from an underground newspaper called the LA Free Press, and it’s totally fucking hilarious. Not many would write a column admitting they drunkenly fucked a bald man in their bed in the arse! I can’t really put a capper on Bukowski. His poetry I can give or take nearly all of, except a select few cuntkickers. But he wrote in an unpretentious, hilarious (his description of trying to suck your own cock “while your asshole twitters like a dying sparrow in frost”; his description of food at a pretentious Zen wedding as “chicken cunt” (I just laughed out loud writing that) and “minced dove’s asshole,” which are terms I still use to this day about chi-chi restaurant menus), poetic, pained, sometimes-human (he was more inhuman and self-loathing to himself than anybody else) style that can hit the mark better than nearly anybody else I have ever read when he is on his game. He just GETS PAIN, is all, and laughs at it, and makes it into sometimes-beautiful shapes and sizes and sentences. What the fuck else does anybody want from a writer anyway? And fuck the doubters. They will die alone and unacknowledged. When you are down and got the right shit cunt blues…Buk is The Man. Full stop.

          Sorry, waffled on for way to long randomly here. Same as it ever was. 🙂

          Anyway. Doubters, read the poem below, and if you don’t like it…no problem. None of this ultimately matters worth a damn anyway.

    • Graham says

      Jorge, yes we can. They’re just different from the ones who had unhappy childhoods.

  20. Basil says

    This article is literally the worst, lol. I like how with all the stereotypes the author condemned then tried to dispel they then accidentally went on to describe, in full, how how they are spot on.

    I need a shower now. That’s how icky this is. It’s like watching someone jerk off in print form. And the worst part is, there is absolutely not one single original thought located anywhere here in this interminably long article. Yep, he’s still a drunken, violent, misogynistic, “I’m 15 and this is deep” piece of edgelord-bait that every new generation has to try to turn themselves into knots to try and justify liking. Nothing new here.

    And just look at these other comments! What great company to keep. Defending domestic violence (that one’s a real treat)! White power slogans! Whining about the “SJW” boogeyman! Cool. Cool cool cool.

    • NN says

      Because I feel so compelled: I’ve read a lot of Bukowski. I have high opinions of his writing in general. As far as his life goes, it’s fascinating I suppose. In that I would not want to live it. I would not want to live in a “30 year” hangover as he often put it. I wouldn’t want to live as insecure as he did through so many years both inwardly and within the world. I don’t think many people would. Nor would I want live his objectively awful childhood, adolescence or young-adulthood. He had a ton of bad shit happen to him and he dealt out some bad shit to those around him. His beating up anyone is not a good thing, but it never seemed to me that CB hated women. He got in a lot of physical confrontations in his life, mostly with men. I’m well aware that there is nothing I can say about the few physical altercations he had with women without somebody reading this immediately labeling me a “cis male piece of shit,” or whatever other colorful vernacular they choose; but it never seemed to me that he did any of that BECAUSE they were women. It’s always seemed to me, that in his writing, CB always considered Women stronger than Men. He thought men were boorish and stupid. Aside from some thinkers, daredevils and men of beautiful minds, CB seemed to shit on men constantly. He saw a ruined world that could have been something better and he knew who was in charge of it. For this reason, I’ve never considered him a misogynist. I always took from his writing that people are people. It doesn’t matter what society wants to call them or wants them to be. What matters is that they have a mind and because of that, they can do anything. Skin color, gender, orientation, place of origin, social status, occupation, age? Brain trumps them all. That’s what I took away from his writing as a lesson. Everyone is just trying to make it and each person is capable of just about anything whether you think they are or not. Was he a “good” person? To most, probably not (I begrudgingly put myself in this category, though I love his work). To those he loved and whom loved him? Most likely. I think it really needs to go beyond that. Arguing about the man being oafish is dumb. On a side note, regardless of what you think of his writing, so many people act like if a serial murderer wrote the cure for cancer on a napkin, they’d be like, “Nope! Throw it out! Don’t even look at it! Do you know how many people she killed?” What? Women can be smart and serial killers too. Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

      As far as the value of his writing, I will not glorify his lifestyle, but anyone can walk into the dark and not see anything. It takes someone with Bukowski’s eyes, mind and “heart” to send Humanity messages back from that darkness (whether you think the messages are pretty is your own opinion and doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you as a person either way). Honestly, if anything, a reader should come away from CB trying to not live the way he did. He did it. He pulled what there was from his journey into the guts of our condition. If you ask me, he pulled out a prolific amount of excellent attempts at conveying intagible feelings from one Human to others. Is that not what writing is? Is that not how we should be measuring the value of literature? In how well a feeling is expressed through choice of words and the order there of? How well an idea is explained? If that is the criteria, it’s my opinion that CB is an author whom it would be a shame to skip over due to some preconceived notion about his character. In fact, if you hate him going in, you should really enjoy his work. I’ve never read another author who shits on themselves so often. Truly, no one was harder on CB than CB. He went down a dark road to see what was down it and then wrote it all down. That’s what books are in case we’ve forgotten as a species. They’re a shortcut. They’re some else’s life. A person that has been around longer than you or before you who took the time to write down something, anything, to bark into the unknown of the future. It took that person a lifetime to gain what they wrote down in some cases. Because of them, you can intake a lifetime of experience in a weekend if you have the time. Experience includes what not to do as well. Go read Bukowski and learn to be better than him. You just may find you can in fact oppose what you believe he believed and his bad behavior and still find beauty in his words and how he saw this world. It’s in there. You’ll find some pretty gross shit too, but the beauty is in there. Trust me.

      Are you still here? Neat. This is neither here nor there, but seeing as it seems socially relevant to the discussion about what people think about CB (or at least people make things all about these things in these discussions), here are the facts about me, a fan of CB. “Caucasian” (I hate qualifiers like this in all cases) male. 31. Work at a musical theatre. Not politically affiliated. Fuck Trump, but basically the rest of the U.S. government in general (get it together D.C., seriously). No religious beliefs. Okay with all lifestyles, so long as it isn’t violating someone else’s existence.

      Have a great whatever time of day you’re reading this. Maybe go read something. Sorry for any atrocious errors in my comment. I’m just hitting send and I’ve been pretty baked this whole time. Peace.

    • Graham says



  21. Steve says

    @Graham, thank you for that poem link! I enjoyed it and made me think a bit. I think probably the first Buk I’ve ever read. I noticed a lot of things I’ve discovered about peace and happiness in the past few years. I wave at people on county roads now, and it’s always a moment of happiness.

    • dirk says

      I wonder, is there any effective relation between the lifestyle, the behaviour of a writer and th quality of his literature? I must think so, of the 6 US nobel prize winners for literature, 5 were drunkards, and many famous European writers had flamboyant, not so rosy lifes as well. But is not a conditio sine qua non, I think, you can even be a master by describing plain,ordinary things and not even leaving your room. “Why don’t people so often travel all over the world, and don’t they just stay in their rooms”, Blaise Pascal wrote.

      -Journey through my room-, another one from Celine (also a rather naughty boy, with some very nasty , racist ideas).

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