Tuesday, 10 April 2012

High Verses and Low Lifes: Charles Bukowski

Thank God for poetry. And thank God for Charles Bukowski! 

Poetry tells it as it is. Up straight and personal. And you couldn't get no more bullet-point-right-between-the-eyes than Charles Bukowski, famed American poet (otherwise known as Laureate of the low-lifes).  Radical, rebellious, raw and real. Alcoholic, low-life and womaniser. Poet, prose writer and artist. Melancholic, miserable and mean. Also, spectacularly brilliant.

For anyone who thinks poetry is complete upper-class snotty-nosed la-de-dah, read  some Charles Bukowski. He spent most of his life on the bottle, womanising and hanging around bars, unemployed, dispirited and hanging on to the edges of life. His poetry is an account of all this (hence the Laureate nickname). 
And it's anything but stuffy. Indeed, it was a while before Bukowski made it onto the reading lists. His work was not mainstream, not anything near. It subverted every tradition and he himself never concerned himself with traditions, never thought of his work as 'literary', merely true.

I must admit, I have just recently discovered Bukowski. And so far, I'm loving his work. It has an edge, raw, but real also. Brave. Couldn't-care-less. Honest. True to the craft. True to himself.

What I really admire about him is how devoted he was to his art. So many poems explore instances of him at his typewriter, pouring words out painstakingly, or easily, practising the act of listening, waiting, while declaring how writing is a curse, and simultaneously a gift. He saw writing as it really was: a compulsion. An urge. A do or die vocation. And living much the same, both a curse and a gift.

On grey days like today, Bukowski is a breath of fresh air, a colouring. He tells things as they are, no bullshit. He injects a good dose of real straight-up truth, a slap in the face of daily dreary sameness, a much-needed wake-up call,  'Your life is your life/don't let it be clubbed into dank submission' (from the outstanding The Laughing Heart). Yes sir. This line has saved me from ennuyed emptiness many a time.

Included are some of my favourite picks below. Be warned some of his poems come with a R rating! (Maybe that's why he's so 'cool' and almost everyone likes him. Adores even.) He's one of America's most popular poets and when you read him, it's easy to see why. 

Anyway, if you haven't read him yet, do! You won't be disappointed. 

~ Siobhán.

(I've included his infamous writer poem 'So You Want to be a Writer?' on a previous post in March.)

Writing - Charles Bukowski

often it is the only
between you and
no drink,
no woman's love,
no wealth
match it.
nothing can save
it keeps the walls
the hordes from
closing in.
it blasts the
writing is the
the kindliest
god of all the
writing stalks
it knows no
and writing
at itself,
at pain.
it is the last
the last
what it

Bluebird - Charles Bukowski

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
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.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

The Laughing Heart - Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.


  1. Again, you've done a wonderful thing to remind us of all the various voices of poetry. I love Bukowski's work and it had somehow slipped my mind. Thanks.

    1. Mary, I'm just discovering him and am loving his work! We must pow-wow on him some time. I also got a book the other day in a bargain basement (€5!) of Frank O'Hara, who you were recommending to me one time, and love his work too. I think I have a special affinity for American poets... Been re-reading The Beats at the moment too, so stay tuned for a corresponding post on American poetry soon...!


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