Moving beyond the Charles Bukowski American lowlife cliche
When Charles Bukowski died in San Pedro 20 years ago, the obituaries in the next day’s papers typically began with some iteration of Time magazine’s stock description of the writer as the “laureate of American lowlife.” In the decades since, the drinking, brawling, gambling, whoring cliche has become so entrenched and widely propagated it can be hard to see Bukowski’s words for his shadow.
The “Barfly” legend, sprouted from the self-mythology Bukowski cultivated in countless quasi-autobiographical works including his celebrated movie screenplay and fed by his real-life drunken bouts of abusiveness, has only grown posthumously. Hordes of websites are devoted to Bukowskiana, his poems are recited in TV spots to sell bluejeans and Scotch, and a biopic written and directed by James Franco is due in theaters this year. In December, a Bukowski-themed bar, called Barkowski, opened in Santa Monica.
Bukowski’s long reign as a Los Angeles icon can lead us back to the old mythology. But, if we adjust focus, the lens of Los Angeles can bring Bukowski’s work out of the haze of legend and into sharper relief.
Beneath the myth has always been the assiduity of one who’d endured torments almost too awful to recount, beginning with the frequent beatings he endured from his father’s razor strap in the family’s Longwood Avenue home and the disfiguring acne vulgaris the young Bukowski developed in response to the trauma. The hardship burnished his tough-guy mask and steeled him for the fight ahead. For more than half a century he wrote with a workman’s tenacity, producing more than 3,000 poems, six novels and hundreds of shorter prose works in a voice of brute clarity and lyrical flourish, infused with great humor, empathy and humanity, and a blunt acknowledgment of quotidian struggle and ache.
But to a large degree, the myth has driven the message. Supporters and detractors alike feed the Bukowski cult. In the echo chamber of the Internet, the idolatry of some of his enthusiastic admirers can assume exaggerated import. This is countered by the cursory dismissal of Bukowski’s output among certain critics and academics, who mistake his simple language for simplicity, his crude subjects for vulgarity.
Neeli Cherkovski, a poet and longtime Bukowski friend whose biography of the author was among the source material for Franco’s film, says Bukowski’s fame gets in the way of appreciating his work. “I would like people to get beyond the grime of Bukowski,” says Cherkovski. A good place to start, he suggests, is “Crucifix in a Death Hand,” an early Bukowski poem about Los Angeles, in which the city is portrayed as a “land punched-in, cuffed-out, divided / held like a crucifix in a death hand.”
“For me, there’s a lyrical gracefulness there that is a key to understanding what would become the more enduring Bukowski,” Cherkovski said. “It’s not about a man and a woman drunk in a dank room.”
With Bukowski, Los Angeles can serve as an alleyway out of the mythology. It was on this city’s streets and in its underground papers where his wildly original voice took shape. He celebrated its filth, its congestion, its smog.
Bukowski surely descends from his revered European forebears Dostoevsky, Celine and Knut Hamsun. But his vision of solitary “ordinary madness” amid a brutal, bewildering landscape is better understood for its place in the modern American West, a downtown analog to the estranged, violent, misshapen worlds of Sam Shepard or Larry McMurtry.
And Bukowski’s spiritual kinship with Robinson Jeffers, whom he honored in several poems, is plain. Though he had little use for the rugged California coast, Jeffers’ notion of Inhumanism, in which the poet sought to reimagine human dignity by detaching from what he saw to be the bereft parade of humankind, struck close to Bukowski’s heart. Bukowski’s me-against-them determination can be seen as a kind of urban Inhumanism.
Jeffers’ elegy for a wounded hawk, in which he contrasts the bird’s nobility with the blithe spiritlessness of “you communal people,” can be discerned, for example, in Bukowski’s “I Saw a Tramp Last Night,” a “lost” poem resurrected from the archives by scholar Abel Debritto: “the way the old dog walked / with clotted, tired fur / down nobody’s alley / being nobody’s dog … / past the empty vodka bottles / past the peanut butter jars, / with wires full of electricity / and the birds asleep somewhere, / down the alley he went — / nobody’s dog / moving through it all, / brave as any army.”
Bukowski too has unexpected parallels with Thoreau, that New Englander for whom the West stood as an idealized notion of “Wildness,” as has been noted by Gerald Locklin, a writer, longtime Bukowski friend and professor emeritus at Cal State Long Beach. As Thoreau traveled a good deal in Concord, so Bukowski did in Los Angeles. Like Thoreau, Bukowski preferred to labor alone — at a desk with his “typer.” It was the everyday horror and humiliation of working for someone else he couldn’t stomach, chronicled best in his novel “Post Office,” which he banged out in a month. Thoreau advises: “Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.” Bukowski’s sentiment precisely, from his novel’s memorable opening line: “It began as a mistake.”
It is not just Bukowski’s legend but his words that influence a wide cultural circle. Since his death, his work has been the basis for stage plays, an opera, a musical, and compositions by actress-singer Ute Lemper and avant-garde classical artist Nicolaus Huber. Last year, performance artist Tim Youd set up a manual typewriter at the Terminal Annex post office downtown, where Bukowski had toiled, for a marathon re-typing of “Post Office.” A large cache of the Bukowski archive is now housed at the august Huntington Library.
Sunday, local poets Dan Fante, S.A. Griffin, Suzanne Lummis, Joan Jobe Smith and Fred Voss will read at a free event, “20 Years After: The Charles Bukowski Memorial Gathering” at the King Eddy Saloon downtown, an old Bukowski hangout.
Bukowski has about 40 books still in print in many languages, and all of them are reprinted repeatedly, something unheard of for a writer with so many titles, said Daniel Halpern of Ecco Press, which assumed Bukowski’s publishing rights when the author’s longtime editor and publisher, John Martin, sold Black Sparrow Press in 2002. Bukowski, Halpern said, “seems to continue to reinvent himself” among readers, and he is being embraced by a new generation. “I have a daughter attending Brown [University],” he said, “and she and her friends are big fans. They love Bukowski.”
For all its achievement, Bukowski’s work has always been uneven, a matter compounded by the extraordinary number of additional poems to appear posthumously. But, as Locklin once wrote in an essay about his friend, “he is almost always far from the kingdom of dullness.”
Through it all, Bukowski spoke a singular language of the man on the street, with immediacy and vitality, illuminating our travails and striking a blow against hypocrisy. In stories and verse that have come to define Los Angeles as much as any writer’s, he dignified the struggle of workaday living by showing it in all its banality. Which is why celebrating him as the laureate of the lowlife misses the point. His subject was often the most menial of physical labor, but his tales and observations resonate as well in the offices of today’s gleaming towers; his affinity with the marginalized is relevant as ever among our present-day legions of underemployed.
We are reminded of this by one of his oft-quoted poems: “it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse … / it’s the continuing series of small tragedies … / not the death of his love / but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left … / with each broken shoelace / out of one hundred broken shoelaces, / one man, one woman, one / thing / enters a / madhouse. / so be careful / when you / bend over.”
‘20 Years After: The Charles Bukowski Memorial Gathering’
Where: King Eddy Saloon, 131 E. 5th St., Los Angeles
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
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