The Bukowski Myth

Someone had to kick the Mickey Mouse out of our heads.
–William Packard of
NYQ on Charles Bukowski

That’s a good quote, but I hate Bukowski.  And it’s not even for his poetry, which is mostly garbage, littered with gems.  Or his novels, which I mostly haven’t read.

I woke up at 6:30 a.m. this morning, thinking it was 10 a.m.  That’s three hours sleep for me.  Too tired to do much else at first, I thought I’d watch a documentary, and I came upon Born Into This, the 2003 biography by John Dullaghan.  It just confirmed everything I already thought about the man.

Bukowski was a self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, degenerate drunk.  Sexist and probably racist.  There’s a dirty old man at the end of every dive bar in America with just as much insight on the human condition as him.  But the worst part is, Bukowski was also a hypocrite.  He’s held up by his fans as some messiah of truth — he gets down in the dirt, doesn’t have time for metaphor, “cuts straight to the marrow of the bone,” as Bono of U2 says in the film.  But the real truth is, Bukowski is as phony as someone who’d change his name to Bono.  More phony, even — at least with Bono there’s always a layer where we know it’s an act.

You see it in every interview, every poem, every story, every reading he’d show up to drunk; everything Bukowski presents is orchestrated to get a reaction out of his audience.  Shock, disgust, excitement, pity — that’s a big one.  He lies about the facts, he lies about his feelings, and he’s hailed as a champion of truth.  What’s left to be true?  He tells people he was born out of wedlock so he can call himself a bastard.  He publishes under the name “Charles” to avoid the draft.  Says his father beat him, but I doubt it.  Says he was a Nazi, but I doubt it.  Plenty of grist there to be honest about, but all we get is “gritty” bullshit.

Side rant:  Over the last decade there’s been a big ridiculous ballyhoo over whether or not Bukowski was a Nazi sympathizer in his youth.  It started with Ben Pleasants’ feature in The Hollywood Reporter, then picked up again when the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission had to decide whether or not to make his bungalow a landmark.  I don’t understand why Bukowski’s political beliefs at the age of 20 matter with respect to the historical significance of his home — especially at a time when there were hundreds of thousands of members in the German-American Bund.  Hell, Prescott Bush was a business partner with Nazis, and that didn’t keep him out of the Senate, or from raising two future presidents.  The commission approved the ordinance three to one and protected Bukowski’s home, but they took the accusation seriously: “‘If I thought that any of the claims were true, in no way would I consider this,’ said commission president Mary Klaus-Martin.”

I don’t understand why it matters whether or not we can use the Nazi label on a man who so often demonstrated such deplorable traits.  Bukowski was not a good person.  He was the kind of guy who thinks its funny to shout, “Turn on the gas!” in a Jewish diner.  Why should it matter whether or not we can call him a Nazi, too?

That said, I don’t think there’s any validity to the Nazi sympathizer claim.  Ben Pleasants makes the mistake that so many do when encountering Bukowski:  Believing a single word he says.  Reading the article, it’s clear that Bukowski was just trying to get a rise out of his young interviewer.  I’m sure the boasting is somehow spliced onto a partial reality, but if you look closely, there are several inconsistencies within the narrative itself.  It would be mind-bendingly ironic if Nazism ultimately tarnished Bukowski’s reputation — an exaggeration he invented himself, but might as well be true, damaging the reputation that he’s too raw to care about, even though he really does.

But what I can’t get over is the simple fact that people take him seriously.  That they believe in his schtick.  Most of his friends and biographers, of course, believe him into a saint.  It’s grotesque.  He hits his girlfriends and he’s a “handful.”  Screams he’ll “get a Jew lawyer to kick [her] whore ass to the curb,” and they just laugh it off.   In1957, he married Barbara Frye sight-unseen because she was rich, but really “she was trying to control him with money.”  Right.

John Martin of Black Sparrow Press calls him:  “Today’s Whitman. A man of the street writing for the people in the street.”  But Bukowski hated the people: “beware the average man/ the average woman/ beware their love/ their love is average.”  He hated everyone — especially, I think, himself.  I really hope that’s not the voice of the people today.  Please tell me it isn’t.  Especially if it’s because so many people relate to his perspective.

There’s one point in the documentary where Bukowski is reading a poem about bathing with his ex-girlfriend Linda King.  Toward the end of the poem he breaks into tears, then composes himself and apologizes for growing sentimental in his old age.  “I read the wrong poem, damnit,” he says.  Of course he could never write about that feeling, because real feeling wasn’t a posture he was willing to hold — only project.

I know there are a lot of Bukowski fans out there — if you disagree with me, feel free to argue.


NOTE (7/27/09): I turned off the commenting on this post, and deleted the last round of comments. I wanted to let valid objections to my opinion stand, but I was tired of the shouting match, where nothing new was being added.

36 thoughts on “The Bukowski Myth

  1. this is america, man! only a liar could be the herald of truth. the american dream, man! and bukowski’s lies after all, were merely unrealized dreams. or nightmares. sure, maybe it never happened but his alibi is just so amusing! and maybe he’s a scoundrel of a person but thats the truth, damnit! =)

  2. For me, it’s hard to dismiss a poet whose work stands against the academic poetry planet and still takes up an entire shelf at any bookstore in the city. I agree, he wasn’t the best poet, but he represents hope for some kind of “success” for all of us “struggling poets” living in this hard, lonely town. And that’s something, isn’t it? Can you suggest another iconic L.A. poet that I can look up to? Being that you’re the editor of a “rogue journal,” it surprises me that you hate a rogue poet like Charles Bukowski. But I respect your point of view. Buk is a Brussels sprout.

  3. I actually don’t have much to say about Bukowski except that a lot poets try to copy his style. (I looked into the online work of the poets in the last big debate held here and one of them seemed to be quite indebted to Bukowski. I won’t say which one because I do not want to get drawn into anything.) As to Bukowski, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s statement that behind a remarkable artist, you will often find a mediocre man. (And visa-versa.)

  4. Hey Tim, it all fits together now that someone whose PC enough to make an all “Black” issue can label Bukowski as sexist, racist etc, well maybe its true. But like the scene in the movie Scarface, when he says “even when I lie I tell the truth.” and “I don’t hide so good” i think Bukowki is so much better than any other poet because you get a real sense of how he is, warts and all. Even when he’s doing schtick, you can tell. In addition I don’t recall Bukowski or anyone saying he was a saint. And i think poets, artists, musicans, and bloggers by nature are self-absorbed, come to think of it most people are self-absorbed. As to that poem attacking the common man, I think there’s a lot of truth in that poem. But I don’t think Bukowski was putting himself above the average man.

    Anyway while you’re at it you might want to do a blog on Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones who hit his wife Hettie, and thinks the Jews that worked in the world trade knew about the 9/11 attack beforehand and stayed home, which means they let their co-workers die. Maybe you could include that in a future issue of Rattle.

    David Ochs

  5. Okay, where to start…

    Deborah–Maybe it’s because I’m not actually from LA? Are you?

    Alex–If that’s what it takes to be successful, I don’t want any part of it. And I don’t mean the poetry, really — in my opinion he published way too much, but there are legitimate flashes of genius in there. It’s that his success is built up on a cult of personality, and it’s a pretty awful personality to build a cult around. As for “Rogue” that just means saying what you think, independent of everyone else, whether you’re talking about an institution or a fellow rogue. I imagine Bukowski himself would appreciate that, even as he’d be tearing me a new one.

  6. Cafais–I like the vice-versa.

    David–My problem with Bukowski as stated here, is that I don’t think he really did show himself, “warts and all.” I don’t believe the act, and just watching that documentary, I think it’s clear that there was a lot buried in the psyche that never came out. Which would be fine is “warts and all” didn’t comprise the bulk of his praise.

    I actually like “The Genius of the Crowd.” It’s certainly misanthropic, but there’s a place for that sometimes, and moreover, it’s a call to rise above. It’s one of his flashes. As I said, I do believe he has them.

    I don’t know much about Baraka as a person, he’s not a local figure like Bukowski is here, and I’ve never read anything on him but his work itself. I’m familiar with the poem that got him in trouble with the State of NJ, but it’s been a while — did he really propagate that myth about Jewish foreknowledge? I’ll have to re-read it and do a little homework.

    BTW, it wasn’t an all black issue. It was a 40-page section of a 200 page book.

  7. Oh, and Platypus, right on. “Unrealized dreams.” Maybe if I wasn’t in LA I could see him as more of a character and agree with all that. But he really haunts this place…

  8. Hey Tim-thanks for the distinction about the Black Issue.

    You know if it weren’t for Bukowski I think we’d all still be writing stuff like “oe’r hill and dale, or “but alas to no avail.”

    But anyway, rather than view someone on their totality, and complexity, as we all are, I think its much easier to label them sexist, and racist and dismiss them with the wave of the hand, Tim i think your blog is what they call a hachet job.

  9. Maybe what he deserves is a hatchet job, David, although I can guarantee you this one won’t contribute to his destruction. I hope my argument is more nuanced than simply dismissing him as a sexist and a racist. Those are just likely features of his character. My complaint with him is that he’s a phony, that his act was one of shock value, and that he never really digs down into his own truth. My complaint with everyone else is that we love him for his poor character, which shouldn’t really be loveable.

    Do you really believe that he’s the one who let poetry become colloquial? Didn’t W.C.W. do that in the ’20s?

  10. Tim-i think Bukowski drank, had a few woman in his day and played it up in his writing, thats schtick, but not phony, my sense (i never met him) he that he was nicer in person than his persona. again not phony. i think we can allow him a modicum of poetic license to exagerate, no?

    and while WCW may have the first to be colloquial who had a bigger influence on you, WCW or BuK? The red wheel barrow didn’t make that big a difference in my case.

  11. Exactly, Sandee, that interview was part of the documentary that sparked this post.

    But what really bothers me are the comments there, did you read them. Things like:

    Aint no wife beater or anything, but sometimes a bitch just needs a good smack to put her in her place

    That’s Bukowski’s literary legacy; that’s why he has shelves at the bookstore dedicated to him. Because he’s the voice of awful people screaming, “KICK HER MOAR [sic]”

  12. I’d like to see the “complex person” excuse hold up in court. Domestic violence is a crime, not a quirky personality trait.

  13. W.C.W. influenced people who influenced me, mostly. I grew up on contemporary poetry, for the most part, but from that generation it was Ginsberg more than anyone else. I didn’t read Bukowski until much later.

  14. wow what a concept, a husband and wife fighting, that never happens. whoopie-do. of course if you watch the end of the docu. Born Into This, Linda, Bukowski’s wife is welling up with tears remembering him before he died.

    I don’t think Bukowski spent a day in court because of domestic violence.

    Tim I think you have it backwards, Ginsbergs the one who wrote a few gems like Howl and The Sunflower Sutra and the rest of it garbage and Bukowski wrote volumes of great poems, short stories and novels.
    now if you want to go character Ginsberg advocated man/boy sex. Hey whatever turns you on.
    David Ochs

  15. It’s okay for men to beat their wives because it happens all the time? Welcome to Dogville you sick ignorant coward. You need to learn a few things about the psychology of abuse and cycles of violence, and part of me hopes you find someone to teach it to you. In the meantime, get off my blog. Animals dressed as men like you don’t deserve their humanity let alone forums to spew their poison. Thanks for proving my point on Bukowski, but I’m serious, you’re no longer welcome here. I want to go back to pretending that people like you don’t exist for a little while.

  16. Domestic Violence is a mad dog from hell…

    David, people that don’t beat their wives don’t talk to their wives that way either. You can’t possibly be trying to justify his behavior, biting his bottom lip in anger as he is going after her like that, no matter how much you like his poetry. And if you think she brought it on, besides the fact that nothing she could possibly say or do would ever justify that behavior, in the first part of the interview, not shown here, he was humiliating her in front of the reporter, threatening to get his “jewish lawyer” and throw her out of there and that he could get any woman he wanted, etc. So part of what she was saying was in reaction to the hurt of that. I mean, the guy admitted his life was wine, the track, and poetry. He said when people get tired of life, they should just go to bed for 4 days and get up only to pee and drink a beer, and then they would feel rejuvinated. He said, that’s what he did and it worked great and that the problem with people is that they never took time out and always felt they had to do something. I’m sure glad heart surgeons and bankers, and grocers don’t take his advice. Aren’t you? And, many women in battered women’s shelters cry for their husbands through blackened eyes. They love them, even though they may have held a knife to their throat hours before that. And very few men are charged with domestic violence. Even if they are, the women usually drop the charges either because they have been battered to the point they have lost all self-esteem and feel they deserved it and can’t live on their own, or because the men sweet talk their way back with promises of never doing it again which is complete BS or because they are so fragile at that point, they just can’t fight it, or they just don’t see a way out. He was a cad. He knew he was a cad. Like Tim said, read the comments that came after that clip. After seeing the documentary, I felt sorry for him. He was pathetic to say the least. But he was his own worst enemy. I’ve read his stuff. There are a few poems of his that surprised me. But most of it sounds like someone sitting on a toilet with his head over a bucket wrote it. If you like that, fine. But that doesn’t make it okay for him to treat women like that and it doesn’t make him a fine person or philosopher or someone who deserves defending. He shouldn’t be worshipped like a god, by any stretch of the imagination. He was a self-centered, anti-social, alcoholic. And that’s the nicest thing I can think of to say about him.

  17. I felt this blog was oversimplistic. Yes, Bukowski was an asshole. I think everyone knows this and not too many people idolize him for it, but they do make excuses for it as in his terrible childhood, etc. You said you doubted those stories of his childhood, part of the “phoney” theory, which I thought was a very interesting thing to say, but not sure how you can doubt the several biographers who have spent years researching his life. I myself think that most of his stories are true. But, anyway I think Nietzsche summed it up nicely in Cafais’ comment. So many artists nowadays like to think of themselves as zen masters and fancy it their duty to banish evil from the earth. I just don’t think that is the role of the artist.

    Oh, and Cafais I assume you were talking about my poetry being a lot like Bukowski’s. Yes, yes, it is sometimes. I am trying to get out of it, but it is hard. Still, I don’t feel it is something to be ashamed of. I Googled “Cafais” and couldn’t find much except some blog comments. Why don’t you tell me who you are, I will read some of your stuff and compare you to a poet I don’t like, and we’ll be even.

  18. Interesting David. You don’t seem to be blocked from the site at all. But, you think I got off track? You don’t seem to be paying attention. Read the comments at the bottom of the youtube video and then make your case above. That’s all I’m sayin’. But for you to equate me disliking people putting a drunk with vomit on his shirt who kicks his wife and calls her the c-word up on a pedestal as if he were some sort of philosophical god with Fox news treating Obama in an unjust way, you’re crazy.

  19. In response to “Cicada” by Charles Bukowski

    writers love to use the f-word
    in a poem
    it makes them believe that
    they are there,that they
    have done it
    every time I see this word
    in a poem,I think, damn,
    haven’t the editors
    caught on yet?
    that it’s a con?
    a way to milk the game?

    and look at me:
    here I’m using it:

    well, that means that
    this poem surely will get


    it works.

    *Okay, I give credit to Bukowski for everything but the f-word above. But if that’s a poem, I think the f-word would work as well as cicada, if not better.

  20. No, David, you really aren’t welcome here.

    It has nothing to do with Bukowski or whether or not you beat your wife. It has to do with your smirking defense of violence, and the way you hide behind the “PC” tag as if you have to right the wrong of most people being kind and considerate. Go away.

    Blogs are a place where you can speak your mind. Go start one, they’re free.

  21. One thing I do regret is saying that I doubt Bukowski was severely beaten by his father as a child. I do doubt that — my hunch is that he had an awful childhood because of merciless peers and acne vulgaris, and that his parents stand in by proxy — but it’s only a hunch, and I shouldn’t have said it. Wouldn’t have said it if he were still alive, but I shouldn’t have said it now that he’s dead either.

  22. Let me try to explain again — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with appreciating his poetry as poetry. There’s a whole history of artists that were awful people, but you can still consider their art separately. And Mather, I actually believe that’s what you do — as a poet, he has something to contribute. As I said, I think he published too much junk and he could have been served by a good editor, but who cares, there’s good stuff in there.

    The problem is that he was a bad-ass asshole, and his larger-than-other-poets fame stems from all the wannabe bad-ass assholes of the world crowning him their king. You say that “not too many people idolize him for it,” but that’s where I disagree. Many, many people do.

  23. Tim, I think you should read Bukowski’s novels, or a couple of them…in fact I think you should have done this before you wrote this blog, maybe even read a bio. I have found that many people who criticize Bukowski is that they have read precious little, maybe a few poems that are guaranteed to fuel their moralistic superiority, and then they sum him up and toss him out…and there is, as Sandee’s poem above demonstrates, a vast difference in his writings…they go from painful to hilarious to disgusting to amateur throw away. I do agree that he published way too much.

    For god’s sake don’t 86 David just because he disagrees with you. He is not advocating violence against women.

    Since we’re doubting things…I saw that video on VHS about 7 years ago and from the first time I saw it I thought the whole thing where he kicked Linda was staged. And Sandee, the idiot Buk-heads who make disgusting comments below the video have no more insight into Bukowski than you or Tim, and can’t be taken seriously.

    Funny thing, I just the other day got 86’d from the forum because I criticized Steve Richmond…

  24. I shouldn’t have done the poem thing because this really is not about that. And I’ve certainly written and published way worse things than “Cicada.” But it just strikes me as kind of funny that he is basically saying how cliche a cicada is in poetry when misery and vulgarity are the most cliche things in poetry ever. Probably the reason poetry can’t get a leg up in the arts. I feel you are missing the main point though. I agree, bring David back. I agree, Buk had some good stuff. I also agree his novels are better than his poetry. I’ve read tons of Buk stuff in an effort to find out why the cult-like following. And what I found was that there are many more talented poets that deserve the following than he, in MY OPINION. And people do look up to him, unfortunately. And when you look up to someone, you tend to want to be like them. That’s real unfortunate. Some young poets think you can’t get anywhere in poetry unless you are miserable and that’s just not true. In fact, that’s gonna get old at some point. Too many Buk wannabes already. But I think most of the reason for the following is that he is very accessible and he makes people feel better about feeling bad. If a guy that miserable has something worthwhile to say, then so do we all.

  25. One last thing from me… thank God, right?
    David must have really said some inappropriate things for Tim to ask him to leave. There are constructive ways to comment that have absolutely nothing to do with if you agree or not. I know for a fact that Tim does not toss one aside for simply not agreeing. I know it first-hand from the heated arguments he and I have had over major issues. There are ways of doint it and learning from in and enjoying it without burning bridges.

  26. Mather–I’ve read most of Post Office and Ham on Rye, for what it’s worth. Didn’t finish either, but read good chunks of each. And I’ve read a lot of his poetry.

    I didn’t dismiss David for disagreeing with me. You’re disagreeing with me, and I’m happy about it — I like argument. I don’t want to hear from David because of the way he goes about it, the way he keeps bringing up our “black issue,” and his “whoopdie-do” comment, which really pissed me off. I’m sick of him.

  27. There’s a difference between merely stating a controversial opinion and justifying abuse. The former is healthy and constructive; the latter is not. A huge part of the reason that domestic abuse is such a massive issue in our culture is because men like David dismiss it as being no big deal. This is a forum for debate, sure, but it’s not a place to spew hateful bile.

  28. Well, I thought I’d read all of what David said and I didn’t see where he was “justifying abuse”.

    I think Factotum is the best, but if you didn’t want to read all of Post Office then I guess he’s not for you.

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