A lot of writers are blessed with a steady fan following; writers like Bukowski inspire a cult. He remains one of the most quoted writers on social media despite the fact that he died in 1993, much before the true impact of the Internet era kicked in.
One of the reasons behind’s Bukowski’s posthumous celebrity is that he fits a certain writerly archetype: the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanising man-about-town, a person as likely to end up face down in the gutter, bruised and battered, as to write a poem about the entire affair. Shortly after publishing his first short story in 1946, he went on a bender that lasted nearly ten years. His poor liver might have thrown the towel in, but, as the story goes, Bukowski shooed away a priest (who had come to preside over his last rites) and picked up the pieces of his life.
He then went on to unleash his literary alter-ego upon the world: Henry “Hank” Chinaski, the protagonist of five of his six novels, including, most famously, Factotum (1975) and Ham on Rye (1982). Ham on Rye is Bukowski’s retort to American coming-of-age novels like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the novel being parodied in the title.
William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies as an elaborate, erudite spoof of R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island; it was almost as if Golding was telling Ballantyne: “This is what would really happen if a bunch of so-called civilised British kids were to be marooned on an island”. With Ham on Rye, Bukowski was telling Salinger: “This is what growing up as an angry, confused and down-on-luck teenager feels like.”
His penchant for literal as well as literary spats was well-known: yet another reason why he is adored in the age of online voyeurism. On Writing, released earlier in August, is a collection of letters written by Bukowski to friends and acquaintances. In these remarkable documents, he misses no chance to slag off the rich, the famous and the well-received among his colleagues and his predecessors.
Shakespeare is dismissed rather summarily (“stilted formalism, like chewing cardboard”). William Burroughs’s cutup technique, according to Bukowski, was “just (the) ghetto bored flip of a safe and secure man.” Unsurprisingly, the writer he admired most was John Fante (1909-83), the author of the novel Ask the Dust. Fante, like Bukowski himself, was an autobiographical writer whose accounts of the California lowlife can be considered a precursor to Ham on Rye and the rest of Bukowski’s oeuvre.
Most modern-day readers, though, are reeled in by Bukowski’s poetry; he published more than 50 collections of verse in all, a staggering output by any standards. Most of these poems were published in small literary magazines and by indie presses; this built his reputation as the definitive underground writer of his time.
His collaborations with Robert Crumb, the godfather of the alternative “comix” movement were a confirmation of the same: Crumb illustrated extracts from some of his novels to create one-shot comicbooks, most of which are out of print today.
A typical Bukowski poem is deceptively simple. The subjects are not too different from his prose, at least at a superficial level: there is still plenty of alcohol, women and visits to the racetrack. But Bukowski’s Zen-like punchiness and the inherent brevity of the medium make his poems far more accessible and universal than his “hyperlocal” California novels. His shorter poems, like What Can I Do, are an investigation into (and a critique of) the artistic process.
pain and suffering
helps to create
what we call
given the choice
I’d never choose
but somehow it ﬁnds
as the royalties
continue to roll on
And therein lies the rub: just like Hemingway’s style inspired an avalanche of wannabe-minimalist short fiction (most of which was unreadable), Bukowski’s success has spawned a legion of imitators who have swamped us with poorly written blank verse. Sadly, this has meant that academic critics have largely ignored Bukowski’s body of work; he is not and probably will never be a syllabus mainstay.
Personally speaking, what I admire most about Bukowski’s writing is his ability to elevate commonplace desolation to apocalyptic proportions. His wisdom was not the breeze in your face; it was a punch to your gut. In the poem Tragedy of the Leaves, Bukowski writes about the morning he had his final confrontation with his angry landlady. The poem begins:
I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness
The word “dryness” indicates that he is out of booze and out of money, but also that in the absence of booze, he is like a plant that hasn’t been watered for a while and is dying because of this. The empty bottles are “bled corpses”; another tongue-in-cheek way of humanising a drunkard’s boorish behaviour. But Bukowski is not interested in shying away from his comeuppance: if he is a good-for-nothing alcoholic who cannot pay his rent, that’s what he’ll own up to be. The last lines of the poem are memorable:
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us
If he had been alive, Bukowski would have celebrated his 95th birthday earlier this month. Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that this would have stopped him from throwing the first punch in a barroom brawl.