Charles Bukowski: “There’s a bluebird in my heart”

Having spent most of the morning trying to fend off an incredible hangover and a mounting sense of loneliness I picked up The Pleasures of the Damned and headed down to Hyde Park. Sat on a bench, the book in my lap, I watched orgiastic crowds partake in various forms of revelry.  In a bid to discourage anyone from invading my solitude I stretched myself out to the length of the seat,  flipped the book open and began to read, my eyes darting from poem to poem, each incomparable yet sibling to the next in theme and tone and matter. Each one dashed off, no doubt, in haste in between bouts of drinking, longing, loathing and fucking in his shabby one-room Hollywood apartment. It is incredible to think that Bukowski spent his life imbibing rotgut beer and actually managed to write but he once confessed he’d never “written a poem sober”. Perhaps daunted by the prospect he preferred to write while recklessly inebriated or “under the hammer of a black hangover,” unsure “whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing”.  It was usually another drink.  Bukowski began the lifelong habit in the late 1930s “during the last semester of the school year” and carried on throughout his life.

Sitting sedately in the depressingly bright midday sun I turned the pages to a poem called For Jane – a paean to Jane Cooney Baker, Bukwoski’s lover of 10 years who died when he was 38. Addressing her he says: “When you left you took almost everything,” and yet the “hours of love” spent together “still make shadows” impinging on the present. Writing about her later in his novel Women Bukowski simply said: “I had been in love only once. She had died of acute alcoholism.” The other two poems written in Baker’s honour appear simple yet sting you like a sudden throng in the bicuspid. It takes a very argute kind of simple to make that sort of impact. In For Jane: With All the Love I Had Bukowski explores grief by inciting “all the gods” to give her back to him before concluding “they will not”. While in Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame he reminisces, saying: “You’ve been dead/28 years/yet I remember you/better than any of/the rest.” The sense of sadness in these works pulsates through every beat, besmirching Bukowski’s belief that what he prized most “could never die/in the common variety of dying”.

There are many reasons why I love Bukowski, but perhaps the most pertinent one is that he had the knack of a thaumaturge to express the variegation of every emotion effortlessly. There has been a lot of contention about his writing credentials throughout the years, his tawdry gutter-friendly scribe and carefree vitriolic disregard of the literary establishment. Bukowski was adamant, however, that the bombastic marmots expectorating their elitist catechisms never bothered him and in a poem entitled “Scene from 1940”, says “praise was the only thing I couldn’t handle.” Notoriously self-deprecating and acutely conscious of his own shortcomings he once noted: “It takes a lot of desperation, dissatisfaction and disillusion to write.” Bukowski had all three in abundance – a result of a turbulent childhood spent in the shadow of an iconoclastic heavy-drinking father, his own dependence on alcohol, physical self-disgust fuelled by a severe case of acne vulgaris and a sense of alienation in the “wasted landscape” of middle class America. Bukowski chose his subjects accordingly and filled his poetry and prose with “saints, heroes, beggars, madmen…banality and booze”. He documents his fatidic disenchantment with modern day life in “Putrefaction”, asserting that “We have/More than ever/The selfish wants of power/The disregard for the/Weak/The old/The impoverished/The helpless” and have become so benumbed “We can’t even cry”, as well as in The Genius of the Crowd (There is enough treachery, hatred/Violence/ Absurdity in the average human being/ To supply any given army on any given day), and in Hug the Dark when the poet declares with a fixed conviction: “There is no god/There are no politics/There is no peace/There is no love/There is no control/There is no plan/Stay away from god/Remain disturbed/Slide.”

And for his part, Bukowski always did slide from one bar to another, from love to lust, from job to job, boozing, fighting, gambling and collecting rejection slips from numerous publishers. In his 20s he wrote a great number of short stories, one of which was published in Story Magazine. Nevertheless, Bukowski became increasingly disheartened and consoled himself with thoughts of suicide – a theme which features heavily throughout his work, as do his other lifelong fascinations conveyed in scabrous odes to nocturnal Hollywood and its characters, masturbation, whores, brawls, isolation and beer. Albeit the poetry came later, the themes remained the same – “the pleasures of the damned” and their “brief moments of happiness”.  In this collection Bukowski invites the reader into his world by saying “Welcome to my wormy hell” and keeps him captive, immersed in the poems which he himself describes as “as bits of scratchings/on the floor of a/cage”. Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that there must always “be a man behind the book”.  Bukowski made himself an open one and thus whatever happened to Bukowski – love, sex, heartbreak, impotence or flatulence – inevitably snaked its way into his work.

This particular collection, which heaps together four decades worth of toil, contains the poems of senescent resignation as well as those written in the throes of life, in constupration  of whores and liquor bottles. The former is best captured in this snapshot from It Is Not Much when Bukowski exclaims: “I suppose like others/I have come through fire and sword/Love gone wrong/Head-on crashes/Drunk at sea/And I have listened to the simple sound of water running/In tubs/And wished to die,” fought against it only to realise that “Some god pissed a rain of reason/To make things grow/Only to die.” Near the end of his life many poems revolved around the theme of mortality. Bukwoski ruminates over the subject saying “It bothers the young most, I think/An unviolent slow death,” while the idea of it makes the old consolable, accepting. Many of his poems are pessimistic, sardonic in tone, but resolute in extracting most of what life has to offer before “death gets as close as any love has”. The poems also emphasize the puissance of catharsis, its place in literature and the ability it has to redeem even the most sordid, second-rate life. Bukowski’s observations range from the shallow to the etiological in almost one sweep as he talks about the makings of true friendship before relaying the debauchery of yielding, blue-eyed odalisques.  And yet there’s something truly heart-wrenching when he notes: “I’ve always said/If you want to know who your friends are/Go to a madhouse/Or jail/And if you want to find out where love is not/Be a perpetual/Loser.” Perhaps because he really knew what he was talking about.

The self proclaimed “dirty old man” was driven by some divine eleutheromania, a need to break from the cultural and social status quo, elitist attitudes in art and academia and the capitalistic conventions of booming 1960s America. In doing so he often and unashamedly depicted himself as a congenital loser trapped in a dead end job pinpointing the oppressiveness of the workplace and thereby contradicting all the antecedent, romantic notions of the American Dream. Before walking out on his one and only long-term job with the US Post Office, Bukowski weighed up his options by saying: “I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy . . . or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” Despite his reputation as a proto-slacker, Bukowski was a working man, an underclass one, with sweat on his brow and calluses on his hands, who obdurately laboured at his typewriter and never lost the drive.  That’s not to say he didn’t toil in uncertainty. He opens One More Good One for example by saying: “To be writing poetry at the age of 50/Like a schoolboy/Surely I must be crazy.” And that he was, but not where writing was concerned – his body of work is testament to that. Bukowski was the genuine article, a visionary, a complicated man engrossed in simple pursuits interspersed with “working stiff” for eight hours straight in front of the typewriter.  Thus when a man like that implores you to read what he’s written and “then forget it all” I personally know there’s no chance because “there’s a bluebird in my heart” and I don’t think he’d go for that.