yet to receive input from any one of the nine, this writer can but perch o'er aonian streams, pawing at dregs of genius as they pass her by. 

The Bacchanalia of Belonging: Bukowski's Fun Fun Fun

The Bacchanalia of Belonging: Bukowski's Fun Fun Fun

Famed for his bacchanalian misadventures, pervasive dysphoria and apparent misanthropic disregard for the sanctity of existence, Bukowski was America’s ‘Sewer Shakespeare’[1] - a poet whose strong-arm persona preceded his literary reputation as he wandered the miasmic Los Angeles of his life and representation. Having floundered through many strickened years in the mimeograph revolution’s dirty slipstream, his subsequent Orpheus-like emergence into the 60s and a modicum of recognition owed much to this very image - a drunken topos to out-beatnik the beatniks. Economic privation and almost complete obscurity had taught him to value what fanbase he had garnered; and the bounty they brought to a life long defined by paucity. As The Last Night of the Earth Poems demonstrate, however, the chill of death’s approach forced him to mellow and begin meditative retrospection, coming to excavate the Janusian antinomy which nestled within his heart. The bluebird’s eponymous avian is unsubtle articulation of his existential dichotomy: the internal literary savant[2] ‘locked in the arms’ of the liquor-soaked, uncaring exterior which he believed to function as the most salient draw among the audience he had strived so long to author. Semiotically unaffected, the poem is nevertheless clearly enmeshed within its Last Night contemporaries, forming a transitional bridge between bitter recollections of youthful revelry and the abject fatalism of his peeks at mortality while providing, perhaps, an answer to both jaded calls.

Wrinkles in time: The weathered Bacchus acolyte seen here regretting none of it. 

Wrinkles in time: The weathered Bacchus acolyte seen here regretting none of it. 

Not until the age of forty-nine did Bukowski earn a contract allowing him to spend his days before the typewriter. The preceding decades had seen the American labour market break his back while providing in reparation little more than a monthly rent packet delivered without fanfare and the tacit demand that he return the following Monday. For a man ‘who always had a great sense of his own worth’[3], the surrender of eight hours a day to some amorphous boss-man was both affront and grand tragedy. ‘I always resented all the years…’ he wrote in spark, ‘…I gave them as a working stiff, it / actually hurt my head, my insides, it made me / dizzy and a bit crazy…’ The years he dedicated to ‘littles’ and concurrent fervent disavowal of any movement associated with them demonstrate his flagrant eleutheromania. A crucial decade the senior of both Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, he stood closer to the Great Depression’s shadow than to that of the Cold War and as such was neither of the Black Mountain, the Beat Generation nor the San Francisco Renaissance. Generationally, culturally and stylistically a loner, Bukowski was a Los Angeleno suffering on the liminal borders of capitalist society dreaming not of spiritual alternative to the American Dream as the Beats, but of fast cars and glamorous women. When young in New Orleans he could ‘piss away [his] life / unmolested…’. Such personal isolation was both self-imposed and symptomatic of literary and societal circumstance: in a letter to J.B. May he complained ‘I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing, and I think that’s $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters)’[4]

This hardboiled verve commingled with his literary aesthetic and eventually came to define both Bukowskian idiom and the mold to which his audience saw him fitting. A conscious mythopoeia, this process of image-construction was one with which he engaged throughout his life: ‘Even when starving,’ he wrote in hell is a closed door, ‘the rejection slips hardly ever / bothered me.’ Deliberate apathy is similarly evident in two toughs - ‘Jed and I were the two biggest lights on campus/… slouched in my seat / I made up what I didn’t know/’. This drunken, indifferent mythos is the specious container for the ‘bluebird in [his] heart’ for even as it wants to ‘get out,’ Bukowski can but ‘pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke’ such that the ‘whores…bartenders…grocery clerks’ attendant upon his projected life ‘never know that / he’s / in there.’ An avid acolyte of Tom Dardis, Bukowski could not excise his Thirsty Muse even when in the throes of leukaemia for fear that both the literary talent and fans he possessed would dissolve in its wake.[5] His canon even secretes the affected mythos through its prosody - uninhibited by either poetic or traditional grammar, he effects a languid fluidity through omnipresent enjambement to lull the unsuspecting into his cyclical existence. Punctuated only by the jarring staccato of sudden occurrences - ‘you want to blow my book sales in / Europe? /’ […] ‘but he’s singing a little / in there, I haven’t quite let him / die /’ - the literary construct becomes symbol for the meta-life; extended periods of drunken lethargy shot through with the pungent, lucid snap-snap of paid-for sex or needle-vein ecstasy only to have both recede into the next hazy line/day of indistinct length. The lack of prosodic cadence reflects that of the projected self - a fluid, non-static drift without determinate rules. Unbound, both Bukowski and his work are “cool” - in common, contemporary parlance.

While-the-economy-booms: a typically anti-candid 'self portrait' demonstrates Bukowski's affected Los Angeles languor

While-the-economy-booms: a typically anti-candid 'self portrait' demonstrates Bukowski's affected Los Angeles languor

The salt-caked leather jacket which the poet chose to shrug over his shoulders was not, however, wholly indicative of the creature which dwelt within its dwarfing folds. As he himself put in typically oblique terms: ‘I live near the / slaughterhouse / and am ill / with thriving.’ Ever an antinomian figure - even as he constructs the largesse of his public self through stoic prosody, so it flickers on a diminutive, self-belittling plane through its pervasive meiosis. In verse almost heartbreakingly plaintive he writes ‘but I’m too clever, I only let him out / at night sometimes... I say, I know that you’re there, / so don’t be / sad.’ By sheer dint of unassuming colloquialism, Bukowski betrays a shadow-self of paradoxical delicacy.

For despite the fact that the word ‘tough’ is used throughout Last Night, including twice in the bluebird, and the word ‘hard’ 32 times within the entire collection, it was the literary world that saved Bukowski. As days like razors, nights full of rats tells, ‘in the bars, I thought I was / tough, I broke things, fought / other men, etc. / in the libraries it was another / matter: I was quiet, went / from room to room.’. In cold black air he reflects that it was the typewriter which kept him ‘...from / murdering somebody, / myself / included’. Meanwhile, mature Bukowski makes clear the reflexive horror which strikes him upon reviewing his treatment of women as a young man - ‘It was like a hunt. / How many could you bag? ... you were nothing but a / fucking / dog’ (oh, I was a ladies man). Bluebird’s titular cerulean creature, then, is both half a paradox, half an identity. The “soft” in opposition to the “hard” and the personal in opposition to the public. If what flutters and twitters inside were to be revealed, would it ‘blow [his] book sales in / Europe?’ Such a sisyphean effort was expended in crushing decades of literary obscurity that success, once broached, attains an immortal divinity, enshrining the formula by which it was attained untouchable.

In epimonious self-dialogue, however, the poem fields a gaining urgency: the bluebird ‘wants to get out… wants to get out… wants to get out… wants to get out.’ Indeed, considerations of vulnerability in the face of human mortality are foregrounded throughout the collection - ‘I’m nearing the age of / 70. / and when you’re near / 70 you always consider the / possibility of / slippage…’ he writes in only one Cervantes, while death is smoking my cigars tells of fundamental futility: ‘well, death says, as he walks by, / I’m going to get you anyhow / no matter what you’ve been.’ With death’s quickening approach, it is clear that Bukowski wishes to unfetter himself of the personal/public dichotomy which has been created - to purge any vestige of internal untruth. Yet, just as he cannot bear to part with alcohol for all the impalpable, insecure doubt which surrounds creative inspiration, so the “soft” shape of truth cannot be unmeshed from his “hard” shell. The ‘secret pact’ between man and coat is immutable; they may even be sewn together after so long a period of undisturbed contact. Besides, as Bukowski reminds us in parting, ‘[he] doesn’t weep’.

Nestled at the end of Last Night’s opening salvo, the bluebird reposes in a similarly significant location within Bukowski’s wider pattern of thought. Recalling both the bombastic sleaze of his youth and yet reflecting the mature poet’s eyeing of the grave, through a manipulation of semiotics less self-evident than first glance would allow it comes to typify the man and the poet, the dysphoric drunk and the superlative scholar - the Janusian concerns of the myth-maker.


  1. Abel Debritto, Writing into a Void: Charles Bukowski and the Little Magazines, European Journal of American Studies, 2002  ↩

  2. Charles Bukowski, one for the shoeshine man, The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poems 1951–1993, Canongate Books, 2010, p437  ↩

  3. Howard Sounes Charles Bukowski, Canongate Books, 2010 p6  ↩

  4. Charles Bukowski, Letter to Fullerton, 13 Dec. 1959  ↩

  5. Aubrey Malone, The Hunchback of East Hollywood: A Biography of Charles Bukowski, Headpress/Critical Vision, 2003, p106  ↩


Works Cited:

Bukowski, Charles. Women. New York: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014. Print.

Bukowski, Charles. The Last Night of the Earth Poems. New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins Pub., 2002. Print.

Bukowski, Charles, and John Martin. The Pleasures of the Damned Poems, 1951 -1993. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010. Print.

Debritto, Abel. "Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground." (2013). Print.

Kaufman, James C. Creativity and Mental Illness. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.

Largo, Michael. Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon through the Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.

LeeWannerMusic. "Charles Bukowski on Dying and How to Write." YouTube. YouTube, 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.

Malone, Aubrey. The Hunchback of East Hollywood: A Biography of Charles Bukowski. Manchester: Critical Vision, 2003. Print.

Sounes, Howard. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010. Print.


  1. Abel Debritto, Writing into a Void: Charles Bukowski and the Little Magazines, European Journal of American Studies, 2002  ↩

  2. Charles Bukowski, one for the shoeshine man, The Pleasures of the Damned: Selected Poems 1951–1993, Canongate Books, 2010, p437  ↩

  3. Howard Sounes Charles Bukowski, Canongate Books, 2010 p6  ↩

  4. Charles Bukowski, Letter to Fullerton, 13 Dec. 1959  ↩

  5. Aubrey Malone, The Hunchback of East Hollywood: A Biography of Charles Bukowski, Headpress/Critical Vision, 2003, p106  ↩

The Fall Through Time: Byzantium Bygone

The Fall Through Time: Byzantium Bygone

Relax, don't Xanadu it (When you wanna Khan)

Relax, don't Xanadu it (When you wanna Khan)