Arts & Culture

Poetic License: Charles Bukowski: The Writer You Either Love Or Hate

Kelly Corbett


Charles Bukowski is considered to be either one of the most famous, or one of the most infamous American writers of the 20th century. The view you adopt is most likely related to what side of the “tracks” you are from. His writing represents the under-privileged people and shoves them in the faces of the upper echelon. He gives “voice” to these people, he is a witness to their lives, and he is one of them as well. Scholar Russell Harrison has said the following about Bukowski’s writing:

I think it is the working class content of much of Bukowski’s work, rather than any so called “banality,” that is the sticking point for many academic critics as well as others.

This statement is an accurate one. I will prove this by providing samples of his work. I am only able to show you a glimpse into the immense body of his work. Bukowski was born in Germany, and he moved to America when he was 2. He endured an abusive childhood that was a source of torment and pain throughout his life. His writings are non-fiction, biographical, and are born from pain, the pain of his childhood, and the pain of surviving his life as one of the downtrodden members of American society. In 1986, Time magazine named him the “laureate of the America low-life.” He was a hero to the working class. His writing is transparent; it comes with no frills, it comes in whatever form it wants, and it says whatever he wants. The Bukowski reader does not have to “work” to decipher meaning. This may be why academia considered his work to be amateurish and banal. Bukowski had no concerns about what others may think about him or his work. I think this gave him freedom in his writing, and it is also was one of the many reasons his fans love him so fiercely. He was a survivor, and there was nothing that could stop his writing; not alcoholism, not whores, and certainly not working menial jobs. Through his sheer will, determination, and persistence he became a cult hero to the working class of America.

In his poem the trash men, Bukowski writes about a mundane working class job that many an American would love to have. Being a trash man requires little education and can provide some of the material goods that are “requirements” of the great “American dream.”

…it’s quite exciting:

  shirts open

  bellies hanging out


  they run out to the trash bins

  roll them out to the forklift

  then the truck rolls them upward

  with far too much sound…

…they had to fill out application forms

   to get these jobs

   and they are paying for homes and

   driving late model cars


   they get drunk on Saturday night….. (lines 6-17)


In trash men, Bukowski shares his observations on the banality of every day life in America. He rejects the American dream by mocking these trash men and by telling them that they get drunk on Saturday nights; therefore they are no different than him.

The next poem I have selected is trashcan lives. In trashcan lives Bukowski compares democracy to dictatorship, and he makes no secret of his disdain for it. He also writes about the people that democracy has forgotten and neglected, these are the people that live on skid row.

….it’s when you’re on the row
   that you notice that
   is owned
   and that there are locks on
   this is the way a democracy 
   you get what you can,
   try to keep that
   and add to it 
   if possible.
   this is the way a dictatorship
   works too
   only they either enslave or
   destroy their
   we just forgot ours.
   in either case 
   it’s a hard 
  wind. (7-21)

Bukowski lives among the people of skid row; he knows what it is like to be one of them. Through this poem he files his complaint with the people in power, better known as the “government”. He brings to light the plight of the poor.

In having the flu and nothing else to do Bukowski shames Dos Passos for hanging up his “political radical” hat and joining the masses. Dos Passos gave up the
“good fight” in his older years and became one of “them.”

I read a book about Dos Passos and according to this
D.P. ended up in the Hollywood Hills reading the
Wall Street Journal.

this seems to happen often with many.

what hardly ever happens is
a man going from being a young conservative to a
wild-ass radical in old

young conservatives become old

but when a young radical continues on to become an
old radical
he is looked upon much like a man from a mental

such is politics and you can have

keep it

sail it in between the cheeks of your
ass. (1-20)

If politicians or any member of society view Bukowski as a mental case, he clearly does not care one fig. Bukowski stayed true to himself until the very end of his life; and I think he believes Dos Passos should have as well.

In How Is Your Heart? Bukowski examines how he has survived his hard-living lifestyle thus far and he asks the reader how they are surviving theirs.

during my worst times
on the park benches

or living with
I always had this certain
I wouldn’t call it
it was more of an inner
that settled for
whatever was occuring
and it helped in the
and when relationships 
went wrong
with the 

how is your heart

and to walk across the floor

to an old dresser with a

cracked mirror-

see myself, ugly

grinning at it all

what matters most is

how well you

walk through the

fire  (1-19, 32-40)

Bukowski closes this poem with his now famous lines “what matters most is/how well you/walk through the/fire”; these are certainly words that will aim straight into the hearts of some readers. These lines offer some reasoning behind hard living, and they offer hope. Bukowski held his head high, he believed in himself, and he kept pressing forward with dogged determination.

In the poem Safe Bukowski rejects suburban life and again the idealization of the perception of the American dream.

the house next door makes me


both man and wife rise early and

go to work……


by 9 p.m. all the lights in the house

are out…….


the house next door makes me


the people are nice people, I

like them.


but I feel them drowning.

and I cant save them.


they are surviving.

they are not



but the price is


Bokowski chose his own way of surviving. He survived by using booze and whores, and by writing about it all every single day. I think Bukowski is sad for the people that are the subject of this poem. I also think it is arrogant of him to believe everyone should be sharing his path of survival.

In the poem Finished? Bukowski lets his readers know that even though he has acquired wealth and fame he is not finished. He begs us to ignore the critics, and even to please keep reading his poems, to please take the poems for what they are.


the critics now have me
drinking champagne and
driving a BMW
and also married to a
socialite from
Philadelphia’s Main Line
which of course is going to prevent me
from writing my earthy
and grubby stuff.
and they might be
I could be getting to be
more like them,
and that’s as close to
death as you can

we’ll see.
but don’t bury me yet.
don’t worry if I drink with
Sean Penn.
just measure the poems
as they come off the
listen only to them.
after this long fight
I have no intention of
quitting short.
or late.
or satisfied. 

This poem also gives testimony to the unstoppable power of words that continued to burst forth from him until his death in 1994. Sheer will and his tenacity of spirit kept him writing day after day, despite the self-destructive lifestyle he led.

I don’t think a Bukowski analysis would be complete without including some lines from Dinasouria, We. This poem is more commonly known by its’ line
“born into this” that is repeated throughout the poem. Born Into This is also the title given to the documentary of his work and life.

…Born like this
  Into this
  Into these carefully mad wars
  Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
  Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
  Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
  Born into this
  Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
     Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
  Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
  Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes…

…Made inhuman
  By this
  The heart is blackened
  The fingers reach for the throat
  The gun
  The knife
  The bomb
  The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
  The fingers reach for the bottle
  The pill
  The powder
  We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
  We are born into a government 60 years in debt
  That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
  And the banks will burn
  Money will be useless…

…Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
  Explosions will continually shake the earth
    Radiated robot men will stalk each other
 The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
 Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
 The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
 Trees will die
 All vegetation will die…

…The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous   diseases
  And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
  The petering out of supplies
  The natural effect of general decay
  And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
  Born out of that.
  The sun still hidden there
 Awaiting the next chapter. (10-20, 34-49, 54-61, 67-74)

In this well-known poem Bukowski expresses his anger at this country, and this world. He feels it is unfair, but it’s simple fact that we are “born into this.”  We are here; we all need to figure out how to survive this sometimes very cruel life while we are here. He shows how insignificant human life really is.

I have shown through examples of his work that Charles Bukowski’s writing was not in the least banal. It may not be pretty, it may not be flowery, or it may be too vulgar. Vulgarity and transparency are excuses for those who say his writing is not of good quality. Bukowski’s poems are relatable, honest, raw, painful, and many more things.  Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder; his fans love him with a deep passion. Bukowski was the voice and was the “laureate of the American lowlife” every day of his life. Harrison has also said “Bukowski’s work everywhere embodies, explicitly or implicitly, a rejection of the ideology of success and power.” That statement couldn’t possibly be more truthful; Charles Bukowski’s poems reject the glorification and ideology surrounding the way society defines success and power. He also rejected it by they ways he chose to survive his life.


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