Sunday, 16 December 2012

Charles Bukowski - genius or 'low life'?

I’m going to spend some more time with Charles Bukowski and then I’m going to get off him.  I’m going to get off him because I’m unsure of Bukowski the person, whether he was a character I would choose to admire or not.  Nor am I sure if he is the type of poet I want to aspire to.  Like, I’ve read the biography, Charles Bukowski (by Barry Miles, Virgin Books), and I think I understand the shaping of his world view because of his up-bringing and what life dealt him, but that doesn’t quite excuse the level of contempt and disdain for other people that he appears to hold and that comes through sometimes in his writing.  This view of mine was reinforced only recently when I looked at some you-tube clips of Bukowski interviews and readings.  There’s one where he and Linda (fiancée, then), are sitting on a couch, engaged in reality recorded conversation; Hank’s drinking and doing the typical movements of a smoker lighting up and talking around a thin, rolled cigarette.  He’s OK, calm, talking about how he believes he’s often taken advantage of because he reckons he’s too nice a guy, etc.  Linda hears what he says and supports his ego, “…… why do you let these people do this to you?”  There’s some to and fro conversation and Hank goes down a line of wanting to get rid of Linda because she’s been out late some nights, blah, blah, and she in turn tries to defend herself, when, out of nowhere, Bukowski turns extremely nasty – he lashes out with his feet to seriously kick Linda and he swears at her, threatens and calls her vile names – an ugly scene.  The change in mood is so sudden it’s like eruption from a tormented chimpanzee.  Why does he behave this way?  It’s too easy to look at the clip and just wipe the guy off as a prick!  But that would be wrong.  I think the key is in the fact that Linda and Hank went on and got married and she was his mate to the end.  Bukowski must have loved this woman (emotionally) more than he had felt about a lot of others.  I’m not a psychologist but I believe people can hate, or appear to hate, only because they do not know how to love (from a frustration of not knowing how to love) and having been given extreme low self esteem in their childhood development.  I think this is the case with Bukowski.  He was not nurtured and shown how to love within his family, so as an adult, his frustrated reaction in a situation where he feels love, is to turn it completely around and perform self hurt and denial – ‘fuck you!’ means, ‘you’re too good a person for a bastard like me (ergo: I love you)’.
I feel one has to be careful of this bitterness and contempt Bukowski shows for his fellow human being when one tries to copy his writing style.  It may be your natural propensity to pay out on society, but what contribution does it make to art, to get around belly-aching personal prejudices?  Sometimes I’ve got to do the reality check and ask myself, ‘am I writing something of substance here, or is this just belly-ache grumbling in notes from my personal diary?’  I include Bukowski’s poem, ‘a killer gets ready’, because I believe it passes the reality check.  Hank does seem to hold a bitter contempt for the man in uniform – a personal dislike.  But I think he says something more than, “there was this marine on the train and didn’t he think he was something!”  To me, this is an anti-war poem.  The world can always have war because the vanities of any number of young men are available to make it so bloody easy.

a killer gets ready

Charles Bukowski (1921 – 1994)


He was a good one
say 18, 19,
a marine
and everytime
a woman came down the train aisle
he seemed to stand up
so I couldn’t see
and the woman smiled at him
but I didn’t smile
at him
he kept looking at himself in the
train window
and standing up and taking off his
coat and then standing up
and putting it back
he polished his belt buckle with a
delighted vigor
and his neck was red and
his face was red and is eyes were a
pretty blue
but I didn’t like
and everytime I went to the can
he was either in one of the cans
or he was in front of one of the mirrors
combing his hair or
and he was always walking up and down the
or drinking water
I watched his Adam’s apple juggle the water
he was always in my
but we never spoke
and I remembered all the other trains
all the other buses
all the other wars
he got off at Pasadena
vainer than any woman
he got off at Pasadena
proud and dead
the rest of the trainride –
8 or 10 miles –
was perfect.
Something else I note in Bukowski’s, ‘a killer gets ready’ – is how Hank was a good observer of people; he studies this marine quite closely without engaging or giving himself away, and he matches what he observes to how he feels about it.  Bukowski’s ‘laureate of low-life’ (Time magazine) and autobiographical style has influenced me to write my own protests against what I’ve observed as thick-headed male behaviour.  This one I called, ‘Oil Men’:
2008. The Arab world may be alcohol free and the Moslem belief may keep women covered up, but drinking and womanising is OK for the arrogant western white man working in the middle east - the scene inside a Dubai ex-pat night club bar.

Oil Men

They were all big buggers,
solid blocks of beef,
with bulging biceps and barrel chests
that threatened to bust open stitching
on their Well Cat polo shirts
and stone-washed denims.
Moving like a pack of bull-dogs
they oafed straight into the bar
brandishing beer flushed faces
and dangerous egos.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon,
but they’ve got to a state
where they’re all men,
standing in a circle with their legs planted,
like they’re pissing into a urinal,
holding onto themselves firmly
with hands thrust into the left pocket,
or feeding it into some whore’s mouth
while there’s loud back-slapping cheers,
and glasses get dropped
and break on the parquetry dance floor.
These ones don’t look as though there’s family,
or compassion,
the slim, oriental good time girls
…….hide back in the shadows.
                                                     J.O. White

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