Bukowski & The Beats

BukBeat: Exceptionally Authentic

“Bukowski was misshapen—a big hunchback, with a ravaged, pockmarked face, decayed nicotine-stained teeth, and pain-filled green eyes. Flat brown hair seemed pasted to an oversized skull—hips broader than shoulders, hands grotesquely small and soft. A beer gut sagged over his belt. He wore a white shirt, baggy pants, an ill-fitting suit, the kind convicts receive when released from prison. He looked like one, down and out.”

– Harold Norse, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel


The legend of Charles Bukowski holds its own against that of Jack Kerouac and other Beat figures. Yet in exactly which genre his works belong remains debated. Some lump him in with the Beats, others see him tied closer to the Punks. His work bears beat spontaneity and nonconformity, yet also displays the punk grunge and self-destructionBukowski’s identity, however, conflicts with both subgenres, and he certainly refused to identify with either. He remains too persistently down and out to belong with the Beats, who earnestly sought spiritual redemption, and too solitary, too determinedly apathetic to belong with the Punks, who loudly grouped together in their anti-establishment movement.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that Bukowski bears many stylistic and ideological similarities to the Beats. After exploring the links and contrasts between the two, Bukowski’s distinct identity emerges as an interesting blend of violence and compassion, one that could properly be coined as “BukBeat”—a term that suggests Bukowski’s opposition to certain Beat ideals (literally, bucking Beat), yet also acknowledges his rightful spot in the genre by awarding him his own subgenre in Beat literature. Bukowski’s autobiographical prose poetically and violently translate the musings of a figure who revolutionized poetry, and who many regard as an exceptionally authentic American icon.

Bukowski’s literary importance arguably rivals that of Kerouac, Hemingway, and Whitman. Since his death in 1994, he has retained an iconic image of the authentic working man, claiming fans across the globe, thriving in not only the United States, but in Canada, Britain, France, and the country in which he was born: Germany. His legacy appears manifested in numerous arenas: book stores have had to keep his books on closed shelves due to issues with over-zealous thieving fans;[i] over three-thousand people have membership to Bukowski.net, one of many online Bukowski fan sites; Facebook indicates that he remains more idolized than Kerouac or any other individual Beat writer—Bukowski’s web page has 167,954 “likes”, whereas Kerouac’s has only 56,940.[ii] In any case, arguing Bukowski’s literary and cultural impact is much easier than successfully placing him within a genre.

Exploring Bukowski’s connections with the Beats becomes highlighted in the context of recent renewed interest in Beat culture. Since the 1990’s the Beat scene has littered bookstores, appeared in museums’ exhibitions throughout the United States, released new books, biographies, correspondence, and photographs. This past semester, the Beats have infiltrated Riley Hall of Art, popping up in a dreamy painting titled “Big Sur,” advertising Beat readings and folk music, hanging on a third-floor wall, effectively capturing a sentiment from generations past while simultaneously breathing a new life into it. Amidst modern economic concerns and weariness, people today seem to emphasize with Beat ideology as much as ever.

Similarly, Bukowski has become increasingly popular since his movie Barfly (1987) debuted. While he occasionally grumbled about the film’s inaccurate representation of the characters, Bukowski became a well-known name to many people outside of the poetry-community who otherwise might not have ever heard of him. His following has only increased since his death in 1994, and he has gone down in legend with the greats. Yet which classification he belongs with remains uncertain.

Bukowski belongs with the Beats for multiple reasons; firstly, because of the shared nature of their work, both of which were “a revolt against the conventions of a rigid society, fossilized in its terror of the cold war, prudish, materialistic and alienating”.[iii] Both Bukowski and the Beat figures were unsatisfied with the promises of participating in postwar consume-and-produce-society, and decided to live a more appealing lifestyle that was “counter” to the mainstream’s way of life. They both embraced a new style of writing, one that was more autobiographical than fictional, more spontaneous than conventional. They both hoped their apolitical musings would raise them to literary glory and had no intentions of overthrowing the established order. Yet perhaps the most significant similarity between Bukowski and the Beats (between Bukowski and Kerouac in particular) is that they both remained separate from the countercultural movement that sprung up in the late 60’s.

While Bukowski’s works resembled Beat literature in its spontaneous and autobiographic nature, he has a voice and attitude that varies quite drastically from characteristic Beat writings. Reflected throughout his poetry, Bukowski’s world was one of provocative violence. He believed life itself to be violent, and everything that follows to be a progressive extension of this ontological violence.[iv] Bukowski wrote tightly, simply, and grounded. Similar to the Beats, Bukowski wrote about rejection, but differs from the Beats in that his type of rejection was never redeemed by a spiritual philosophy. The reality in which the heavenly Beats lived and evolved was primarily literary, poetical, musical, and occasionally removed from the hardships of work. Bukowski, on the other hand, was familiar with the burdens of the world of work, wrote with the objective to strip all the weariness of life bare and in effect, as Duval notes, might have been the most “beat” of all, in that “Bukowski alone embodies the most deprived, most hard-working, most popular fringe of the system’s rejects, of the poor in spirit.”[v]

Because of this important distinction, Bukowski may better fit in the post-Beat punk era where his “destroy” mythology matches the punk aesthetic more closely. The punks, like Bukowski, embraced grunge and disorderly conduct, equating the rawness of something with its realness. Bukowski thought the Beats in general and Kerouac in particular lacked authenticity. Jean-François Duval explains, “In Buk’s opinion, Kerouac seemed like a cheap Roy Rogers whose work gets lost in a swirl of glitter and illusions where the word ‘wonderful’ crops up every three sentences.”[vi] Suggested by Duval’s caricature, Bukowski did not understand the mysticism behind Beat literature, and thought that while they did have clarity of style, they also had “too much sweet tooth for their own soul”.[vii] He much preferred grounded literature, rooted firmly in the muck of reality. Kerouac himself, unabashedly spiritual, believed the authentic Beat spirit was “short-lived and small in number”, and that it seemingly vanished after the Korean War ended in 1953.[viii] While Beat figures like Ginsberg and Gary Snyder enthusiastically rallied civil dissidence, neither Bukowski nor Kerouac thought the movement of the sixties coincided well with their image.

Compared with his contemporaries, Bukowski stands alone in his level of authenticity. Though the criteria for legitimacy beg explanation, perhaps the best way of examining the similarities and differences between Bukowski and the Beats would be to see how Bukowski fits in with the five primary senses of beat: the search for ecstasy, for the pulse of life; attention given to the marginalized, the down and out; a beatific reverence for life; an inclusive, open-soul approach to life; and lastly, empathy and compassion for those who suffer. Within these five senses, Bukowski could be compared to the individual Beat figures, although I focus primarily on Kerouac and Ginsberg. The five senses of Beat suit examining both writing and lifestyle alike; sifting through these overlapping aspects of ideology and style sets Bukowski up in a face-off against the Beats, giving light to why, exactly, BukBeat reigns more genuine.

The Search for Ecstasy

One feature that binds the Beat figures’ together is their persistent chase of the elusive it—that which brings a heightened sense of being and true happiness. Throughout their escapades and literary works, Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and the others sought ways to experience ecstasy, oftentimes chasing it across the United States and into other countries. In On the Road, Kerouac describes it as “the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.”[ix] When they do manage to capture it, a moment of bliss ensues. The mind and body rejoice in exultation. During a cross-country road trip, Kerouac and Cassady find themselves exuberantly capturing it during an engaging conversation: “the car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives.”[x] Here, the two discuss movement while they themselves hitch a ride and discover some ancient truth in their ramblings that both relieves and exhilarates them.

The Beats’ search for it was as protean as they themselves were; constantly evolving to harmonize with the beat of their current situation. In On the Road, Kerouac finds it primarily on the road, and in the forms of jazz, drugs, women, racing, and spontaneous movement. Yet by his next novel Dharma Bumsit has evolved to include a spiritual and philosophical ecstasy, taking the shape of Buddhist books, poetry readings, yab-yum, and mountain hikes. The senses of it shifted to include awakening, tranquility, and enlightenment, added to the earlier established senses.

Bukowski’s search for it, however, was quite different from the aforementioned Beat’s mesh of ecstasy and illumination. Rather than jollying around the United States with a wild group of friends, Bukowski always considered himself a loner and preferred a simpler existence. He found his kicks in completely different arenas. He did have his fair share of aimless wanderings, though, where he would blindly point to his next destination on a map. During this period known as his “Barfly” years, he hit the road not for the pulse of life, but out of boredom and for work. In his words, “I went on the road not like Kerouac, as a fulfilling [experience]. I went on the road because there was no place to go. I just moved on because everything was ugly. All I wanted to do was find a small room somewhere, find a bottle of wine, and start drinking.”[xi] Bukowski primarily sought happiness in alcohol for most of his life, drinking when he woke up and when he went to bed, drinking while he wrote, as an escape from the horrors he believed to constitute life. His lifestyle became identified by his drinking. He viewed alcohol as a necessary component of his art and life: “I can’t help drinking… I’d die if I stopped, you see. One way or anything I would die. I drink when I write. Or, do I write when I drink? You see?”[xii] Bukowski’s two primary sources of it became so intrinsically part of his life that he found it impossible to separate one from the other, a relationship that he was acutely aware of. Yet he was never willing to go down without a fight; his poem “who needs it?” mockingly rebuts the claim that he could not write if he were not drunk. He challenges the reader with, “see this poem?/it was/written without drinking./ I don’t need to drink/ to write./ I can write without/ drinking./my wife says I can./ I say that maybe I can./I’m not drinking/ and I’m writing./ see this poem?/ it was/ written without drinking./ who needs a drink now?/ probably the reader.”[xiii] This poem, in classic Bukowski humor, directly acknowledges the importance of alcohol in his life. Alcohol and Bukowski went hand in hand (or in this case, bottle in hand).

He eventually became attracted to horse races and greatly enjoyed spending his afternoons betting against the masses of people. For Bukowski, the horse races were “like a magic trip,” allowing Bukowski the opportunity to make money while boozing his way through the day.[xiv] His search for it essentially concluded with drinking, writing, and betting on horses. This trio captures most of what brought Bukowski happiness, the remainder being his various significant others. The list is so small, perhaps, because of a mental block that seemed to prevent Bukowski from enjoying any one thing too much. As his friend and brief lover FracEyE explains, “He used to be really embarrassed by positive feelings.”[xv] Bukowski’s childhood may be to blame, riddled with abuse and endured companionless, undoubtedly marking him for life, and likely stopping his search for it a little short.

Down and Out 

The uncomfortable feeling of defeat, of being beaten, comprises a significant portion of the Beat formula. The Beats not only paid attention to and wrote about those who were down and out, but willingly immersed themselves into similarly marginalized lifestyles. They put their hands to a range of trades and worked tough, labor-intensive jobs.[xvi] They abandoned the conventional consumerist lifestyle, including the routine job, the nuclear family, and the strong sense of security, and instead opted for a lifestyle of movement, spontaneity, and risk. They spent time in prison, wore their shoes down to the soles, and oftentimes had nothing more than a few dollars in their pockets (before they became famous, that is).[xvii]

The Beats’ writings, frequently autobiographical, reflect a down and out lifestyle. In Ginsberg’s poem “Hymmnn,” the poet celebrates despair when he exclaims, “Blessed be He who dwells in the shadow!”, “Blest be your failure!”, and “Blessed be you Naomi in tears! Blessed be you Naomi in fears! Blessed Blessed Blessed in sickness!”[xviii] While Ginsberg largely refers to his late insane mother Naomi in this poem, it could be more broadly expanded to include all those who dwell in shadows, who fail, cry, and suffer sickness. This attention given to the marginalized emerges so frequently in Beat literature that it has become a staple.

Be that as it may, the Beats did not completely inhabit the realities of the most forsaken. They always remained at least partly separate from the embodiment of the truly beaten, seeking refuge in the divine, in their search for it, and in their literary musings. Duval asserts, “The Beats were more up-market; bums, but heavenly bums…The essential reality, in which they lived and evolved, was primarily literary, poetical, and musical.”[xix] In other words, they experienced hardships and had a genuine understanding of life at the bottom, but tended to romanticize the afflictions and turn them into stylized poems, laced with heavenly glimmers of hope and revival. For example, Ginsberg’s “Hymmnn” not only credits the downtrodden, but eventually assures sufferers that their redemption awaits. He proclaims, “Blessed be Death! Blesssed be He Who leads all sorrow to Heaven! Blessed be He in the end! Blessed be He who builds Heaven in Darkness!”[xx] This promise of eventual post-suffering redress at least partly alleviates the heaviness from an otherwise worn-out, beaten life. The Beats lived beaten and wrote beaten, but only part of the time, and rarely whole-heartedly. They sentimentalized defeat and romanticized the image of someone down and out.

Bukowski, on the other hand, lived and wrote under a canopy of violence, rejection, drudgery, and discontent. Having endured a childhood of physical and emotional abuse by his father and a lonely adolescence of cruel harassment by his peers for his terrible acne, Bukowski emerged forever impacted.[xxi] Throughout his life, he gravitated towards the dark and brutal aspects of existence, managing to occasionally insert lighthearted humor, but always primarily concerned with the muck of reality, providing what Howard Sounes describes as “an honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society.”[xxii] He subverted popularly romanticized images, flipping a beautiful thing on its head to reveal a hideous underbelly. For example, turning Hollywood from glamorous to callous, or Los Angeles from a place of eternal sunshine to a dull and cold, concrete city.[xxiii] Much of what he wrote literally happened in his life: according to him, about ninety-three percent, in fact.[xxiv]

That Bukowski’s work was so autobiographical legitimizes his image and increases his authenticity; he wrote about the marginalized because he was marginalized. He even wrote for the marginalized, “(bringing) poetry out of the academy into the streets where there were few classical allusions, sestinas and famous New England ancestors, but rather L.A. whores, drunks, racetracks, bars, madhouses, roominghouses, and women driving cars towards him on the sidewalk,” as David Stephen Caloone depicts so appropriately.[xxv] He made poetry more available to those who he identified with because they could relate to him; unlike most academics, Bukowski decreased the formality of his poems by never using capital letters, and lived the same life as the bums around him lived.

Bukowski took jobs only when he needed the money. He worked as a janitor, dockhand, nightwatchman, truck driver, shipping clerk, and a coconut man in a cake factory.[xxvi] During these years, Bukowski was extremely productive, all the way up until his breakthrough. Perhaps Aubrey Malone describes Bukowski’s wavelength best when equates Bukowski’s typewriter to a meat grinder, “churning out poem after poem, story after story.” Just as meat enters a meat grinder, grotesque, devoid of beauty, the result of a fatally harsh blow, so too did Bukowski’s beaten substance take shape from utter rawness, the final product being as equally substantial and satisfying to the reader as a lean cut of meat to the omnivore.

Beatifically Beat

The third sense of Beat, the beatific reverence for life, truly separates Bukowski from the Beats. Throughout Kerouac’s religious development, he created an interesting blend of Catholicism and Buddhism, and associated beat with Buddhist beatitudes and Christian beatitudes alike. The Beats infused their poetry and prose with heavenly imagery, spiritual redemption, and reverence for life. A passage from Kerouac’s Dharma Bums illustrates Kerouac’s unique spiritual mesh as well as Beat holy imagery, redemption and reverence to a tee:

“What do you think about death, Ray?”

“I think death is our reward. When we die we go straight to nirvana Heaven and that’s that.”

“But supposing you’re reborn in the lower hells and have hot redhot balls of iron shoved down your throat by devils.”

“Life’s already shoved an iron foot down my mouth. But I don’t think that’s anything but a dream cooked up by some hysterical monks who didn’t understand Buddha’s peace under the Bo Tree or for that matter Christ’s peace looking down on the heads of his tormentors and forgiving them.”

“You really like Christ, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. And after all, a lot of people say he is Maitreya, the Buddha prophesied to appear after Sakyamuni, you know, Maitreya means ‘Love’ in Sanskrit and that’s all Christ talked about was love.”[xxvii]

Here, in a conversation between Kerouac (Ray) and Snyder (Japhy), the two first discuss Heaven, a redeeming land where those who suffered on earth receive compensation in an eternity of pure solace and joy. Powerful images of Buddha under the Bo Tree and of Christ looking down from the cross follow. Lastly, Kerouac discusses the love that Christ teaches—that a person should treat everyone with love, even his or her enemies.

Bukowski would have none of that. His life experiences lead him to prefer a grounded life rooted in the dirt; living with his head in the clouds would have made him feel uncomfortable and would never register with him. In an interview from 1985, Bukowski explicitly states that he is not a man who looks for solutions in God, or politics for that matter.[xxviii] He accepts reality concrete and raw, uninterested in sentimentalisations of any sort, and believed religion to be a con intended to keep the poor and afflicted content with their position. God, he once said, was slightly less important to him than his local plumber.[xxix] In fact, in a 1980 interview with Fernanda Pivano, Bukowski jokingly suggested that, if anything, he feels more in sympathy with the Devil than with “the nice guys.” He explains, “He seems a more interesting fellow to me down there burning in these flames. He lost the battle with God and he got tossed down there in these flames. Maybe I can help him out of there and we’ll take over, and change things a little.”[xxx] Although Bukowski was by no means a Satanist, he admits to being more attracted to that tainted image than to the holiness of God. After such a unrelenting childhood, what would you expect?

His writing, however, still contains a spiritual quality. When Bukowski so accurately describes the impossibility of being human, it also speaks of man’s unbreakable spirit and admirable ability to survive the madness. Prompted by such a statement in a 1987 interview, Bukowski agreed that, “Yes, there’s something glorious about living in impossible situations and not going down. The human spirit can be an amazing god damned thing. It hasn’t vanished yet.”[xxxi] He recognized and appreciated the strength of the spirit, but he did not embrace transcendent thinking in the way the Beats did.

Affirmation and the Open Soul Approach

While the Beats were primarily apolitical, one issue they (notably, Ginsberg) did enter into was the civil rights movement. The fourth sense of Beat illuminates the participation in the civil rights movement as a larger attempt at accepting everyone. The Beats embraced all people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, class, ethnicity, or any other distinguishing factor: Ginsberg was a homosexual, Burroughs came from a very wealthy family, Cassady had a very broken family life, Kerouac remained tied to his family (his mother in particular) throughout his entire life and dated a black woman, women like Joyce Johnson ran with the Beats, etc. At the most fundamental level, the Beats loved humanity and welcomed everyone to take part in their lifestyle.

Bukowski, however, had a serious mistrust of and aversion to humanity. More often than not, he disliked the person he was looking at. For example, the poem “like a polluted river flowing” examines the freeway and the drivers on it, marveling that “all these represent humanity in general, totally enraged, demented, vengeful, spiteful, cheap denizens of our culture, vultures, jackals, sharks, suckerfish, stingrays, lice….”[xxxii] Bukowski seemed to never have felt any sort of attachment to or fondness for humanity. In the 1980 Pivano interview, when asked about nuclear problem, Bukowski replied, “I’m indifferent to the destruction of the human race; it doesn’t matter to me. If they wiped out all humanity, nothing would be lost at all.”[xxxiii] Given his general dislike of people, Bukowski lived most of his life rather solitarily and considered himself a loner. Unlike the Beats, he distanced himself from people and kept to himself; he didn’t believe he could gain anything from the company of others, and therefore closed himself off.

Likewise, Bukowski didn’t believe he could benefit from a more introspective openness. He never sought to examine himself in hopes of gaining a greater sense of identity, or to scrutinize aspects of his personality that might need evaluated. When asked why he did not love humanity, he replied, “Let’s see… I never analyze, I just react. If I don’t like something, I stay away from it. But I never try to figure it out: ‘Why don’t I like this?’ I go with my prejudices. I never try to improve myself, or try to learn anything, I just remain exactly the way I am. I’m not a learner; I’m an avoider.”[xxxiv] Bukowski preferred himself as raw as he preferred his environment. He closed himself off to himself as much as he closed himself off to the rest of the world. He knew this and accepted it, preferring it this way, unabashedly claiming it as his own.

Compassion: The Heartbeat of Beat

The fifth and final sense of Beat applies to both the Beats as well as Bukowski, marking only the second sense out of five (the first sense being down and out) that the two share in common. While the Beat’s sense of compassion may be more apparent than Bukowski’s (and certainly more spiritual), they both felt genuinely sympathetic towards the sufferings or misfortunes of others. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism acknowledges that all life endures suffering, a dogma that the Beats were attune to and that inspired them to treat others kindly. Although the Beats were very critical of the society they lived in, they realized that everyone was fighting some sort of battle. In Dharma Bums, Kerouac defends humanity against a jab taken at them. He gently replies, “Ah the public ain’t so bad, they suffer too. You always read about some tarpaper shack burning somewhere in the Middlewest with three little children perishing and you see a picture of the parents crying. Even the kitty was burned.”[xxxv] Kerouac’s sensibility was largely influenced by his faith, both Buddhist and Christian teachings. Collectively, Buddha and Jesus taught him and the other Beats compassion.

Bukowski’s compassion contained no religious influences, but rather manifests itself throughout his writings by his respectfully realistic portrayal of the fatalistic environment around him. The way in which Bukowski describes the mundane and the intense efforts required to survive reverberates with compassion. Despite his secular character, his work does not repel Christian audiences, who appropriately sense the compassion in Bukowski’s work and interpret it as a religious element. Trevor Reeves, a Christian publisher from New Zealand who helped develop Bukowski’s international cult following, submits, “Underneath everything else is a compassion and honesty, a really brave stance in the face of the trials of life.”[xxxvi] As Reeves suggests, Bukowski possessed a true understanding of life at the bottom of the social order and an incredible ability to translate the muddled world around him into such simple circumstances. Unlike Kerouac and the Beats, his compassion towards humanity was devoid of religious sway and ultimately stopped short of equating to forgiveness. Bukowski elucidates, “I have compassion for almost all the individuals of the world; at the same time, they repulse me.”

BukBeat: Exceptionally Authentic

Bukowski displays two of the five senses of Beat, evidence that the two do indeed bear similarities, but remain mostly separate. Like the Beats, he lives a down-and-out lifestyle and has compassion for humanity. Unlike the Beats, he does not tirelessly search for it, approach life open-heartedly, or have a beatific reverence for life. Under these criteria, Bukowski emerges raw and completely unembellished, too grounded for transcendency, too bitter for cordiality. Bukowski’s commitment to all things gritty, his faithfulness to his simple realism, his ability to somehow manage to always keep at least one foot on the ground, makes him more believable. He sings one song, and he sings it loudly, never faltering or changing the lyrics, never stopping to ask somehow what they think of it or what he could improve upon.

That Bukowski was never influenced by someone else’s outlook further increases his authenticity. No one convinced him to do or write something out of his character, no one pulled him in a direction he wasn’t already going. While the Beats became suckered into popular culture, Bukowski happily remained on the sidelines. He discusses the effects of popular culture on an artist in a 1967 interview with Michael Perkins:

“The beats and the university boys are very similar in that they are being sucked up by the mob. They are run by the mob, the audience, the image-lovers, the sick, the weak, the starving puking pansies; I mean starving in the sense that their souls are covered with pimples and that their heads are these big airy balloons of bad air. These poets cannot resist the live applause of the half-people. They go from being creators to being entertainers, they get clannish with the mob and clannish with each other and very horny for fame. I have more respect for the president of a factory who decides to lay off 50 men from the assembly line. Oh, those pukers, oh these purple vomiters, hanging from their heels from the trees and lisping it to the dead mob!”[xxxvii]

As Bukowski points out, fame typically puts pressures on an artist to please their audience, sometimes leading them to sacrifice their true identity for a more publically-appealing image. In his opinion (and others, as well), that’s where the Beats went wrong; they became too involved with popular culture. Bukowski wanted nothing to do with changing his identity to sell his books. He kept true to himself, and when he did become famous after three decades of obscurity, he was still the same person. Aubrey Malone explains that, “He had spent so long in the underground cobwebs that success couldn’t affect him. It had come refreshingly late for him. Too late to enjoy fully, perhaps, but also too late to spoil him.”[xxxviii] Had he become famous earlier in his career, he may have been suckered into the same scene that later repulsed him; he may have developed an ego that lifted him off the ground and away from the authentic person he ultimately became. But as it goes, he had watched too many other poets that he admired deteriorate after success. In his mind, Ginsberg and other Beat writers were brilliant pre-fame, but lost their literary ability when they became tangled in the mob of human adulation.[xxxix] In due course, the only way fame changed Bukowski was by ensuring him his car would start in the morning and by enabling him to drink better alcohol.

Bukowski’s authenticity grew as he adjusted to fame so gracefully. Even with all eyes on him, he had the courage to remain his crude, drunk self. He behaved so freely and so dissociated from common concerns in a manner that many could only secretly fantasize about. He held no pretenses, neither in his literary work nor in his interactions with those around him. He simply told it as it was, no embellishing, no forewarning, no explanations. He laid his experiences of life at the bottom of American society out on paper, poeticizing the mundane, translating scraps of the American consciousness that typically just blew over. In doing so, Bukowski brought new concerns to the forefront of the national ideology, and changed the way many people viewed life and their positions in society. He saved poetry from academia’s threatening dominance and became an icon for the working class. Throughout his surprisingly long life, including the transition from obscurity to stardom, Bukowski proved faithful to the nihilism that guided him all along, unintentionally establishing himself as an exceptionally authentic American icon.

[i] Jim Christy begins Buk Book with a description of his favorite bookstore in Vancouver that knows the power of Bukowski’s influence all too well. The manager explains, “You want to life a book, you’ll have much better luck with Updike, say, or Cheever. People don’t have to have them; they have to have Bukowski.”

[ii] Today, social networking websites provide people with a medium in which they can openly build and display their personal web-identities to a large or small scope of people, ranging from only close friends and family to the entire global network (contingent on personal privacy settings). Users of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace construct online profiles to represent their selfhood, revealing components of their identities, and giving other users the opportunity to view their expression of self. In “about me” sections, users identify their favorite books, movies, heroes, etc. and form their stylized identities by linking themselves to icons who hold a certain symbolic value or legacy. Society’s values thus appear reflected in social networking sights, displaying the interests and viewpoints of the current populous, and revealing which legacies retain American appreciation.

[iii] Duval, Jean-François. Bukowski and The Beats. Northville, MI: Sun Dog Press, 2002, p. 16.

[iv] Ibid., p. 106.

[v] Ibid., p. 24.

[vi] Ibid., p. 11.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., p. 45.

[ix] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 184.

[x] Ibid., p. 197.

[xi] Miles, Barry. Charles Bukowski. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 2005, p. 57.

[xii] Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Laughing with the Gods. Interview by Fernanda Pivano, San Pedro, California, 24 Aug 1980, p. 36.

[xiii] Bukowski, Charles. “who needs it?” in Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way. New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 193.

[xiv] Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Laughing with the Gods, op. cit. p. 36.

[xv] Sounes, Howard. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. New York: Grove Press, 1998, p. 61.

[xvi] Throughout the years, Kerouac went to sea with the Merchant Marines, worked in a ball bearings factory, and was a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railway, as was Cassady.

[xvii] Cassady, Burroughs, and Carr all spent time in prison. Kerouac and Ginsberg narrowly escaped it.

[xviii] Ginsberg, Allen. “Hymmnn” in Kaddish and other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001, p. 32.

[xix] Duval, op. cit., pp. 24-25.

[xx] Ginsberg, op. cit.

[xxi] Bukowski’s father would routinely beat him while his mother stood impassively in the doorway, making no attempt to stop the beatings or comfort young Bukowski afterwards. His father’s cruelty and his mother’s neglect lead him to lose all feelings of love, respect, and trust he felt towards his parents. Howard Sounes advances the situation, “If the cruelty of his father was the primary influence on Bukowski’s character, the second was the disfiguring acne which erupted when he was thirteen.” The acne covered every surface of his head and upper body with pus-filled boils, diagnosed by doctors at Los Angeles Country Hospital as the worst case of acne vulgaris they had ever seen. Bukowski underwent intensively painful treatment for his condition and endured his classmates’ jeers alone.

[xxii] Sounes, op. cit., p. 7.

[xxiii] Sounes, op. cit., p. 89.

[xxiv] In a December, 1976, interview with Hustler magazine, Bukowski claimed that ninety- three percent of his work was autobiography, the remaining seven per cent was “improved upon.”

[xxv] Calonne, David Stephen. “Introduction,” to Charles Bukowski: Sunlight Here I Am—Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993. Northville: Sun Dog Press, 2003, p. x.

[xxvi] Malone, Aubrey. The Hunchback of East Hollywood: A Biography of Charles Bukowski. Manchester: Headpress, 2003, pp. 42-43.

[xxvii] Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, p. 202.

[xxviii] “Draft Interview with Charles Bukowski,” The New York Quaterly, No. 27, Summer 1985, pp. 15-25.

[xxix] Malone, op. cit., p. 164.

[xxx] Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Laughing with the Gods, op. cit. p. 42.

[xxxi] “Charles Bukowski: The World’s Greatest Fucker,” Ace Backwords, Twisted Image, January 29, 1987, p. 1.

[xxxii] Bukowski. “like a polluted river flowing,” in Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way, op. cit., pp. 109-110.

[xxxiii] Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Laughing with the Gods, op. cit., p. 85.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 49.

[xxxv] Kerouac. The Dharma Bums, op. cit., p. 201.

[xxxvi] Christy, Jim. The Buk Book. Toronto: ECW Press, 1997, p. 42.

[xxxvii] “Charles Bukowski: The Angry Poet,” Michael Perkins, In New York, Vol. 1, No. 17, 1967, pp. 15-18, p. 30.

[xxxviii] Malone, op. cit., pp. 98.

[xxxix] Neeli Cherkovski, Bukowski: A life, Vermont: Steerforth Press, 1997, p. 298. Bukowski really enjoyed the Beats work, particularly Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road, Corso’s Gasoline, and Burrough’s Naked Lunch. In Ole mangazine he once confessed, “I’ve never said that before, but I am now high enough as I write this to perhaps say that Ginsberg has been the most awakening force in American poetry since Walt W.”


Bukowski, Charles. Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way. New York: Harper Collins (2001).

Calonne, David Stephen. Charles Bukowski: Sunlight Here I Am—Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993. Northville: Sun Dog Press (2003).

Christy, Jim. The Buk Book. Toronto: ECW Press (1997).

Duval, Jean-François. Bukowski and The Beats. Northville, MI: Sun Dog Press (2002).

Ginsberg, Allen. Kaddish and other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books (2001).

Harrison, Russell. Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press (1994).

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books (1986).

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books (1999).

Malone, Aubrey. The Hunchback of East Hollywood: A Biography of Charles Bukowski. Manchester: Headpress (2003).

Miles, Barry. Charles Bukowski. London: Virgin Books Ltd (2005).

Pivano, Fernanda. Charles Bukowski Laughing with the Gods: 1980 and 1984 Interview. Northville, MI: Sun Dog Press (2000).

Richmond, Steve. Spinning off Bukowski. Northville, MI: Sun Dog Press (1996).

Sounes, Howard. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. New York: Grove Press (1998).


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