Slouching Toward Nirvana is my first foray into the strange nihilistic and unpretentious world of author Charles Bukowski. In his poem called, “the curse,” he writes of the unfortunate consequences of fame—the ultimate fragility of Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Celine, Ezra Pound, Hamsun, Ambrose Pierce and van Gogh. He ends with: “we are hardly ever / as strong / as that which we / create.” In a long poem called “The Tide,” he writes: “most of what we learn / in this crazy life is /what to avoid…like, say, / a fancy ending / to this poem.” A sense of humor here.
What is most interesting is the man himself—his anti-lit reputation, his popularity, his easy narrative style, and his rage. A number of his books have been published since his death in 1994. And after tasting this one, I am spurred to read more. The following review of Slouching Toward Nirvana by Matthew Firth , written in 2005, is illuminating. It gives a good account of the man; and I like his headstone:
Dead 11 years in the cold ground and the Bukowski juggernaut rolls on, his readership and influence thriving: 12 new books published, a documentary film (‘Bukowski: Born Into This’), a CD of readings, inspiration for animated films, chief among them J.J. Villard’s ‘Son of Satan,’ which won best first film at the 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
It’s not uncommon for writers to publish posthumously, but no one at Bukowski’s pace. A new poetry collection, ‘Slouching Toward Nirvana,’ is out from HarperCollins, which acquired the rights to several of his books from Black Sparrow Press. The poetry is from a body of work held back for publication after Bukowski’s death.
Although it’s not explicitly stated when the work in ‘Slouching’ was written, judging by the style and themes, it’s from later in his life. The poems are minimalist and narrative. Death is central, as it often is. Earlier, Bukowski wrote about dodging suicide; in this later work he parries natural death.
Low points in the new collection include when he waxes nostalgic for his rooming house past, as in ‘it’s strange.’ Likewise, Bukowski presents conflicting views on his success: he is both comfortable and uncomfortable with it. In ‘why oh why and oh why not?’ he brags about his expensive car and how much he pays in taxes. In ‘something new’ he wonders what he’s doing in the racetrack clubhouse rather than in the bleachers with the dreamers.
Bukowski is best when the vitriol flows: “very painful to write this / of course. but most poets are just big / tit-suckers: / accepting readings / taking university chairs / praying for tenure / writing books on poetic / technique and / giving/ lectures.” He was always quick to rail against the American literary establishment.
Like a lot of his work, not every poem in ‘Slouching Toward Nirvana’ is a winner; there is filler among the finery but plenty here that shines.
There’s the occasional mention of drink, though it’s usually German white wine instead of the rotgut whisky of his younger days. Alcohol has always been central to Bukowski’s writing. In his fiction, I’d wager there’s at least one reference to booze per page.
Bukowski was a drunk but never an apologist for it. It was simply part of who he was. It’s also a facet of his work that has been over-indulged. He is best known for the film ‘Barfly’ starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Its fulcrum is booze and Bukowski wrote the screenplay. It’s also his weakest work, and with lots of irony it shot him to fame more than anything else and perpetuated his drunken poet persona.
Bukowski (born in Andernach, Germany, 1920) is criticized for being repetitive – for only writing on booze, women, betting and bad jobs. He does repeat these themes but it’s arrogant to slam him for it. The guy worked for the U.S. postal service for 14 years, delivering and sorting mail for Christ’s sake: How could he not be repetitive? What’s more, all writers, all artists, repeat themes.
Also, it’s important to recall his working-class roots. Bukowski wrote compulsively, worked it like any job – and any 20th-century job involved repetition. When he became a full-time writer in the ’70s he was anxious to produce enough material to keep himself alive, to justify his existence. He wasn’t of the leisure classes (despite his aversion to labour) where dabbling in writing was sufficient.
Bukowski has been called the poet of the gutter but that’s inaccurate. He’s a working-class writer. He just seems to be of the gutter to critics and academics whose hands have never been callused by labour, who likely haven’t spent a day in the realms Bukowski wrote on.
In Canada, working-class fiction is virtually non-existent. Our writers are mostly grant-fed university grads working comfortably within the system. Our country’s literary institutionalization is so vast and smothering that we will never produce a Bukowski.
If you bring up Bukowski’s name at a literary shindig, just watch the eyes roll. Bukowski, the comfy literati will sigh: too widely read; too repetitive, too crass. Or, yeah I read him when I was younger but that was just a phase. Bukowski is everything that dour CanLit is not: accessible, working-class, humorous, honest and ballsy. I’ve seen his books in the hands of truck drivers, cabbies, postal workers and waitresses; quite an accomplishment in Canada where books are written and sold by and for the middle and upper classes.
I recall a big black magic marker sign in a Hamilton bookstore: “Stop stealing the Bukowski!” His work appeals to a wide range of readers, another reason he’s pissed on by academics and lit snobs. How can a writer who’s read by more than university grads be any damned good? It’s his directness, the absence of metaphor, that draws readers and writers to him. Local poet T. Anders Carson says it best: “His brutal realities and lack of coating the world with sweetness and exploring the lurid is what first attracted me to his work.”
Some call Bukowski an original, but he never claimed this. Just the opposite, he openly references his influences: Céline, Hemingway and, more than anyone, John Fante. Fante’s novel ‘Ask the Dusk’ was Bukowski’s model for autobiographical, impoverished, L.A.-based fiction. Bukowski cites stumbling upon ‘Ask the Dusk’ in the Los Angeles public library in 1940 as his literary epiphany and later stated, “Fante was my god.” In the 1970s, Bukowski persuaded Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin to reprint Fante’s work, which had been out of print for decades.
Now, Fante is better known than he ever was. Ecco Press has just published ‘The John Fante Reader,’ the perfect introduction to the writer who inspired Bukowski. You want to know Bukowski, you have to read Fante too.
Among the posthumously published books are four collections of letters. These books indicate two things: Any scrap of Bukowski’s writing will sell, and readers want more insight into the man behind the drunken public image. The letters, particularly in ‘Beerspit Night and Cursing’ – a book just shy of 400 pages of correspondence with Sheri Martinelli – reveal an erudite Bukowski. The literary lager lout image is wrong. Bukowski drank, but the idea that he was tanked, sleeping off hangovers, brawling and womanizing 24/7 does not compute with a man who wrote more than 45 books.
‘Born into This’ too tempers the drunken persona somewhat for it shows Bukowski’s proletarian drive from postal worker to full-time writer. He worked his arse off writing for decades while battling the abuses of critics, academics and envious writers. And he emerged as the heavyweight champion of poetry for at least the last couple decades of the 20th century. He endures still.
Gerald Locklin, professor of English at California State University, Long Beach and author of ‘Charles Bukowski: a Sure Bet’ offered me this explanation on Bukowski’s staying power: “He is read for pleasure. Not from a sense of duty. He is seldom assigned, seldom on critical must read lists. He is a true underground writer and he will always be read as part of what I call the anti-canon.” American writer Richard Meltzer gave me this take: “Well, obviously, he writes simple, dirty stuff … something literarily unpretentious definitely oozes out of him.”
Simple, dirty, unpretentious, pleasurable-perfect ingredients for long-lasting anti-lit. With the new work published this century, Bukowski rages on. His headstone reads, next to a carving of a boxer: “Don’t try.”
Even dead, no one can touch him.