Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Charles Bukowski: The Happy Outcast

Charles Bukowski died March 9, 1994. In honor of this I've decided to renew my series of reprints from my coursework. This piece was part of my research anthology project for my college writing class. Included is the original work, though I received a fair share of criticism from the professor for some of it.

Charles Bukowski was an American author and poet. He was an odd, ugly man who believed that beauty was hidden in the drunks, pimps, and whores. He spent his time in bars lamenting those who would resign themselves to work eight hours a day. Bukowski, who lived an alternative lifestyle and never conformed to societal norms, was considered ugly, and was more comfortable in the company of misfits, wrote The Genius of the Crowd as a brutal reaction to how he was treated socially and how he viewed supposedly normal people.
The further away from the human race I am the better I feel. Even though I write about the human race, the further away from them I am the better I feel. Two inches is great. Two miles is great. Two thousand miles is beautiful. As long as I’m able to eat. They feed me because I feed them. I don’t like to be near them. When somebody even so much as brushes against me with an elbow in a crowd I react.

I do not like the human race. I don’t like their heads. I don’t like their faces. I don’t like their feet. I don’t like their conversations. I don’t like their hairdos. I don’t like their automobiles. I don’t like their dogs or their cats or their roses. (Bukowski)
Charles Bukowski was once described as the “human embodiment of a raised middle finger” (Miles). He could never quite fit into the mold. As a young adult he had many blue collar jobs ranging from dishwasher to truck driver. He hated these jobs. In Bukowski’s words, “I could not accept the snails pace eight to five, Johnny Carson, happy birthday, Christmas, New Year-to me it’s just the sickest of all sick things.” Instead, he chose to live in abject poverty with no job so he could dedicate himself to writing.

Charles Bukowski looks like someone beat a toad into his face. Those are my words, not a quote. I watched many hours of interviews of Bukowski between “The Charles Bukowski Tapes” and “Bukowski: Born Into This.” During that time I thought about how to characterize his looks and came to this conclusion: if you take an average person and beat a them over the face with a toad long enough to do permanent damage, you may look like this guy. Others are no kinder, Paul Ciotti of the Los Angeles Times said Bukowksi had, “a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it were assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders” (qtd. in The Poetry Foundation). As a child he was bullied and rejected by girls due to his complexion (Gale Literary Database). I am intentionally cruel, because that is the attitude that Bukowski faced for much of his life. His appearance set him apart and changed the way that society treated him.

It was these kinds of interactions that drove Bukowski to alcohol, he was a notorious drunk. He was also unashamedly drunk, often speaking passionately about the beauty of alcohol and his time spent in bars. It infected his work as well. Take, for instance, the poem Here I Am... in which he begins, “drunk again at 3 a.m. at the end of my 2nd bottle/ of wine,” (Bukowski 1-2). His semi-autobiographical character, Henry Chinaski, who featured prominently in several of Bukowski’s books as well as the movie Barfly, was an alcoholic. He chose alcohol over work and dive bars over coffee houses.

With the booze comes the bars, and with the bars comes the patrons. Bukowski was at his element with the people who have nothing better to do than sit in a bar and get drunk all day. He was proud to be a vagrant. In “The Charles Bukowski Tapes” he often refers to pimps and prostitutes as his “people,” complete with a segment in which he drives around West Hollywood pointing out various people on the side of the road to declare them as friends. At this point he had published numerous books and was known to cavort with some of the Hollywood elite. His true calling was with the Hollywood underbelly.

Charles Bukowski did not need to take revenge against those who misunderstood him and treated him poorly. He was perfectly content to go get a beer instead. Yet, when he was alone with his typewriter such resentment was sure to show. I believe that Bukowski felt the he was almost robbed of the chance to write, and to live a life of debauchery that he thoroughly enjoyed, by the average person and their desire to keep the status quo. If he was threatened he surely was not one to act, he didn’t see a point in such behavior. His weapon was his words.

On the attack of the normal, he has many poems. I believe that The Genius of the Crowd best exemplifies this idea. Other poems with similar themes include: 40,000, Another Day, Be Kind, Let It Enfold You, and Pull a String, a Puppet Moves. Over the course of his life Bukowski wrote thousands of poems and hundreds of other works. His works are often very direct, and quite blunt. The life he led and the people he encountered influenced him greatly. In sampling his catalog one can find countless examples on this theme, and I leave you with a selection from one - Some People:
some people never go crazy.
what truly horrible lives
they must lead. (Bukowski 20-22)

1 comment:

Pako said...

Thanks for sharing, arrived via google. Greetings from Mexico.