Why doesn’t Charles Bukowski get much respect in the U.S. as a “serious” author?
When asking the question as to why Charles Bukowski does not get much respect in the U. S. as a “serious” author, one must begin by examining who does not give him much respect. Certainly it cannot be said that he is not respected or enjoyed by anyone, for he has a large following. Fittingly, for a poet whose reputation was made in ephemeral underground journals, it is on the Internet that the Bukowski cult finds its most florid expression.
There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to him, not just in America but in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, where one fan writes that, after reading him for the first time, “I felt there was a soul-mate in Mr. Bukowski.
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” (Kirsch) Even a stauch critic of Bukowski, C. E. Chaffin, acknowledges the many who enjoy his work.
Without reviewing all the historical antecedents that brought Bukowski to this poetic nadir, I should first remind the reader that he may be the best known American poet in Europe today, and for two reasons: 1) His language is simplistic; and 2) The attitude in his main body of work matches the prevailing atheistic pessimism among intellectuals on the continent. (Chaffin) However, even in recognizing Bukowski’s appeal, Chaffin mentions two criticisms that will be dealt with later in this paper. If, as it appears, Bukowski has a large following, who is it that does not consider him “serious?
” A cursory search quickly reveals that many in University academia and those who approach poetry from a more scholarly viewpoint appear to be those who reject Bukowski. This rejection becomes obvious when one considers the fact that Bukowski is not included in the book that is called “the most comprehensive collection of twentieth-century poetry in English available. ” In the third edition of “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry,” in which poets appear in order of birth, the class of 1920 fields a strong team, including Howard Nemerov and Amy Clampitt.
If you were to browse the poetry section of any large bookstore, you would probably find a book or two by each of those critically esteemed, prize-winning poets. Nowhere to be found in the canonizing Norton anthology, however, is the man who occupies the most shelf space of any American poet: Charles Bukowski. (Kirsch) It should be noted that the three editors of “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry,” Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robet O’Clair, were all university professors.
Other critics, such as C. E. Chaffin, are poets and critics of poetry who have spent years studying, researching, and writing poetry. These types of people often have well-constructed and rigid concepts as to the characteristics and qualities of proper poetry. Now that we have discovered a group of people who discard Bukowski as a “serious” author, we can begin to examine the reasons for their rejection of him. One of the first complaints about Bukowski is that his poetry is not truly poetry at all.
When looking at reactions to Bukowski’s poetry there seems to be a lack of, well, respect … despite his hardcore fan base, and sales that would make most poets extremely happy. In fact the common accusation is not that Bukowski isn’t a good poet, but that his work is barely even poetry at all. In a mostly appreciative New Yorker review, Adam Kirsch still managed this cheeky, backhanded compliment: “He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction, or Ayn Rand to philosophy – a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing.
” (O’Neill) An example of this can be found in the poem “they, all of them, know” from Bukowski’s’ book, “The Pleasures of the Damned. ” It is difficult to find any semblance of poetical style in over four pages of seemingly mindless repetition. There is apparently no rhyme or reason to this poem, and many would argue that the simple creation of a long list is not enough to qualify as poetry. This is not to say that there is not a message in his work, but that the work is not poetic in nature.
In addition, Bukowski’s language not only is often seen as non-poetic, but simplistic, as described by C. E. Chaffin earlier. Another reason for the rejection of Bukowski comes from his tendency to write in the first person. An examination of his work reveals that that vast majority are written in the first person. This is clearly true as poems such as “metamorphosis,” “the drowning,” and “for they had things to say” are written in this style. While this is not particularly wrong, it can be enough for some to reject his work.
I don’t particularly like Whitman either, for some of the same reasons I don’t like Bukowski, although Whitman is far and away the more accomplished poet. Both are archetypically American in their embrace of the individual ego and almost exclusive use of the first person, but whereas Whitman attempts to merge with the world as a transcendent ego (on the heels of Emerson), Bukowski simply reports, as an isolated consciousness, in painful and sordid detail, what happens around him. In view of this it is difficult to say which poet is more personal or impersonal.
(Chaffin) As Chaffin points out, the problem is not just that Bukowski writes in the first person, but he writes from a distant, disconnected view. It is difficult for many to appreciate poetry that combines a first person view with this type of “reporting,” as Chaffin calls it. There are many who reject Bukowski as being “serious” because of the content of his work. Throughout his poetry, crude language and references to things and actions not normally discussed, especially in the presence of children, are found.
Poems such as “the last days of the suicide kid,” “tabby cat,” and “fooling Marie (the poem)” clearly cross a line that many have drawn concerning language and subjects that should not be discussed. Critic C. E. Chaffin addresses this issue directly. Bukowski made his reputation by unashamedly and non-judgmentally recording a lifestyle of fatalistic, atheistic hedonism — which is really not hedonism but its opposite, a sort of terminal anhedonia medicated with booze and sex as distractions — an attitude not far removed from the Marquis de Sade, who believed “Whatever is, is good.
” (Chaffin) Jim Harrison also comments on this when he writes: Bukowski’s short fiction concentrates on uncontrite drinking and generally anti-social behavior, employing a scatological idiom which serves to mock academe and animate his idiosyncratic style and ideology, while also contributing to Bukowski’s often harsh critical reception. . . . Bukowski is known for depicting violent and sexual imagery in his hard-edged prose. This graphic usage has lead some critics to dismiss Bukowski’s work as superficial and misogynist in nature. (Harrison)
This choice of style and substance denies Bukowski the type of memorable quotes or lines that are found in so many other poems. “It is hard to quote Bukowski because there are virtually none of those short lyrics with bow ties of closure that are so pleasant for a reviewer to quote. ” (Harrison) Lines such as “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree” from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” are simply not present in Bukowski’s works. However, it is an interesting observation that the very thing that causes critics to reject him is what draws so many readers to him.
Clearly, the approval of the critics is not something that defines success. However, it can have an effect on perception. Critics may have difficulty dealing with Bukowski’s works because they may not be intended to stand on their own but to be viewed as a whole, making a general commentary on life rather than individually selecting aspects of life for discussion. Any time someone views only a part of something that was intended only to be viewed as a whole, they are going to be left with an incomplete and unsatisfactory view of the work.
Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artifacts but as ongoing installments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof. Bukowski’s free verse is really a series of declarative sentences broken up into a long, narrow column, the short lines giving an impression of speed and terseness even when the language is sentimental or cliched.
(Kirsch) Bukowski’s general attitude toward life in general and poetry specifically may be a factor in his rejection as a “serious” author. Obviously, a poet’s general attitude toward life will be prevelant within his work. This attitude is summarized by Adam Kirsch. Alcohol was the fuel, as it was often the subject, of these poetic explosions: “I don’t think I have written a poem when I was completely sober,” he told one interviewer. And he rejected on principle the notion of poetry as a craft, a matter of labor and revision.
(Kirsch) Perhaps one of the reasons for critics rejecting Bukowski is because of those who appreciate and follow Bukowski and his works. Often poets and others are measured as much by the people who follow and replicate their work as by their work itself. Of course, there are a lot of bad poets in thrall to Bukowski – after all, his great skill lay in making the writing of great poetry seem easy. Poets who affect his lifestyle without learning the craft of writing do so at their peril.
And don’t look to the man himself for clues on where the poems come from: he once said that writing a poem is “”like taking a shit, you smell it and then flush it away … writing is all about leaving behind as much a stink as possible”. But to disregard Bukowski’s work on the basis of the bad poetry that followed in his wake seems as bloody minded as denying the greatness of The Clash because of the mohicaned twattery of Sum 41. (Kirsch) While this type of rejection of his work is not necessarily valid or defensible, this does not prevent those with a dislike or disapproval of his work from going this direction.
Clearly Bukowski has his critics as well as his fans. And although many may be attracted to his work and his style, he will continue to have those who criticize him. Bukowski’s style keeps some from considering him a “serious” author. He writes about subjects and uses vocabulary that offends others and thereby causes their rejection of his work and of him. Perhaps the clearest reasons why he is not regarded as a “serious” author are given by C. E. Chaffin. In Bukowski’s work, however, it is clear that no separation between author and persona exists except insofar as Bukowski’s memory may be unreliable.
His lack of persona is his lack of art. I think his regard as a possibly major poet represents the nadir of American poetry precisely because his rants are life masquerading as art, no more, no less. . . . It is not Bukowski’s renown I question, an unreliable indicator of quality in any case, but 1) His lack of craft; 2) His lack of transcendent values; and 3) As above, that he represents the final breakdown between life and art in poetry. . . . To return to his poetry, I think Bukowski proved that anyone could be a successful writer; by the same token, he significantly lowered standards for the craft of poetry.
Indeed, he should be considered the father of performance poetry judged on gut feeling and audience reaction rather than the enduring values of form and substance. (Chaffin) Works Cited Chaffin, C. E. “Essay – Charles Bukowski” Melic Review Vol. III Issue I Harrison, Jim “King of Pain” New York Times November 25, 2007 Kirsch, Adam “Smashed, The pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski. ” The New Yorker March 14, 2005 O’Neill, Tony Don’t Blame Bukowski for bad poetry, U. K. Guardian, September 5, 2007