Friday, July 27, 2012

Charles Bukowski gets life-affirming

It has been a few years since I've read Charles Bukowski. My most recent acquaintance was a second viewing of "Born into This," a powerful and personal documentary from 2003. Unlike some bio-mentaries, "Born into This" didn't change my view of the subject; it simply built on the existing edifice. 

I went into the first viewing seeing Bukowski as someone who'd been beaten down, a jaded, observant soul who chronicled graphic sex scenes and the bleak moment-to-moment life of an alcoholic. 

Some readers stop at Bukowski's damage, as if encountering the scene of a bad car accident, and turn away to lighter reading. 

But within the roughness, the rawness, there was a beauty, both in the simple language and rhythm of his voice, and in his brutal honesty. Bukowski wasn't trying to be clever with gratuitous wordplay, convoluted plotlines, or slow reveals. He respected the reader enough to give them a slice of life on the margins, straight up.

On the margins were a lot of down-and-out characters. A futility borne of hard living and shattered dreams (who can say which came first?) was pervasive; inscribed on his headstone are the words "DON'T TRY." Bukowski's poem "Dinosauria, We" reflects this fatalistic, nihilistic worldview:

Born like this
Into this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
We are
Born like this
Into this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
Made violent
Made inhuman
By this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The gun
The knife
The bomb
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
The pill
The powder
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.


Fixed with a certain sense of Bukowski's worldview, I was surprised to discover "The Laughing Heart," here read by Tom Waits, another artist who has spun tales about people who slip through the cracks. 

In the moment he created this poem, the often downbeat poet of the street saw a sliver of light, a way forward, through human agency:  

Your life is your life

Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

Be on the watch.

There are ways out.

There is a light somewhere.

It may not be much light but

It beats the darkness.

Be on the watch.

The gods will offer you chances.

Know them.

Take them.

You can’t beat death but

You can beat death in life, sometimes.

And the more often you learn to do it,

The more light there will be.

Your life is your life.

Know it while you have it.

You are marvelous

The gods wait to delight

In you.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful "The Laughing Heart" poem, which I'd never heard. You're right, it changes so much that we assume about Bukoski.

  2. Think of when Buk wrote that and how relevant it still is.

  3. To me his truth which is so strong makes it all interesting, funny sad and great at once.I thinwk he knew what he wanted to tell because he wasn't a youngster when he came out.He'd seen enough in his his life to have a certain point to know what he wanted to tell.I'm half of his age but in some things he speaks exactly what I feel..

  4. He is so right - even it's quite a while he wrote that!


  5. Once I found Bukowski, I was home free. Without Bukowski writer's couldn't write about wiping their asses or using phelgm as a lubricant. We are all drunken artists sleeping in dirty underwear and trying to figure on money for our next drink...preferably with ice in it. My favorite Bukowski? "The Night I Fucked My Alarm Clock." I read that, and I've never been the same since.

    -David Biddle