February 19, 2005: Ember Days
Why I hate Bukowski
Of the typewriter poets, Bukowski is the worst. W.C. Williams says "Look at this damn sycamore. Isn't it wonderful?! How does an American say it?" That's a noble pursuit of something. In his own way he was perhaps a pretentious populist, but he got somewhere with his pretentiousness. He used it as a means to an end, which was an American way of speaking. e.e. cummings was an important typographical experimenter, making the dadaists readable in a way. Besides that he was a great poet of the liberal 30's; there are few who managed so well to be both great poets and great anti-war anti-fascists. Brautigan says, "Hee hee, I'm a poor, stoned, quirky San Francisco kid—self-depreciating, egotistical and full of manic hippie joy." Sometimes, he falls into a kind of pretentiousness. Sometimes, you feel him saying, "Hee hee. Being a writer's fun; alls you have to do is be a stoned out kid and be in love and watch the world. All of literature is just a bunch of dead white establishment guys." Needs some Zappa. Needs some cynicism. But Brautigan makes me happy. He's one side of literature that makes me happy to be alive and in love. Bukowski is another story.

Whenever I read Bukowski I get pissed off. He is the expression of a completely flawed way of thinking. He's the pretentious illiterate who doesn't have any respect for literature. One time he wrote, "Poetry is a warm beer shit." That is absolutely the most pretentious and disrespectful thing that I have ever heard. It's pretentious because to have the authority to say it you have to be a poet or closely related to poetics. And it's disrespectful, well if he said about anything but something artistic it would be obvious why it was disrespectful. If he said, "Teaching is a warm beer shit" many people (including me) would be offended. It's an offensive statement for other reasons though. It's offensive because it purports to say something about poetry and it doesn't (unless you read way too much into it).

In an interview with the NYQ he said, "I don't carry notebooks and I don't consciously store ideas. I try not to think that I am a writer and I am pretty good at doing that. I don't like writers, but then I don't like insurance salesmen either." With those three sentences Bukowski killed the European man of letters. Let's think about what he says. The first two sentences say, "I don't consciously think about what I'm paid to do and what I'm famous for. And whenever possible I don't think of myself as that". If an engineer says "I don't think about engineering and whenever possible I try not to think of myself as an engineer" then you'd probably say that he is an unhappy, bad engineer. And if his boss hears that then he's liable to get a talking to. But the last sentence of his statement is what really pisses me off, "I don't like people who do the kind of work that I do." It's the kind of thinking that says that artists are phony establishment, literary types and yet he claims to have no relation to them. He pays disrespect to the shoulders of the giants he walks upon.

In the same interview Bukowski says, "Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way." It's the American mantra. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this statement. Many geniuses have the ability to take what everyone commonly understands and to see what is implicated by it or they have the ability to take something complex which they have discovered or invented and explain it in simple terms. But this does not imply that all geniuses have to be able to "say a profound thing in a simple way". Einstein was not a genius because he randomly said "matter is slowed down energy". He was a genius because he thought of it and proved it mathematically. If he had just proved it and somebody in the next generation read it and said "what Einstein was saying was that matter is just slowed down energy" we would still call Einstein the genius and not the person who described Einstein's work. But Bukowski's statement about genius is often misread to say, "If you say something simple it is therefore, profound and you are a genius." Flatly, this is wrong and is the justification for greeting card self-help poetry whose pretense is to say something simple and deep. It is here where a word about Bukowski's pretentiousness must be stated. Bukowski is pretentious in the most American confusing way: he is pretentious about not being pretentious. His saying always seems to be something like, "All those literary types are soooo pretentious, I'm not. I'm writing from the gut." If it's true it's an ugly gut; mostly boring. If it's false (as I think it is), it's pretentious without acknowledging its pretense. Writing is all acknowledged pretense; all a relation to a saying mask.

Here, Bukowski's persona must be spoken of. In the same interview in NYQ he states, "To get somebody to read your poems you have to be noticed, so I got my act up. I wrote vile (but interesting) stuff that made people hate me, that made them curious about this Bukowski." What he's implying there is that he made himself do bad things in order to write about them, in order to have a voice. Firstly, it does seem as though that attitude is just as phony as any literary type would have. Secondly, it's not worth being a writer to be a bad person. There is long standing philosophical debate about what happens to the person who does bad things. Does he suffer financially or physically? Does he go to hell? I'd have to agree with Plato when he says that the consequence for doing bad things is that you become the image of a bad person. If W.C. Williams is saying, "Look at this beautiful American sycamore" then Bukowski is say "Look at this pimple of a life I've created in order to write." It's not good enough.

Why I Love Bukowski

Because it's nice to pretend that someone is an honest human. Because he is hideous lovely. Because he makes you want to drop and live. Because he's funny and you believe he's honest and is putting his "guts up for view". Because he gives you another direction into poetry. Because he's brave and courageous. Because he's a common lovely man. Because he doesn't seem to care and you don't want to either. Because there's a voice, even if it is ugly. Because you sit and work and you want to let it all go. Because he tells you talking something about humanity that you can't help wanting to know. Because he exaggerates an awfulness that everyone harbors. Yes, because he asked for breakfast in bed and while I was getting it for him snuck three shots and puked on my mountain flowers and then proceeded to write a poem about it.

Francis Raven