A Tribute to Charles Bukowski
Heinrich Karl Bukowski was born this day - August 16th - 100 years ago. I often give Bukowski credit for being my greatest influence as a writer. It only seems appropriate that I write a few words in his honor today.
I tried that last night, not so much in a ‘staring at the blank-white screen’ way, but I thought something creative and inspiring would come to me as I lay in bed. It usually does when I least expect it. Yet, it didn’t last night.
I tried. And then I laughed, I heard Bukowski's words echo at my ridiculous attempt at trying to honor him…
So I fell asleep not trying and realized, my greatest tribute to him would be just to write something, if there was anything. It didn’t have to be something great or a Wikipedia page of facts about him. Nor did it need to be a backwards tribute to myself showing how well I imitate the most imitated poet of the 20th century with my own poetry.
[So... in Bukowski’s fashion, this article is written off the cuff: raw and real.]
Don’t get me wrong, I went through a phase of ‘recreating’ his poetry just to feel greatness run through me. Yet, it wasn’t greatness. It was trying to wag the dog with the tail. It was phony, empty, and felt gross to steal from the man that gave me an even greater gift than his own wisdom. He told me, in some mystical way, that I could write.
It was scary at first. I wasn’t sure exactly how to put words in an order that made people keep reading, and more importantly, walk away with something, if anything, once they turned the final page.
Yet, I did. I have twice now and plan to do it some more. My novels definitely aren’t his, and that’s the point. I found my own voice. Bukowski's voice may transcend his time, but it is still a voice of his time. My voice is of our times, as is anybody else’s that tries to write today.
More than this insane desire to write, I couldn’t help but see how we were also alike in other ways during my idealization phase.
We have the same birthday month.
Similar fathers (and named after our fathers)
Zen Buddhism (he even had his funeral with monks chanting)
There’s quite a few more, but honestly, all of them are superficial and ‘looked for’. The two significant things I think we share in common is how we love and approach the two most important things (for us) in life: writing and women.
A lot of people think Bukowski was a ladies man. That he was a ‘playa-playa’. If you see Bukowski swinging gold chains from his neck and staring at women across the club like a douchebag, you got the wrong idea.
Women were never a conquest for him. They were never just objects to be used for pleasure.
He loved women. Some may call him a masochist by how he writes about women and love and sex with such venom and, oftentimes, cruelty. I even watched an interview once where it showed him bad-mouthing his then partner as being a ‘whore’ and kicking her off the couch.
He loved and hated women, much like he loved and hated himself.
Like most of us men, we were raised in a society, in a world, that taught us a Madonna-Whore Complex. Yet, where some men do eventually find a woman that is their ideal virgin or they simply don’t want to know about their lover’s past or they are just men that see all women as whores, Bukowski accepted both sides of the conundrum that is a woman.
That a woman, every woman, is a whore, and she is the Virgin Mary reincarnated.
Still think it’s a coincidence that the ‘bad Mary’ of the bible was a whore? Don’t worry, Jesus. We got your back.
A woman is both and you get both when you get a woman, no matter how many men she slept with before she shared your bed. Bukowski accepted this duality in a very Jungian and Taoist way.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, he talked trash about women, and to them. But he also wrote some of the most honest and beautiful things about them. That’s why women loved him. Not because he had a nice body. Not because he had money. But because he saw something in them and accepted them in a way most men cannot or would not.
Bukowski didn’t even lose his virginity until he was 26. It wasn’t because he couldn’t get laid before that. It definitely wasn’t because he was a Christian that was waiting for marriage. It was something else entirely. Something that maybe only a few of us really get.
Women are complicated, but still, once you get this magical nugget of wisdom that can’t be taught in a ‘pick-up artist’ book, it becomes so simple you find yourself doing it without really knowing how. It isn’t a technique, it's something different for each one. Yet, I think it can be mostly defined as a sincere longing and deep appreciation for women. All of her, not just the nice parts.
The way Bukowski was with women is how he was with words. He was brutal with them, yet endearing. Whatever he was at that time with them, he was always honest: with words, with women, with himself, with the world.
He had a magic with words and the world that seemed like he was able to see through the everyday things we all looked at, yet saw the obvious we all overlooked. And he did it in a way that any bum on the street could read and get.
It wasn’t some pseudo-intellectual garbage to prove he had a vocabulary or a college degree. He was an artist.
This is why Bukowski speaks to us. Because he speaks TO us, not AT us. The man was a genius in his own right. He once said through his fictionalized version of himself, Henry Chinaski (in the novel Factotum),
“Baby," I said, "I'm a genius but nobody knows it but me.”
We know it today, Hank. We know it today.
And this is a bit of the sad, yet inspiring, aspect of Bukowski’s life. He tried writing in his twenties. He got a story published at that time, but not much else. So he spent most of that part of his life as a bum working jobs for only a few days or months at a time and moving constantly.
He eventually gave up and just stuck with the booze and a job at the post office. After 10 years, that nearly killed him… literally.
At 42, he had to quit. He knew he wanted to write, yet he was terrified by the prospect of it. He was so scared, that he wrote his first book ‘Post Office’ in one month. It wasn’t outlined. It wasn’t edited 500 times. It was written and sent off hoping for the best.
It worked. Kind of. He got published. But it took him another 15 years or so before he finally started making money off his writing.
Today, Bukowski is quoted, misunderstood, loved, and hated. But one can’t deny he still lives on. He has become a legend. He is a legend. He didn’t ‘write to market’. He didn’t write blogs about making 6 figures to make 5 figures. We can call that writing. It is a form of writing. But it isn’t art.
One can read most of the nonsense out there today and say without hesitation that writing isn’t an art. Yet, that can never be said about Bukowski. He was more than a writer, he was an artist in the truest sense of the word.
He didn’t get rich in his time. He didn’t truly get to taste the fruit of his creations until the last 20 years of his life, but he will live forever now. Writing to market may make you rich seemingly ‘overnight’ like a pop song summer hit, but it will be forgotten as soon as the next summer rolls around.
This was not the purpose of writing for Bukowski. It’s a lonely world to take this path. It’s one that I myself am only in the beginning stages of. Yet, I am thankful to have a man like Bukowski to look to when times get tough. Someone to remind me to stay true to myself and my art and one day, I may be able to affect people beyond one ‘hot, steamy romance novel’ that is read and forgotten over the span of a month.
Though Bukowski may be gone, his poetry, his words, will live through me and thousands of others for many more years. He will, in the end, outlive us all. And for that, I raise a glass and tip my hat to the man.
Happy 100th Birthday, Hank. Your bluebird is in all our hearts now.