Born into "white air and waiting"

Charles "Hank" Bukowski 1920-1994

“The only thing in life that Hank seems to appreciate is the part where you can get high or get off. Everything else is crap, crap whose length and breadth he’s happy to go on about if you will only let him. Why would people pay good money to go through that?” But once he gets past the brutality, philosopher Jason Potter is surprised to discover something like admiration for poetry’s most (in)famous hardman.

In John Dullaghan’s documentary film Bukowski: Born Into This (2003) you come face to face with Charles “Hank” Bukowski, deceased American poet, barfly icon, and one hard person to like. He’s been a bad boy, you see, and wants you to know it. Like a war which might have been just, Bukowski provokes heated private arguments in more sensible people who worry that, in being sensible, they have lost the right to judge. By what hypnotism he manages to provoke this kind of self-criticism in others, given a persona that seems immunized against all self-doubt, is one of several mysteries of his influence. He behaves so badly he begs to be judged, and is so little exercised about “civility” (“civility is for sissies”, Hank would say), I confess it takes some effort of will to avoid slipping right into his especially-male, hardtack point of view, more so when he is the subject.

There is something primitive as fish here, sad and displaced, like a coelacanth. It goes beyond all his bad luck, his ravaged face, the warrior grunt’s body, the life-weary drinking, the view from below. It goes to the fact that he consciously chose a persona made out of his bad luck, his ravaged face, the grunt’s body and the booze and careless women nuzzled in the backstreets and gutters. It is what moves you in the work of two other inebriant/inebriated writers, Erofeev (Moscow: To the End of the Line) and Lowry (Under the Volcano). You are transfixed here by the presence of a ghost, the ghost of a dead dog who has risen up, drunk and wisecracking, and wants to read you poetry, his poetry, a poetry of all that ever went wrong… every hope abandoned in disgust.

Only one in ten thousand individuals avoids some knowledge of that, which guarantees Hank an audience (as he says at the start of one of his readings, “forgive me, you have my soul, I have your money”). And although most of them don’t have Hank’s knack for faux-arrogant self-regard, his American clan of readers can’t help enjoying the blunt vernacular of his writing. In hating the serpentine layers of delicate speech (ie most academic poetry of Bukowski’s generation), Hank plays to the crowd he grew up with: working-class Americans for whom indirection, like civility, is just lying with a smile on your face. Hank prefers his lies straight up, like his whiskey. Since nobody wins anyway, style is all that matters, right?

But his appeal is hard to understand if you don’t locate it in the times that embraced him. America of the 1970s and 1980s was a particularly good time to be Hank Bukowski. After all, even equally hardworking and more talented, dedicated writers are ignored if they don’t play tunes in a key their audience finds familiar. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, thumbing one’s nose at everything respectable was a national sport here and everyone, even the ruling classes, were at least tempted by the craze. As journalists are now bound to reveal their biases (or appear to do so, anyway!), I will, with my temporary journalist’s cap pulled firmly in place, admit that I have a very bad opinion of this part of the 1960s cultural revolution in the United States. Encouraging human beings, particularly young ones, to exercise that innate urge to project their distemper onto the world around them almost always has bad consequences. There is nothing particularly intelligent or truthful in the average bitch-a-thon, but oh gawd is it authentic! All bullshit is hidden behind a tide of venomous conviction. This fascination with the look of authenticity is part of what laid the groundwork for people like Hank Bukowski to charge through the breeches (in thinking, in good sense) that sprung up all over America in that era. We can thank a certain suspect philosopher and great writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, for encouraging the whole business, but I will spare my reader any more of this, my own bitching. I’m suspicious of people like Hank, but that doesn’t mean they cannot surprise me.

And surprise me he does, even to the point of admiration and affection. After all, I do admire anyone who, having been beaten to a pulp, raises himself on one elbow and flips off his tormentor(s). It’s just that in actual life, one’s torments are not so cleanly a product of some particular person whose conscious objective is to demean and crush you or your spirit. Most suffering lacks the “evil other” on which so much of Bukowski’s bad opinion of life depends (and without which the poignancy of his complaints is eroded by a certain inaccuracy).

Fortunately, Bukowski did something besides hurl a defiant “putain!” in the face of the world’s abuses. Sometimes he got up on both elbows and typed out a poem, or short story, or novel, and this activity, which he pursued every day regardless of circumstances for nearly his entire adult life, was itself a refutation of his own favorite self-image: the down-and-out loser for whom life is “just white air and waiting” on the way to the infinite dark. Borne out of a hard, working class Los Angeles neighborhood where, for the men at least, “being tough” and “getting laid” were the sole ends of human existence, Charles Bukowski became a writer of some skill whose devotion to the stories and poems of ordinary life at the bottom offered a strangely literary, if crude postcard from a place few writers visit, and almost none choose as their habitat and home base. This is the good reason to watch Dullaghan’s documentary, and then to go further and read some of Hank’s poems and novels.

While he wrote only prose from his early adulthood (in the 1940s) until sometime late in the 1950s, he began to write poetry after a near-fatal bout with ulcers landed him in the hospital. Of this poetry he said, “It was a form I needed, a kind of a passionate, pleasurable, selfish, nice form where you could scream a little bit. I guess I needed to scream.” And scream he did, profusely, for the better part of a decade, at the end of which John Martin, a businessman with an interest in key works from every period in twentieth-century American literature, discovered Bukowski and began to publish broadsides of his work. About this time, HB’s job at the post office was becoming untenable and his home life, with a new baby, more and more difficult. Martin saw that Hank’s poetry expressed things that might attract a large enough audience that publishing him in book form could be lucrative. He decided to take a big risk and offer HB 25 per cent of his own income for life in exchange for Bukowski’s agreement to leave the post office and go to work as a writer full time. He bankrolled this publishing venture, one solely dedicated to publishing Hank’s work, by selling his personal collection of first-edition books to the University of California for $50 000. This marked a turning point in both their lives and is the main reason Bukowski’s work came to be widely known in the 1970s and 1980s.

In one of several onscreen interviews, Martin makes an important distinction between two aspects of his friend Hank Bukowski’s character. Asked why he took such a significant financial risk with a “hard-drinking wildman”, Martin replies “That was all overridden by the fact of who he really was […] not the distorted part of him, but what he really stood for and what made him important. The first time I read him I said ‘My God, this is today’s Whitman. This is a man of the street writing for the people of the street.'”

Why would any writer talented enough to inspire this kind of review hide behind a persona that alienates so many, even those very commoners Martin thinks were the intended readers of his poet-hero? Martin’s choice of words is revealing. He doesn’t say that Hank put on a persona that was a distortion. Rather, he mentions “the distorted part” of HB, a part which doesn’t represent the part that made him important and which Martin decides (a bit generously, one thinks), to regard as the real Charles Bukowski. Perhaps Hank isn’t hiding behind anything at all, and the only myth associated with the persona is that it is a trick of art, rather than simply the artist himself.

Among those interviewed for the film, including many contemporary and long-standing admirers as well as several of the women with whom he was involved romantically (or nearly so), there is a fairly uniform tendency to discount this distorted part, or to mention it ruefully before moving on to his charisma, his appeal, and that admirable thing he did in speaking for those unable to speak for themselves. This reminds me of things I would rather not think about, in part because I prefer generosity toward people who make art I care for (and I do care for Bukowski’s poems), and to think well of people generally, particularly in the face of their frailties and shortcomings. But the reaction of both men and women to Bukowski seems to be somehow grounded in his shortcomings, shortcomings on such unrelieved display both in his writing and in his behavior, public and private, I’ve had to put this essay down repeatedly just to clear my head of my own reactions to all this. There is some kind of fascination with injury here, with wounded things raising themselves up from near-dead, and it suffuses Dullaghan’s interviews as if he wished to hint broadly at an undiagnosed illness. It’s like listening to the children of alcoholics tell us why their life was so much more interesting than it would have been with a less damaged and selfish parent.

My impression is that Bukowski attracts men (his primary audience) because of a certain understandable set of complaints men level against the business of being male, although usually among themselves and in private. HB reflects those complaints in his own struggles, voices their common reactions to them, and is especially frank when saying things often soft-pedalled in polite company. What interests me about this is that the Hank Bukowski persona, his advertised self, seems to vividly identify with various aspects of being male that are among the most onerous […] things with which many men, especially those who read poetry and admire poets, deal by artful dodging if not outright rejection. Things like having to kill people for various reasons, to act, talk and be tough, particularly when most vulnerable, to have no feelings that cannot be shoved aside in favor of something bigger and more important than themselves, to compete with other men as if one’s life depends on it, to embrace as if normal the rejection that every courtier risks, etc., etc., etc. This Hank says “I’m a duker” (meaning one who “dukes it out” with others, and wins) who continually boasts and brays about his prowess. He treats women badly, regards love as mutual manipulation leading to and from sex, period, regards all work as slavery, brandishes his brutishness as if it were a virtue, thinks most people and their lives hateful and useless, and has virtually no capacity to appreciate what all those straight people are doing with their lives (and remember, it is they who keep the sewers clear, are a large part of those “commoners without a voice”, and who frequently buy books from this guy).

Why this fascination with the distorted side of Hank? The only thing in this life that Hank seems to appreciate is the part where you can get high or get off. Everything else is crap, crap whose length and breadth he’s happy to go on about if you will only let him. Why would people pay good money to go through that?

There is a mystery here that can’t be explained in terms of the pleasure we feel in being disturbed. This is too disturbing for that. What is this thing Bukowski and his admirers are up to? Sadomasochistic rituals disguised as poetry readings? When you listen to what his readers say, they most often mention some hard part of daily life no one had put on paper for them until they read HB. He writes about ordinary, terrible mistakes, the awful messes that follow, and those dark afternoon bars where men drink to forget all that. Thinking about this, I was reminded of something a friend of mine, also a poet, once said to me about any art form that deals with suffering. He insisted that any artist who subjects their audience to something painful must give them a way to deal with it, otherwise tragic art is just a fancy kind of torture. If the Bukowski world isn’t tragic, it certainly is hellish, so my friend’s principle certainly applies. And his readers and listeners clearly weather that storm intact, emerging as if uplifted […] by the anti-uplift poet of the century. What gives?

I decided to look back at Hank’s poetry readings for a clue, and fortunately, the documentary gives you several excerpts of these. Again the shuffling, half-doped body movements, the 5000-yard stare, fixed jaw and mouth that barely opens. Again the flat delivery, a bus driver calling out the stops, poetry-through-gritted-teeth, art delivered like the mail – all punctuated by swigs of booze and regular threats to leave if things aren’t just so, man. All that mock toughness, the endless bravado beat of his hard knuckles, rap-rapping on our foreheads “I can TAKE you MAAAN!” And then it struck me. All this visible hardness is a pretty good distraction from, and barrier to, the pain of what the voice is actually saying. In the constant thrumming of that macho facade there is, as if by magic, a comforting message slipped in: “I, speaker of horrors, am too tough for comfort. I can stare at this shit all day and not even blink. If I can handle it, so can you, Punk. So please just shut up and listen, stay outta my way, and pass another beer. Got it?” How can you feel bad when the dealer deals the cards with so much grit, grimacing from the sheer tedium of explaining the game to you one more time, half chuckling, every movement seemingly prefaced by one of those patented world-weary shrugs Toshiro Mifune throws down repeatedly in Kurosawa’s samurai movies, usually as he walks off into the sunset again. One thing a poor boy learns, if he’s smart, is how to appear solid whenever necessary. No one wins, it’s style that counts.

This gives us a reason for Bukowski’s brutish style that doesn’t place appreciation for his better sensibilities in doubt, so now it’s easier to comprehend, even appreciate the cross-purposes alive in poems like Bluebird, one of the poems he wrote as he began to “go soft” (as he put it) in later life.

In poems like this, how many tongues deep in the cheek should we assume in looking for the man, Charles Bukowski? Surely anyone who knows they have a bluebird in their heart would, if they could, find reasons not to bury it so deep in smoke and mirrors. Why brandish the darkest picture of oneself and play hide-and-seek with your chance at redemption, however slim? Perhaps the obvious answer is right. Maybe it’s because Hank got used to it that way, even after the freeze-out of his early life was over and he could do otherwise. If you read his novel, Ham on Rye, and listen to the unflattering parallels he draws between his brutal father (who beat him regularly throughout his childhood) and himself, you realize that playing hide-and-seek with redemption would have been a good outcome for the young Charles Bukowski, and much better than anything he could envision, either in his hardtack neighborhood or at the hands of his own family. “My father was an asshole and a coward and his blood is in my blood. And sometimes I feel it happenin’ to me […] I’m arguing with a woman or something and I feel kinda shitty and crappy and I’m not quite just. And sometimes I think that’s my father’s blood in me, it’s a chickenshit blood I’ve got in me […] and it’s a bad feeling.” Hank’s redemption came when he discovered writing and the imaginative, private, more interesting world it allowed him to project over the pocks and hollows of that daily cruelty he had just taken for granted until then. There he could put down how things are without someone snuffing them out. He never sought a cheap way out of that predicament, being tough in fact as much as in self-conception, and that toughness may have unnecessarily delayed his escape.

In the end, he let the bluebird out, though perhaps only to a few friends, wise readers, and his last wife. But the world was only slightly better. He leaves us something to wonder at from things so familiar it’s uncanny how they affect us. Rather than close for him, he can close for himself, with a poem from one of his best collections, Love is a Dog from Hell. Obviously, this love, and ours, is something else, too…

Published 2 June 2006
Original in English
First published by Rigas Laiks 5/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Jason Potter/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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