The World is Full of Shipping Clerks Who Have Read the Harvard Classics: The Poetics of Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, the quintessential outsider of the literary arts, is traditionally known for his apolitical counterculture persona rather than his poetics. The goal of this paper is to argue that Charles Bukowski was a talented writer influenced by the modernist poetic tradition, that his work is not apolitical, but instead, inspired by his past experiences as an unskilled laborer for the first half of his life. This paper will focus on Bukowski’s antimodernist position by exploring his poetic choices and by performing close readings of three poems. It is the hope of this project to add to the limited scholarship on this poet, who, persona aside, was a prolific, highly-skilled, postmodernist visionary.

Bukowski’s poetic style is nearly impossible to pin down for the primary reason that he refused to identify with a specific poetic tradition. Neither a confessional nor a beat, neither a surrealist nor of the avant-garde, his work more appropriately represents an amalgam of these different traditions. As one person jokingly commented on the popular bukowskiforum.com, his school of poetry can be described as “a-neo-post-modern-traditional-anti-poet-mock-dadaist-prose-explosion-informalist-sitter-down-beside-typewriter-and-just-let-it-all-out-ism” which seems appropriate given the poet’s distaste for academia. He has been given several labels: sewer Shakespeare, skid row poet, dirty realist, meat school poet, etc. However, I would like to argue that Bukowski’s overall sense of poetics is influenced mostly by and in direct opposition to the larger movement of modernist poetry. In Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters 1960-1970, Bukowski makes numerous references to modernist poets including: Robinson Jeffers, Conrad Aiken, and William Carlos Williams. Although it doesn’t show up in his poetics, he was a fan of Ezra Pound’s work and even corresponded with his mistress, Sheri Martinelli, who was one of the earliest supporters of Bukowski’s work. Additionally, the title, It Catches My Heart in its Hands, a collection of poems written between 1955 and 1963, originates from a line taken from Jeffers’ poem “Hellenistics.” He was also an avid reader of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and Gertrude Stein.

This initial interest in modernist poetry most likely stems from one of the movement’s biggest and earliest aims: to write candidly about working class life. In John Marsh’s Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry, he begins by pointing out that many modern poets did in fact set out to write about class. He also goes on to argue that:

“Though rarely approaching these problems as problems—that is, as problems to be solved—modern poets nevertheless felt compelled to invoke these problems and those who lived, suffered, and occasionally sought to correct them. Some poets treated, directly or indirectly, quite specific labor problems: William Carlos Williams on the causes of strikes, T.S. Eliot on slums, and Edna St. Vincent Millay on immigration. Nearly all addressed the problem of poverty in the United States. Others, like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, wrote about labor problems unrecognized at the time but recognizable now—that is, the emotional crucible of service labor” (9).

I would like to emphasize Marsh’s adept point that modernists did not approach class as a problem to be solved. As we will see further along when we delve deeper into the specifics of Bukowski’s work, he is very much in line with this element of modernist poetry. His poems rarely, if ever, offer solutions, except for one: writing as an alternative to exploitative labor. To continue with this line of thought, modernist poetry was also influential to Bukowski because it was in direct defiance with Romantic poetry. Marsh explains that “as many literary historians have observed, the generation of poets who modernized poetry in the early twentieth century sought to distinguish themselves against the Victorian and genteel traditions dominating the poetry scene at the turn of the century” and adds that “what has gone less acknowledged is how writing about workers and the poor become one of the principal ways poets could strike a blow against that tradition” (10). For Bukowski, modernist poetry was the best example of how to operate as a poetic rebel. This desire would account for how, as he laments in a letter, he checked out The Cantos from the library fifteen times, but returned it each time, unread (134). He knew the work was important and his compulsion to interact with it was immense, but ultimately, he resisted it the same way he ended up resisting modernist poetry as a whole, and, eventually, all poetic traditions. From this point on, I will focus on how Bukowski’s poetics operate as antimodernist texts.

In the late sixties and early seventies, Bukowski penned a handful of essays explaining his poetics. In these essays, a few common themes materialize: his status as an unskilled laborer, the long hours spent in libraries as a starving writer, and his disappointment in Literature’s failure to adequately capture the experiences of the common man. In “Notes on the Life of an Aged Poet,” Bukowski writes:

“When a man works for years at the same occupation his time is another man’s time. I mean, even with an 8-hour day, that day is taken. Add travel time to and from work, plus work, plus eating, sleeping, bathing, buying clothes, automobiles, tires, batteries, paying taxes, copulating, having visitors, getting sick, having accidents, having insomnia, having to worry about laundry and theft and weather and all the other unmentionables, there isn’t ANY TIME left to the man for himself. And, when overtime is called often some of these necessities must be left out, even sleep, and, more often, copulation. What the fuck?” (121).

Bukowski envisioned his poetics as a response to what was missing in literature: the grit of everyday life and the exploitation of the common man. He often referred to himself as a man without a trade (although I would argue writing was his trade) and in those early days of scouring the library shelves desperately searching for something to hold onto, he was met with an even bigger silence. After years of poverty, alcoholism, low wage work and illness, he set out to write the kind of verse that would replace that silence. Bukowski accomplished this task by utilizing a form and content that, although influenced by modernism, was ultimately antimodernist and anti-academic, and entrenched in the political.

Bukowski’s biggest break with modernist poetry dealt with his desire to produce. According to Abel Debritto, in Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground: From Obscurity to Literary Icon, he was the most widely published author in the sixties, appearing in two-hundred and thirty-nine magazines (not including mimeo publications), far surpassing Ginsberg and Burroughs, who published the least, between thirty and forty magazines (37).  He attributes this to Bukowski’s compulsive desire for exposure, but Russell Harrison, in Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski, points out that it might be more related to the larger movement of modern poetry. He suggests that “since Flaubert there has been an aesthetic—one might even call it an ethic—which prized a craft that might restrict production to three or four lines a day for a novelist, and a similar intensity brought to bear on the poem had almost become the norm in the intervening century” (30-31). Harrison gives two reasons for the large mass of work Bukowski produced throughout his lifetime: 1. he wrote about the mundane and most of life is made up of the mundane, and 2. his preferred use of the poetic narrative. However, I want to suggest that mass production also occurred as a result of Bukowski’s low-class status. He applied a working-class ethic to his poetry by writing every day, and producing as much work as possible. As someone who pumped gas, worked in a dog biscuit factory, and worked as a foreman and a truck driver, he did not know the luxury of laboring over one or two lines. For him, writing was the job he chose for himself. This choice was antimodernist as much as it was political: he would cheat the system by channeling his unskilled labor-energy into producing a large sum of creative work.

Formally, Bukowski’s work is decidedly antimodernist through his poetic techniques. As Harrison astutely points out, “Bukowski has no single, preferred form as (even within the greater freedom of free verse) poets often do: neither long nor short poems, neither long nor short stanzas, neither long nor short lines” and he concludes that “this variety has contributed to the feeling that there is really no form, and therefore no craft, no underlying aesthetic of some sort, at least, to Bukowski’s poetry, the feeling (even at this late date) that it isn’t even, really, poetry” (31). This is a misguided assumption because it suggests a lack of thought, that there is no mind at work in his poetry. Although Bukowski worked diligently to cultivate the mythologized persona of the “skid row poet,” he was just as well-read as any poet employed by a university during that time, and worked just as hard to succeed in having his poems appear in Poetry or the New Yorker. In a letter to a friend in 1965, he typed out his version of the typical New Yorker poem with the explanation that “this they consider poetry because it’s pretty and it’s a con game and they think that we can’t write it, but we can, we simply refuse to…” (197). In a later essay entitled “Basic Training” Bukowski is delighted when he finds out that his mother-in-law is not fond of his work, saying that “she was also upset by the sentences between: stiff, cracked, wobbling, Stygial. Hardly Shakespearean…I had worked faithfully in the dank caverns to get it that way. I felt vindicated that she found it distasteful” (252).

Bukowski’s desire to appear unpoetic was a conscious choice. He was not interested in metrical verse, closed form or metaphor. Content-wise, his work did not rely on the complicated psychology of a subject who had the privilege of mobility. His poems are rich in metonymy, casual language and subjectivity in the sense that characters react to their environments out of survival rather than the desire to reflect and change. Bukowski’s unprivileged perspective highlights the subject’s need to assert itself against the pressures of everyday life, but with little result. To further examine this discussion of poetics, we can look at a few selections.

In the poem “Fragile!” the speaker is criticized by his boss for packing a box of breakable items incorrectly and the following occurs:

he went into the office and
I swept on toward the back.
a few minutes later
I heard him laughing with
the secretaries.

I unlocked the door, brought in
the empty trashcans, sat down and
smoked
a cigarette. I began to get sleepy
at last.

Aside from the odd line breaks and lack of capitalization, which is a trademark of Bukowski’s poetry, it is important to note the apathy of the speaker after being reprimanded by his boss. Bukowski’s poems are known for lacking a typical poetic turn. However, it is the lack of a turn that becomes the focus. The speaker of the poem responds by not responding. There is no urgent desire to do a better job, or to make up for his mistakes. He is not a company man. The poem concludes anti-climatically with these lines:

I put some water in the tape machine
and stood there
waiting
waiting for 5:30.

The lines are purposely flat; the line breaks are orchestrated to appear random in order to amplify the fact that unskilled work is unrewarding. However, now, it will be important to focus on the beginning of the poem which starts out in this manner:

I tried all night to sleep
but I couldn’t sleep
and I began drinking
around 5:30
and reading about Delius
and Stravinsky

The poem begins with insomnia, drinking and classical music and ends in flat defiance of being the “model worker.” Although the poem is composed of short lines, it resists any type of aesthetic, which is a conscious choice in itself. The dissatisfaction with the grueling grind of everyday life coupled with the uninspired ending creates a dynamic poetic moment. The poet refuses aesthetics; the speaker refuses to work hard under an exploitative system.

Another poem that exemplifies Bukowski’s use of casual language and dark subject matter is “moyamensing prison:” in which the speaker reflects on the time he spent gambling in prison:

I soon had all the money in the yard.
and in the morning and in the days that followed —
the screws, the sparrows, the shivs, the dips, the
strongarms, the looneys, the hustlers, the freaks,
the discarded dream-presidents of America, the cook,
in fact, all my critics, they all called me
“Mr. Bukowski,” a kind of fleeting immortality
I guess

The lack of aesthetics is still present and there is also the interesting list, but here, I want to focus mainly on the content: the speaker is the man with the most money, and as a result, he is respected by all. He goes on by admitting that:

but real as hogs’ heads or dead flowers,
and the force of it
got to me there:
“Mr. Bukowski,” ace-crapshooter,
money-man in a world of almost
no money.
immortality.

What makes this poem unique is that there is a reflective voice that acknowledges that power is determined by capital even in a prison community, and that capital is also tied to immortality. The speaker continues:

I didn’t recite them Shelley, no,
and everything came to me after lights out:
slim-hipped boys I didn’t want
steaks and ice cream and cigars which I did
want, and
shaving cream, new razorblades, the latest copy of the
New Yorker.

Again, as readers, we are presented with a mind that knows Shelley well enough to recite, that reads high literature while at the same time being offered various objects, including bodies. The poem concludes without a precise turn:

what greater immortality than Heaven in Hell,
and I continued to enjoy it until they
threw me out on the streets
back to my typewriter,
innocent, lazy, frightened and mortal
again.

In the end, the speaker understands the futility of material wealth. The ending is tinged with nihilism, but from the common man perspective, it is reality. In prison, the speaker is more successful at a dice game than he is on the streets where hard labor produces nothing in the way of material or emotional wealth.

However, the final poem in this close reading, “Winter Comes to a Lot of Places in August,” is a contrast to the previous two poems, and demonstrates Bukowski’s prolific poetic style. The poem is about the daily trek to a factory job and begins in this way:

Winter comes in a lot of places in August,
like the railroad yards
when we come over the bridge,
hundreds of us,
workers like cattle,
like Hannibal victorious over the Mountain;
Winter comes in Rome, Winter comes in Paris
and Miami

Note the geographical expansion: the poem begins talking about men as cattle and moves out into classical historical allusion as well as a list of important international cities. The poem continues to build up musically:

and we come
over the silver bridge,
carrying our olive lunch pails
with the good fat wives’ coffee
and 2 bologna sandwiches
and oh, just a tid-bit found somewhere
to warm our gross man-bones
and prove to us that love
is not clipped out like a coupon

The rhythm fuses well with the subject matter, which is an affirmation of working-class life and is quite the departure from Bukowski’s normal nihilistic tone. The last half of the poem takes off beautifully and exercises melodic rhythm to a skillful degree:

…here we come,
hundreds of us,
blank-faced and rough
(we can take it, god damn it!)
over the silver bridge,
smoking our cheap cigars in the grapefruit air;
here we come,
bulls stamping in cheap cotton,
bad boys all;
ah hell, we’d rather play the ponies
or chance a sunburn at the shore,
but we’re men, god damn it, men,
can’t you see?
men,
coming over our bridge,
taking our Rome and our coffee,
bitter, brave, and
numb.

This is one of Bukowski’s most successful poems because it enacts his poetics in stellar fashion. The rhythm is driven by the simple conjunction ‘and’ as well as “here we come” as the refrain, but then, the poem speeds up as the speaker becomes more confidently defiant. Another interesting move is the fact that the bridge, Rome and coffee become our bridge, our Rome and our coffee. This could be read as political in terms of labor and exploitation: the brushing back against a system that sees men as unskilled labor instead of human beings. But also, the casual language affirms personality just as much as the exclamation “we’re men, god damn it, can’t you see?” demands attention. But, in typical Bukowski fashion, the last word of the poem is “numb.” As the speaker points out, he would rather be doing other things, but for him, and other men who have to work similar jobs, employment is survival and it leaves them without feeling.

Although not a conclusive benchmark, it is worth noting that PoemHunter.com places Charles Bukowski as number twelve on their list of the top five hundred poets, ahead of most of the modernist poets he read as a starving twenty-something in numerous public libraries throughout the country. His profile includes one-hundred and forty-five poems and averages around one thousand hits per day. He is also one of the select few poets who succeeded in living purely off of his writing and, twenty years after his death, is still considered one of the most popular American writers in Germany. And yet, the amount of scholarship on this major American poet is miniscule. It is my hope that this paper will add to the first-rate scholarship produced by Bukowski scholars like Abel Debritto and Russell Harrison and encourage other contemporary poet scholars to take up a study of this poet’s work, in terms of class, in terms of poetics, but more importantly, what academia can learn from him in terms of his relationship to an audience who still loves him wholeheartedly as a champion of the common man.