Charles Bukowski is one of my principle inspirations when it comes to poetry; not particularly for his fractured personal life, the drinking, the races or his attitudes towards sex and women- although if you read Bukowski then you can’t ignore any of these things. His poems are firmly rooted in the bars, the tracks, the bedrooms and the streets. The language is rough, the form is conversational, the thoughts are sharp edged. This is not poetry for polite social soirees – this is poetry that stinks of stale booze and cheap perfume, where the paper is creased and stained, and which has been wrestled out from a chaotic lifestyle and battered into words. And for all of this, perhaps because of all of this, I really enjoy his work.
This grittiness is one reason why Bukowski inspires me. His poetry doesn’t conform to scientific principals and syllable counts. It isn’t neat. It isn’t heroic in the traditional sense, or classical in form or style. But it is real. And it is very raw. Read who in the hell is Tom Jones which closes with “the 34-year-old/came back in, she had/pissed all over her-/self and her clothing/was torn and she was/followed by 2 cops who/wanted to know why./pulling up my shorts/I tried to explain.” Read on the sidewalk and in the sun, “he is lost. with that pack./on the sidewalk and in the sun./god almighty, old man, I think, throw away that pack.” This is poetry from the street, unpolished, from grubby real life, and it gave me the confidence to express myself more freely. I am a million times more middle class, more British, but Bukowski showed me how the words and the emotions can find their own form, their own style, tempo and rhythm.
I also take a great deal of inspiration from the volume of Bukowski’s work, the way that he writes gives you the impression that the acts of writing and sharing were the most important things in his life. You feel from reading his poetry that he just had to write, it was that simple. From One More Good One, “to be writing poetry at the age of 50/like a schoolboy/surely, I must be crazy”. Yes, quite possibly you were, but you just kept on it. From his mid thirties until his early seventies. Drawing on memories of a tough childhood, and a turbulent life, and pushing his words out through independent presses, in books, in pamphlets, sometimes to crowds and sometimes into tiny print run underground collections. The words and the sharing of the words, that’s what mattered. Even when he writes, in dark night poem “they say that/nothing is wasted/either that/or/it all is”
I don’t want to be broke, to be a drunk, to pick my way through fractured, half formed relationships. That’s not my life. I am starting to understand, though, the passion that I believe made Bukowski write. Age wasn’t a barrier to him; he felt, he experienced, he wrote. What stops me from doing the same? I doubt that I’ll ever reach anything like the audience that he did, but that’s not the point. There are hundreds of other voices out there, telling and sharing, but that’s not the point either. The words are falling out of me sometimes. It’s time to let go of my fears and insecurities and write like I mean it.
Good places to start with Bukowski are “The Pleasures of the Damned”, which contains a selection of his poems from throughout his life and “What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire”, a selection of later works. You can read more about his life and work here and here