Saturday, September 15, 2007

And another

This one is pretty fun too...

Understanding Bukowski

The writings of Charles Bukowski have traditionally been viewed as Anti-American. (Harrison P.15) This is the view than many, if not most, new readers of Bukowski think. A large percentage of people do not really understand Bukowski’s writing, be it his prose or poetry. Some regard it as foul-mouthed and mean-spirited, or just plain pessimistic. Some dismiss his work as unabashed whining. Others enjoy it on some level, as a sort of id-centric male fantasy, but they fail to understand the overall importance that Bukowski’s body of work commands; they see it as simple skid-row spectacle. For example, critic Michael Greenburg has described Bukowski's fiction as a "detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free."(Wikipedia. “Charles Bukowski.” P.1-2) Bukowski’s work is much more important than this. In the context of the 20th Century, Bukowski’s voice is the voice of disenfranchised America. To begin to understand this, we have to look at the critical difference between Bukowski and his 20th Century peers.
Many other great American poets and writers have addressed the same issues as Bukowski, but these other writers are what I would define as “special-interest writers.” These other writers, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou come to mind, have work that encompasses the plight of the marginalized, but, in the case of Hughes and Angelou, with a uniquely African-American perspective. Also, Hughes and Angelou address the entire plight of their race, from the beginning of history, not just the conditions of their respective generations.
Bukowski differs from these writers in two distinct ways. First of all, Bukowski does not claim to be the member of any specific race or social group. His work voices his personal plight, and it can be inferred that his plight is relevant to, or similar, to the hardship of the disenfranchised as a whole, but he never declares himself a member of some sort of unified “lower-class.” He does make some connotations in his works that he is not a member of the “upper-class”, but he never identifies himself as some sort of proletariat or Walt Whitman style “American Everyman.” He actually takes steps to distance himself from both groups. In the poem My Father he declares that “I thought maybe the bums knew something, but I found out that most of the bums want to be rich too, they had just failed at that.”(25-27) This shows he holds no “class allegiance” to the poor, simply because he was poor as well. This is very important: he gives voice to a people that do not even realize they are a class.
Secondly, in contrast to Whitman and Hughes, he never makes his plight larger than his own life. Yes, sometimes he does make critiques of the “world” or the “system” but his body of work is not some sort of “class manifesto” like much of Whitman’s work. Whitman, in contrast, declared himself the spokesman for every “non-Blueblood” in North America.
Bukowski is much more myopic. In ways, he is a nation of one, a perpetual outsider. His poems and prose are focused on his experience and his life. He does not go back to previous generations and try to create a unifying theme. Again, Bukowski is writing about his experience, not the experience of a people. Bukowski claims no people as his own. His poetry does mention a kindred spirit type of relationship with people he meets throughout his life, but again, he does not proclaim himself a German-American or a Blue-Collar American. Since he does not claim membership in any group, how can he have any history but his own personal history?
His history can only be the time span of his life. This, in itself, makes him the voice of the marginalized. Many people, the jobless and the working poor, black or white, feel alone in the world. Even minorities, who may be part of a unified group on paper, have to struggle to make ends meet if they have no system of support. They live in virtual isolation, like Bukowski himself. Which brings us to our next reason that Bukowski is the voice of the marginalized.
Two movies have been made about the life of Charles Bukowski, Barfly and the upcoming Factotum starring Matt Dillion. These films are conceived and created because the image of Bukowski is identifiable to the American, and international, public. (Hedegaard P.1) In this we see the proof as Bukowski as an icon. People can relate to him as a character, his experience, and his plight is recognizable. It’s a plight that the American can identify with, or, at the very least, recognize. Matt Dillion, who will be playing Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinanski, grew up reading Bukowski novels. Dillion stated he can see himself in the character, like most men could, and sought to bring dignity to the character. (Hedegaard P. 5-7) Whitman, Dickinson and Ginsberg are great poets, but do any of them have a movie about there lives, or two movies? Besides two major motion pictures, Bukowski is the subject of many short films, plays, and songs. This shows that Bukowski is accessible to the population at large; actor Matt Dillion was instantly able to relate to the Henry Chinanski character. (Hedegaard P.1) And yet another way to gauge Bukowski’s relevance is to look at the modest success he enjoyed at the end of his life. In the 1990s Bukowski drove a BMW, paid for by his writing, and this is a man who rejected success and fame at every possible turn.
To further reinforce the idea of Bukowski’s work being universal, we must note that he is often mentioned as an influence by many contemporary authors and poets. In literary circles it is accepted that his style is widely imitated. Some goes as far as saying Bukowski is the most imitated writer of the entire 20th Century. (Wikipedia. “Charles Bukowski.” P.1) Frank Wilson of the Philadelphia Inquirer, in regard to New Poems, the sixth volume published since Bukowski’s death 11 years ago, said: “ For a guy who routinely described himself as a bum, Charles Bukowski sure has made up posthumously for any lost productivity during his lifetime.” (P.1) This begs the question, if Bukowski’s voice is not universal, then who is buying his books?
For so many people, critics, authors, and reader alike, there are many tangible things in his work to relate too. Bukowski’s problems are universal problems, except that Bukowski has many problems, and each of these problems is of a severe degree. Bukowski wrote the way he drank, steadily, every day. This is why so many people like to read him. Whatever else he may have been, he was no phony. In Bukowski’s work we can see the clear interests he had in life: booze, women, the ponies(horse racing), classical music, and writing. (Wilson. P.1-2) Bukowski’s observations on life, even though it is a down-and-out life, are genuine and uncluttered.
The hardships Bukowski encountered in life informed his writing, because, experience shaped his persona. According to Bukowski, his father was verbally and physically abusive, and this is detailed in Bukowski’s novel Ham on Rye. (Wikipedia. P.1) In the novel Ham on Rye, the reader can see how Bukowski’s dysfunctional childhood is the root of his dysfunctional adulthood and pessimistic attitude. As far as Bukowski’s father attempted to achieve the American dream by escaping his lower middle class position and failed. This failure exacerbated the tyrannical attitude that Bukowski’s father had toward his wife and child. Much of Bukowski’s work reflects a deep-seated resentment toward his parent. It’s something he was never able to overcome. His father’s violence and intimidation, coupled with his mother’s refusal to intervene formed the psychological basis of the rejection of close personal interaction. These feeling defined his entire like and work.(Blohm. P.1-2) . Literary critic Gary Blohm also notes: “Between the violence of his father, the perceived abandonment by his mother and alienation from his peers, Bukowski came to personify the outsiders who populate his poetry and fiction.”(P.1) A number of issues are reveled here, and although few readers have had a childhood this dysfunctional, there is basically enough problems here that the reader can find at least one to relate to, even if Bukowski’s experience in much more pronounced.
The very concept of childhood problems is universal. I propose that this is more proof of Bukowski’s “voice of the marginalized.” The effect of childhood problems casting a shadow on adulthood if the theme of many stories, book and movies, from many different eras. Again, Bukowski does not declare himself an everyman, he just tells his story, and people see themselves in him, or at the very least, they see something the can recognize.
The other issues in his body of work are the same. He has problems with women and relationships. His are worse than most, but again, who has not had relationship problems? Other things in his body of work can be best described as bad jobs and bad luck. And then there is a sort of vague critique of the system. In my opinion, Bukowski does not seek to create an overreaching critique of the human condition, he creates one as a byproduct of his work. His was no socialist or political agenda. Often his poetry acknowledges the power of capitalism and the helplessness of the working poor, as in his poem, “the workers.” (Bloom P.1)
His writing is a an artful description of what he has seen. His eleven years spent working in poorly paid, often physically demanding work, for the United States Post Office is the basis of his novel Post Office. Much of the novel describes the isolating effects of this type of labor, as well as describing the conditions of the workers in their constant struggle against the management classes and, ultimately, each other. (Blohm. P2.) The most prominent themes in his body of work is the physical and psychological effect of hard, low-status work on the laborer: “They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and belly. It was the stool and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, everywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job.”(Bloom P2-3.)
In conclusion, we see Bukowski for what he is, the downtrodden, a victim of most of the injustices that 20th Century America has to offer. But the downtrodden he represents in not a unified group of people. It is a group that exists in the mind of the observer. For instance, the working poor have no class unity and don’t even think of themselves as a class. As a testament to effectiveness of American propaganda, they don’t even know that they are a class, or what a class even is. So their “group” is the creation of the observer, just as animals and plants can be organized into categories like genus and species. This is the prime reason that Bukowski, the perpetual outsider, is their voice, because they are manifest, everywhere, yet alone in isolation.

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