If there exists a literary device which can be objectified as a cross between a hammer and dagger, I admit, I am unaware of it.
Charles Bukowski’s work is an instrument which serves the purpose of both a hammer and a knife. It shatters you and drives right through, at the same time.
His honesty tugs your brain strings. We are talking about men being refrained from emotional expression under the garb of social norms. And here we have this man— German born but American citizen during WW2-- who had the courage to put himself on paper with what appears to be with such ease. His writings mirror his self-awareness and how unabashed he was about his reality. And he didn’t have the typical poet's charm, an envious social life or friendship in higher circles to provide his unsubtle, honest writing with a welcoming audience. He was not guaranteed a grand reception to be courageous for. From the strained relationship with his sadist father to his wide ranging experiences with women, he has not shied from anything.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald was a great writer. And his life, like most of his stories was one huge celebration for a long time. And, which is why, I believe, it is popularly theorized that the Great Gatsby was not just a spin in his career, but a reflection of a personal revelation. The Great Gatsby is believed to mirror the aftermath of Fitzgerald’s secret private war and lessons he learnt from it. Bukowski, on the other hand, never saw the golden crown of intellect or wisdom, whatever one might call it, on his head. If he did, he successfully ignored it. He’d rather have a can of beer in both hands than an extravagant, stately, intellectual ‘reputation’.
His blunt narrative actually honors the beauty of life and acknowledges the significance of the small things in life. For a long time he is looking for a woman. Some of his poems talk of there really being no good women. Then there’s ‘another bed’ which I see more about life than the non-permanence of relationships.
I have seen Bukowski establish as a self-contradictory, narrow poet. ‘An Unkind Poem’ and ‘So You Want to be a Writer’
“If you have to read it
to your wife or your girlfriend
or your boyfriend or your parents
or to anybody at all
you’re not ready.”
A poem can never really be misinterpreted, but those familiar with Bukowski’s work would agree that he does not intend to mock amateurs. He wants them to be persistent; and to write for themselves and themselves alone. If you write for anything other than to write, you’ll never get it right. He not only knows the truth but is unafraid to say it. He knows there are others like him, drinking until morning or writing until. It is to let them know that it takes love to go on with it and that “if it’s hard work just thinking about it”, it’s not supposed to be.
Modernism was already on the literary stage when Bukowski entered with ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy rejection Slip’ at 24. His refusal to be pushed and tugged at by society and its norms is reflected in the unconventional form of his writings, especially in poetry. Owing to his German birth he was arrested by the FBI during WW2 under suspicion of draft evasion. The file maintained by the FBI on him, however, is credited to his ‘Notes of a Dirty Old Man’.
Unlike the poets known to have condemned war, Bukowski’s works hold no political flags. Though, they do contain traces of having lived through a war if not fought one. He was restrained, of course, by his birthplace and as a man who describes ten years of his life as ‘lost’ in drinking, I am led to believe that perhaps his was a different world from whose windows he peered into ours. Few things existed in his world—alcohol, women, reading, writing and the windows.
I will not make the common mistake of claiming to know Bukowski because I’ve read few of his works. A piece of writing or any other art is just a fragment of thought. One can be familiar with an artist’s style, but to claim to know is going a little too far. Also, the rules of studying one writer or poet cannot be applied to another. But we do tend to trace poets by their poems more than authors by their novels. So, if I was to draw him from my interpretation of his poems and novels it would be that of a man indifferent to society but observant of people. But then we also have ‘one for the shoeshine man’ in which he says
“I am bitter sometimes
but the taste has often been
sweet. its only that I’ve
feared to say it.”
This, now, raises questions on the intensity of drudgery that I have burdened his character with. But it does clean the obscurity off ‘empathy’ and ‘humility’ in his character which might have settled through ‘An unkind Poem’.
Bukowski is a world. His novels, poems, their form and interpretation shed layers or add shades every read. Though an unapologetic classic lover, despite, his blunt, explicit narrative, I fell in love with ‘me and that old woman: sorrow’. ‘You’ is blunt, ‘dog’ is gentle and then there’s ‘alone with everybody’ which once read cannot be shoved in a “once read, long forgotten poem” corner. His work and life model his ideology: “Find what you love and let it kill you” because “There’s no other way. And there never was”.