Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bukowski, absurd man

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a great American writer and poet. His work was also full of the absurd. Put another way: He knew life had no meaning, accepted it and then drank some beer and bet horses and chased women and wrote a boatload of poems. He lived life as it came.

And he had quite a life - an abusive father and difficult childhood, followed by a long stretch of menial day jobs and wandering, living on the edge of poverty. Through it all, his keen eye for the absurd never wavered. He was well into his 40s before his poetry began to pay.

He spent a lot of time around racetracks and bars. Where else to witness the whole spectrum of human absurdities? He was fascinated by man’s hopeless persistence and struggle. Knowledge of death, though, was an anecdote. “Living was easy,” Buk writes, “all you had to do was let go.”

There is a definite thread in Buk’s poems of acceptance of things as they are, another absurd trait… Bukowski accepts and does not moralize. “I’m one of those who doesn’t think there is much difference / between an atomic scientist and a man who cleans the crappers.”

In another poem, he writes about meeting a very old man while Buk was living in New Orleans as a broke 21 year-old. The two take walks together. Buk writes:

“I liked him: he never questioned me about
what I was or wasn’t

he should have been my father, and I liked
best what he said over and
over: “Nothing is worth

Here Buk hits on the illusion of meaning in human pursuits. Nothing matters. The last line also has a double meaning, an optimistic absurd meaning: “Nothing” – the meaningless of it all – is worth it. It’s worth living the absurd life.

Hard to say what to read when it comes to Bukowski. He was incredibly prolific and there are reams of poetry volumes. The later stuff tends to be more absurd, when the poet was older, facing death, looking back on a long life…

I would point to You Get So Alone Sometimes It Just Makes Sense or Last Night of the Earth Poems. Another potential choice is Bone Palace Ballet, which we've not read yet, but which the Library Journal writes is about the acceptance of death and old age: “Bukowski knows he faces death and seeks "the grave to find a more/ comfortable/ position." He realizes that death will be his final act, and he will be "alone but not lonely." Accepting it, he writes with clarity and precision: "I will write the stuff only for myself/ and to myself” and goes on to realize that in death he will "no longer defile these pages/ with my raw and simple/ lines."”

And finally, a last summing up from Buk, reminding us – lest we take on airs of importance – that we are just defecating animals after all:

“You know, we’re monstrosities. If we could really see this, we could love ourselves… realize how ridiculous we are, with our intestines wound around, shit slowly running through as we look each other in the eyes and say ‘I love you,’ our stuff is carbonizing, turning into shit, and we never fart near each other. It all has a comic edge… And then we die.”

Good old Bukowski…

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