Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bukowski's poetic naturalism

Years ago, tucked away in the shadow of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston's Back Bay, I discovered Bukowski Tavern. I'd read some of poet and writer Charles Bukowski's work in high school or college, or both, but it had been a while. Walking into the tavern to meet a friend for drinks and dinner, my first thought was, "Yeah, this seems right for a place named after Bukowski." Great beer selection, old-time neighborhood bar feel, and packed tight with unpretentious locals and visitors alike. Seemed like the kind of place where Bukowski might feel at home. That's assuming it was possible for him to feel at home anywhere, because his writing was often expressing a desire to retreat from the world, from what he and his characters saw as the inanity of daily life in America. That had always been my impression of Bukowski's work. After visiting the bar all those years ago I resolved to return to his work at some point. It took a while but I finally did and I've realized there's a more to his work than just a desire to be left alone.

There's a strong sense of longing to belong in the best of his prose and poetry. He wasn't simply raging against the system (although he certainly did do that and with gusto), but was also questioning why the system raged against him and others like him. He exposed the inequalities in our social classes, how often times opinions are formed about you before you even have the chance to grow up and determine who you actually are. In Ham on Rye, one of Bukowski's semi-autobiographical novels, his literary alter ego Henry Chinaski is practically set up for failure from the start, with his appallingly unfit parents—a father who alternates between excoriating and beating him and a mother who stands idly by while it happens—and schools that allowed bullies and violent children to exert control over their classmates. Chinaki's life is often unrelentingly brutal, almost from the start,with nearly everyone Chinaski comes into contact with lacking basic compassion or kindness. It's a series of depressing encounters with parents, friends, teachers, doctors, and employers. It's not surprising that Chinaski longs to simply be left alone, wishing to just sleep for five years, uninterrupted. It's a crushing portrayal of depression and loneliness, reminiscent of "God's lonely man" Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or the unnamed (and unreliable) narrator in Notes from Underground. There are moments where Chinaski expresses anger at how life continually beats him down and keeps him locked in his low social station, but at other times he reveals a need to actually connect with someone, anyone. For the vast majority of the time he's just disinterested though, unmoved by the daily machinations of those around him. He understands how someone from his socioeconomic background will face more roadblocks to success than the privileged classes. He's powerless against most of life's obstacles, so he exerts power in overtly masculine endeavors like fighting and sports in order to have some level of control over something, no matter how trivial. In books like Ham on Rye, the brutality of the narrator's life is suffocating at times. But Bukowski layers plenty of humor in as well, especially through mocking contempt for how hilariously absurd life can be.

There's a quote from the Los Angeles Times on the back cover of Ham on Rye: "Wordsworth, Whitman, Williams Carlos Williams, and the Beats in their respective generations moved poetry toward a more natural language. Bukowski moved it a littler farther." That perfectly encapsulates what he did with his prose and poetry: using naturalism as his style, Bukowski helped pushed the boundaries of what could be considered poetry or literature. His writing was raw, naked, honest, brutal, sincere, unapologetic, and direct. When you read Bukowski, you feel like you're catching a glimpse into the lives of people that society would rather forget than bother to help. You might even be one of those forgotten people and recognize yourself in his work. He's been derided, along with several other prominent writers that share his pulp fiction style of writing, as being symptomatic of the cliched tough-guy, drunken, loutish male author who inspires slavish devotion and puerile imitation from legions of meatheads everywhere. Still, there's more than a nihilistic desire to retreat from society in his work; Bukowski provides insight into why someone might feel that lonely and isolated to want to retreat in the first place. In Bukowski's world, his narrators aren't against people; they're overwhelmed by them. There's a sensitivity, and yes a real humanity, to his work that lies just below the surface, if you care to find it.

I haven't been back to Bukowski Tavern since that visit, but that's not for lack of wanting to do so. I fully admit to being a sucker for literary themed establishments, but there's more to it than that. There's something perverse about naming a bar after an alcoholic. There's also something deeply honest about it though, and that seems entirely appropriate given how brutally honest Bukowski's work was.

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