Father Ted with a Typewriter – Dave Lordan on Bukowski’s ‘On Writing’


Best selling American writer Charles Bukowski was born in August 16 1920 – happy birthday – and died in 1994 . He was called by Time Magazine The Laureate of American Lowlife and is among the most popular – and also most controversial – of 20th century poets and his global readership continues to grow into the millions in our own day.  On Writing is a selection from Bukowski’s voluminous correspondence, stretching from the mid 1940s to the early 1990s – years of bedsit obscurity segueing into greater and greater fame. There’s much about Bukowski’s bad-boy attitude to other writers, to the literary scene, to Literature with a capital L.

Is it a practical writing guide? Not atall. There’s very little practical or technical advice in it although there is a kind of theology of writing that one must live in the trenches of life – rather than as an academic or an ivory tower liberal – to have anything worth saying.  There is plenty from the trenches of down-and-out America in the book – drink, broken men and broken women, racetracks etc, all of which is covered much more eloquently in his many books of poetry. There is very little point to this book besides necroprofiteering on behalf of Canongate and Harper Collins. They’ll be selling us relics next.

Bukowski is disgusted by other writers – what fakes they are, from his point of view. He takes this to absurd – but entertaining – extremes in, say, dismissing Shakespeare as a fake. But he has a strong point coming from within his own formative context, which was the very respectable world of American poetry in the 40s and 50s. He criticises poets for not being original and unthinkingly copying done-to death old poetry formulas, for writing poems which lack any fire or energy or risk, for being careerist. These criticisms are fair I think in many cases – both in his time and our own. Which is why he upsets the literary establishment – or used to anyway. There is now of course a Bukowski industry which is established, a racket that is making a hell of a lot of money for someone – though not for Bukowski. This is why we get a hard cover book like On Writing, unlikely to be affordable to any true Bukowski-ites out there, and full of the most boring bits of Bukowski, those boastful droning drunkalogues, alongside opinions of his which have been expressed better elsewhere and often. It’s like Father Ted with a Typewriter at times.

Bukowski is writer who would benefit greatly from having less rather than more books in print. He published far too much. But a Selected Poems – maybe 300 pages carefully chosen – would be one of the best poetry books in existence.

Bukowski’s personal canon is surprisingly varied and complex. In these letters he sincerely admires Gertrude Stein and Hilda Doolittle, Hemingway, Celine, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Joyce, Fante- experimentalists of previous generations – but then again he crankily took against writers of his own day who would seem from our vantage to be natural fellows of his. He denounces Burroughs – because he was born rich – and Ginsberg – because he was popular/ist. I think Bukowski himself is the result of a marriage – or open relationship rather – between Rumi, the medieval persian poet, and Dostoevsky.

Is Bukowski as incompable and original as he himself and many of his millions of fans think?
I think so, yes. His impact on late 20th century poetry is comparable to Wordsworth’s on early 19th. Like Wordsworth, Bukowski popularised a new style of authentic, clear, singing poetic diction along with a new focus on the people and struggles of lower classes and their symbolic and spiritual value for the rest of us.

Like all great innovators, Bukowski’s impact on poetry overall is double-edged – on the one hand Bukowski heralded a welcome move towards a new respect for vernacular poetry in the English language. On the other hand he spawned legions of poor imitators  who are maybe as committed as he was to the whiskey and gambling and bad sex but can’t write.

Bukowski is popular and will probably always be popular because his poems are accessible to and identifiable with by all those people who don’t have time, patience or interest in ‘literary’ or ‘academic’ poetry – the kind of poetry which remains (70 years after he first called it out) a coded conversation between privileged intellectuals about nothing much. Which is why ‘Poetic Poetry’ as he called it is so unpopular. Bukowski wrote work that is profound, impactful and aimed squarely at the person on the street, or in the gutter. He sacrificed no artistic or spiritual principles, sells in the millions, and helps many people to live – he’s far and away the most publicly influential poet in the English language in the last 6 or 7 decades.  The only thing that can damage him now is the post-mortem greed of publishers – which frankly accounts for the existence of this misnomered On Writing, the substance of which is already available ten times over elsewhere, and for free.

Dave Lordan

Click here for my RTE ARENA review of On Writing.