Many artists and writers gather their strength by opposing the established order, but sooner or later the successful ones are assimilated into the culture (Allen Ginsberg, the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco). Usually it happens belatedly but with hyperbolic claims as if to compensate for years of indifference or inattention. There are even times when the lag between rejection and celebration vanishes to nothing, as Gertrude Stein wrote in her brilliant lecture "Composition as Explanation." When the culture swallows the fashionable anti-establishment poetry of the moment, the result may be a mild case of indigestion. A good example is anti-war poetry of the 1960s, which was immediately accepted and glorified and is of absolutely no interest today.
The poet who has resisted assimilation longest and most strenuously is Charles Bukowski. Bukowski is the real thing, like Mexican Coke, a simile he would not have embraced, being a man who sets store by bourbon, whores with good legs, and the twenty-dollar window at the track. His poetry resists the mainstream as, say, even the radical Ginsberg of the 1950s doesn't. Bukowski is as enamored of himself as anyone else but he takes himself less seriously as a literatus. He keeps his brain in the post office where he labors as one of the proles. This humility is one reason he appeals to readers, and he has genuine and ardent readers. Bukowski has long led the league in one important catgegory: more of his books are stolen than those of any other author, an enviable distinction.
Read "The Continual Condiiton," the most recent of Bukowski's posthumour collections, and you will see how he manages to make the reader feel that what he is saying really happened and in just the way described. He uses his artistry to conceal his artistry. He depicts himself, in such poems as "Rejected" and "The Theory," as emphatically ugly -- and at the same time he insists upon his virility. In the former, an editor rejects a story on the grounds that "to infer that an ugly man your age / had sex with four women in one day / is simply infantile day-dreaming." So what dsoes Buk do? He spends the rest of the poem fleshing out this very situation.
About poetry Marianne Moore wrote, "I, too, dislike it." Bukowski would revise that to read "I, too, shit on it." He had an outstanding bullshit detector, and his poems in scorn of the Beats and other celebrated authors (""Ginsberg was / brought in / petted and / dismissed. / Burroughs was / still o.k. / but hardly / interesting / anymore. / Mailer, well hell, / that's big publishing, and / Olson, you know, well, / those breath pauses were / out of date / but meeting him / was nice") are funny and, well, nice.
Bukowski's power lies in the fact that he acknoweldges he is no better than anyone else and yet he remains the hero of his own life. His poems seem raw but are tighty controlled and secretly much more in the know than you might think. (Li Po and Catullus make sneak appearances in "as Buddha smiles"). I intend to write more about this fascinating personage but for now will leave you with these lines, the opening lines of a poem, which arrest your attention and won't let it go: "the god-damned ants have come marching here / and are climbiing into my wine, / I drink them down." -- DL
(ed note: This post originally appeared under a different title on September 23, 2011)