Monday, September 25, 2006

Charles Bukowski --- "Born Into This"

Over the years I have maintained a strong attachment to the work of Charles Bukowski. It is not without ambivalence that I admit to this sentiment. His work is at times objectionable, simplistic and cliche. Yet it is by far the most accessible poetry I have ever come across. There are many who now credit him with grabbing the poetic form from the hands of dilettantes and academics, and placing it firmly within working class hands. Of course this affinity plays against the legions of lost twentysomethings who have sunk themselves through drink and underemployment, in a futile attempt to slice off a bit of his muddled magic. His work has been the blueprint for much wasted talent. And yet I am often inspired to write when I read his words... even in the throes of full adulthood.

I remember where I was when Bukowski died. I was lolling about on a girlfriend's bed in the middle of the afternoon, and watching her television. Kurt Loder, of MTV News, delivered the story. "Hank" had finally acquired cultural cache among "the hipsters", and the coverage of his death was played as if it was cutting-edge journalism. Somehow the news seemed cheapened, but it was debasedly fitting that I heard about Bukowski's tragic end in this manner. I felt a palpable sadness, and yet knew that a laconic acceptance was more appropriate. I continued to read his work, and posthumous volumes followed, one after another for years.

Finally a decent documentary of his life has been released- director John Dullaghan's "Born Into This" (2003). Dullaghan made the proper choice of minimizing academic interpretation. Accounts of Bukowski's life are presented by his ex-girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. But most significantly the bulk of the film consists of collected footage of the man himself. This is Bukowski as icon. We see him reading, driving, musing philosophically, and interacting with his lovers. We are even treated to Barbet Schroeder's footage of him at his misogynistic worst. Yet his complexity of character often slips past his tough exterior. He was much more than his public image. Despite what he would have you believe in his poetry, there was more to his life than women, horses, bars, classical music and fighting. Bukowski was a biographer... Not just of himself, but of the city he lived in- the underbelly of Twentieth Century Los Angeles... And of all those men living working-class lives of anonymous, but not-so-quiet, desperation.

I've seen it often repeated that appreciating Bukowski is appropriate for a young man, but exposes a lack of sophistication in a "mature adult". While I can understand why people make this claim, I don't entirely agree. You may have to sift through a lot of posturing, but there is both simplicity and wisdom in his work... and to deny these qualities is to descend into the sort of myopia that Bukowski resisted his entire life. For whatever flaws this documentary may contain... it avoids the type of manufactured exploitation of identity that the poet himself sometimes fell prey to.


Anonymous jefg said...

I recall that Bukowski was not known to me until after his death. I becam acquainted with his works in a very strange (and private)way. It was not until the later 1990's that I read several of his works. A couple of things stick in my mind about the video bio, which I watched some time ago. Bukowski lived through the depression, and I believe that influenced him greatly. I found it interesting that he worked in a very mundane job at the post office for twelve years (both delivery and sorting mail), once having to beg to get his job back. He did not achieve any form of commercial success to late in his life. Much of his art seems to have emanated from pain in his life. I remember him saying his father used to beat him with a strap. In the bio they talked about little monographs that he published. I wasn't familiar with work in that format, though I lived during that time period.

Then, there were a few things he said or wrote that also stuck with me. He said there is a little bit of woman inside all of us (men). One of his poems included the line "There's a bulebird in my heart that wants to get out". Both these lines I felt very un-Bukoski like. And, on solitude, "there are worse things than being alone". So true. It came as no surprise that Tom Waits was one of his admireres.

Lastly, and leastly, have you noticed how much Bruce Springstein is begining to look like Bukowski? No, I suppose you haven't.

9:55 PM  

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