Charles Bukowski: The Genius of the Crowd

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Charles Bukowski was a prolific underground writer who used his his poetry and prose to depict the depravity of urban life and the downtrodden in American society. A cult hero, Bukowski relied on experience, emotion, and imagination in his work, using direct language and violent and sexual imagery. While some critics found his style offensive, others claimed that Bukowski satirized the machismo attitude through his routine use of sex, alcohol abuse, and violence. “Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic, Bukowski writes with a nothing-to-lose truthfulness which sets him apart from most other ‘autobiographical’ novelists and poets,” commented Stephen Kessler in the San Francisco Review of Books, adding: “Firmly in the American tradition of the maverick, Bukowski writes with no apologies from the frayed edge of society.” Michael Lally in Village Voice maintained that “Bukowski is…a phenomenon. He has established himself as a writer with a consistent and insistent style based on what he projects as his ‘personality,’ the result of hard, intense living.” 

Born in Germany, Bukowski was brought to the United States at the age of two. His father believed in firm discipline and often beat Bukowski for the smallest offenses, abuse Bukowski detailed in his autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Ham on Rye (1982). A slight child, Bukowski was also bullied by boys his own age, and was frequently rejected by girls because of his bad complexion. “When Bukowski was 13,” wrote Ciotti, “one of [his friends] invited him to his father’s wine cellar and served him his first drink of alcohol: ‘It was magic,’ Bukowski would later write. ‘Why hadn’t someone told me?’” 

In 1939, Bukowski began attending Los Angeles City College, dropping out at the beginning of World War II and moving to New York to become a writer. The next few years were spent writing and traveling and collecting numerous rejection slips. By 1946 Bukowski had decided to give up his writing aspirations, embarking on a ten-year binge that took him across the country. Ending up near death in Los Angeles, Bukowski started writing again, though he would continue to drink and cultivate his reputation as a hard-living poet. He did not begin his professional writing career until the age of thirty-five, and like other contemporaries, began by publishing in underground newspapers, especially in local papers such as Open City and the L.A. Free Press. “Published by small, underground presses and ephemeral mimeographed little magazines,” described Jay Dougherty in Contemporary Novelists, “Bukowski has gained popularity, in a sense, through word of mouth.” “The main character in his poems and short stories, which are largely autobiographical, is usually a down-and-out writer [Henry Chinaski] who spends his time working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies,” related Ciotti. “Otherwise, he hangs out with fellow losers—whores, pimps, alcoholics, drifters.” 

Bukowski wrote more than forty books of poetry, prose and novels. Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959), Bukowski’s first book of poetry, covers the major interests and themes that occupy many of his works, especially “the sense of a desolate, abandoned world,” R. R. Cuscaden pointed out in the Outsider. In addition to desolation, Bukowski’s free verse tackles the absurdities of life, especially in relation to death. “Bukowski’s world, scored and grooved by the impersonal instruments of civilized industrial society, by 20th-century knowledge and experience, remains essentially a world in which meditation and analysis have little part,” asserted John William Corrington in Northwest Review. The subject matter of this world is drinking, sex, gambling, and music; the Bukowski style, however, is “a crisp, hard voice; an excellent ear and eye for measuring out the lengths of lines; and an avoidance of metaphor where a lively anecdote will do the same dramatic work,” maintained Ken Tucker in the Village Voice. It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) collects poetry written between the years of 1955 and 1963. “Individual poems merge to form together a body of work unrivalled in kind and very nearly unequalled in quality by Bukowski’s contemporaries,” stated Corrington. Over the course of thirty years, Bukowski published an astonishing number of collections of poetry and prose, as well as many novels. Kenneth Rexroth asserted in the New York Times Book Review that Bukowski “belongs in the small company of poets of real, not literary, alienation.
The Genius of the Crowd

there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average

human being to supply any given army on any given day

and the best at murder are those who preach against it

and the best at hate are those who preach love

and the best at war finally are those who preach peace

those who preach god, need god

those who preach peace do not have peace

those who preach peace do not have love

beware the preachers

beware the knowers

beware those who are always reading books

beware those who either detest poverty or are proud of it

beware those quick to praise for they need praise in return

beware those who are quick to censor they are afraid of what they do not know

beware those who seek constant crowds for they are nothing alone

beware the average man the average woman beware their love, their love is average seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred

there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you

to kill anybody

not wanting solitude

not understanding solitude

they will attempt to destroy anything

that differs from their own

not being able to create art

they will not understand art

they will consider their failure as creators

only as a failure of the world

not being able to love fully

they will believe your love incomplete

and then they will hate you

and their hatred will be perfect

like a shining diamond

like a knife

like a mountain

like a tiger

like hemlock

their finest art