The Poetry of Charles Bukowski


Bukowski’s poetry is unlike most of what you’ll read from any other poet. (Cartoon by Isabelle Schlegel | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Parker Dunn, Online Managing Editor


Beauty is often tagged onto the symmetrical, the flawless — the things in life that beg to be looked at. The late German American writer Charles Bukowski found beauty in the disturbed, the taboo — the things in life that most tend to avoid or miss completely. Bukowski boasts an impressive body of work composed of short stories, novels and thousands of poems — lots of which explore controversial themes of violence, sex, poverty and more.

Bukowski is often pigeonholed into categories of cynicism and alcoholism, so much so that critics tend to overlook the delicate and sentimental intricacies prevalent in his work. To me, these little details and complexities are what make Bukowski’s poetry so profound and worth every bit of praise received.



Born Aug. 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, but raised in Los Angeles, Bukowski had a rough childhood characterized by frequent abuse from his father and exclusion from other children because of his clothing, German accent and a severe case of acne he would later develop in his teenage years. Bukowski graduated from Los Angeles High School and attended Los Angeles City College for a couple of years before dropping out to pursue a writing career in New York.

Bukowski had little initial publishing success in New York and ended up quitting writing for about ten years. During those ten years, Bukowski worked at a pickle factory, a post office and other intermittent jobs as he wandered the United States. A hospital visit for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer is what got Bukowski back into writing — specifically writing poetry. In the ‘60s, Bukowski returned to his job with the U.S. Postal Service and continued to write poetry. Finally, Bukowski received an offer to work as a full-time writer for John Martin and Black Sparrow Press, quitting the post office job once and for all to “play at writer and starve,” as he put it.



Bukowski’s poetry is unlike most of what you’ll read from any other poet. Bukowski wrote about humanity, but with a distanced and detached approach. From extended interview and documentary “The Charles Bukowski Tapes,” the man himself said, “The further away I am from the human race, the better I feel… I do not like the human race” — a cynical quote, no doubt.

Bukowski can certainly be a bit of a downer in his writing. In “Alone With Everybody” he says that there is “no chance / at all: / we are all trapped / by a singular / fate” and “nobody ever finds the one.” That’s some pretty bleak stuff, but the posthumously published, “The Laughing Heart,” gives us a glimpse into the more hopeful side of Bukowski with lines of positivity like “you can’t beat death but / you can beat death in life, sometimes.”

One of my favorite poems of Bukowski’s has to be “Bluebird” from the collection,“The Last Night of the Earth Poems.” One of, if not, the most honest of Bukowski’s poems, “Bluebird,” tackles themes of pent-up emotion and the weight of keeping up an image of strength, toughness and intelligence. This resistance of showing one’s true and vulnerable self is represented by the suppressing of a bluebird in Bukowski’s heart that wants so desperately to be free.

My favorite stanza is the last, and it reads, “then I put him back, / but he’s singing a little / in there, I haven’t quite let him / die / and we sleep together like / that / with our / secret pact / and it’s nice enough to / make a man / weep, but I don’t / weep, do / you?” The irony in this stanza so beautifully portrays man’s struggle with society’s standards of masculinity — it’s so very honest and doesn’t attempt to end on a note of positivity, but one of realness.

That is what I love most about Bukowski and his writing — he writes with honesty, he acknowledges that which often gets swept under the rug and he uncovers the harsh truths of reality.


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