Three Interpretations of Charles Bukowski’s Melancholy Poem “Nirvana”

I’ve ridden a lot of busses–back and forth from city to city, taking the cheapest tickets, which meant traveling overnight, and eating cheap and greasy food at hurried stops along the way. I remember thinking sometimes that I might never come back, that I might lose myself in some small southern town and disappear. I remember those times now as I read Charles Bukowski’s poem “Nirvana,” a poem about a lost young man who finds in the quaint strangeness of a diner in North Carolina a respite from the confusion of his life.

Then he boards his bus again, and the moment is gone, the moment of the poem, that is, which is all there is, since we don’t know where he came from or where he’s bound. We’re only told he’s “on the way to somewhere,” and the omission means it doesn’t really matter. The poem is “about” its details: the snow, the little café in the hills, the unaffected waitress with her “natural humor.” The way these familiar things are made strange by the presence of a stranger. While I may relate to the aimless young man in the poem, it really isn’t about him so much as about that estrangement, which for him becomes a temporary home. Then before he gets too comfortable, he’s out again and on the road to “somewhere.”

Bukowski had a way with these small scenes, a way of estranging the ordinary. The short film above, from Lights Down Low productions, offers one interpretation of what the moment of Bukowski’s poem might look like. The film has the slow, meditative pacing of a Terrence Malick film, the same kind of obsessive dwelling on the details of a lost mid-century America. An apple pie, the slow-motion sway of the leggy waitress’ sky-blue dress as she walks toward a snow-covered window—none of these details bear the slightest trace of kitsch. Instead they are objects of wabi sabi, the Japanese term for impermanence. Nirvana is forever, life is temporary.

While the film above draws on Malick’s Americana, Tom Waits’ reading of “Nirvana” (below) comes closest, perhaps, to the world-weary Bukowski’s voice, and the images and music that accompany Waits’ grizzled sigh convey the dreary grit of the real world of bus travel, not as it looks in the movies, but as it looks from the road: the bleak sameness of highways and the way the snow is oily and speckled with black minutes after it falls.

A third interpretation of Bukowski’s poem (below) is read by a man who calls himself Tom O’Bedlam, and who sounds a bit like Richard Burton. However, his reading is the least dramatic of the three; his lack of affect draws attention to the words, which appear in stark black and white text on the screen as he intones them like a mass. This one comes courtesy of Roger Ebert, who recommends O’Bedlam’s Spoken Verse YouTube page as one of his favorite places on the web.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite of the three. Each one draws attention to the poem in different ways, sometimes, perhaps, turning it into a script, and sometimes getting out of its way and letting it do all the work. Neither approach strikes me as a bad one; each one has its merits. But tell me, readers, what do you think?

Related Content:

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The Last Faxed Poem of Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski Tells the Story of His Worst Hangover Ever

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.



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  1. Zozie says . . . | December 6, 2012 / 11:35 am

    I like the short film and the interpretation of Tom Waits.

  2. Mike Dwyer says . . . | December 6, 2012 / 12:15 pm

    The last one is the closest to how it sounds in my head, but I think all three, as well as the characterization of the poem as melancholy, is a little off. I think it’s more tragic, that thread of manic joy that slithers through a lot of Bukowski unconsummated once again.

  3. Humppa-Joe says . . . | December 8, 2012 / 1:54 am

    The first one could have been great-if only they had the good sense to leave out the actual poem.
    The music and visuals deliver the content of the poem really nicely, the voiceover turns it almost into a mockery.

  4. G Davis says . . . | December 9, 2012 / 11:58 am

    The last one sounds like a poem being read. He pauses at line ends which disturbs me.
    The other two sound like stories being told. They are both wondeful, but I prefer the first because it seems to capture the feeling in the young man’s mind best. For me anyway.

  5. DANEEN AXELROD says . . . | December 9, 2012 / 5:19 pm

    I bought a piece of apple pie after the meal in the cafe. I did stay a few extra minutes.

  6. DANEEN AXELROD says . . . | December 9, 2012 / 5:20 pm

    I stayed for the apple pie.

  7. Adriene says . . . | December 10, 2012 / 5:46 am

    There’s a school of thought that there should be the slightest of pauses at the ends of lines when reading poetry even if there is no punctuation, as was done in the last reading here. That way, you hear the rhythm that the poet intended. In the writing,lots of thought goes into the line breaks …

  8. Josh says . . . | December 11, 2012 / 4:32 am

    I liked the first one a great deal.

  9. Anna R says . . . | April 21, 2013 / 6:59 pm

    Nice opportunity to think more about this poem. Thank you.

    BTW, “wabi sabi” most definitely is not the Japanese term for impermanence. Click through to the page you’ve hyperlinked and read the good (and accurate) explanation of the concept, please: “…finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Imperfection is its keynote, not impermanence.

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