Is Charles Bukowski a Self-Help Guru? Hear Five of His Brutally Honest, Yet Oddly Inspiring, Poems and Decide for Yourself

I don’t know if he’s been replaced as a major influ­ence on young, rest­less (and almost exclu­sive­ly male) aspir­ing writ­ers, but once upon a time—if you weren’t into the roman­tic wan­der­lust of Ker­ouac but still con­sid­ered your­self a fringe character—it might be to the hard-boiled shit-talk­ing of wise old man Charles Bukows­ki that you turned. Upon first learn­ing this, and being a busy col­lege stu­dent, I decid­ed to take a crash course and checked out a doc­u­men­tary.

I did not find myself charmed all at once. But one can fall in love with an author’s per­sona yet loathe them on the page. Bukowski’s crude­ness and bad humor on film could not hide the deep wells of sad­ness in which he seemed to swim, as if—like some ancient cyn­ic philosopher—he knew some­thing pro­found and ter­ri­ble and spared us the telling of it by pos­ing as a drunk­en, half-mad street-cor­ner racon­teur. I had to go and read him.

In his idiom—that of an elo­quent street­wise barfly—Bukowski can be every bit as pas­sion­ate and pro­found as his hero Dos­to­evsky. His unfor­get­table mix­ing of com­ic seed­i­ness and casu­al abuse with a deeply trag­ic mourn­ing over the human con­di­tion, while not to everyone’s taste, make his decades-long strug­gle out of penury and obscu­ri­ty a feat wor­thy of the telling in his semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal prose and poet­ry.

But does it make him a role mod­el? For any­one but cer­tain young, most­ly male, aspir­ing writ­ers maybe spend­ing more time drink­ing than writ­ing, that is?

A fair num­ber of peo­ple seem to think so, and I leave it to you to decide, first by lis­ten­ing to the Bukows­ki poems read here, post­ed on YouTube with heavy, inspi­ra­tional back­ground music. Some are giv­en new titles to sound more like self-help seminars—such as “Rein­vent Your Life” at the top (orig­i­nal­ly “No Lead­ers, Please”). The video read­ing called “Go all the way,” sec­ond from top, changes the title of “Roll the Dice,” a clas­sic pic­ture of Bukowski’s uncom­pro­mis­ing com­mit­ment to “going all the way,” even if it means “freez­ing on a park bench” and “los­ing girl­friends, wives, rel­a­tives, jobs and maybe your mind.”

Solid­ly mid­dle-class par­ents might approve of the first poem’s sen­ti­ments, which could be wedged into a suit­ably vague, yet bold-sound­ing com­mence­ment speech or a job recruiter’s pep talk. But “Roll the Dice” sim­ply goes too far. “It could mean jail, it could mean deri­sion, mock­ery, iso­la­tion”? This won’t do at all. Hear anoth­er read­ing of “Roll the Dice” by inspi­ra­tional rock star Bono fur­ther up, just after the more Bukows­ki-like Tom Waits reads “The Laugh­ing Heart,” fre­quent­ly ref­er­enced for its inten­si­ty of feel­ing. Like Thomas Hardy or Leonard Cohen, the bard of the barstools could look life straight in the eye, see all of its bleak­ness and vio­lence, and still man­age at times to catch a divine glim­mer.

And for the many aspi­rants to whom Bukows­ki has appealed, we have, fur­ther up, “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” Before you hear, or read, this poem, be advised: these are not warm words of encour­age­ment or help­ful life-coach­ing in verse. It is the kind of raw talk no respectable writ­ing teacher will give you, and maybe they’re right not to, who’s to say? Except a man who went all the way, froze on park bench­es, went to jail, lost girl­friends, wives, rel­a­tives, jobs and maybe his mind? Read an excerpt of Bukowski’s writ­ing advice below, and just above, hear the author him­self read “Friend­ly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” which urges them to do vir­tu­al­ly any­thing they like, “But don’t write poet­ry.”

don’t be like so many writ­ers,
don’t be like so many thou­sands of
peo­ple who call them­selves writ­ers,
don’t be dull and bor­ing and
pre­ten­tious, don’t be con­sumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned them­selves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rock­et,
unless being still would
dri­ve you to mad­ness or
sui­cide or mur­der,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burn­ing your gut,
don’t do it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­ry Dean Stan­ton (RIP) Reads Poems by Charles Bukows­ki

Charles Bukows­ki Reads His Poem “The Secret of My Endurance” 

Inspi­ra­tion from Charles Bukows­ki: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crap­py,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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