A Close Reading of Bukowski, from his works in “Pleasures of the Damned.”

From a letter to a friend: Don’t worry about alcoholism; it keeps us from committing suicide. Bukowski’s drinking isn’t why most people are drawn to him, whether they are aware of this fact or not. What keeps people reading is the fact that underneath his drinking lived a gentle, emotional, sensitive, introspective man, who captured the world in his poetry through the eyes of someone who may just be your next door neighbor… a drunken next door neighbor that ogles your sister and hits on your wife, but you accept it because every so often he is there for you to talk to, or help you move a couch, or is the only person in a pinch that can repair a lawnmower.

He may be a lowlife scumbag, a fuck-up; a drunk with no future and no ambition; his life falling a part at every turn; a gambler, a lecherous, loutish, slob; however, he has something to teach you if you would just listen. And once you truly sit down with him, and have a quiet moment where he can open up and share his thoughts and views, you find yourself viewing him much more like a human, a human that has problems just like you, and who are you to judge? Deep down he is a good man, with good intentions and you accept what he is by letting him be a part of you and a part of your life in some way. It’s a social contract. It is mutually beneficial to you both as long as you open your eyes to ugly things and learn to love the bomb; the bomb’ll love you back, and it will do all of that without having some fancy moniker attached to its name. Bukowski wasn’t a Beat, he wasn’t a Modernist, he wasn’t part of the New York School, or the San Francisco Renaissance… he was just a man, in a room with a typewriter and a bottle.

This sort of humility and dubious nature resides in many of Bukowski’s poems, thus making it a difficult task to take preference; no matter the era in which they were written, at what point in his life, or to act as an artifice or statue of his body of work (it’s a fact he didn’t start writing poetry until age 35).

Here’s the idea: I would like to first talk about poems that are typical of his style. Things we sort of expect from him. Then, we’ll move onto poems that an average/common/casual reader may not presume to be Mr. Bukowski, to try and play with the idea that a stigma and preconceived notion is oftentimes synonymous with a writer. This way we can see the range in which he wrote and what was successful about it, keeping in mind the entire time what he advocated as veritas, “Writing a poem like taking a shit, you smell it and then flush it away… writing is all about leaving behind as much a stink as possible”.

Here’s our guidelines for understanding the reading:

Atypical Bukowski – Characterized by form or rhyme. Little or objective viewpoint. None or little of the below.

Typical Bukowski – One, straightly worded line usually in narrative/prose style, often no metaphor or the like. Shape “natural” to the poem (no form). Subject will always contain one of the following: self-boasting, exaggerated boasting, about women, about drinking, about hardship, daily experience as motivation, somewhere in each poem.

Please be assured that this cheekiness is being employed merely to prove that a specific reason Bukowski has such readability and staying power as a poet of the twentieth century (aside from what I laid out earlier) is because he was practiced, consistent, and wrote what he knew (over 60 publications while living). Each poem isn’t entirely different in craft and artist statement, so I think it may be unimportant to delineate betwixt and speak at length about just one for this purpose. One can read 300 Bukowski poems and just enjoy them. Bukowski’s path is clear and the reader feels the purpose is just.

So, with a FLIP of a thumb, and a stop on a page, we look at the first line.


I had boils the size of tomatoes
all over me
they stuck a drill into me

Exaggeration. Pointed and important, but there it is. Simple structure. However, and interestingly, self-deprecating, no matter the levels of boast worthy speech he may sometimes employ. He is still aware of himself as Bukowski, but will sometimes change this sentiment when he is Chinaski. It is important to note when he does this, because even in his prose Chinaski is fictional. And that’s when Bukowski gets away of creating a mythology of himself for the reader; a valiant and commodifying trick when the line between them blurs and the reader doesn’t know what is reality or just a story.


“girl on the escalator”

as I go to the escalator
a young fellow and a lovely young girl
are ahead of me.
her pants, her blouse are skin-

Women. This poem is quite lovely, otherwise. He follows his usual form, and crafts itself based on how the word feels in its place and works in the poem.

Also, there is a sense that although he is making a point about a Freudian psychosexual society that can’t seem to be comfortable with what they have, and who treat people like owned objects, he still exists outside of it. Here’s this 50-year-old man, who isn’t a threat to this young man with his girlfriend clutched tight, attempting to reassure the young man that he has no need to worry, he doesn’t think about sex anymore (an exaggeration, but to his point, he isn’t thinking about at that moment).


“when you wait for the dawn to crawl through the screen like a burglar to take your life away”

the snake had crawled the hole,
and she said,
tell me about

So interesting, this. Because although Bukowski seems to be using metaphor here (a no-no in typical style) he is actually using exaggeration. A little further down:

you’re an
odd one,
I said.

sat there
in the morning.

Once again, it may seem like metaphor, but what makes this contrary is that Bukowski is talking to the snake (who is probably just an actual girl he knew), so he could say the reason this works is because these are my exaggerated thoughts at five in the morning. There is no snake, and there is no girl. Also note structure falls under “typical.”


“Sunday lunch at Holy Mission”

he got knifed in broad daylight, came up the street
holding his hands over his gut, dripping red
one the pavement

First note the capitol letters in the title. Unusual, but worth noting because he knew that if he didn’t make proper “Holy Mission” then the area would be specific, making the experience less real. So he then did the same to Sunday for consistency (a strong trademark of his).

Then, we have an introduction of setting, of sorts, and from the onset we can discern that this poem falls under the typical Bukowski, because he is writing about his daily experiences (also in his lack of form and simply worded lines – which at this point is well over 90% of this collection). The poem continues on to tell the rest of the story, and ends with the homeless men who saved the day by stepping back into the society they left, and helping a situation remain under control by phoning the police.

There they (the bums) stand in triumphant glory, rolling cigarettes and feeling like heroes. Almost objectivity, but he either stood with them and shared a bottle or at least asked them how they felt, or even just observed them to get that feeling. Human nature is a simple matter when you understand your subjects, and Bukowski was a scholar of this.

Finally, it should be noted that this is close to every poem. Bukowski rarely deviated. He is as reliable as a yardstick. He wrote what he knew which is obvious based on just the few I outlined. It’s the sort of thing to envy. He knew his style and his limits. He had no facades or pretenses, and easily enough, if you enjoy one Bukowski poem, you’ll enjoy them all.


~ by Shawn M. Young on August 14, 2012.

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