Bukowski: Lessons from “A laureate of American low life”

Craig Shaaban

When you think of the most influential poets in history, you may think of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, or Poe having “A Dream within a Dream”, or Robert Frost’s “Revelation”. Geniuses no doubt but geniuses whose work are littered with complex metaphors and similes. We spend our adolescent years studying them while somehow desperately trying to relate to their delicate construction of words.

A drunk, old, vulgar man should not only have a seat at the table with these poetic aristocrats, but he should sit on the throne.

Charles Bukowski is a name you’re probably unfamiliar with. He is a German born American poet who epitomises the down and out loser who sits on a bar stool drinking and smoking his life away. His work predominantly spans from 1951-1993.

What separates Bukowski from the ranks of other famous poets is that his language is comprehensible and sadly simple. There is no room for rhyme, alliteration or onomatopoeia in his 1500 collected poems, so how can he even be considered a poet? What makes this cynical alcoholic a poet is that he evokes genuine feelings from the reader.

“People empty me. I have to get away to refill”. This is an excerpt from a book published by Bukowski. You might say this man is perhaps a nihilist, but, we know at some point in our lives we have been able to relate to this. He speaks of solitude as if it’s a celestial place, “being away from people is one of the most marvellous fulfilments a man like me can have”. He normalises being alone here.

Bukowski seems to be a pessimistic coward who is tragically underwhelmed at life, but if we look deeper into the cracks of his work, we can start see the true hero that he is.


“We are all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing”. From a young man’s perspective, this line is extraordinarily significant. In a society where our social hierarchy is predicated on Instagram likes and social affirmation is achieved by gaining followers, many of us can be left feeling worthless and undervalued.

There is no doubt that our current social climate can have damaging effects on the way we feel. For those of us that don’t subscribe to the superficial online dimension, it is difficult to find a sense of belonging. Hardly anyone around us is shown to be struggling as they only post the positive aspects of their lives. Negative emotions are inevitable to humans and it is of utmost importance to face them head on. This is why Bukowski’s writings are so pivotal as he is the voice of reason and honesty in a world where pretenders are ubiquitous. We find a sense of community and relief when we read of another man exhibiting feelings of discontent and sadness.

Though his poetry is profound and somewhat hard-hitting, he creates a silver lining in most of his poems. Poems such as “The harder you try”, “No leaders please” and “Style” leave readers hopeful in their melancholy. In the words of the great Leonard Cohen, “He brought everybody down to earth, even the angels”

“Dismiss perfection as an ache of the greedy

but do not give in to the mass modesty of easy imperfection

and remember

the belly of the whale is laden with great men”

Craig Shaaban

Image Credit: imdb.com