Brain Pickings

Charles Bukowski Reads His “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” Plus Buk on Creativity

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“The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.”

Charles Bukowski remains a poet exquisitely emblematic of the inherent contradictions of the human spirit — a man of unabashed profanity and self-conscious sensitivity, of tragic cynicism and heartening insight on the meaning of life and the spirit of writing. It is with this lens of his propensity for exaggerated existential extremism underpinned by a desire to live well that we are to consider Bukowski’s 1957 poem “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” found in the anthology The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (public library). In this rare recording, the poem springs to irreverent life as Buk reads it himself:

FRIENDLY ADVICE TO A LOT OF YOUNG MEN

Go to Tibet
Ride a camel.
Read the bible.
Dye your shoes blue.
Grow a beard.
Circle the world in a paper canoe.
Subscribe to The Saturday Evening Post.
Chew on the left side of your mouth only.
Marry a woman with one leg and shave with a straight razor.
And carve your name in her arm.

Brush your teeth with gasoline.
Sleep all day and climb trees at night.
Be a monk and drink buckshot and beer.
Hold your head under water and play the violin.
Do a belly dance before pink candles.
Kill your dog.
Run for mayor.
Live in a barrel.
Break your head with a hatchet.
Plant tulips in the rain.

But don’t write poetry.

In an interview found in the altogether fantastic Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993 (public library), Bukowski unpacks the poem, echoes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s admonition that creativity requires solitude and Hemingway’s Nobel speech lament that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life”:

Your poem “friendly advice to a lot of young men” says that one is better off living in a barrel than he is writing poetry. Would you give the same advice today?

I guess what I meant is that you are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life. When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more, abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.

Pair with some politically incorrect advice to the young by William S. Burroughs and an existentially necessary antidote from legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

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