“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”
“There are contradictory impulses in everything,” Susan Sontag observed in lamenting how our inability to sit with duality makes us fall into perilous polarities. Few creators exorcised those contradictory impulses more intensely than Charles Bukowski (August 16, 1920–March 9, 1994) — a writer of uncommon attentiveness to the rawness of life, to both its pain and its beauty, with an unselfconscious capacity for sincerity, a crazy daily routine, and zero tolerance for creative pretensions. His enormous inner tumult and strong opinions often came off as bitterness, but he was at heart far from embittered, always in self-conscious — and sometimes self-destructive — search for that which nourishes the spirit. Unifying all of his writing — his poetry, his prose, his correspondence — is an electrifying and unapologetic aliveness.
On Writing (public library), edited by Abel DeBritto, collects Bukowski’s thoughts on the craft — sometimes wild, often wise, always impassioned to a point of ferocity — culled from his prolific letters to friends and comrades on the trying yet tremendously rewarding creative path.
The question of what poetry is and isn’t has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest poets, from Wordsworth to Elizabeth Alexander. But in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, 29-year-old Bukowski argues that the only thing of importance when it comes to poetry is not what it is but that it is — a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:
I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.
In a letter to another friend, he laments the something-elseness of most of what tries to pass for Art:
Almost all poetry written, past and present, is a failure because the intent, the slant and accent, is not a carving like stone or eating a good sandwich or drinking a good drink, but more like somebody saying, “Look, I have written a poem … see my POEM!”
In another letter to the same friend a few months later, Bukowski revisits this problematic charade:
It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.
Bukowski traces his distaste for restrictive rules back to his days as a community college student in L.A., when he received a D in English, and writes in a letter to Linick:
I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.
In his next letter to Linick, he revisits the subject:
I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.
Above all, Bukowski was especially contemptuous of the literary establishment, its pomposity, and its self-important arbiters of merit, which he saw as the seedbed of the unimaginative grayness robbing art of those soul-pigments. In a characteristically indignant 1959 letter to a fellow poet, 29-year-old Bukowski scoffs:
I do not feel it is pedantic or ignoble to demand freedom from the opiate of clannishness and leech-brotherhood that dominates many many of our so-called avant-garde publications.
Bemoaning what he considered to be the inexorable creative blandness of commercial publications, he adds:
If this be writing, if this be poesy, I ask a helminthagogun: I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing and I think that $2 a year (omitting stamps, paper, envelopes, ribbons, divorces and typewriters) entitles one to the special privacy of a special insanity and if I need hold hands with paper gods to promote a little scurvy rhyme, I’ll take the encyst and paradise of rejection.
With an eye to a magazine he found particularly full of pseudo-poetry, he adds:
When you flip the pages, nothing but butterflies, near bloodless butterflies. I am actually shocked when I go through this magazine because nothing is happening. And I guess that’s what they think a poem is. Say, something not happening. A neat lined something, so subtle you can’t even feel it. This makes the whole thing intelligent art. Balls! The only thing intelligent about a good art is if it shakes you alive, otherwise it’s hokum.
And although he believed that poetry is its own manifesto, in a particularly animated letter to the poet, novelist, and film and television writer John William Corrington, 31-year-old Bukowski sets down what is essentially a magnificent manifesto not only for poetry but for creative freedom in all its permutations and for the courage to create outside the formulaic conventions of How It’s Done:
The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!
Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.
Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…
Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.
By that point, with his passion amplified by a drink or a dozen, he does away with even the most basic convention of capitalization and wanders off, as if deeper into his own marvelous mind:
rub your hands and prove that you are alive. seriousness will not do. walk the floor. this is the gift, this is the gift…
Complement On Writing, densely insightful in its totality, with Bukowski on the meaning of life, his beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, and a breathtaking animated adaptation of his poem “Bluebird.”