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

“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:


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.


The Big Feminist BUT: The Caveats of Gender Politics in Comics

“There’s both liberation and possibility in pointing out that you’re not a sellout or a coward for refusing to adopt a label that doesn’t quite name your experience.”

“Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics,” Caitlin Moran wrote in her excellent How to Be a Woman and, indeed, gender politics permeate everything from our language to our capacity for love to our economy to how kids come to see the world. Luckily, Moran’s point comes wonderfully alive in The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism (public library) — a magnificent Kickstarter-funded collection of “the ideas, experiences and impressions of individual cartoonists and writers at a very specific moment in time,” titled after the all-too-familiar caveat of “I’m a feminist, but…” (or, occasionally, “I’m not a feminist, but…”). Self-described as “dedicated to the 4th Wave” (that is, to the era two generations after the Second Wave of feminism), the book — sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always delightful — pulls our most stubborn discomforts into a limelight of gentle but unshakable awareness.

By Emily Flake
‘Must Respect Women’s Power, No Experience Necessary’ story by Mark Pritchard, art by Liz Baillie

Shannon O’Leary writes in the introduction:

The Big Feminist BUT should be considered in two contexts: that of its collective message and that of its medium.

[Its] collective message is more provocative and playful than it is polemic… We are living in an era of unprecedented freedom and choice, but feminism — a large part of why we’ve arrived at this particular moment in history — is a touchy, loaded word that suffers from a serious image problem. And if feminism is currently suffering from an image problem, does that mean it should just go away? Is it passé? Is there nothing left to fight for? Is there a discernible feminist movement? And if there is, what are its aims? What does it mean to be a feminist today? Who are today’s feminists?

The chorus of answers, coming from 27 women and 13 men most of whom came of age in the 1980s and 1990s without a cohesive collective conception of feminism, reveal with equal parts wisdom and wit the complexities of gender politics today. Tackling such difficult subjects as reproductive rights, rape, workplace equality, and bullying in comics — a medium itself frequently misunderstood yet incredibly potent in making serious points — adds irreverent but incisive urgency in nudging us to reconsider our own ideas of what feminism is and should be. O’Leary writes:

There is now little doubt that comics can take on dry, sobering and complicated subjects with a depth of nuance and feeling that is difficult for straight prose to convey alone. Perhaps comics can likewise edify feminism by giving it the opportunity to be understood in a way that mere words are unable to.

‘Queer, Eh?’ by Virginia Paine
‘Boy’s Life’ by Andi Zeisler
‘How to Make a Man out of Tin Foil’ by Barry Deutch
‘Manifestation’ by Gabrielle Bell
‘My Horrible Heroines’ by Shaenon K. Garrity
‘The Labyrinth’ by Andrice Arp and Jesse Reklaw

Hugo Schwyzer nails the message in the afterword:

There’s no mistaking the takeaway: feminism is about so much more than ideology and obligations. It’s about liberation: the freedom to live a life a little (or a lot) less encumbered by the straightjacket of traditional gender roles. It’s about giving men and women the tools to live more egalitarian lives, not just in isolation but in community. As the stories here remind us, feminism is about happiness, it’s about reconciliation, it’s about justice.

Without downplaying the power that the name “feminist” has to unify, we’re reminded … that labels themselves are never the point. … There’s both liberation and possibility in pointing out that you’re not a sellout or a coward for refusing to adopt a label that doesn’t quite name your experience.

Complement The Big Feminist BUT with the heartening story of how Mary Thom used “social media” in the 1970s to mobilize the second wave of feminism.

Images via Mother Jones


Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life

The elusive art of finding the open channel.

“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary in 1854, “but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.” The meaning of life has indeed been pondered by some of history’s greatest luminaries. For Carl Sagan, it was about our significant insignificance in the cosmos; for Annie Dillard, about inhabiting impermanence; for Anaïs Nin, about living and relating to others “as if they might not be there tomorrow”; for Henry Miller, about the mesmerism of the unknown; for Leo Tolstoy, about finding knowledge to guide our lives; for David Foster Wallace, about learning how to stay truly conscious.

From The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — which also gave us his wisdom on the universal responsibility of scientists, the role of scientific culture in modern society, and good, evil, and the Zen of science, titled after the famous film of the same name — comes a beautiful addition from The Great Explainer:

Through all ages men have tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if some direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers must have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have been of all different sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the actions of the believers in another. Horror, because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race were being channeled into a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the history of the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human beings. The dream is to find the open channel.

What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence?

If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know.

But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman is the kind of read you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning — do yourself a favor.


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