52 Titles: Charles Bukowski’s “Slouching Toward Nirvana”

Charles Bukowski is one of those writers it seems everyone but me read in high school. I could have started with one of his more famous ones such as Ham on Rye — a coming-of-age story appropriate for high schoolers, who, like Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s autobiographical alter-ego), are obsessed with alienating themselves, hating their dysfunctional family, pondering the monotony of life and their own acne. But, I also want to learn how to read poetry, and this one was cheap at the used bookstore, so “Slouching” it was. It’s a posthumous collection of poems from the tail end of his years, which is kind of perfect — that’s when you’re most honest, right? Old people aren’t crazy, they’re just tired of pretending to be normal.

What I discovered is that Charles Bukowski created whiny, needy, brainless caricatures out of the women in his life. And, that if you are to judge a city by one of its citizens, then Bukowski is the embodiment of Los Angeles (or what I imagine it to be; never been), with his Hunter S. penchant for horse-betting, hating on other celebrities, booze, conspicuous consumption, nice cars and being sour even when it’s sunny out. But, in his better moments when he’s contemplating the meaning of life in the twilight of his years, he can be alright. He’s acutely aware about what his literary superstardom has turned him into. To wit:

why oh why and ohy why not?

as I back my $35,000 car
down the driveway of my paid-for home, I wonder what happened
to the errand boy, the sleeper in parks, the beggar of
drinks, the failed suicide, the rejected young writer, the
ugly lover of ugly women, the certified failure, the pitied
I back out and now I’m on the street and I punch the radio, luck
on to Brahms, gun around a slow driver and then I am on the

I take the fast lane on the freeway, the powerful motor silent as
Brahms dances about the interior, I am alone and astonished,
pay over $20,000 in quarterly taxes and still manage to
write some of the best poetry
of our time.

Or about literary bullshit:


writers love to use the word
“cicada” in a poem.
it makes them believe that
they are there, that they
have done it.
every time I see this word
in a poem, I think, damn
it, haven’t the editors
caught on yet?
that it’s a con?
a way to milk the game?

and look at me:
here I’m using it:

well, that means that
this poem surely will get


it works.

But mostly, he’s good at being morose:


we are broken down bit by bit,
drain away by the minute, the hour, the week, the
month, the year, we
leak away
in cafes, backyards, stadiums, parking lots in
parlors of chance, in movie houses, at church
at clambakes,
we dissolve
we dissolve while
putting on our shoes, while
putting out the cat, while
turning out the light,
while clipping our toenails.
so we continually dissolve from substance to
shadow, endlessly
dissolve while listening
to bad music or in total silence,
forever dissolve
while reading old love letters and new books,
during peace and war,
on and off TV.
thus our lives dissolve and disappear between the helmet and
a high-heeled shoe, between an olive seed and a buried
corpse, between a lost key and the exposed film, between a
child’s smile and the magnolia’s scream.






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