The Rough-Knuckled Life and Poetry of Charles Bukowski Born on This Day 99 Years Ago!

German American poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

   a song with no end

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
I know what he wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as

Charles Bukowski from the night torn with mad footsteps, Ecco, 2003

Today, August 16th is the birthday of the notoriously controversial and provocative bad-boy of poetry, the German American Charles Bukowski. The author of more than forty novels and poetry collections his latest poetry collection was published earlier this year: On Drinking which not surprisingly is a collection of his “drinking” poems. For a wide-ranging discussion of the critical response to that book (many disapprovals) and to Bukowski in general the recent article by American poet Clint Margrave on Bukowski is helpful. The the link to the article please click here.

And please note: nothing about Bukowski is straight forward. Some of his poems have multiple versions and some of his poems published after his death are said to have been mangled by an editor.

Bukowski is not for the faint of heart.  And everything about him seems larger than life. That is apparent in the number of Hollywood films (Barfly and others) on him and taped interviews with him. He could be fouled mouthed and abusive. He lived a rough and tumble drinking life with lots of womanizing but he was not afraid to make that uncomfortably explicit in many of his poems. But and this is a big but for me, based on the relatively small number of his poems I have read (out of about 5,000 that have been catalogued) there is a treasure trove of wisdom on life and living in his poems that he earned the hard way.

The emotional depth in his poems is evident in some of his best-known poems including The Bluebird, The Crunch and The Laughing Heart. The Bluebird, in particular, strikes me as a heart-stopping look inside the heart and soul of an alcoholic. The power of alcohol to numb the Bluebird, the vulnerable and aching part I would say lives in all of us. but is expressed or not in so many different ways.

Two of the three Bukowski poems I feature in this blog post share lines with a hard echo that gets me every time I read them. From the epigraph poem for this post: we can’t cheat death but we can make it/work so hard/ that when it does take us// it will have known a victory just as/ perfect as/ ours. And this echo in his well-known poem The Laughing Heart: you can’t beat death but/ you can beat death/ in life, sometimes.

the laughing heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will
your life is your life.
know it while you have
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight

Charles Bukowski from Betting on the Muse, Ecco Press, 2004

Knowing the gritty world Bukowski lived in and how he loved to flout conventional norms and thinking (even romanticizing his drinking) I find his admonition at the end of The Laughing Heart, so arresting. I use this poem in my poetry therapy sessions. And often ask the particpants if they can believe and accept those last four lines.  I cherish them. What a different way to approach each day. Wow. Good morning! The goods await to delight in me!

And for us writers this poem below is a cautionary tale. By his definition am I writer? Yikes!

so you want to be a writer?

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Charles Bukowski from sifting through the madness for the Word, the line, the way , HarperCollins, 2003

These words are a good reminder for me. Thank you Buk, as he was often called!

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.


May my writing, may your writing, dear readers, never die away.


  1. Liz
    Posted August 16, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Great choices Richard. I know what you mean about Bukowski, he’s not fir the faint of heart. He reminds me in some ways of someone dear to us. That last stanza, on writing is so powerful. Cohen said he took dictation, there’s something of that idea in this poem.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted August 16, 2019 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I was just reading that Cohen quote. From a speech he gave in Spain in 2011 included in his last book published after he died. Yes, Bukowski, a reminder of someone dear to us. Blessings!

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