Defending Bukowski Like a Real Feminist Would

On the bus today, on my way home from class, before putting on my headphones, I overheard two big tough men discussing Charles Bukowski. I delayed the headphone putting-on to catch some of the conversation, which was mostly a paranoid critique of his “assholeness” but with obvious layers of secret admiration. This was similar to how I talk about him–reverence for his work underlying my criticisms of his opinions and topics.

I am uncomfortable liking Charles Bukowski; I am afraid of being a bad feminist and getting my head bitten off by other feminists for listing an alcoholic, selfish, rape-proponing male as one of my favorite authors. But I’m writing now, shockingly perhaps, to defend my case.

I don’t like the fact that Bukowski was a degenerate and didn’t know how to treat women (or anybody, for that matter). I don’t think Bukowski himself liked those things about himself. You could say he was those things because he didn’t like who he was. We can attribute his shortcomings to oppressive systems, or his own weak will, his having been abused as a child, his lack of confidence, his socio-economic class, etc, but that’s not what’s most relevant.

There are people like Bukowski in the world, who are products of similar pasts and structures, victims of similar addictions and afflictions, and of course it’s not excusable for these people to rape (or to even just write about wanting to rape) women. You could say that my fondness of Bukowski as a writer is partially because of my disgust with his thoughts, my awe of his honesty (often exaggerated for poetic purposes, I think) about such shocking topics, as well as my empathy for him as a struggling and abused child (read Ham on Rye). Because through all this, he reveals nuggets of truth about the actual state of existence that I wouldn’t get to (not as poetically) on my own terms.

Bukowski’s work is meaningful because he gives a literary voice to people who otherwise don’t have one. He exposes, without shame, how degraded he has been and how degrading he is capable of being. For me, and I can only speak for me, this is a call to critique not just him but what gets people like him to get there in the first place. Familiarizing myself with his failures is kind of like familiarizing myself with what to avoid, and what to help others avoid. And people like him don’t emerge out of thin air: they are products of very scarring experiences, deprived of opportunity and unconditioned in positive examples of love and human connection. So it’s also a call to find ways to prevent that from happening when and if I can.

But this is more my explanation to other feminists of why it’s okay to like his writing (without condoning his ideas) than why I like him. When it comes down to it, he’s just a damn good poet. And if you’re not convinced, I’ll leave you with the following poem, which should exhibit 1). his poetic skill (hence the praise), 2). his shocking honesty (not so vivid in this one, put likely to illicit disgust), and 3). his irreparable hopelessness (don’t tell me you can’t empathize).

Alone With Everybody

the flesh covers the bone
and they put a mind
in there and
sometimes a soul,
and the women break
vases against the walls
and the men drink too
and nobody finds the
but keep
crawling in and out
of beds.
flesh covers
the bone and the
flesh searches
for more than

there’s no chance
at all:
we are all trapped
by a singular

nobody ever finds
the one.

the city dumps fill
the junkyards fill
the madhouses fill
the hospitals fill
the graveyards fill

nothing else


2 comments on “Defending Bukowski Like a Real Feminist Would

  1. Emily says:

    A) I agree whole-heartedly about Bukowski. I have a tough time, particularly when speaking with my non-poetic friends, describing why anyone should waste their time on the work of such a human being. You’ve done a beautiful job here.
    B) There is a movie called “The Rules of Attraction,” with James Van Der Beek, Jessica Biel, Shannyn Sossamon, etc. It’s a pretty terrible movie, all things considered. But the way it ends, all of the characters realize that there is no way they will ever really *know* anyone else and that they are all endlessly and hopelessly alone. The “maybe man is an island” idea has been knocking fairly loudly at my door lately, and this particular poem by Mr. Bukowski just struck the same chord, I guess.

    Thanks for writing.

    • Marisola says:

      Emily, this is high praise coming from an English teacher! Thanks.
      I haven’t seen that movie (I’ve watched maybe 20 movies in my entire life…), but I am very familiar with the concept and, as you mention, this poem really gets it.

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