What you’ll find below is the first part of a presentation I gave for one of my classes on the American poet Charles Bukowski. (for an interview with Bukowski, click here) I’ll post the presentation in parts and welcome comments along the way!
The poetry and semi-autobiographical writings of Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) are examples of what this paper will call tragicomic hope. Bukowski writes with gritty realism about his native Los Angeles in the latter half of the 20th century, inviting the reader into the circumstances, choices, and addictions of people, including himself, considered to be the underbelly of society (or what he repeatedly calls “subnormal”). He does this by laying out clearly the ways in which such lifestyles are tragic, comedic, and sometimes beautiful (and thus perhaps hopeful). It is the tragicomic aspect of his work which bears resemblance to these words by C.S. Lewis,
In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.
The inconsolable secret, the longing that will not leave humanity, is viscerally present in the tragicomedy of Bukowski’s world. This is not surprising when one considers Bukowski’s influences. From Chekhov’s austerity to Dostoyevsky’s redemptive suffering, from D.H. Lawerence’s sexuality to Kafka’s visceral character portraits, one can see the great lake of resource Bukowski had to pull from. Still, one might think after reading Bukowski’s work that the hope inherent in Lewis’ inconsolable secret is visibly absent in Bukowski’s admittedly “offensive” work. But it is exactly that thought which this paper seeks to take issue with. Bukowski’s self-narration in his poems and in his semi-autobiographical work hides a hope beneath its layers of sexual adventure and failure. That hope is hidden within the tragicomic elements of his work precisely to the extent that he himself identifies with and acknowledges that there is significance in tragedy and meaning in comedy. To make the same point from a telescoped perspective, the very act of writing, of documenting his own life and other’s lives is a sign of hope, a sign that he is very much aware of the inconsolable secret, and he is not about to give it up. That would be bad poetry, and he’s not for that.