Charles Bukowski has long been an easy target, especially for the insufferable and self-appointed insiders of the literary scene. Sure, the macho posturing (although this dude at least knew how to throw — and receive — a punch, literally and better still, figuratively) is never a good look and looks worse the further it recedes in the rear-view mirror. And yes, the output, staggering as it is (listen, just the willingness to put the words down, day after day, separates the scribblers from the posers, the doers from the onanists with amazing networks who worry about everything except actually getting the work done), is hard to parse, and tends to separate readers into opposite camps: completists for whom too much is never enough, and the aforementioned prigs who would never sully their delicate sensibilities by reading any of his work, or admitting it’s any good.
The fact of the matter is, Bukowski’s fiction has aged quite nicely indeed; even surprisingly so, and everyone is of course welcome to pick and choose the poems of their liking, but even if his body of work consisted of a handful of poems (some beloved, others obscure), his legacy stands proudly alongside many, many academy-anointed lightweights (no need to name names, but suffice it to say, I find more joy and soul — and authenticity — in a single page of Bukowski than anything I’ve read by Jonathan Franzen).
Your mileage may vary, but listen to this and this and see if they make so much contemporary writing seem insular, technical, precise, derivative, and like another brick in the ivory tower that’s at once endless and two-inches tall.
It’s an enduring tribute to Bukowski’s genius that his writings continue to inform, inspire and console. It’s our collective tragedy, as human beings, that much of his subject matter remains relevant, applicable and therefore actively ignored. Then again, as William Carlos Williams declared, for all time: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Which, inevitably, brings us to Trump, mailed bombs, and the increasingly incendiary nature of today’s political discourse. And, all the innocent bystanders asking the same question going back to at least 2015: how can anyone be attracted to this? How, at long last, can elected Republicans — even by their own seemingly unfathomable capacity for opportunism and shamelessness — continue to lick his fake gold boots? (That’s a rhetorical question: fear and expedience are the one-two punch that poisons democracy).
The more puzzling question seems to be: who, exactly, are these millions of MAGA-morons whose lives are demonstrably impacted — for the worse — by every single Trump policy and initiative? The mistake our mostly supine and supremely clueless chattering class continues to make is assuming (hoping?) Trump represents an imperfect storm that has galvanized a demographic that at any other time, with any other leader, could never materialize. To be certain, Trump, in no small part because of the self-serving and ludicrous mythologizing — that this same media has abetted every step of the way going back decades, presented a readymade messiah for all sorts of low-info, disaffected folks.
And the answer is: they’ve always been out there, hiding in plain sight. Naturally, the internet has enabled them to crawl out of their rat holes and find solidarity in sheer numbers, as is true of any gang or cult. Obviously, from Fox News down to alt-right marches, there are many cynical outlets profiting (in all regards) from exploiting their pain. And certainly, in Trump, we have the apotheosis of reality TV, media-made, substance-over-style cult of personality disorder to serve as both Pied Piper and demigod for the disenfranchised.
Mediocrity and mendacity, appalling as these options are, still function as bruised and repurposed life rafts in times like these. And things stand to get a lot worse. Of course, the people most susceptible, who are drawn to Trump’s shtick like slugs to salt, are already crammed into the dirty and desperate margins, and whose understandable outrage is (typically, predictably) misplaced.
But make no mistake: they were always out there: clueless rebels in search of a cause (preferably one that involves minimal effort and self-awareness), seeking reassurance that the overarching hostility informing each impulse, suffocating every second, is shared, is rational, is noble. That there’s a meaning in the meaninglessness; the meaninglessness is the meaning
Boy, the Republicans love them some slippery slope demagoguery; ludicrous and specious scenarios used as a substitute for thought, for engaging with facts, for disregarding the immutable reality of cause and effect. We hear about how sensible gun laws will lead to Americans having their firearms confiscated (presumably by jack-booted thugs who, even as fiction, obviously skew liberal). Or how sensible regulations on the food we eat, pollutants contaminating the air we breathe, and campaign finance will, of course, hasten a socialist hellscape. And, of course, health care and taxation that the rest of the civilized world embraces will kill jobs (no), explode deficits (ha), and stymie innovation (yeah, right).
One slippery slope, coincidentally, that Republicans are loath to accept (much less discuss) is the president’s violent rhetoric leading to…violence. Trump’s equivocating, cowardice, and — on occasions of actual bloodshed — indifference have all been well documented. It’s no longer necessary or especially useful to lament his immaturity, or the myriad ways he is intellectually and morally unfit for the job; that pattern has been established, and hoping he’ll finally be susceptible to shame is futile. What we need to come to terms with is that we’re far beyond a place where, if only Trump discovered a conscience, or the craven GOP kept him in check, we could restore sanity. It’s time to acknowledge that the only reason he continues to operate with impunity is because many, many millions of Americans want him to say, and do, exactly what he’s saying, and doing. And if it seemed alarmist only weeks ago to wonder aloud when we’d see bombs being mailed to former presidents (!) or another spate of shootings, it’s now naïve to argue this hasn’t been in the cards. Depressingly, perhaps we’re fortunate it’s taken this long for a week like we’re witnessing to unfurl. Months of declaring the free press the enemy of the people set the tone; the previously unimaginable — even by Trump’s standards — act of declaring himself a nationalist (which, among other things, makes clear who the “real” bad guys are) is the very slippery slope we’re now careening down.
Which brings us back to Bukowski. Maybe Orwell and, to an even more depressing if prosaic level, Kafka, help elucidate what made 2016 seem, in hindsight, inevitable, they no longer serve as acceptable shorthand to handicap what neither politics nor cult worship can quite explain. How then to explain this straight-up nihilism, the antipathy it’s increasingly difficult to see us ameliorating anytime soon?
Check this out. To a certain, if somewhat understated degree, Bukowski countenanced this, predicted it, and articulated it, decades and decades ago. This poem predicts how Trump happens, what happens when it happens, how it will keep happening, and how preventing it from happening (again) is what drives those with hearts and minds intact. And, in a particularly perilous moment, unites anyone who still believes in democracy, and freedom. And, not last or least, love.
The Genius of the Crowd
there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day
and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace
those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love
beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect
like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
their finest art