Lessons from Charles Bukowski

Poetry advice and lessons on writing interpreted from the output of Charles Bukowski.

For some time now, Charles Bukowski has been one of my favourite poets; but within scholarly circles, he’s earned a reputation as the ‘patron saint of bad poetry.’ It’s true his work often lacked rhyme or conventional metre but, for whatever reason, Charles Bukowski has remained one of the world’s most popular poets. He may have been an alcoholic misogynist wrapped in layers of insecurities but his writing is unshakeable.

There are many people who have tried to ape Bukowski, but often they fail. Bukowski’s poetry wasn’t just sparse, it was harrowing; it said so much in few words and never went out of its way to prove its merit. With 80+ books of poetry and vast collections of letters, Bukowski is one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century; there are thousands of lessons to be found.

“Each line should have its own power.”

When I approach the enjambment of a poem, calculating line-breaks, one of the first things I look at is the content of each line. I examine each line and assume an approximate length. This is determined by the first line I find that I believe is a self-contained truth.

From there, I look for the clauses that blend together and I find the break. I don’t like to start lines on ‘and’ unless it makes stylistic sense, but that’s personal preference.

Once my work is laid out in a thin skeleton of lines, I begin combing through and finding the weak points, where I haven’t said something, where there’s no little surprise in language or rhythm. I work these sections, look for links I can make to other parts or, sometimes, I just strip out the line entirely. If the line doesn’t need to be there, it doesn’t go there. Sometimes I save these lines to one side, hoping they might become something else, but mostly I cut them.

What is left is a cohesive string of ideas and treasures. It’s my aim that each stanza holds a multitude of surprises, allowing the reader or listener to revisit the piece a number of times.

“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

If a writer cannot express an idea in such a way that everyone can understand it, they do not truly know the idea. Complex language and esoteric imagery can often be a way to dress up writing to buy false intellectual credit, but the master can put it in words a child would recognise.

I believe the goal of poetry is to express great truths in such a way that they live with you after reading. This is the power of poetry, its ability to change lives in a line.

If you only worry about appearing clever or only reaching clever people, you have ignored so many lives that you could have affected had you just taken the time to understand your idea more. I believe the lack of understanding from an audience is a failure of the writer, not the reader.

“If I don’t make it by the time I’m 60, I’m just going to give myself 10 more years.”

Just because the first thing you write isn’t a masterpiece, doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for this. Likewise, just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece.

I often tell people, “You have to write 10,000 bad lines before you get to the good stuff.” What I mean by this is, as you write more, your voice becomes more pronounced and you learn the shape of your writing better. As a poet, I could sit and write a dozen poems in an afternoon but how many of those will I publish or read?

Bukowski didn’t write his first successful novel until he was 49 but he kept at it. He was a frequent submitter to journals, and he wrote every day. At one point, he was writing and submitting 15 stories a month.

If you want to be a writer, be a writer.

“Good and evil and right and wrong keep changing.”

Don’t worry about upsetting people. Bukowski was always upsetting people, probably because he was a horrible person. What he was, and what he is valued for today, is in his honesty.

Bukowski showed people the filth of America and in turn, he was condemned. He wallowed in that filth and continued to write of it, and in time his writing was picked up by the counterculture and the rebels.

Now Bukowski has devoted followers akin to any of the all-time great writers. He is considered by some to be on the Mount Rushmore of poetry, but he wouldn’t have gotten there if he didn’t commit to his truth.

If your work has merit outside of shock, it will find the right audience in time.

“It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail.”

A frequent lament of mine is, “Everybody wants to be Bukowski.”

People think that their work has to be sad and tragic to be deep. When it doesn’t come from a place of tragedy, it’s artificial and we, as an audience, can smell the fraud.

If you’re not homeless and heavily into drugs, writing about those things probably isn’t for you. If you write about heartbreak without really knowing it, your writing will show it.

It’s okay to write about being happy or to write about train journeys and flowers. If that’s what life is to you, write away!

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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