Is Charles Bukowski A Great Artist?

Charles Bukowski

A reader writes:

Dear Ray Harvey: Is Charles Bukowski a great artist?

— Billy Badass

Dear Billy Badass: No, he’s not. Bukowski is too sloppy to be a great artist. He lacks vision. He lacks depth and he lacks focus. Reading him, one is reminded of Truman Capote’s criticism of On the Road:

“That’s not writing; it’s typing.”

Here, for example, is a typical Bukowski poem:

A Radio With Guts

it was on the 2nd floor on Coronado Street
I used to get drunk
and throw the radio through the window
while it was playing, and, of course,
it would break the glass in the window
and the radio would sit there on the roof
still playing
and I’d tell my woman,
“Ah, what a marvelous radio!”
the next morning I’d take the window
off the hinges
and carry it down the street
to the glass man
who would put in another pane.
I kept throwing that radio through the window
each time I got drunk
and it would sit there on the roof
still playing-
a magic radio
a radio with guts,
and each morning I’d take the window
back to the glass man.
I don’t remember how it ended exactly
though I do remember
we finally moved out.
there was a woman downstairs who worked in
the garden in her bathing suit,
she really dug with that trowel
and she put her behind up in the air
and I used to sit in the window
and watch the sun shine all over that thing
while the music played.

What do you think?

And yet for all this, Bukowski does possess something — which is to say, he’s not altogether devoid of talent. For one thing, as you glimpse above, he has a genuine sense for beauty, at times, not consistently. And he’s intelligent. His all-time favorite movie was Eraserhead by David Lynch. Bukowski’s talent, however, remains largely fallow. If you’ve read a few Bukowski poems or stories, you’ve pretty much read them all.

In short, a little Bukowski, goes a very, very long way.

Here’s Bukowski at his best:


  • Dex

    February 21, 2010

    I happen to like Bukowski alot for the reasons you apparently dislike him, namely, he is not steeped in “ivory tower literature,” and his poems are authentic and come from the guts, which is what good writing is about, IMHO.

  • Ray

    February 21, 2010

    I think you make a fair point, Dex: Bukowski is authentic — or at least seems to be — and yet he forsakes a lot. He explicitly rejects all but the most narrow kind of literature — i.e. the kind he and John Fante write.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    If you like me, tell your friends about me. If your friends like me, get new friends.

  • Jean Koltak

    February 21, 2010

    LOL! I was just going to bring that up. Bukowski wouldn’t be shit without John Fante. I swear, you read those John Fante books and you think you’re reading an early incarnation of Bukowski.

    Dex, you want authentic, watch a drunken Bukowski and his drunken girlfriend here (FF to the 3:20 mark, if you’re not into the whole thing):

  • cowsarejustfood

    February 22, 2010

    yeah and hemingway’s a one-trick pony too no doubt.

    (he is)

    i think yr selling bukowski just a little short.

    don’t believe he’s authentic. read the jane baker laments.

    capote? rather missing the point with the road dontcha think? and a man who spent the ass-end of his drinking years, just talking not writing.

    and since i know you jones for jones…

    who in the hell is tom jones?

    i was shacked with a
    24 year old girl from
    new york city for
    two weeks – about
    the time of the garbage
    strike out there, and
    one night my 34 year
    old woman arrived and
    she said, “i want to see
    my rival.” she did
    and then she said, “o,
    you’re a cute little thing!”
    next i knew there was a
    screech of wildcats-
    such screaming and scratch-
    ing, wounded animal moans,
    blood and piss. . .
    i was drunk and in my
    shorts. i tried to
    seperate them and fell,
    wrenched my knee. then
    they were through the screen
    door and down the walk
    and out into the street.
    squadcars full of cops
    arrived. a police heli-
    coptor circled overhead.
    i stood in the bathroom
    and grinned in the mirror.
    it’s not often at the age
    of 55 that such splendid
    things occur.
    better than the watts
    the 34 year old
    came back in. she had
    pissed all over her-
    self and her clothing
    was torn and she was
    followed by 2 cops who
    wanted to know why.
    pulling up my shorts
    i tried to explain.

  • Ray

    February 23, 2010


    That was udderly hilarious. But selling Bukowski short? Please. (I did like that poem, though, in a way.)

    Who’s Tom Jones? I don’t necessarily know, but I do remember you once said that the latest Radiohead CD was not (and I quote) “Tom Jones’s cock.”

    No doubt you remember this one.

  • cowsarejustfood

    February 23, 2010

    all i’m saying is that poem, it’s like judging david lynch on dune rather than mullholland drive. he wrote too much. too much, that’s for sure. bukowski. not lynch. that is.

    the radiohead record? it’s not even jones’ ballsac no matter his cock. maybe perineum…

    that video though, how could one forget his spazzy kung fu sex moves?

    it gets me a little moist.

  • anonymous

    February 24, 2010

    As Wichita Falls,
    So falls Wichita Falls.

  • anonymous

    February 25, 2010

    How beautiful it is,
    that eye-on-the-object look.

  • sanjam pal

    March 25, 2010

    i am a poet in bengali.i know what makes a revolutionary in poetry.bukwoski is a great poet because he has added new dimension to language of english poetry.apart from that he is strongly authentic and relivens his surroundings. miles away i read him almost everyday.

  • Ray

    March 25, 2010

    A fellow poet. Thank you for dropping by, sanjam pal.

  • Willy molloy

    April 27, 2011

    The most complex things are the simplest.
    Agni Celeste

  • Joe

    May 29, 2011

    Look at how he uses the line breaks to turn the rhythm or shift the meaning while still carrying a story. It’s a beautiful stream of words and thoughts. Just because you can understand it doesn’t mean it’s bad poetry.

  • Eaturownface

    January 30, 2012

    Bukowski is the ultimate artist. You guys have no sense of the kind of art he conjured, probably, because you view art and life through university schooled candy fag lenses covered in the dog shit some professor you sucked off imparted to you for all your parents hard earned and poorly spent money. What’s so fantastic about Hank is that you ass gobblers don’t and never will get it. And Pablo Honey is the only bad Radiohead record and boy howdy shit does it suck terribly. Stick to the shit that sticks to you and leave Bukowski out of it.

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