You are listening haphazardly, carelessly. And then, through the lazy sheen, almost upon the sheen, climbing upon it, through it, centering lithely upon the unguarded brain…in comes the melody, curling, singing, dancing…All the full potency of the variations, the counter notes, gliding cool and utterly unbelievable in the mind […] like the buzzing of countless little steel bees whirling in ever-heightened beauty.
In his first publication, the ironic diatribe “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,” a short story published in Story Magazine in 1944, American writer Charles Bukowski references Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony; from this point on he would consistently infuse his poems, short stories, novels, and letters with his reflections on various elements of classical music. The poems in particular highlight his love for the music of composers of the Western Classical tradition, especially those such as Beethoven and Mahler who became associated with the Romantic Movement. Bukowski claimed to empathize with these composers whom he considered to have led similar tortured lives to his own, and who consistently struggled against an often hostile critical environment, Bukowski suggesting that their music acted as a “crutch” when he needed inspiration.
Bukowski's Adornonian rejection of contemporary popular music may seem paradoxical for a writer who carefully cultivated a low-life, anti-intellectual persona in both his life and work, yet he condemned popular music genres such as rock and folk whilst embracing classical music, a form commonly associated with the educated middle classes and predominantly, although perhaps falsely, conceived as elitist.
Although we often play a dangerous game in accepting the narrative voice, or the author implied within the text, to be the voice of the actual author, in the case of Bukowski, the reader may justifiably perceive a linkage between the two voices. Bukowski’s work is predominantly autobiographical, the narratives, whether poetry or prose, often being focalized through the almost transparent pseudonym “Henry Chinaski.” Music critic Philip Clark has argued that “Beethoven’s legacy will always be more important than Beethoven the myth.” Bukowski’s colorful reputation, often self-cultivated, as a tough talking, hard drinking, womanizing, back-street brawler (a reputation not dissimilar to that of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) tends to obscure his considerable literary legacy. During his lengthy writing career, Bukowski produced seven novels, seven collections of short stories, an extensive number of newspaper articles, four collections of letters and thirty four collections of poetry including those published posthumously.
Bukowski’s maverick dismissal of literary literature, of poetic poetry, does not overtly suggest the potential for an affiliation with the classical symphony, sonata or overture. Indeed, readers may struggle to relate Bukowski - the literary outsider who produced graphically explicit poetry and prose depicting rundown neighborhoods of Los Angeles populated by a dramatis personae made up of a disaffected underclass, the unemployed, minimum-pay blue collar workers, prostitutes, and drunks destined for skid-row - to the Bukowski who developed a passionate appreciation of classical music. This perceived paradox is highlighted by an exchange that took place in 1960 between Bukowski and Miles Payne, editor of Light Year, a small-press poetry magazine. In response to a letter rejecting his poetry on the grounds of its “simplicity,” Bukowski berated Payne, writing, “You doubt my appreciation of a Bach fugue because of the poetry I send you.” Bukowski may have written tales and poetry containing vulgar imagery and language, but alongside those subjects emerges a passion for classical music which, claims Bukowski, shines through his life and work like “blue lightning split[ting] the night sky.”
In relation to lifestyle and literary subject matter, Bukowski is often compared to Beat Movement writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In terms of musical sensibility, however, he diverged from these writers in terms of the focus of his musical interest. Kerouac and Ginsberg looked to jazz as a muse for creative inspiration and for narrative content. Both writers utilize jazz rhythms within their writing. Think for example of the formal structure of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (1955), where line-length is based specifically on the breath patterns of a saxophonist, or of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style in novels such as On the Road (1957) which is self-consciously inflected with references to jazz performance and to jazz rhythmic structures. In contrast, Bukowski had little time for what he termed “the jazz bit,” or for that matter for any other form of popular music, jazz included: "Jazz and rock simply do not lift me to the extent that classical music does. There’s more of an edge of centuries in classical music. There’s more blood, more style. It’s just up and out and gone. Jazz just jerks around."
Bukowski’s aversion to jazz may be related to what he saw as the genre's rigid, predetermined configurations of chord progressions which so underline much of the music produced within the genre. However, one must acknowledge the fact that there is also a history of virtuosity linked to jazz which he does not seem to acknowledge. To take Bebop as an example, musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk produced heavily improvised interpretations of well known popular tunes based around intricate derivations of traditional chord progressions. Whilst complex interpretations of songs such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Cherokee” may be intimidating to the casual listener, they cannot be termed elitist in relation to any strict adherence to formal rules.
Although Bukowski did appear to gain some pleasure from attending U2 concerts during the 1980s (singer Bono being a fan of his work), rock music was often the main focus for his critiques of contemporary music. In a letter to Luciana Capretti dated February 6th, 1990, Bukowski takes an Adornonian perspective, suggesting that rock music “is more sound and pretence than an actual and venturesome entrance into the grand gamble.” Like Adorno, Bukowski believed that popular music reduced emotions and interpersonal relationships to caricature, thus impeding the development of an understanding of actual relationships. The implication here is that popular music forms and the language used within those forms (lyrics), play safe by avoiding the realities of contemporary life. Adorno might point to the music produced by “battery hen” writers housed within the Brill Building in New York as sentimental, formulaic, disposable, commercial trivia. Bukowski supported these criticisms. For example, in an interview with Fernanda Pivano, he contemptuously argues that popular music writers “get up and talk about love and life and truth and they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” In contrast, Bukowski favored composers like Beethoven, Mahler, and Wagner who produced works which he believed allowed the listener to experience “authentic” emotional responses. In common with Adorno, Bukowski felt that, in relation to its simplistic and idealistic representation of life, most popular music acted as a form of Marxian “opiate” which served the interests of middle class conservatism and the maintenance of the status quo.
Bukowski held a specific disdain for the work of Bob Dylan: "He’s only written one good poem. But even that’s not very good. Something about trees and all that […] it dips off at the end [his] words are common, but they’re also very weak […] there’s a touch of melodrama that doesn’t quite ring true." Although he uses the word “poem,” Bukowski is probably making reference to Dylan’s lyrics rather than to the rambling free-association verse contained in Tarantula, the singer’s collection of prose and poetry. It is not surprising that Dylan’s lyrics were unpalatable to the “dirty realist” poet of the street. “Mr Tambourine Man,” for example, is essentially a non-linear stream of consciousness narrative open to multiple interpretations. Where artists such as Dylan go wrong, suggests Bukowski, is “ spend[ing] so much time talking about living that they don’t have time to live.” In a letter to fellow poet Al Purdy, Bukowski claimed that when he listens to classical music he feels “Dylan melting like a candle.”
During his early years, Bukowski took little interest in any form of music. In the poem “classical music and me,” he writes of his initial aversion for classical music: “as a boy I believed that classical music was / for sissies and as a teenager I felt this even /more strongly.” This initial alienation from the genre developed further during music lessons in his early school years, the young Bukowski struggling to grasp the basics of notation and composition: "the sounds that came out of my teacher’s phonograph in the third grade were not, to me, human sounds, sounds in any way relative to real life and real living […] The others learned the meaning of the little black dots with tails, and without tails, that climbed up and down the chalk-marked ladders on the blackboard. But I -, through fear and revulsion – turtle fashion, withdrew my mind into the dark shell. And today when I slip my program notes from my record albums…it is still dark…” This lack of ability to read notation and his fear of the technical aspects of musical construction were compounded by the less than encouraging attitude of his parents who had little patience with his experimentations on his grandmother’s piano. In Bukowski: A Life, Neeli Cherkovsky describes how as a child Bukowski would sit “fascinated by the varying sounds he could make out of it” and how “he kept on hitting the keys” until his exasperated father “demanded that he stop playing.”
In spite of his parents’ attempts to dissuade their son from expressing himself on the piano, it was not long before Bukowski developed an appreciation for classical music. His musical epiphany is described in “classical music and me” when, happening to be in a record store, he is attracted by “some music in the next / booth / sounds…strange and / unusual” and is surprised to discover that it is “symphony / music.” He goes on to describe how he “went through [the] entire / 2nd hand record/store,” taking the records back to his rooming-house where, as he describes in the short story “hard without music,” he would begin “feeding symphonies to the hungry insides of [his] landlady’s wooden, man-high victrola.” Bukowski goes on to tell how this “good music crept up on [him]” and of how “almost everyday [he] discovered a new symphony” but was, he claimed, too nervous and uncomfortable to understand them in the glass partitions of the somehow clinical music shops.”
This preference for solitary listening also accounts for his reluctance to attend classical music concerts. In a letter to John William Corrington dated May 15, 1962, Bukowski lays bare his antipathy for the “symphony crowd” whom he describes as “phoney crows,” going on to berate what he deemed to be the excessively reverential concert atmosphere which, he suggests develops out of “marble hall exaltation [and] church-like holiness.” Listening to music on a record player became increasingly problematic as the struggling writer made his nomadic way across post Second World War America, drifting from job to job and from one inner-city bed-sit to another. Eventually, the radio became the source of his listening experiences, providing in the words of critic Gay Brewer “an immediate link with centuries of composition and creation.” Music presented on radio is free to all listeners and in that sense, irrespective of its genre, can be termed an egalitarian form of music distribution.
In a 1967 interview with John Thomas, Bukowski described his idea of a perfect life as being with "a good woman, cigars, […] Mahler with good wine and the lights out [and] sitting […] naked watching the cars go by.” A similar sentiment was articulated in a letter to literary magazine editor Roth Wilkofsky dated September 4th, 1975, where he wrote “classical music and booze taken together have carried me through many a night when it seemed as if there were nothing else around.”
Clearly, Bukowski believed that the monotony associated with his dead-end employment was made bearable by his engagement with classical music, a relationship further highlighted in an undated letter to magazine editor Sheri Martinelli: "I went to work in a slaughterhouse because I had to eat the fresh dead animals that I carried upon my right shoulder. I was also so hungry once that I went to work in a dogbiscuit factory…and ate a couple of dog bis [sic] when nobody was looking. Flames 60 feet high, and men sweating burning their hands, the machines pumping off the dough, no guards, you had to grab the trays, your hands wrapped in gunnysack to keep pff the burning, but there were holes and you had blisters full of fists like holding marbles in your hands and each paycheck went drunk to forget, and the bastards wonder why you’re so tough and love the piano sounds, love Beethoven and Chopin."
In his poem “Bach, come back,” Bukowski again reiterates this dependency, this time specifically focusing on the German composer Johan Sebastian Bach:
sitting in this old chair, listening to Bach,
the music splashes across me, refreshing, delightful.
I need it, tonight I feel like a man who has come back
from the same old war, death in life,
as my guts say not again, not again, to have fought
so hard for what?
too often, the only escape is sleep.
Bach saves me
Once Bukowski discovered the attractions of listening to classical music it became, for him, “the best show in town," and subsequently part of his daily routine. In a letter to Gerard Dombrowski dated January 3, 1969, Bukowski tells of “often living for a month behind pulled shades and eating green potatoes and listening to the works of Bach.”
Bukowski’s musical tastes can be seen to have a common link with those of critics associated with the Soviet Social Realist movement, a movement which rejected the musical languages of the twentieth-century as represented by Modernist composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg whose compositions were formalistically challenging to the general listener. Perhaps here one can find the origins of Bukowski’s aversion to musical notation which can act as an impediment to the listener’s emotional experience of the musical utterance. Although the music may be abstract in the sense that it does not, and can not, “say” what emotions are attached to it, Bukowski’s experiences highlight the way in which listeners can understand the language of classical music as an emotional narration, without necessarily understanding its grammatical rules.
Bukowski’s aversions to the Modernist works of Stravinsky and Schoenberg are echoed in his critiques of the Modernist Movement in literature. He had little time for what he believed to be the empty rhetoric and the polysyllabic semantics of the Modernist poets. He particularly disliked what he saw as the high seriousness of writers such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, who, he argued, produced pretentious poetry constructed for an elitist minority. In a letter to Sherri Martinelli dated June 8th, 1960, Bukowski’s diatribe against complexity in poetry ends with the statement “to hell with the classics, to hell with form, to hell with Pound.” Many poets, he suggested, were guilty of gratuitously incorporating “long, and twisted words” when an idea could be communicated directly and succinctly without the need for what he called the “evasions [and] crutches” of semantic obfuscation.
Although he was familiar with, and more than capable of working within structured forms, Bukowski preferred to use confessional free verse, attempting to humanize poetry by bringing it closer to ordinary American speech. His poems are conspicuous in their frugal use of traditional literary conceits such as metaphor and simile. Most of his poems are delivered in a conversational first person vernacular, and, in keeping with his desire to focus on the material aspects of existence, offer little in the way of complex psychological detail. Bearing in mind his pedantic perspectives on the nature and form of art, it may be considered strange that Bukowski dismissed what might be construed to be egalitarian popular music such as the blues whilst being drawn to classical music which, erroneously, is often deemed to be an elitist form of music. For example, can the promenade concerts introduced by Henry Wood after the First World War be termed elitist? Can a brass band’s interpretation of The New World Symphony be termed elitist?
Bukowski increasingly found transcendental and therapeutic qualities in classical music. He claimed to have discovered in classical music “a part of / the world / like no other part of the / world,” something which “gave heart” to his life. Symphonic music has, he suggests in his poem “one for the shoeshine man,” what he termed “the original energy of / joy." It is this inherent energy which, he claims, helped him survive:
through the women, through
the jobs, through the horrible
times and the good times,
through deaths, through every-
thing, in and out of hospitals,
in and out of love, through the
decades that have gone so
In “poem for the young and tough,” he goes further, writing of how classical music acted as a form of salvation, saving him from a descent into alcoholism:
I haven’t been in a drunk
tank for a good ten
boring, isn’t it?
But not for me as I now
stay in at night,
Mahler and watch the walls
Similarly in “closing time,” Bukowski makes the claim that classical music works as a balm to soothe what he calls the “common / and / extraordinary ills / that beset us.” In “Hungaria, Symphonia Poem #9 by Franz Liszt,” he describes how, when listening to classical music, he “feel[s] like hugging the radio to [his] chest so / that [he] can be part of the / music." In the same poem, Bukowski highlights the way in which classical music acted as a form of sonic muse which stimulated his literary creativity. He writes:
I always listen […] while I’m typing
(and when I finally write a good poem
I’m sure they have much to do with it)
He goes on:
I am listening to a composer now who is taking me completely
out of this world and suddenly
I don’t give a damn if I live or die or pay the
gas bill on time, I
just want to listen
Over the years, Bukowski found classical music to be increasingly important to his writing process. In a letter to Sheri Martinelli dated October 19th, 1960, he describes how classical music acted as one of the motivational forces which inspired his creative process: "the music claws and crawls like ants from the floor, up your arms, your chest, your ass, and sings in your head […] and all the walls are forests of burning music […] you laugh drunk-weird and move to the typewriter."
Bukowski also outlines this linkeage in a 1991 interview with Robert Gumper: "Every day I’ll wake up around noon, Linda [his wife] and I’ll have some breakfast, then […] I’ll go upstairs and I’ll sit at the computer and I’ll crack me a bottle and I’ll listen to Mahler […] and I’ll write, with this rhythm, like always." Indeed, Bukowski’s staccato lines which build towards a poem organically, can be seen to reflect the way in which musical notes come together to form musical passages. This link is acknowledged by Bukowski when discussing the work of Johan Sebastian Bach in a 1971 interview with Don Strachan. During the interview, Bukowski tells Strachan how he feels that the German’s method of building a composition was not dissimilar to his own way of layering a poem: "[Bach] started off with the basic, then he came in with the second, and a few bars later with the third, and the fourth…he just kept on going right on up to ten melodies."
Bukowski felt a particularly strong affiliation with “confessional,” self-expressive composers such as Mahler, Wagner, and Beethoven. In “observations on music,” Bukowski claimed that he preferred a composer “who inserts his own / interpretation rather than the purist who blindly follows / the commands of the master.” All three composers produced works which focused on emotion, utilizing what might be termed an emotional narrative. Bukowski was drawn to compositions which are based in reality because they have a form of narrative which tells a story, works such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the operas which form Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Throughout his writing career, Bukowski professed an empathy with those composers who lived what he considered to be “tortured” lives. In “observations on music,” he argues that, as he himself had done, “a composer must […] / experience life in its raw form in order to / write well.” Bukowski particularly expressed a strong connection with Mahler who, like himself, had sympathy with the oppressed. As Burnett James points out, the Jewish Mahler felt himself to be “an alien and an outcast, an outsider in all senses of the word." Being ridiculed by the critical establishment during his years as a conductor whilst eventually achieving success in terms of reader/audience appreciation of his work, was something Bukowski could easily relate to.
Bukowski was also drawn to the life and works of Richard Wagner. In “classical music and me,” Bukowski describes Wagner as “a roaring miracle / of dark energy.” In a letter to Al Purdy dated January 3rd, 1965, Bukowski tells his fellow poet how much he likes “the language” of Wagner, suggesting that when he gets past "the filling he can give you real lightning.” In his poem “my German buddy,” Bukowski describes his experience of listening to Wagner on the radio:
malt liquor from
and listening to
I can’t believe that
he is not in
or around the
and he is
as I am taken
by the sound of
and little goosebumps
both of my
In a letter to Douglas Blazek dated December 4th, 1965, Bukowski claimed that, in his opinion, Wagner “never wrote a bad note,” that his music “all came from the GUT.” Bukowski’s admiration for the German is further underlined in his poem “1813-1883” where he suggests that Wagner, whom he describes as “the supreme fighter, a giant in a world of / pygmies,” had much in common with himself in that in both life and art they both “battle[d] the agonies” of existence. In the same poem, Bukowski describes the experience of listening to Wagner’s music on the radio while drinking and composing his poetry:
everything here shakes
in fierce gamble
yes, Wagner and the storm intermix with the wine as
nights like this run up my wrists and up into my head and
back down into the
In addition to his perceived connection with Mahler and Wagner, Bukowski also empathized with Beethoven’s belligerence and bellicosity. Like Beethoven, Bukowski’s work inhabits the dangerous fringes of what we normally define as art. Both Beethoven and Bukowski sought to be progressive and both struggled to assert their individual voices within their respective fields. Both poet and composer cared little for the opinions of either their critics or their peers; indeed, Bukowski’s attitude towards his detractors was reminiscent of Beethoven’s towards the Schuppanzigh Quartet after it refused to play his unconventional String Quartet no. 13, the composer lambasting the conservative musicians, telling them in no uncertain terms that he had nothing but contempt for them and their “bloody fiddles.”
In the poem “L. Beethoven, half-back,” Bukowski utilizes a sporting metaphor to illustrate what he considered to be a similarity between their irreverent, confrontational attitudes towards their critics:
he came out of the team;
Ludwig V. Beethoven, blocking
half-back, he really knocked
them down, but he drank beer
This shared irreverent, maverick outlook on life is further highlighted later in the poem:
Beethoven blocked out 3 men,
and as I went past
he said, I got a couple of
babes lined up for tonight;
you might need
Fifteen years after, in “note upon the love letters of Beethoven,” Bukowski imagines what might happen if the troubled composer had lived a similar life to himself in the twentieth century:
think if Ludwig were alive today
tooling along in his red sports
he’d pick up all these mad
hard cases on the boulevards
And, just as Bukowski sought to create a new kind of poetry, so would a contemporary Beethoven create “music like we/never heard before.”
In conclusion, as illustrated above, Bukowski consistently referenced classical music in his poetry, prose and letters. The “genius trapped in a small room,” who carefully cultivated a dissident low-life persona, came to develop a sincere appreciation of a form of music perhaps unjustifiably labelled “high-brow” and elitist. The author of the "rough" poems was a discerning listener and not all composers were allowed into his esteemed pantheon. Whilst he focused his appreciation on the Romantics he had little time for what he considered to be foppish sentimentalism, believing, like the composer Charles Ives that music should be listened to “like a man.” His discrimination is humorously highlighted in his poem “1970 blues," where he expresses his dislike for Johann Strauss’s most famous work, venting his derision thus: “what I need, what I really need is / to never ever hear the Blue Danube Waltz / again.”
In contrast, he inaugurated Mahler, Beethoven, and Wagner into his music Hall of Fame, claiming that their works acted as “crutches” when he needed artistic inspiration, and as a sonic balm for alleviating the stresses of his traumatic life. These composers he claimed, made his “hell / bearable.” Beethoven he saw as a star “blocking / half-back,” Wagner a purveyor of “dark energy,” and Mahler, well, he made “the walls / dance.”