Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘finished?’

Portraits Of Charles Bukowski (Photo by JARNOUX Patrick/Paris Match via Getty Images)

This is going to sound weird, folks, but when I feel like I need a pick-me-up, I turn to the “grubby stuff” of Charles Bukowski. Because I’m almost certain his ashy, alcohol-stained keyboard lives inside my head, and its words spill from my ears. It’s also been a while since I turned to poetry on the blog (a while for me these days is about two weeks).

Poetry, even non-Bukowski poetry, hits me in a way that fiction most often doesn’t. There’s something about the form that connects with me on a different level that only top shelf fiction can at times. Nonfiction is a different story entirely. That medium can get me on a regular basis.

So yeah, I was feeling a bit “bleh” this week — perhaps the lull after a high-octane weekend, but more on that tomorrow — and reading this poem from Bukowski, where he pushes back against his critics, and the title itself, “finished?” hit my spot.

Here is the poem in full:

the critics now have me
drinking champagne and
driving a BMW
and also married to a
socialite from
Philadelphia’s Main Line
which of course is going to prevent me
from writing my earthy
and grubby stuff.
and they might be
right,
I could be getting to be
more like them,
and that’s as close to
death as you can
get.

we’ll see.
but don’t bury me yet.
don’t worry if I drink with
Sean Penn.
just measure the poems
as they come off the
keyboard.
listen only to them.
after this long fight
I have no intention of
quitting short.
or late.
or satisfied.

Bukowski is a man of the underground, of the underside of a bottle, of the ashtray that underwrites his gruff — you get my point, which is that Bukowski disdains the thought of being considered highfalutin. After all, he equates it to death:

“I could be getting to be/more like them,/and that’s as close to/death as you can/get.”

Also, I’ve always taken Bukowski’s advice on “just measures the poems as they come off the keyboard.” I do that with any artist, to be honest. I try not to let the author, whether they are an author of poetry, fiction and/or nonfiction, and what they do or think in their personal lives affect how I take in and engage with the art. The art is the art. The person doing the art doesn’t have to be a saint or someone I even like on a personal level (inasmuch as you can know these people on a personal level) to appreciate the art as art. I’m sure I could conjure exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, the art is the art.

And Bukowski going elite wouldn’t change my view of his “grubby stuff.”

I also love the idea that he’s not going to stop satisfied. As an artist, can you ever be satisfied? My go-to example is Stephen King, who at 72, and decades of fame and fortune, is still putting out content. There’s no such thing as sanctification in the sense of wanting to be … finished. Or at least, my romantic view of artists and artistry is that there can’t be, and cynical you could argue that King still wants to make money, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s passion and love of writing, and not being finished. You art until you can’t art anymore (go with it).

What do you think of this poem, and some of the themes I extrapolated from it, at least about how to judge an artist (if at all) and if there’s a finish line to art?

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