Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth’

Bukowski.

The latest Charles Bukowski poem certainly seems to be a play on the following Biblical line, well-popularized in the West:

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

Today I learned, that line is actually part of the Beatitudes, eight blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, each a proverb-like proclamation without any further narrative, according to Wikipedia.

The other seven are:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

“Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Overall, the idea being, that the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc., will inherit the kingdom of heaven. There are things more nobler and righteous than that which is on Earth; hence, if you forgo such things, you’ll be rewarded in God’s eyes. If you are like me and you were wondering at first why it says the meek will inherit the earth if overall the idea is inheriting the “kingdom of heaven,” my understanding of Christian theology is that one day, God will make Earth itself a kingdom of heaven.

In a Biblical sense, meek does not have a negative connotation. In fact, meek means someone who is righteous, teachable, and patient under suffering. However, if you define meekness beyond the Biblical context, the negative connotation comes back: quiet, gentle, and “easily imposed on; submissive.” That’s interesting. And it’s this definition that seems most at play in Bukowski’s poem, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth.”

if I suffer at this
typewriter
think how I’d feel
among the lettuce-
pickers of Salinas?
I think of the men
I’ve known in
factories
with no way to
get out-
choking while living
choking while laughing
at Bob Hope or Lucille
Ball while
2 or 3 children beat
tennis balls against
the wall.
some suicides are never
recorded.

First off, I love the opening of the poem, “if I suffer at this typewriter,” because all of us writers think in that way. That we’re suffering as martyrs for our craft. It’s a labor of love. Cliche yada cliche yada. But contrast that, as Bukowski does, with the lettuce-pickers of Salinas, and the men in factories, stuck there. Their fate a rote one of work-life-work-life, monotonous (the repetition image of the tennis balls against the wall brings to mind this as much as the factory work or lettuce-picking does) and hard, grinding them down under the heel of life’s foot. So much so that in devastating finish as only Bukowski can, he writes the chilling line, “some suicides are never recorded.” I take this to mean both the literal and figurative. That is, in a literal sense, the vast, vast majority of suicides are never recorded and reported on, and for good reason given contagion fears. But also, metaphorically, that living in this way is a kind of suicide, a sort of living death, if you will. It’s an incremental sort of death, chipping away at you.

And yet, the meek shall inherit the Earth. In Bukowski’s eyes, it is these folks, the meek, who he holds to high esteem. Not himself, certainty, slaving over a typewriter, but those who slave over the lettuce and the factory floors and have no real reprieve besides the occasional laugh extracted by Hope or Ball.

Not surprisingly, Bukowski’s re-imagining, if you will, of the popularized Biblical phrase, is more cynical and more brutish. The Biblical one is more optimistic in that, being meek on Earth is good in and of itself rather than having that negative connotation, but also because you will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Whereas, the meek shall inherit the Earth, is this an optimism thing or not to Bukowski? The Earth — that is, living — is hard, and it’s the meek who are inheriting the weight of it for the rest of us, like writers. Instead of the promise of the Earth being remade into the kingdom of heaven, it seems more likely to … not.

Juxtaposing in this way brings to stark relief Bukowski’s position. He already feels suffering at the weight of the Earth, much less if he had to do something as difficult and hard as lettuce-picking or working the factory floors, or even raising children. It’s a life he doesn’t want, but for which he seems to respect in a way.

I found the juxtaposition inherent in the poem interesting (writer versus factory worker), but also crushing cynicism I see in that there’s no salvation. There’s no kingdom of heaven promised to make the “suffering through pain” worth it. Instead, there’s a suicide never recorded.

What do you make of this poem? And please, if you have more knowledge of the theology here, correct any mistakes I’ve made!

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