Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘Nirvana’

Creative Commons photo.

I love those serendipitous and unexpected moments when two things I’ve been engaging with come together. If you’ve been following the blog the last few days, I recently posted a breakdown of the Tom Waits song, “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” which means, I’ve been on a Waits kick. That dang guttural voice is something else. Lately, I’ve been into, “Hell Broke Luce,” and, “Gun Street Girl.”

Now, take Waits’ voice, let it conceive with a dumpster rat in a back alley somewhere, and in twenty years, that voice will grow up to be Charles Bukowski and write poems. Like, if you personified Waits’ distinctive growl of a voice, it would be like a Bukowski poem, which is why I love that my first encounter with Bukowski’s poem, “Nirvana,” was a reading of it by Waits. [Even more serendipity on top of the serendipity is just today, I started getting back into listening to Nirvana, one of my all-time favorite bands.]

Here’s the reading:

I mean, my goodness. It almost feels like a bunch of crap for me to even continue typing after you listen to that (which you should!). That’s not the gravelly, guttural Waits. That’s the melancholy Waits. That’s the desolation inherent to this poem seeping through the words and coming alive from Bukowski’s pen and page. One of the greatest poetry readings of all time, as far as I am concerned.

But for the visual, here’s the poem in full and here’s an excerpt:

the young man watched
the snow through the
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
that it would always
stay beautiful

That’s the gist of the story: A man on a bus stops at a cafe in North Carolina, and the experience marks himself: This was nice. Almost as if time had stopped and for a moment there, he was in some sort of wayward, hole-in-the-wall utopia. This one really itches at the bone marrow because some of my favorite travel moments are when we slow down, stop, and enjoy the company of others in a small, out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall type place, like a cafe or a diner. Life exists in those slowed down moments in hindsight.

There’s nothing particularly unique that happened within the cafe in the poem. It was just nice. Pleasant. For a man who doesn’t seem to know where he’s going or what he’s doing, that must’ve been nice indeed. A reprieve of sorts. At first, the man thinks he’ll stay in that cafe forever, and the real melancholy of the situation is that he knows he can’t. He knows that he has to move on because that’s life, and when he gets back on the bus, nobody knows what he experienced. Nobody knows that feeling of nirvana. Now that’s also a source of melancholy, but there’s another, more optimistic and beautiful way to look at it: How neat is it that people around us all the time, at varying times throughout the day, are experiencing their own little nirvanas? Sure, maybe while they are, we aren’t, and can’t understand what they are, and there’s a loss of connection there, but at the same time, thousands — millions, even — of little nirvanas happening all around us is a sort of sweet thought, huh?

Also, one last point, the aesthetic of the poem itself, where it feels like a dumping of stream of consciousness poetry writing, appeals to me and is reflective of the aesthetic of the poem itself. It’s whimsical, like a wisp of smoke from that cafe or the exhaust smoke from the bus, as the bus rolls on past the cafe. Either way.

What do you make of Waits’ reading of the poem and the poem itself?

3 thoughts

  1. I really like the reading and the video as a whole, with the images and music too – especially the last part when the train is moving forward. The voice really is fitting for the poem and reads it beautifully.

    Such a great poem about how we can find nirvana in simple moments like this. As you pointed out, “he knows he has to move on because that’s life,” and this resonated with me. Sometimes it’s hard to move on from these joyful moments but, like the man in the poem, we can’t stay there forever.

    Also, serendipitous moments like this are the best! It’s so great when a coincidence like this happens. Lovely poem – thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Tirza! I’m glad it resonated with you. That’s part of the reason I so appreciate Bukowski is because he captures those smaller moments about life.

      Liked by 2 people

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