Poet Biographies

Charles Bukowski: The Poetic Life of an Outsider

Charles Bukowski was a 20th-century poet who had a life shaped by hardship. He represented the voice of LA’s underbelly.

Charles Bukowski Portrait

Charles Bukowski, a name synonymous with the gritty reality of life, was a 20th-century poet and novelist whose work continues to be a resonant voice for the more marginalized groups of society. Bukowski’s poems tell the story of the mundane aspects of life but also are highly relatable.

Despite being heavily linked to LA and American poetry, Bukowski was originally from Germany. His life would be turbulent, and he would work menial jobs and not see much success in his efforts. It was after his death that he started to get the attention his works deserved.

Charles Bukowksi’s poetry, prose, and fiction were known for their rawness, and ability to not conform to traditional elements. He did not sugarcoat his writing with flowery language or idealistic themes. Instead, he would center his work around the more unglamorous aspects of life. 

His narrative works were filled with an endless supply of anecdotes, from visiting dingy motels to going to a horse race. He would write works based on his experiences with alcoholics and those on the outskirts of society, He took an unfiltered approach whilst giving an insight into life on the margins of society. He would garner great adulation from readers who felt they were isolated and misunderstood. 

Early Life

Charles Bukowski was shaped by his upbringing, which was filled with hardship, a common occurrence during the early 20th century. He was born on August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, to an American soldier father and a German mother. Bukowski’s full name was Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., and his friends knew him as Hank.

When Bukowski was only two years into his life, his parents would get up and move to the United States of America, from Europe. They would settle in Los Angeles, where he would start his poetic journey.

His father, Henry Bukowski, formally Heinrich, had served in the U.S. Army after the end of World War I. Despite being an American, he decided to stay in Germany. His mother was Katharina Bukowski.

His relationship with his father was heated, as he had a reputation for being an abusive man. Young Charles would often be at the wrong end of his father’s anger, beating him regularly. In Bukowski’s later writings, the impact of his father on his outlook is evident, becoming a recurring theme. 

The family’s financial situation was often dire, and the Great Depression further forced them into poverty. Living in such conditions left a lasting dent in Bukowski’s psyche, fueling his future writings.


Along with a hard life at home, his time at school would give him no respite, as the scarring from his adolescent acne was often mocked. No doubt, this bullying had a part to play in Bukowski’s life path.

However, it was literature that he discovered at an early age, studying some of the greats. He would look to the likes of Dostoevsky and Hemingway for inspiration. He would go on to write fiction throughout his teenage years.

By starting at such a young age, he was able to express the sense of alienation and isolation that he felt within the world. By chronicling his everyday struggles and turning them into relatable pieces, his work would connect with his readers on a fundamental level. Much of his audience felt aligned with Bukowski’s worldview. In this sense, Bukowski’s early life was not just a formative period but the very foundation of his unique voice in American literature.

Literary Career

Charles Bukowski’s literary career was a slow burn, filled with ups and downs, reflecting his turbulent life. After leaving school, his writing took a backseat, as he took on various low-paying jobs to make ends meet.

It was during this time that he would move away from Los Angeles and begin his education at Los Angeles City College. This occurred as America entered World War II. He then moved to New York City, where he began pursuing his writing career. He would later go on to live in other cities, such as Philadelphia and New Orleans.

In the 1940s, his writing career began to progress, as in 1944, he published his first short story, Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip. He would then go on to release 20 Tanks from Kasseldown in 1946. Despite the momentum building, he was met with rejection and failure, which led him to give up on his writing career for nearly a decade.

Despite these early setbacks, Buskowski could not resist the urge to create. In the mid-1950s, Bukowski would make a return, developing his unique style, which would hone in on the day-to-day human experience. With the help of Jon and Louise Webb, publishers of the literary magazine The Outsider, he would regain his love for the art of writing.

Throughout the 1960s, after a return to Los Angeles, Bukowski’s reputation grew rapidly, particularly within the underground literary scene. His first poetry collection, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, was published in 1960.

He started to gain momentum, featuring in various small literary magazines. His portrayal of the human condition resonated with his audience. He would go on to publish all of Cold Dogs in the Courtyard, Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, and Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts in 1965.

After persisting for decades, Bukowski would finally get his big break. The founder of Black Sparrow Press, John Martin, would end up offering a monthly salary to write full-time. This would mean Bukowksiu would have to give up his job at the post office. This was a proposal that was too good for him to turn down. In 1971, Bukowski took the leap, and his first novelPost Office, was published, chronicling his years as a postal clerk. It was met with critical acclaim and commercial success.

Once he had a platform to build from, Bukowski would gradually turn into a prolific storyteller. He would write and publish poems, short stories, and novels. His 1972 poetry collection Mockingbird Wish Me Luck increased his fame, and his 1975 novel Factotum depicted his struggles with various menial jobs.

The subject matter of his semi-autobiographical series Women in 1978, which delves into his complex relationships with women over the course of his life, and Ham on Rye in 1982, which provided a brutal account of his childhood.

Later Life and Death

It was in the later stages of his career that Bukowksi would finally find the success and stability that his work deserved. He would finally achieve fame and riches from his writing, which was a stark contrast to his early life of menial jobs. Despite this occupational upturn, his personal life was still turbulent. 

Bukowski continued to live in Los Angeles, often drawing from his immediate surroundings and experiences for his literary work. He would remain humble despite his fame and live a simple lifestyle. Going to bars and drinking, along with writing, stayed central to his life.

He went on to marry his long-term girlfriend Linda Lee Beighle in 1985, whom he had met years earlier, and she became an essential part of his later life. They lived together in San Pedro, California, where Bukowski continued to write prolifically.

In 1987, the movie Barfly was released, a production in which Bukowski wrote the screenplay. The film gave a role to Mickey Rourke, who was the main star.

After years of heavy drinking, health problems began to rear their head in Bukowski’s life. In 1988, he was diagnosed with leukemia, but he continued to write, even as his health deteriorated. His last novel, Pulp, was published in 1994, offering a surreal take on the detective genre.

Unfortunately, on March 9, 1994, Charles Bukowski died of leukemia in a hospital in San Pedro, California. Bukowski’s gravesite in Green Hills Memorial Park bears the simple epitaph: “Don’t Try,” a phrase that encapsulates his philosophy of life.

Famous Poems

Charles Bukowski’s poems were integral to his literary reputation and was responsible for a wide array of critically acclaimed works. Here are some of his most famous poems:


Charles Bukowski’s poetry was heavily inspired by some of the poetic greats of the past. These included the likes of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Ezra Pound. He would also look to literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Henry Miller for inspiration.


Who is Charles Bukowski?

Charles Bukowski was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer known for his raw focus on the human condition. He would address a number of themes, such as loneliness and alienation, and would talk about the absurd nature of life itself.

What is Charles Bukowski’s most famous poem?

Bukowski’s most famous poem is probably ‘The Laughing Heart.’ It is a short, simple poem that celebrates the beauty of life, even in the face of pain and suffering. The poem has been translated into many languages and is often read at funerals and memorials.

What was Charles Bukowski’s writing style?

Bukowski’s writing style was often described as “raw” and “unflinching.” He used simple language and direct imagery to explore the darker side of life. Bukowski’s approach was influenced by a number of writers, including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Henry Miller.

When was Charles Bukowski born?

Bukowski was born on August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany. He moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old.

How did Charles Bukowski die?

Bukowski died on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro, California. He was 73 years old and died of leukemia.

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