‘Nirvana’ – Charles Bukowski, Heaven and Despair

“I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.”

Editors’ Notes

The WM Review is happy to welcome a contribution from Mr Joseph Bocca. What follows is a close reading of the poem ‘Nirvana’ by the twentieth century poet Charles Bukowski.

In his essay, Bocca considers what we might be able to take from this poem, in terms of illustrations of heaven, the longing felt by those who are cut off from God – as well as the sufferings and shortcomings arising from the worldview of the poet.

Those who do not know this work can find a version of it read here.

It might be asked, What has a non-Catholic got to teach us about heaven?

It is a fair question. Let’s consider the nature of poetry. Poetry has the power to take ideas and truths and clothe them in beauty, or make them more understandable and real for others. There is no doubt that Bukowski wrote some material that was morally objectionable – and of course, none of us recommend that.

Some of his poetry profoundly illustrates certain natural truths. Further, it is not naturalism or absurd to think that natural things have the capacity, when properly ordered, to illustrate aspects of supernatural revelation. This, after all, was the very purpose of Our Lord’s parables.

One might concede all this, and yet object that we should only turn to Catholic poets. However, this has not been the course followed by the Church in her educational establishments, at least in an absolute or consistent way. Much could be said here, but there can be a significant difference between a non-Catholic poet and an anti-Catholic one. However, no doubt, we should be very circumspect in what we read.

As well as illustrating certain natural truths, Bukowski’s poetry also gives voice to the terrible suffering experienced by so many today. This applies not only in the really awful difficulties of life which they experience, but also the emptiness and meaninglessness that accompanies those who think that they can create their own meaning.

If we want desperate and suffering men to listen to the good news of Christ’s Gospel, and any other answers we might have to offer, then we need to understand their plight and have compassion for them.

We could also recall the words of The Imitation of Christ: (NB: Commissions earned with Amazon links)

“Do not let the reputation of the writer influence you – or his literary ability, great or small – but let a pure love of truth lead you to your reading. Do not ask who wrote this or that, but attend to what is written.

“Men pass away, but God’s truth abides forever. The Lord speaks to us through many different means and without respect of persons.”[1]

One does not have to be a Catholic to write good poetry about natural things; and we are all able to see the goodness in what is natural as a means of rising up and considering what is supernatural.

Photo by Pedro Gabriel Miziara on Unsplash

‘Nirvana’ by Charles Bukowski

Mr Joseph Bocca

The ‘Nirvana’ that is the subject of this piece is not anything to do with Buddhism or Kurt Cobain. It is the poem by the American writer, Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski (d. 1994) was a poet, but did not use traditional verse when writing. He could be said to be a part of the modernist school – something that is quite separate to the modernism condemned by St Pius X. He was posthumously described by Time Magazine as the “laureate of American lowlife.”

But Bukowski was definitely not a Catholic, and his works might also be said to be a literary expression of existentialist philosophy, which teaches that man makes his own meaning and value in life. Obviously, this idea is wrong.

All that now said, it should be clear I am not holding him up for emulation or as a teacher of philosophy or religion. In this article I will dive into this particular work of his, considering the vision it gives us of heaven, and how Bukowski’s philosophy hinders the poem from reaching the heights it could potentially have reached.

Those who do not know this work can find a version of it read here.

The poem

Nirvana is about an unnamed “young man” who stops at a café while traveling by bus on a long journey. This café in his experience represents a kind of simple perfection. We are not certain of where he is traveling – the bus is currently in North Carolina “on the way to somewhere.”

It begins to snow, seemingly as they leave the bus to enter the café. The café is “in the hills,” which geographically places it higher than the rest of the traveler’s environment – and thus nearer to heaven.

The narrator described the meal and the coffee as being “particularly good” and the waitress as being “unaffected” that is, completely sincere and genuine.

The ordinary versus the extraordinary

This sentiment and appreciation is a closer approximation of reality, than one which would view the waitress as mundane or ordinary.

In Heaven, we will be free of any sin left on our souls. We will be “pure” and, as such, our truest selves will be what others experience there. No pretension, no “putting on airs” or any need to satisfy human respect. The saints experience each other in perfect charity, seeing one anothers’ true selves, without affectation, and as creatures made in God’s image and likeness.

C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory expresses this idea:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

“All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

So, while Bukowski himself might be described as an existentialist, his vision here has hints of a more Christian conception of things. The ostensibly mundane, transformed by the beauty of a person’s essence, illustrates Lewis’s point that no one is “ordinary,” strictly speaking – and that what is ordinary is truly extraordinary.

Purity of heart

Lewis also describes joy as “the business of Heaven” – which is illustrated in Bukowski’s poem. While the waitress in the poem represents something of purity and authenticity, the fry cook is saying “crazy things” in a humorous and lighthearted manner, and the dishwasher is described as having “laughed, a good, clean, pleasant laugh” at the fry cook’s antics. Again, we see something of the purity as we described before, and recall Our Lord’s words: “Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God.”

It is this purity of heart, and not merely the abstention from sins of the flesh, which gives us the ability to see one another for what we are – to see the divine stamp on each other’s souls. The purity of the interaction in the poem causes laughter, a clear expression of joy.

Short of mysticism and the liturgy, the best foretaste we have of Heaven on earth may be charitable interactions with our neighbor. This portion of the poem is imbued with the twofold experience of joy: joy as experienced with one another; and joy as a deep longing.

The poem continues:

The young man watched the snow through the windows. He wanted to stay in that café


Here Bukowski expresses joy as longing, in which the young man is immersed in the perceived perfection of the café and is thus put in touch with the desire for the eternal. Bukowski continues:

[T]he curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there,

That it would always stay beautiful there.

Then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board,

The young man thought, ‘I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.’

This recalls, even if only unintentionally, St. Peter’s words to Our Lord during His Transfiguration: “It is good that we should be here.”

But because of his philosophy and lack of religion, Bukowski cannot put the same hope in the heart of his young man as Our Lord did in the hearts of his apostles.

Inevitable despair – insufficiency without God

Despair has to set in, because what he thought was a foretaste of the eternal necessarily has to be illusory if there is no Heaven and no God.

The young man and the others boarded the bus again to continue their journey. He looked at the café through the window of the bus, “then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills.” This is a clear expression of a loss of hope: going from being nearer to Heaven, to moving away from it through despair and hopelessness.


[T]he young man looked straight forward. He heard the other passengers speaking of other things, or they were reading or attempting to sleep.

He has now begun viewing people in the opposite way to how he had viewed the waitress, the fry cook, and the dishwasher: as mundane and ordinary.

The young man finally thinks to himself:

They had not noticed the magic.

This scene recalls the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s saying, taken from his play No Exit, that “hell is other people.” The young man is viewing his neighbor as unworthy, thoughtless, and as having less value than himself because they were, perhaps, unable to experience what he experienced in the café.

Making oneself the author of meaning in the place of God leads to an inevitable narcissism. Ultimately, one comes to view oneself as superior because no one can be as aware as us, as intelligent as us, as perceptive as us, and so on. One becomes the highest being, because according to this way of thinking, one is the author of reality, and there is no God above us.

As the poem closes, the young man is forced to resign himself, despite his experience or his “nirvana.” Bukowski’s worldview leaves this young man with the loss of his “nirvana,” and the same, mundane fate as the same as the rest of the passengers:

[He] closed his eyes, pretended to sleep. there was nothing else to do—

Just to listen to the sound of the engine, the sound of the tires in the snow.

Listen to the poem read here.


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[1] Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Stephen MacKenna, 1896, Sacred Texts, Watkins Publishing, London, 2006. Book 1, Chapter 5, p 21.

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