Summary and Analysis of Sleep by Charles Bukowski: 2022

The Poet:

Henry Charles Bukowski  (born Heinrich Karl Bukowski; August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994) was a German-born American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His home city Los Angeles’ social, economic, political background influenced his writing. His writing deals with the lives of poor Americans, downtrodden of American society, alcoholism, relationship with women, act of writing and drudgery of work.
Born in Germany and brought to United States at the tender age of two, he had grown up seeing the society and culture of US. Beaten by his father at the tiniest of offenses, bullied by boys of his own age and later on being rejected by women due to his complexion; he was in misery.
Attending Los Angeles City College and dropping out during World War II, he went to New York with the endeavor of becoming a writer. In 1946, he gave up writing and thus followed ten years of no writing which he called “ten-year drunk” in his autobiography. Ending up near death in Los Angeles, Bukowski started writing again, though he would continue to drink and cultivate his reputation as a hard-living poet. He did not begin his professional writing career until the age of thirty-five.
Ham on Rye, Post Office, Dinosauria,We,Darkling,The Soldier, The Wife And The Bum, Notes of a Dirty Man are some of his famous works.
He died of leukaemia on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro, aged 73.

The Poem:

The poem Sleep by Charles Bukowski deals with the relationship of the speaker with a woman. In the same manner like most of Bukowski poems, this one also deals with alcoholism, relationship with women, transgressive fiction and dirty realism.The relationship that the speaker shared with the woman is a dirty realism itself because it is a disturbing attachment. It is seen that woman had been an alcoholic and an abusive partner and kept the speaker in unrest. Losing her beauty, she was no more attractive to the speaker.
In his own style of simple yet subtle manner, Bukowski makes this poem a wonderful piece of modern literature.

Setting of Sleep:

The poem has a mention of ‘Hollywood Hills’ and was thus set in Los Angeles. Published on 1996, this poem throws light on the surrounding of Los Angeles- the presence of trees like brambles, animals like rabbits and rocks, the mid day being warm and the glazing sun on the top of the sky, just above the head.
Freedom by the way of illegal deeds is one of the darkest features of the poem, a feature of transgressive fiction again.

Poetic devices in Sleep:

The poem is written in blank verse.
The poem has plenty of imageries. The first few lines of the poem portrays an image of thee lady’s outer appearance itself. Thus the following lines:
“She was a short one
getting fat and she had once been
describes that the lady had once been beautiful but now she has become unattractive due to her weight and shortness in height.
Moreover, the sun being up, the warmth of the atmosphere and the glazing rays of the sun almost making the speaker blind suggest the power of the sun’s rays when it is above the head. Thus, the following lines create an imagery itself:
“the sun was up and it was warm
and the flies were lazy and
I could hardly see anything out of my eyes
everything was so
warm and yellow”.
The poem uses certain symbolism. For example ‘brambles’ is a symbolism of virginity and purity, or any love unaccompanied by lust. It might also denote unfaithfulness. The ‘rabbits’ represents freedom and ‘rocks’ represent stubbornness and firm decision.
‘warm and yellow’ is a symbolism of harshness and power.
.. I got into bed and I
slept for 5 days and 4
is a hyperbole itself. This is just to suggest that he was sick and tired of her and after burying her he got fulfilling sense of peace.

Summary of Sleep:

The poem is one that deals with alcoholism, relationship with women, transgressive fiction, dirty realism. The first line itself starts with ‘She’ referring to an woman with whom the speaker might have had a romantic attachment as it becomes prevalent with the progress of the poem as he says “she had once been beautiful”, and now she has become unattractive because she gained weight. It is evident that the speaker might have failed to see the inner beauty she might have possessed. However, coming to the next few lines we see that she was not only physically unattractive but also she was alcoholic and had been abusive with the speaker.
When he asks her for sleep, she refuses to grant him that instead abuses her and says
“- sleep? sleep? ya son of a
  bitch, ya never sleep, ya
 don’t need any
This clearly described her mean nature towards the poet.
This might also be suggestive of a sexual connotation. Abusive and cursing could be the means of pleasure for the lady, in a sensual manner and she might have wanted to have a sexually enticing association with the speaker to which the speaker replied by saying he needed some sleep.
The next phase of the poem gets a drastic turn. The following line:
“I buried her one morning early”
Has certain interpretation. One, the lady had been under the influence of alcohol and died. Second, sick and tired by her abuses, the speaker killed the woman to get some peace, and rest in satisfaction.
Next, the speaker described how tiring it was for him to bury her. He started in the early morning and by the end of the noon, when the sun was at the top, he finished burying her. The blazing rays of the sun blinded his eyes and he was so tired, physically and mentally that to him even the flies seemed lazy.
At last, after burying her he found a lot of peace and could finally sleep without disturbance. The calmness and satisfaction that he got was exaggerated by the phrase
“…… and I got into bed….. nights”.

Critical Analysis of Sleep:

The poem is one of the most significant literary pieces on the dark realism and transgressive fiction. The fading away of beauty with the gaining of fat not only shifts the focus from the concept of inner beauty but also a reality check. All kind of love affair is not amorous and the loss of physical charm can effect a relationship. Further, when the relationship turns to be abusive, the partner might feel confined and controlled as the speaker of the poem did. Thus, he killed and buried her to find peace for himself.
Though it has a superficial meaning, the poem can be interpreted in various ways.
The screaming and cursing can be considered to be part of the physical pleasure that the lady wanted to obtain from the speaker. However, the speaker, found her unattractive and no more beautiful as mentioned in the beginning of the poem itself. Thus, he might have refused her. This is closely associated with the use of the symbolism of “brambles” that symbolises the absence of amorous play in a relationship.
The sun’s blazing rays blinding the eye of the speaker is as harsh as the act of killing the lady, and thus, fits in with the tone of the poem.
The speaker finally achieving a sense of peace and sleeping for long time symbolises that he finally got rid of her and found relief. The presence of her itself had been subject to irritation.
The title of the poem is itself significant. On one hand, the denial of the lady to let the speaker sleep is a form confining him, abusing him and depriving him of his need. On the other hand, the speaker wanted to have some sleep, since he had been with her.
Ironically, on her death, that is, her ‘eternal sleep’ , the speaker could finally rest. Thus, he says that he slept for 5 days and 4 nights, as if trying to portray the amount of peace that he finally attained.

Tone of Sleep:

The tone of the poem from the beginning to the end is sad and tiring. At first, it starts with a sense of detest towards the woman and soon changes to one of excitement and anger when the lady screams and abuses him. Further, the tone changes to tiredness while the speaker buried her and finally in the end changes to one of relief and peacefulness.


Dealing with alcoholism, relationships and dark reality, this poem breaks the convention and is one of the most wonderful poems of the modern era. Though it is believed that this poem is written on the basis of the woman that he claims he lost his virginity to when he was 24 years old whom he met at a bar, there is no evidence of this. In short, it is a most appealing read for the readers of modern literature.
Contributor: Bidisha Das

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