Charles Bukowski worked at a pace that seems almost superhuman. Although he did not turn to writing full-time until he was nearly 40—and despite his well-documented personal excesses—he wrote so much that his publisher Black Sparrow Press (now part of Ecco) could not keep up. Consequently, 15 books of previously unpublished verse have appeared since Bukowski’s death in 1994. We spoke with Abel Debritto, editor of four posthumous collections.
The other day, looking for something to calm my nerves from the endless Groundhog Days of this pandemic, I turned to an old reliable—my Charles Bukowski shelf. Only then did I realize that, among the 30 or so books I own by Bukowski, five of the volumes of poetry were published posthumously. Further, Bukowski published 19 books of poetry during his lifetime and yet, after he croaked in 1994, he managed to churn out 15 more volumes…and counting. A bloody miracle!
Like Jimi Hendrix, Bukowski is as prolific in death as he was in life. His longtime publisher Black Sparrow was, after his death, bought by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Thankfully, Ecco kept Bukowski’s 45 volumes of poetry and prose intact and in print (though they slicked some of the titles up with tasteless new covers). They also let Bukowski’s longtime editor and friend, John Martin, sift through piles of unpublished material to compile these posthumous volumes.
I have enjoyed Bukowski’s post-death volumes as much as the books he published when he was alive, such as Burning in Water Drowning in Flames (1974) and War All The Time (1984). Maybe because I’m older and look for different things in poetry than when I was young, I am drawn to the stoicism and melancholic humor of a man facing what Dylan Thomas called “the dying of the light,” as Bukowski was in his later poetry. It’s the same way with music; I find myself gravitating to John Cale’s more orchestral work, like Paris 1919, Words for the Dying (inspired by the verse of fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas), and Paris S’eveille (a soundtrack that’s among his finest, if least known, work) rather than “The Black Angel’s Death Song” or Sabotage/Live.
Questions arise: What was Bukowski saving these poems for? Or from? Did he like them so much he wanted them just for himself? And not for a world he increasingly despised? Or did he think they were too lyrical and elegiac for his image as the tough guy poet? Or did he simply think they weren’t good enough?
With the exception of his brutally funny novels Post Office and Factotum—drawn verbatim from his own life—Bukowski’s poetry has always been more interesting than his prose, less prone to macho posturing and clinical descriptions of his sex life (or lack thereof). Each poem is like a religious meditation by an areligious man staring directly into the abyss. Putting the lie to the myth that an artist must be starving to do his best work, Bukowski wrote the poems contained in Sifting Through the Madness when he was famous and comfortable, living in a nice home with a lovely wife and several cats on whom he doted. Maybe, then, the power of this verse derives from the poet’s inability, after years of rejection, squalor and drunkenness, to fully trust his good fortune. Though he had the stability of hearth and home, he had the same capacity for blunt candor as in early volumes like The Days Run Away Life Wild Horses Over the Hills, You Get So…, Madrigal…, and Love is a Dog from Hell. The poems in Sifting, though, have a lyricism sometimes lacking in that earlier work, a sadness (rather than despair), even a humility. In other words, Hank didn’t coast on fumes after he became famous, and Sifting contains some of his finest later work. Take ‘Like a Polluted River Flowing,’ the best poem ever written about commuting; or ‘Commerce,’ a recollection of driving a truck in 1952 that’s as powerful as any story he ever wrote (it ends with ‘shit on the world’); or ‘Gertrude up the Stairway, 1943,’ about a “perfect” woman he had to turn away from (‘before she wearied of the game and we of each other’).”
Ah, but here’s the rub: I have recently learned that some of the posthumous poems were altered by editor John Martin, sometimes quite dramatically, before being published by Ecco. Who knows, maybe a computer program—or an app, for God’s sake—has been cranking out the poems—you just feed it the basics of beer, broads, Bach, barflies, alley fights, flophouses, more beer, horses, Beethoven, some wine, broken down cars, broken down lives, and the computer processes it all, spitting out these themes at random intervals and out pops another fresh Bukowski poem.
Bukowski himself joked about just such a possibility in a poem he read at an event in Redondo Beach, at the Sweetwater Inn in 1980. It turned out to be the very last reading he ever gave. An edited audio of that event was released on vinyl, and later CD, as Hostage. The poem, “The Secret of My Endurance,” is about being an older man living in a nice home with a beautiful younger woman, two cars, rose garden, fruit trees, fireplace, two-inch rugs, etc., and “a young boy to write my stuff now…I keep him in a 10-foot-square cage with a typewriter / Feed him whiskey and raw whores, / belt buckle him pretty good / three or four times a week”. It’s both awful and hilariously funny (as is the entire album/reading) but here is the punchline that ends the poem: “I’m 60 years old now / and the critics say my stuff / is getting better than ever.”\
Someone had the smarts to capture the reading on unedited, unexpurgated video. You can find Bukowski, about halfway in his cups at the 28:00-minute mark reading “The Secret of My Endurance”:
When I first learned about Bukowski’s manuscripts being altered after his death, I thought maybe the offenses against literature were exaggerated, but a literary scholar named Abel Debritto made a persuasive enough case about the egregiousness of some of the edits by Martin (and possibly others) that I was a bit shaken. Debritto himself has edited four posthumous collections of Bukowski’s poetry, including Storm for the Living and the Dead and The Essential Bukowski.
Debritto, a former Fulbright and Marie Curie Scholar and now a digital humanities expert, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:
PKM:For your edited collection Storm for the Living and the Dead, how far afield did you have to look for the material? Did you have unfettered access to Bukowski’s archives?
Abel Debritto: I had complete access to all Bukowski’s archives. They are housed at several libraries all over the USA and I was lucky enough to research into several private collections, too. For Storm, after carefully reviewing all the unpublished and uncollected material, I had this list with some 400 strong-enough-for-publication poems. Then I trimmed that down to the final selection that made it to the book.
PKM: What did you see as your role as editor of a book Bukowski’s poetry and how did this differ from what John Martin apparently felt was his role?
Abel Debritto: I can’t say much re. Martin’s editing, I have no idea how he did it, but I can tell you that the material that I used for new Bukowski books was completely untampered with. Aside some really minor editing (typos and so on), all poems are faithful reproductions of the original manuscripts.
PKM: Why do you think Martin felt comfortable doing such major surgery? Did he do this when Bukowski was alive and Bukowski approved of it then? Have you ever met Mr. Martin, or asked him why he made such dramatic edits to Bukowski’s verse?
Abel Debritto: Again, I have no idea how Martin feels about this issue. I’ve asked him about the dramatic edits several times over the years, and he has always denied any major editing on his end. Many poems where changed when Bukowski was alive, but most changes were minor. Bukowski read the galleys and never complained about any changes in his poetry. He probably didn’t notice those minor changes, and if he did, he apparently didn’t mind.
PKM: Have you spoken with Linda Lee Bukowski about this? Or are you aware of whether she’s expressed her feelings about this in other interviews?
Abel Debritto: Yes, I’ve discussed this issue many times with Linda Bukowski. She’s very upset about it and she wants all the posthumous poems restored to their original form. That’s a major undertaking that would take a few years to be completed. Reissuing books that sell well is not a smart move, is it? Publishers are in it for the money, and a project like this would not be profitable. Plus, it would require a lot of research to find the original manuscripts. Not an easy task by any means. Still, I do hope it happens before long.
PKM: Which of the posthumous volumes are the least tampered with, as far as you can discern?
Abel Debritto: Bone Palace Ballet and Betting on the Muse.
PKM: I confess to having been blissfully ignorant of any tampering of Bukowski’s manuscripts after his death and, in fact, have enjoyed much of the poetry in the posthumous volumes as much as the volumes when he was alive. After reading about what you’ve uncovered, though, I feel like a bit of a dupe but I still like the poetry. Is there something the matter with me?
Abel Debritto: Nope, Bukowski’s poetry is so powerful that it’s really hard to completely screw it. Even with all that tampering, his lines are still strong enough to move us.
PKM: Is there any similar concern about translations of Bukowski’s work? As I understand it, his work has been translated into several languages and published all over the world. Translators are constantly having to choose between words, to get at what they believe to be the author’s meaning.
Abel Debritto: Traduttore, traditore! Some translators rework the original material, that’s for sure, but I’d say most translators try to be as faithful as possible to the source.
PKM: Did you ever listen to the recording of the 1980 reading he gave in Redondo Beach, which came out as the album Hostage? I have never been able to locate a single poem that he read at that event in any of the volumes that have been published during his lifetime or posthumously. Is that a common thing with Bukowski? He reads what he’s most recently written and then somehow the stuff gets lost, misplaced or jettisoned?
Abel Debritto: I think all poems but one–“Eating the Father”– have been collected by BSP and Ecco. Some of them were collected under a different title, and that makes it harder to track them down.
Here are my impressions of some of the posthumous collections that I have.
Betting on the Muse: Poems & Stories (1996):
The first poem includes a line that seems quintessential Bukowski: ‘this is not a poem. / poems are dull, / they make you / sleep. / these words force you / to a new / madness.” The second poem is a grimly powerful reflection on the loveless marriage of his parents and the tensions he witnessed as a kid. The third poem describes an organ grinder’s monkey driven mad by the anger of Bukowski’s father (“you’ve upset my monkey”). In short, it seems to be top-drawer stuff right out of the gate and the quality is consistent throughout. I don’t sense that he was holding back anything or being “dumbed down” for my consumption.
The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain (2004):
There are some real funny ones in this volume, including one about an aging grandmother who came to visit every Sunday and filled the house with the smell and noise of her farts (the poem is entitled “gas”); another about his chronic constipation as a boy (“poop”); and a particularly telling one about living through the 1960s (“I seemed to be the only person with an 8-hour job…”) and how he waited until the 1970s (“that’s when I dropped out. And I had the whole place all to myself”). Again, great stuff. Recommended.
Slouching Toward Nirvana: New Poems (2005):
Opens with a great poem about the 4th of July, cherry bombs and celebrating himself. Another great poem about signing his books in a store appearance (“an easy way to die”); a brisk poem about working a mindless job in hell (“making do”); “THE POET” examines the current situations of two poets who were once both on the skids together, and wonders “how can a man (me) who once puked up his guts in unpaid rented rooms but who now owns his own home and drives a BMW remain a fucking genius?” Vintage Bukowski. Poems about the race track, George Raft, barroom conversations, miserable boyhood.
The People Look Like Flowers At Last (2007):
Opening poem is fairly weak for an opener, about canaries: next poem is a strange reflection of going onto a campus “20 years later”, and a couple of other poems that seem fairly lifeless, but then you come across a poem called “beef tongue,” that’s a true Buk special. But, all in all, the quality seems to have begun to lessen, perhaps because Martin was running out of unpublished material?
Now, going back and rereading the poetry volumes I own that were published when Bukowski was alive.
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969):
The best part about this collection is its title, a lyrical chant that invites you to pick up the volume. Although when I first read these poems 40 years ago, as a college boy, I thought they were profound, I am surprised now at how few of them hold up. I counted only five (out of the 153 included in this volume) that would be worthy of an “essential” Bukowski collection, and two of those are short lyrical love poems to a woman who has died. Much of it is filled with a thicket of words that are as disconnected as a barroom drunk’s ramblings. Avoid.
Burning In Water Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955-1973 (1974):
The quality of poetry in this volume is consistently high, making this the best volume of Bukowski’s early poetry. The key is in the subtitle: “selected”. The selections include the best from the book It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968) and some excellent work appearing for the first time. The volume includes an “author’s introduction” that explains how these early volumes came into the world, largely through the intercession of his friends John and Louise Webb, who got him started by publishing the early, obscure and now hard to find volumes. His friend John Thomas then transcribed some poems that Bukowski had read into his tape recorder and handed over the results to John Martin, who at the time was “the manager of an office furniture and supply company and was a collector of rare books…He had published some of my poems as broadsides. He wrote me out checks as I sat in my kitchen across from him, drinking beer and signing the broadsides. It was the beginning of the Black Sparrow Press, a house that was soon to begin publishing a large portion of America’s avant-garde poetry, but neither of us knew it then.” This is the best collection of Bukowski’s poetry, bar none. Highly recommended.
War All The Time: Poems 1981-1984 (1984):
He’s exceptionally good at recreating the numbing daily crush of a tedious job, of which he held many before, at 45, walking away from the post office to turn to writing, and playing the horses, full time. In one 20-part, 27-page prose-poem, “Horsemeat,” he examines every aspect of his still tenuous situation. An unflinching look at how much time and money he lost at the track, how he got into the horses in the first place (to replace booze, which the doctors warned him would kill him if he ever drank again). And it ultimately turns into a poem over love’s regret, and ends with him letting the air out of the tires of a car blocking his own car in the race track parking lot. Consistent quality throughout. Bukowski was in his groove, but one gets the sense that he knew if he rode it too easy he’d just become the self-parody some were already calling him.
Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems, 1946-1966:
Again, this is a strong collection because of its “selective” nature. Here, Bukowski even attempted traditional poetics, even rhymes (“in the featherbeds of grander times / When Kings could call their shots, / I rather imagine one days like this / that concubines were sought.”). Bukowski admitted in the foreword to this collection that “the early poems were more lyrical than where I am at now.” But this is a solid selection and shows that he took his poetry seriously, as a vocation, whether it paid the rent or not.