Charles Bukowski, the “Dirty Old Man” of literature, died 24 years ago today. We bring you 24 or so reasons to revisit the master of literary disaster.
Looking at the bookshelf in my office, I count 20 titles by Charles Bukowski, evenly divided between volumes of fiction and volumes of poetry. Often, when at a loss for some authentic signs of life in the cosmos, I will reach over and grab a random volume from this shelf, open the book to a random page and begin reading. This never fails to ground me in what’s real or worthwhile.
Bukowski has always been a tough sell to anyone not willing to accept his completely transgressive personality. He was rude, crude, and misanthropic. He was not adhering to any “image” of the drunken lumpen denizen of flophouses, jail cells and emergency rooms. He was not slumming for effect. What he wrote about, he lived and if his “lifestyle” (the mere sound of that word would have made him puke) was not to your taste, then his writing would not be either.
Isaac Brock seemed to address this aspect of Bukowski in this Modest Mouse song, “Bukowski”
From an early age, Bukowski (and probably Isaac Brock, too) realized the truth of Thomas Hobbes’ definition of life for society’s outsiders: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” An only child of cold, German-American parents, Bukowski sought his solace inwardly. At the about the same time that he crossed swords with his brutish father, he developed a serious case of acne that left his face a swollen, pock-marked mess, like someone who’d stuck his face inside a hornets’ nest. The craters would not subside until after he left high school, making him the target of scorn and a monstrous presence around the budding Susie Creamcheeses of Los Angeles, where he was born, raised and from which he never really strayed. He took his solace in Beethoven, Bach, booze and poetry. He was the Beast, always in search of his Beauty, wherever he found it.Arguably, my favorite Charles Bukowski volumes are his letters, which are edited, selected and indexed by Seamus Cooney and published in sturdy trade paperback editions by Black Sparrow Press. They provide hours of amusement, diversion and hard-bitten wisdom, as the alternately cranky, drunk, ecstatic, demented and sometimes ailing writer shares his true thoughts with friends, ex-lovers, editors and total strangers; these letters often include crude, but funny cartoons scribbled in the margins. It’s off-the-cuff, unshapen Bukowski, raw, hilarious and occasionally harrowing.
And yet, these letters also provide great tips for living as a writer. Especially the later letters, when the sour taste of early failure was gone and he had time and space and quiet to contemplate the miracle of his survival into old age. He was also more sober and somewhat nicer as a human being as his own mortality stared him in the face every hungover morning.
Home. That was the key. The home in San Pedro that he shared with his wife, Linda, and several cats the last few years of his life grounded him.
Here are some random thoughts from Bukowski in writing:
“I’ve seen it happen again and again. Somebody starts writing poetry, they get some renown and they end up teaching others how to write poetry. They begin by railing against society and then end up on the same power trip.”
“How can I tell anybody how to write? Most of the time when I sit down at this machine I don’t know what the fuck’s coming out.”
“So, Kelly, I can’t say what’s best for you. Like you say, ‘in a world of shit.’ With everybody quitting, selling short, playing it dumb and safe and cowardly. It’s unsolvable. The only thing I came up with was, ‘Save what you can.’ Meaning of yourself. Don’t let it all go. One spark can start a forest fire. I conned myself along with this…In a sense, it worked. After 5 decades I got a little lucky.”
“I could never see how being an oft-published poet could give that person a feeling of being elite. The poets are among the lowest of the breeds—outside their form. And often in it too. For instance, I am a lot more in awe of a plumber than a poet…And 9 times out of ten he’s a better person to drink with too.”
“I tried the Indiana Review some time back. Got the old standard reject. You know, many of the university publications like a certain type of poem:
I husked the harvest
bulked at the sun’s edge
the ants of heaven at my
come home to
“The human and word can’t be separated. Do anything else and the lie will come through. It’s just one of those god damned laws. And a good one.”
“Of course, there are other things more important than writing. But it’s all I know. And what a glorious hell of a ‘know,’ what a crazy grand way to face the impossible.”
“When you come in from the factory with your hands and your body and your mind ripped, hours and days stolen from you, you can become very aware of a fake line, of a fake thought, of a literary con game. It hurt to read the famous writers of my day. I felt they were bullshitting it, I felt they were soft and fake, and worse that they could not laugh through the flame, and worse than that, that they had never felt the flame.”
“A writer’s job is to write, not to prance his ass on stage, not to hope to get laid by the few idiotic groupies who also think that they are writers.”
“Even wrote a story the other day about the night I saw somebody standing in the bathroom and this fellow looked like me. I took it from there. Some magazine took it from there. Told me it was a real ‘page turner’. Let’s hope so. It’s when you write something that’s really on your mind that it comes out best. Push at anything and it falls apart. Better to wait. Don’t try.”
While filming Barfly, based on a book and screenplay by Bukowski, the German film director Barbet Schroeder had the good sense to also film hours of footage of the writer letting his hair down, so to speak. Here’s how Bukowski described the process of being filmed by Schoeder to his friend Gerald Locklin in a letter dated November 21, 1986: “Actually, the best thing to come out of this movie thing is The Bukowski Tapes. I felt sorry for Barbet because he paid me to write Barfly, wrote it in 1979 and felt like he would never get rid of it, so I got drunk for many days, many hours, many nights and talked with his camera on me. He got four hours’ worth of tapes which he is going to bring out in video. I think I babbled pretty lucky and pretty wild and have enclosed a list of the tales from the wine bottle for your amusement.”
Here are some excerpts from The Bukowski Tapes. The entire four hours are worth viewing [not all at once, which would be suffocating]. A warning should be added for those who are freaked out by drunken ranting. Like all drunks, Charles Bukowski offers some amazing revelations and insights, but an equal amount of bullshit as he gets deeper into his cups.
Some choice excerpts.
One on a road adventure in Philadelphia:
One on his reflection on fame:
One of my favorite live recordings, in any genre, is a filming and taping of a poetry reading that Bukowski gave at a club in Redondo Beach in 1980. It was released as an album called Hostage, and as a film called The Last Straw.
Here it is in its entirety:
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HOW JACK KEROUAC SAVED WESTERN CIVILIZATION
ALLEN GINSBERG SINGS! AND SO DO MANY OTHER BEAT POETS!
THE BEAT GENERATION WAS NOT JUST A BOYS’ CLUB
WHEN BEATNIKS BEGAT HIPPIES BEGAT PUNKS
TEN BEST BOOKS BY DRUNKS
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANNE WALDMAN!