On Reading Charles Bukowski


Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

[Photo source:  Wikipedia]

I like to say and to tell myself that I was “influenced” by Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Jonathan Kozol, and other acclaimed and brilliant thinkers–see My Best Books for a long list.  But in fact I started reading Charles Bukowski before any of these others, in my teens, and found in him the antisocial antihero that I had longed for without knowing it, that others found in James Dean or The Wild One, a kind of savage, a Tarzan of the slums.  It was Bukowski (hereafter, affectionately, “Buk”) that nourished the social critic, the crank, in me, and prepared me for the more systematic and effective Walden of Thoreau that I loved and was corrupted by at seventeen.

I first encountered Bukowski in his book, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in my local bookstore; I bought it for the title, and loved it.  Later, in my early twenties, I was buying sleazy tabloid newspapers from racks in my south-central Los Angeles suburb–newspapers that promised blurry photos of naked women and personal ads from same, and there was Buk again.  I was still a virgin, and trying to change that, and succeeded (at age 26) through such ads.

Buk led an extraordinarily dismal and sordid life by most standards:  unrepentantly alcoholic, bumming around, unnecessarily getting into fights, and scraping by via miserable jobs and petty crimes and gambling.  But he also wrote, starting in 1944, and he wrote like nobody else.  Lately (meaning post-prison) I have begun reacquiring Buk.  I’ve read most of his prose, a lot of it multiple times.  In my local bookstore, where I headed every week after getting my allowance, I found an occasional book by him, his collections of stories, probably from City Light Books or Black Sparrow Press (the name changed, I don’t know or care when).  This is, to me, the essential Bukowski, the early collections: his rawest and most brutal and esthetically shocking work.

Well.  Tonight I was rearranging my books, always a tiresome but modestly pleasurable task.  I picked up Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook, a posthumous collection of “Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990.”  I had bought this a few months before and read it quickly (unlike most of my purchases).  As with most of my reading these days, I couldn’t have told you a single thing that I remembered from it.  I read too much, or maybe I’m just sliding into dementia.  But I opened this for no particular reason and saw the title, “A Rambling Essay on Poetics and the Bleeding Life Written While Drinking a Six-Pack (Tall).”  Buk rarely says much about how he writes, so this interested me.  It starts:

“In the days when I thought I was a genius and starved and nobody published me I used to waste much more time in the libraries than I do now.  It was best to get an empty table where the sun came through a window and get the sun on my neck and the back of my head and my hands and then I did not feel so bad that all the books were dull in their red and orange and green and blue covers sitting there like mockeries.”

Buk has told the story of his early reading at least one other time that I know of, in his memorable introduction to John Fante’s Ask the Dust, but I think it’s a favorite theme.  I love the story and how he tells it, so I lay down on the bed, thinking that I’d read this bit and maybe just go to sleep (it’s now 11:10 PM).  But I read it through and was excited all over again by Buk, and wanted to write about him while the experience was fresh and the enthusiasm high.  I like to think that the “rambling essay” is just full of the kind of sentence Hemingway always aimed for:  true sentences, like those quoted above.

It seems that Buk doesn’t rewrite; at least he never talks about it and he often calls what he does “typing.”  Rather than rework a piece, he just writes another.  So he is very casual and even dismissive about his work, but he was remarkably prolific in short forms.  I believe that he turned to book-length forms only later in his career.

The essay is classic for him.  He rails against dull books (almost everything), writing classes (full of homosexuals without a single worthwhile writer), his brutal father, low-class work, and women (endless cycles of love-hate and mutual lacerations), while he praises classical composers and poets like Ginsberg, Pound, cummings, and Eliot.  Not unreasonably, he wants writers to write about what interests him:  the street, and life, and he finds little of this writing anywhere–except, perhaps unsurprisingly, he does favor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, save the sentimental ending.  But Buk’s stories are full of the street, and of life, and the style is as thinly poetic as a Japanese watercolor.

In his early days Buk was totally neglected, but he tells of an early break from Whit Burnett of Story magazine.  I’m not sure when he became popular and/or respectable–the San Joaquin Valley Library system responds with an astonishing 54 books to the search term “Bukowski” (they have zero copies of William Barrett’s Irrational Man)–but now books are written about him.  So chances aren’t bad that your local library has a copy of Pages.  In any case, I urge you to read the essay, or anything by Bukowski; he’s unlike anyone else, a poet of filthy alleys and airless bars, and surely is an acquired taste, but through the years I’ve found that the most interesting people have read him and liked him.

I should note that his comments about homosexuals in this essay came as quite a shock to me, and I am saddened to learn that he was at last a child of his time as everyone is.  In his defense I must say that this open prejudice is rare in his writings, and I am unaware of any other prejudices that he has (except that he pretty much hates rich people, which I also do).  I am unaware of any animosity in him towards people of color–I believe that on the contrary, he sees them as fellow sufferers of the system.

And it is as a hater of the system that I most identify with him, and it is these feelings that I have most adopted as my own.  Beyond that and a few other shared opinions, he and I seem to have nothing in common.  If I had ever had a conversation with Charles Bukowski, I wonder if I would have been able to catch glimpses of the poet behind the alcohol-blurred bloodshot eyes.

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