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#2124 - Monday, April 25, 2005 - Editor: Gloria
March 24th, 2005
Charles Bukowski: Slouching Toward Nirvana
Wanted, dead or alive
Love him or hate him, Charles Bukowski is no slouch, even
Dead 11 years in the cold ground and the Bukowski juggernaut rolls on, his readership and influence thriving: 12 new books published, a documentary film (Bukowski: Born Into This), a CD of readings, inspiration for animated films, chief among them J.J. Villard's Son of Satan, which won best first film at the 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
It's not uncommon for writers to publish posthumously, but no one at Bukowski's pace. A new poetry collection, Slouching Toward Nirvana, is out from HarperCollins, which acquired the rights to several of his books from Black Sparrow Press. The poetry is from a body of work held back for publication after Bukowski's death.
A WORKING CLASS ACT
Bukowski (born in Andernach, Germany, 1920) is criticized for being repetitive-for only writing on booze, women, betting and bad jobs. He does repeat these themes but it's arrogant to slam him for it. The guy worked for the U.S. postal service for 14 years, delivering and sorting mail for Christ's sake: How could he not be repetitive? What's more, all writers, all artists, repeat themes.
Also, it's important to recall his working-class roots. Bukowski wrote compulsively, worked it like any job-and any 20th-century job involved repetition. When he became a full-time writer in the '70s he was anxious to produce enough material to keep himself alive, to justify his existence. He wasn't of the leisure classes (despite his aversion to labour) where dabbling in writing was sufficient.
Bukowski has been called the poet of the gutter but that's inaccurate. He's a working-class writer. He just seems to be of the gutter to critics and academics whose hands have never been callused by labour, who likely haven't spent a day in the realms Bukowski wrote on.
In Canada, working-class fiction is virtually non-existent. Our writers are mostly grant-fed university grads working comfortably within the system. Our country's literary institutionalization is so vast and smothering that we will never produce a Bukowski.
If you bring up Bukowski's name at a literary shindig, just watch the eyes roll. Bukowski, the comfy literati will sigh: too widely read; too repetitive, too crass. Or, yeah I read him when I was younger but that was just a phase. Bukowski is everything that dour CanLit is not: accessible, working-class, humorous, honest and ballsy. I've seen his books in the hands of truck drivers, cabbies, postal workers and waitresses; quite an accomplishment in Canada where books are written and sold by and for the middle and upper classes.
I recall a big black magic marker sign in a Hamilton bookstore: "Stop stealing the Bukowski!" His work appeals to a wide range of readers, another reason he's pissed on by academics and lit snobs. How can a writer who's read by more than university grads be any damned good? It's his directness, the absence of metaphor, that draws readers and writers to him. Local poet T. Anders Carson says it best: "His brutal realities and lack of coating the world with sweetness and exploring the lurid is what first attracted me to his work."
Some call Bukowski an original, but he never claimed this. Just the opposite, he openly references his influences: CÚline, Hemingway and, more than anyone, John Fante. Fante's novel Ask the Dusk was Bukowski's model for autobiographical, impoverished, L.A.-based fiction. Bukowski cites stumbling upon Ask the Dusk in the Los Angeles public library in 1940 as his literary epiphany and later stated, "Fante was my god." In the 1970s, Bukowski persuaded Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin to reprint Fante's work, which had been out of print for decades.
Charles Bukowski 2005 wall calendar
Fittingly, for a poet whose reputation was made in ephemeral underground journals, it is on the Internet that the Bukowski cult finds its most florid expression. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to him, not just in America but in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, where one fan writes that, after reading him for the first time, I felt there was a soul-mate in Mr. Bukowski. Such claims to intimacy are standard among Bukowskis admirers. On Amazon.com, the reader reviews of his books sound like a cross between love letters and revival-meeting testimonials: This is the one that speaks to me to the point where each time I read certain pages, I cry; This book is one of the most influential books of poetry in my life; or, most revealing of all, I hate poetry, but I love Buks poems.
Todays fans can no longer call up Bukowski on the phone or drop in on him at home in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. But before his death, from leukemia, in 1994, they could and did, with a regularity that the poet found flattering, if tiresome. As he told an interviewer in 1981, I get many letters in the mail about my writing, and they say: Bukowski, you are so fucked up and you still survive. I decided not to kill myself. . . . So in a way I save people. . . . Not that I want to save them: I have no desire to save anybody. . . . So these are my readers, you see? They buy my booksthe defeated, the demented and the damnedand I am proud of it.
This mixture of boast and complaint exactly mirrors the coyness of Bukowskis poetry, which is at once misanthropic and comradely, aggressively vulgar and clandestinely sensitive. The readers who love him, and believe that he would love them in return, know how to look past the bluster of poems like splashing:
some people are so dumb
you can hear them
in their dumbness. . . .
I want to
run and hide
I want to
escape their engulfing
Bukowskis fans realize that some people, like E. E. Cummingss mostpeople, or J. D. Salingers hated phonies, are never us, always themthose not perceptive enough to understand our merit, or our favorite authors. This is a typically adolescent emotion, and it is no coincidence that all three of these writers exert a special power over teen-agers. With all three, too, there is the sense that if the misanthrope could know us as we really are he would welcome our pilgrimage; as Holden Caulfield says, What really knocks me out is a book that, when youre all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. Similarly, Bukowski might declare his contempt for humanity, and his alarm at its constant invasions of his privacyI have never welcomed the ring of a / telephone, he writes in the telephoneyet he titles another poem with his telephone number, 462-0614, and issues what sounds like an open invitation:
I dont write out of
when the phone rings
I too would like to hear words
that might ease
some of this.
thats why my numbers
It is not just in his business dealings that Bukowski gives the impression of insecurityof feeling, as he once wrote to a friend, not so much like a writer as . . . like somebody who has slipped one past. The same sense emerges, more damagingly, in his defensive scorn for complexity and difficulty, as if these literary values were a trick played by effete professors on honest, hardworking readers. Whats easy is good and whats hard is a pain in the ass, Bukowski declared to one correspondent; or, again, Somebody once asked me what my theory of life was and I said, Dont try. That fits the writing too. I dont try, I just type.
Just typing allowed Bukowski to accomplish a great deal. He became wealthy and famous, a friend of celebrities like Sean Penn and Madonna, the subject of biographies and documentaries. In his late poems, his delight in driving a BMW and hobnobbing with Norman Mailer is so genuine that it becomes infectious. His escape from poverty and menial labor, solely through the passion and popularity of his writing, is like a fairy tale. I laid down my guts, as he put it, and the gods finally answered. In a literary sense, too, Bukowski accomplished something rare: he produced a large, completely distinctive, widely beloved body of work, something that few poets today even dream of. It is a testament to Bukowskis genuine popularity that, at a time when most poetry books cant be given away, his are perennially ranked among the most frequently stolen titles in bookstores.
|"Bukowski is the laureate of
the Los Angeles underground, an eccentric who sees the
world with a charity of vision possessed only by artists
Los Angeles Times
above, plus bio and bookcover photos, with list of fansites: http://www.genordell.com/stores/maison/Bukowski.htm
list of books by and about Bukowski: http://www.answers.com/topic/charles-bukowski
139 of his poems can be found here: http://www.poemhunter.com/charles-bukowski/poet-6832/
from a film review:
"Bukowski: Born into This" contains no
surprises for those familiar with the down-and-out icon's own
autobiographical work, but would be an excellent introduction for
By PETER THEIS
Novelist and poet Henry Charles Bukowski, like Che Guevara, is
an icon of iconoclasm, a fantasy figure on which romantics
project their visions of anti-mainstream heroism. Most commonly,
to drop his name is to invoke the marginal predilections of an
earthy everyman whoring, boozing, gambling, living
destitute as sort of end in themselves, a suggestion that
Vegas beats Disneyland. Predictably, like all biography-based
shorthands for a particular social meaning, this understanding of
Bukowski mistakes epiphenomena for essence, the reflection of the
flame rather than the heat itself.
Bukowski sang an unvarnished and dimpled body electric, dreamed of racetrack heavens and healthy barroom violence, and felt abiding affection for the spat-out, those who take up the least space and feel the weakest sense of entitlement. He early exiled himself to marginality and stayed there, first sensing, next seeing, then shouting and screaming that a soul-shredding, thorned thicket lined the path of ambition, comfort, and ensconcement in the milkless, silicon bosom of state, economy, and family. It is as if Nelson Algren's Man with a Golden Arm traded his cards and morphine for a typewriter and beer, but remained in the underground, unmarked poker parlor. Much more so than Allen Ginsberg, to whom he is routinely and facilely subordinated as a "minor Beat," Bukowski turned the values of post-WWII America on their head, in a way that proved impervious to cooptation and could lead to nothing more than cult success.
some poems from: http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/entertainment/columnists/frank_wilson/10990006.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp
Probably only those who really have been to hell and back know how right he is, in "to hell and back," that
those who escape hell
never talk about
and nothing much
It might have surprised the old goat - but maybe not - that what is evident throughout these poems, and on display as well in the documentary, is that Bukowski was blessed with a lot of something not every writer has, but every writer can use: charm. This comes through especially toward the end, as he ponders death more and more. He even has a pleasant chat with death at 5 a.m. in "small talk." And what could be more charming than "basic," the last poem in the book:
the short poem
like the short life
may not be the best thing
this is a short
poem at the end
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