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Charles Bukowski: writing, drinking, writing


The newly released "Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook" pulls together as-yet uncollected essays and stories by Charles Bukowski, written from 1944-1990. Some were published in places like "Rolling Stone"; others showed up in fleeting literary journals and porn mags. The selections include the first of his "Notes From a Dirty Old Man," a series that appeared in multiple magazines, and the first short story he published, which pointed out his lack of prior publication: "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip."

Bukowski has become, 14 years after his death, even more of a literary icon than he was in his lifetime -- and he was doing pretty well then. Few poets have the fortune to see a film made about their lives; only Bukowski got to watch Mickey Rourke play him on screen. But the Bukowski legacy has now reached landmark status, literally: his East Hollywood bungalow was saved from a developer's razing by the L.A. City Council in February, which approved the move to make the newly christened "Bukowski Court" a Historic-Cultural Monument.

Bukowski "may be a Los Angeles icon," as David L. Ulin wrote in our pages last year, but "it's impossible not to ask some hard questions about his status and whether it is deserved."

When I was young, and new to L.A., and hanging around dissolute poets, I read a lot of Bukowski, and it seemed to me, even then, that there was a lot of dreck to page through before something struck and resonated. So when I picked up "Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook," it was with those hard questions in mind: doesn't this guy need an editor? And a garbage can? But these essays have that sometimes-absent discipline (or help from editors) so that even when they consist of disconnected paragraphs, they have a kind of form. And, I think, a preciseness of language that's missing in his lesser work. I was charmed. From the title essay:

drunk again in a crackerbox room, dreaming of Shelley and youth, bearded, jobless bastard with a walletful of win tickes un-cashable as Shakespeare's bones. we all hate poems of pity or cries of the wailing poor -- a good man can climb any flag and salute prosperity (we're told) but how many good poets can you find at IBM or snoring under the sheets of a fifty-dollar whore? more good men have died for poetry than all your crooked battle-fields were worth; so if I fall drunk in a four-dollar room: you messed up your history -- let me dawdle in mine.

Editor David Stephen Callone makes the case, in his introduction, that Bukowski had an "essentially European cultural sensibility," that his dirtiness was transgressive a la Bataille, that his dark humor is existential. Maybe I'm responding to these intellectual rubrics -- or maybe I'm swayed by his refusal to behave, just as my drunken poet friends were years ago.

After the jump, more Bukowski: the beginning of "A Rambling Essay on Poetics and the Bleeding Life Written While Drinking a Six-Pack (Tall)."

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. It was best to get the sun on my neck and then dream and doze and try not to think of rent and food and America and responsibility. Whether I was a genius or not did not so much concern me as the fact that I simply did not want a part of anything. The animal-drive and energy of my fellow man amazed me: that a man could change tires all day long or drive and icecream truck or run for Congress or cut into a man's guts in surgery or murder, this was all beyond me. I did not want to begin. I still don't. Any day that I could cheat away from this system of living seemed a good victory for me. I drank wine and slept in the parks and starved....

"Man is made for defeat," Bukowski writes later, in his review of the book "Papa Hemingway" by A.E. Hotchner. There are, for sure, some moments of defeat here, where the language goes slack and the ideas get tired. But there is also a fair measure of the spark that made Bukowski a Los Angeles icon in the first place.

--Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Charles Bukowski in 1994

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Matt Dillon was terrific playing him. If you haven't seen the movie, buy it or rent it. You won't be disappointed. See, e.g., http://www.amazon.com/Factotum-Matt-Dillon/dp/B000ICL3NI/ref=sr_1_14?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1224281049&sr=1-14

Bukowski: The Tupac of literature

I found out about Bukowski after reading about him in a porn magazine and now have more books by him than anyone else on my bookshelves.
He was a bottom dwelling waste and that what was made him great. The grit and grime that appear throughout his works are a product of real life.

Why is Bukowski the only writer who cannot have an article written about him that isn't prefaced by some apology, or question of his validity?

He is as valid - arguably much more valid - as Stephen King or the hundreds (thousands) of other shillers of dreck that is "popular."

Bukowski was a 20th century literary giant. If you think that's funny, or don't understand it, it's because you don't understand what poetry was like before he started writing it in the style that is now so roundly dismissed.

He changed the voice of poetry, period. Pick up a magazine from the 1950's that contains his poetry and compare it to the other poets on the same pages.

Case closed.

That he is so easily dismissed now only attests to how pervasive his influence in the world of poetry.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with you, David.

Since when is Rolling Stone a "place", Carolyn? I cannot seem to locate it in my atlas.

Did we even read the same book? Your references to Bukowski's alcohol consumption fly in the face of what he wrote in "Notes", contained in this superb collection:

“I have created the eternal drunk image somewhere in my work,” Bukowski laments in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, “and there is a minor reality behind it. Yet, I feel that my work has said other things. But only the eternal drunk seems to come through.”

David Ulin certainly is no L.A. icon and perhaps his own work should be looked at it in terms of its status and whether it's deserved, but that's simply my own opinion.

Far too many people, perhaps some of suspect talent, look pretty hard at Bukowski and find him lacking. These same people typically are ivory tower types for whom Bukowski's realistic depiction of a rough kind of life make them incapable and unwilling to relate to and appreciate his populist literary approach. Bukowski merely follows in the tradition of populist poets such as Carl Sandberg, who was vilified by Poetry Magazine editor Amy Lowell in the early twentieth century. Now, of course, Sandberg is revered.

People, perhaps Ulin and his contemporaries, seem to me to be simply jealous of Bukowski's enormous and ever-growing international popularity. Bukowski's work changed THIS writer's life forever, and I will always be grateful and will always push my own pro-Bukowski agenda in an effort to spread the gospel of great and relevant writing!

It was the gatekeepers, “the artistically intelligent who have fallen into money and position”, that the poet most resented. Bukowski believed that poetry, to remain true and pure, had to be freed from shackles and restraints, like other art forms that constantly evolve (painting and architecture immediately spring to mind). It was the common man, he proselytized, who was capable of creating the most honest poetry: “Our days in the jails and madhouses and flophouses have let us know more (about) where the sun comes up than from any workable knowledge of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley.”

In the title essay, Bukowski ponders further with some amount of self-deprecation: “When I have a poem accepted by a magazine that prints so-called quality poetry, I ask myself where I have failed. Poetry must continually move out of itself, away from shadows and reflections. The reason so much bad poetry is written is that it is written as poetry instead of concept. And the reason the public doesn’t understand poetry is that there is nothing to understand, and the reason that most poets write it is that they think they understand. Nothing is to be understood or ‘regained’. It is simply to be written. By someone. Sometime. And not too often.”

Carolyn Kellogg, the author of this article, is yet another jealous, failed writer, imprisoned by her own journalism. With that said, Bukowski like never intended on publishing the collection. Afterall, it was a notebook. Any great writer has mounds of notebooks...containing bad writing. But, a journalist has nothing but newsprint, where birds in cages, hampsters and puppies utilize as toilets.


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