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Charles Bukowski: writing, drinking, writing

October 17, 2008 | 10:01 am


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