When Charles Bukowski died at 73, he left behind more than 45 volumes of poetry and prose, an oeuvre that to this day makes up the most entertaining affront ever delivered to modern letters. The books are not so much a spit in the face of literature as a beer belch.
He occupies a place among those outcasts, outlaws, madmen and solitaries whose outspoken visions achieved against all odds a global presence -- Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs. Yet even among such outsiders, he remains outside, a consummate loner, since they, unlike Bukowski, reveal in their various styles a certain hard-won haggling with literature that was, to him, the stuff of dupes.
Miller, for example, struggling into his 30s to find his own voice, was liberated through committed engagement with Surrealism and late-night readings,replete with bedbugs, of the open-ended writings of Blaise Cendrars (whom he translated for himself from the original French, no less, and with only the barest grasp of the language).
Beckett not only served slavishly as personal aide to James Joyce but also emulated his mentor in both literary style and even personal fashion, to the extent of wearing, like Joyce, tiny feet-pinching French shoes (this is the reason, by the way, that his protagonists in "Waiting for Godot" suffer frequent sore feet).
To Bukowski, such travails were so much garbage. He served no such apprenticeship. Whereas both Beckett and Miller hurled themselves at the button-snap boots of literary Paris, Bukowski was thrown face down and bloodied into Western American drunk tanks.
Permanently disfigured in early adolescence by painful boils so severe they had to be surgically lanced, he worked in a succession of heartbreaking menial jobs, culminating in a numbing nine-year stint in the U.S. Post Office. His writing school was the racetrack. He had, in the early years, no contact with any authors of note.
Aside from a fawning matinee-idol-type infatuation with such gritty authors as Hemingway, John Fante and Mickey Spillane, there was, in Bukowski, no real grappling with literary questions of any sort.
From his pen came no monographs on Lawrence or Rimbaud (a la Miller) or on Joyce or Proust (about whom Beckett wrote lengthy meditations). And though Bukowski gained wide reception as a poet, to the end he refused to call himself one, preferring instead the generic title of "writer."
"Poet" as a term was, in his judgment, given the condition of the field, corrupted and corrupting to anyone of real integrity.
With such an absence of "literary" undertow to his career, how then to explain not only the extraordinary resilience of his reputation but also the artistic triumph of his poems? For despite anything one might say, a triumph they are.
Those collected in "Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way," Volume 46 in the Bukowski library, are a huge offering of never-before- published works assembled by the "writer" himself for posthumous release. They are no less good and in some ways better than anything we've seen from him before. Think of the late verse of W.B. Yeats, in which maturity won over method and the emerging voice was freed from its last formal constraints.
The Charles Bukowski of these poems has achieved the final ease for which he sought his whole life: the poems light-fingered, a pleasure to digest, the voice so imminently present that one can scarcely believe that it speaks to us from the grave.
In the poem "what can I do?" Buk might be chatting with us this very evening in his favorite L.A. sports bar:
pain and suffering
helps to create
what we call
given the choice
I'd never choose
but somehow it finds
as the royalties
Imagine the guffaws erupting with that punch line, drowning out the football game on the overhead TV.
He is our William Hogarth in verse and prose: an underdog's sensibility pitched to the bittersweet roughhousing of a deliciously crude world:
"you think Valenzuela's
going to sign with the
Dodgers?" the barkeep
"doesn't matter to me,"
I said, "I don't like
"you don't like baseball?"
he asked. "are you some kind of
"not that I know of," I
told him. "give me another
as he bent over the cooler
I was privileged to view his
vast gross buttocks.
near the crotch of his
white pants was a large yellow
he came up with the bottle
flipped the lid off and
banged the beer down
in front of me.
"if you don't like baseball
what the hell do you
do in your spare time?"
he asked me.
"f-- ," I said.
"dreamer," he answered
picking up my change and
walking to the cash register.
"that too," I said.
I don't think he
A blue-collar moroseness clings to him, even though the Bukowski of these poems is a rich and famous man. Behind him lie the film hit "Barfly" (in which he is portrayed by Mickey Rourke), the best-selling books "Ham on Rye" and "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," translation into 12 languages and a worldwide following. Yet even in victory, he remains the perennial loser:
I think that I would feel better about every
thing if I was sitting instead in a cheap room
with flies crawling my wine
not pleasant, of course, but at least it's war of
but I am in Beverly Hills and that is
all that there is to
I reach for my gold card as I
twist in my chair and
ask the waiter for the
His whole life has been a fistfight with death and a celebration of loss: at the race track, watching long shots trip and fall; in the bars, down in the sawdust, clutching his bloody nose; in the flophouses and brothels, the jail cells and boxcars. It is the key, perhaps, to his great popularity that he makes somehow bearable what most Americans -- bred on hedonism and denial, avoidance of pain and narcissism -- cannot afford to face or think about: loss and death.
He has spent his whole life courting risk in the face of annihilation. And now as he faces the certainty of his own demise, his poise, in the poem, "like a dolphin," is simply majestic:
dying has its rough edge.
no escaping now.
the warden has his eye on me.
his bad eye.
I'm doing hard time now.
I'm not the first nor the last.
I'm just telling you how it is.
I sit in my own shadow now.
the face of the people grows dim.
the old songs still play.
hand to my chin, I dream of
nothing while my lost childhood
leaps like a dolphin
in the frozen sea.
But this man who, to paraphrase one of his poems, wagered his life as he struggled, damned the odds and damned the price, has won the ultimate long- shot bet. His poems have defeated death. For Bukowski lives as surely within these poems as he ever did on earth.