Charles Bukowski

Poet Laureate of Skid Row



This Knol written by Jon Hopwood

Copied here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project

Charles Bukowski, the American poet, short-story writer, and novelist, is -- along with Raymond Chandler -- the great chronicler of the City of Angels, and -- after John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, who influenced Bukowski's poetry -- arguably is the most important and certainly one of the most influential writers produced by the Golden State.

Like the folk-poetry infused métier of Steinbeck, Bukowski's work is out-of-favor with the American literary establishment, dominated as it is by upper middle class academicians; unlike Steinbeck, who was a best-selling novelist and won the Pulitzer Prize for his monumental The Grapes of Wrath, Bukowski has never received much praise or recognition in the United States, being a cult figure in America, though a major best-selling writer in France and Germany, the land of his birth.

Insulting Bukowski readers is still a past-time of some critics even a decade after his death. The criticism always is tinged with class bias, the critic looking down on the supposed lower-class origins and/or immaturity of Bukowski readers. Some critics grudgingly will accept that Bukowski has turned some into readers who would never have read "literature" before, after graduating from high school. Then, Bukowski is condescendingly positioned as an "entry way" to real literature, like Steinbeck is now though of in the academy. A Bukowski reader would be better off reading an uplifting stylist like F. Scott Fitzgerald, this argument goes.

What the class-bound, tone-deaf American critics who put down Bukowski could never understand is that someone finding succor in the realism of Bukowski could never surrender to the white-cloud, blue-sky, sandy-beach angst of the patrician-smitten Fitzgerald and his menagerie of college-boy characters. Bukowski's readers aren't Jazz Babies necking and petting in the rumble-seat of a flivver after a snort or two of bathtub gin, but members of an oppressed class of American workers whom Fitzgerald and most other American writers totally ignore. Bukowski is one of the few American writers, other than Steinbeck, to write about work and its debilitating effects on a person.

Is it little wonder that Bukowski and his blistering social critique of America was ignored by most American critics, while European audiences found a great American writer not afraid to write of the society beyond the roads paved with gold. There is no Oz in Bukowski's America, nor any wizard. Bukowski's characters are so down on their luck that there is no need for a wizard to jazz things in up in a childish game of "Let's pretend". The Buk saw life as it was, and wrote about it that way, simple and unadorned, in a style anyone of any class, background, or education could read and understand, and his legions of fans loved him for it.

Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. was born in Andernach, Germany on August 1920. He was the son of Henry Bukowski, a U.S. soldier who was part of the post-World War I occupation force, and Katharina Fett, a German woman. His father, his mother and young "Hank" returned to the United States in 1922, settling in Los Angeles, California, the setting of much of "Hank" Bukowski's oeuvre. The three did not find any Eden in America.

Bukowski's childhood was marred by the violence of his father, who regularly beat him with a razor strop until his teen years, and then by the Great Depression. A fervid believer in the American Dream, Henry, Sr. frequently was out of work during the Depression, and he took out his pain and anxiety on his son. Hank's misery was compounded when, during adolescence, he developed an awful case of acne vulgaris that disfigured his face and made the emotionally remote boy feel like even more of an outsider. T

The younger Bukowski took to drink at a young age, and became a rather listless underachiever as a means of rebellion against not only his father, but against society in general, the society his father wanted him to become a productive member of. The young Bukowski could care less. Though he won a medal at his high school's reserve officer training corps meet, he threw it down a storm drain and was deaf to the cat-calls of patriotism that soon would overwhelm the United States.

During his school years, Bukowski read widely, and he entered Los Angeles City College after graduating from high school to study journalism and literature with the idea of becoming a writer. He left home after his father read some of his short stories and went berserk, destroying his son's work and throwing his possessions out onto the lawn, a lawn that the young Bukowski had to mow weekly and would be beaten for if the grass wasn't perfectly cut.

At City College, Bukowski briefly flirted with a pathetic, ad hoc, pro-fascist student group akin to the German-American Bund. Proud of being a German, he did not feel inclined to go to war against Hitler's Germany. (Later in life, Bukowski professed admiration of Hitler and Idi Amin Dada as men who saw beyond the normal ken.) When America entered World War II, Bukowski resisted entreaties from his friends and father to join the service.

Eventually, Bukowski left City College after a year and went on the bum, traveling to Atlanta, where he lived in a shack and subsisted on candy bars. He would continue to return to his parents' house when he was busted flat and had nowhere else to go. Hank began living the life of a wandering hobo and a bum, frequently living on skid row as he worked his way through a meaningless series of jobs in L.A. and other cities across the continental United States.

During the War, Bukowski wound up in New York City after his short story, "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip", was accepted by Story magazine, then one of the major venues for a young writer trying to crack the game. However, he disliked New York and soon decamped for more hospitable climes.

A loner, Bukowski was content to go to public libraries and read. It was at a public library in L.A. that he discovered the work of John Fante, who heavily influenced his own work and whom he would champion when he, himself, became relatively famous in the 1970s, when Fante was long out-of-print. Reading and drinking, and drinking and listening to classical music on the radio, as well as drinking in bars, or just plain loafing, became the hubs of his life.

The college drop-out wrote many short stories, hand-printing them for submission to magazines as he lacked a typewriter, as he had hawked the writing machine for money for drink. Drink, more than surrendering to the exigencies of The Muse, increasing became the meaning of his life.

Before the War was ended by the Icarus-drop of two thermonuclear bombs on Imperial Nippon, whose rising sun now set for a decade before being revived as an economic superpower by American consumption, Charles Bukowski (he thought Charles sounded more poetic than Henry, the man who was to become the modern American Baudelaire, did) had had two short stories accepted by top-notch literary rags dedicated to introducing tyro authors to what was known in the decade preceding the Depression as The Smart Set.

The story published in "Story" in 1944, was the highlight of the first part of Bukowski's writing career. Returning to Los Angeles, he gave up writing and became a full-time Bottle Baby in his mid-twenties, forsaking the typewriter for John Barleycorn and Jane Cooney Baker, an alcoholic ten years his senior who became his lover, off and on, for the the next decade. Hank n' Jane would shack up in a series of skid row rooms until the money and the booze would run out, and Jane would hurt the turf.

Jane Cooney Baker was a tortured soul with fine legs who could match Bukowski drink for drink, and she was the love of his life. They would drift apart in the mid-'50s until coming together again at the beginning of a new decade, before she drank herself into an early grave with a titanic New Year's toot in 1962.

Nine years before burying Jane, Bukowski had gotten a temporary Christmas job at the Post Office in 1952, and stuck with his job as a mail carrier for three years. In 1955, he was hospitalized in a charity ward with a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. He was told never to drink again, but he fell off the water wagon the day after he got out of the hospital and never regretted it.

After recovering from his brush with death -- he would have died if an idealistic doctor hadn't demanded from the nurses that had left Bukowski to die that they give him a massive blood transfusion -- he began to write again: poetry. Bukowski developed into one of the most original and influential poets of the post-War era, though he was never anthologized in the United States (though those that were influenced by him were).

Bukowski, who chronicled the low-life that he lived, never gained any critical respect in America, either in the journals or in academia. He lived in, and rebelled against in a more fundamental way than almost any other white American writer other than 'Eugene O'Neil', a country in which "The Great Gatsby" -- a novel that could sanctify its readers by enabling them to think it a critique of the very materialism it celebrated -- was as near to "The Great American Novel" as there ever would be, and the social realists of the 1930s were passé. It was a fundamentally corrupt world, and Bukowski wanted nothing to do with it, other than to wrest the booze, broads and shelter he needed, and some toilet paper for the crapper and some writing paper for his manual typewriter.

Barbara Frye, a woman born to wealth who published the small poetry magazine Harlequin in the 1950s, began to publish Bukowski. She sent a letter to him saying she feared no one would marry her because of a congenital conformity essentially leaving her with no neck. Bukowski, who had never met her, wrote back that he would marry her, and he did. The marriage lasted two years.

In 1958, he went back to work for the Post Office, this time as a mail sorting clerk, a job he would hold for almost a dozen hellish years. His first collection of poetry, "Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail" was published as a chapbook in 1959 in a run of 200 copies. The influence of Jeffers is very strong in the early work. One can also detect W.H. Auden, although Bukowski never mentioned him either as an influence or in passing, and he was phlegmatic whereas Auden was dry. But that same sense of an outsider looking in critically at his society was there.

Bukowski's poetry, like all his writing, was essentially autobiographical and rooted in clinical detail rather than metaphor. The poems detailed the desperate lives of men on the verge -- of suicide, madness, a mental breakdown, an economic bust-up, another broken relationship -- whose saving grace was endurance. The relationship between male and female was something out of Thomas Hobbes, and while Bukowski's life certainly wasn't short, one will find in the poetry and prose much that is brutish.

Jon Edgar Webb, a former swindler who became a littérateur with his The Outsider magazine, became enamored of Bukowski's work in the early 1960s. Webb, who had published the work of Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs, published Bukowski, then dedicated an issue of his magazine to Buk as "Outsider of the Year". Eventually, Webb decided to publish, with his own bespoke hand press, a collection of Bukowski's poetry.

Martin established his Black Sparrow Press to print Bukowski, and Bukowski proceeded to begin his first novel while continuing to write poetry and short stories: Post Office was published by Black Sparrow in 1971. The Bukowski phenomenon began to gain momentum.

Around the time he quit the Post Office, Bukowski took up with the poet and sculptress Linda King, who was 20 years his junior. They began a tumultuous relationship juiced in equal parts with sadism and masochism that extended into the mid-1970s.

In his 1978 autobiographical novel Women, Bukowski writes about how his alter ego, "Henry Chinaski," had not had a woman in four years. Now, as Bukowski became a literary phenomenon in the small/alternative press world, he became a literary if not literal Don Juan, bedding down the vanguard of his legions of women fans, who flocked to his apartment on DeLongre Avenue in the sleaziest part of Hollywood. (It was at this time that Bukowski was friends with a dirty book store manager who was the father of Leonardo DiCaprio, Sam "The Whorehouse Man".)

Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego, significantly shares Bukowski's real first name, the name he went by; he used his middle name "Charles" for his poetry as it seemed more literary, and possibly to deny his father, who shared the same Christian name). Like Buk, Chinaski shares an affinity with the underground denizens of Feodor Dostoyevsky's work and the protagonists of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan.

An unapologetic fascist -- or more correctly, unregenerate reactionary -- Celine arguably is the largest influence on Bukowski's prose, aside from Hemingway (who influenced Bukowski's entire generation) and Fante. Like Celine, in World War II, Bukowski flirted with fascism (though Bukowski never descended into the anti-semitism of Celine or any other type of racism in his work); like Celine, he despised America and the brand of capitalism once known as "Fordism," assembly line industrialism and the petty consumer society Bukowski found abominable and which he tried to escape.

Henry Chinaski is a hard-drinking, would-be womanizer who is ready to duke it out with the bums, crooks and assorted low-lives he lives and drinks amongst, though occasionally he visits high society through the ministrations of a woman. Like Bukowski himself, he will accept company but prefers to be alone to drink and listen to classical music on the radio: Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler, among others. Chinaski was introduced in the autobiographical short-story "Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live With Beats," Bukowski's first published short story after his 20-year layoff from prose. The story was printed in chap book form in 1965, followed a year later by "All the Assholes in the World And Mine."

In addition to 1971's Post Office and 1978's Women, Chinaski's life is chronicled in Bukowski's novels Factotum (1975) and Ham on Rye (1982), as well as in innumerable short stories. Bukowski is not naturally gifted as a novelist, and while Women is superb and the very short Post Office is highly readable, Factotum and Ham on Rye are not up to the standards of Bukowski's short stories. As he aged into his fifties, Bukowski seemed to lack discipline in his writing, even his poetry, and discipline is needed to make a truly first-rate novel.

As his social situation evolved, Bukowski's works broadened from tales of low-lives and bums and losers; he added to his repertoire meditative and sarcastic accounts of his new life. A constant in his work became poems and short stories about the race track, to which he had been introduced by Jane back in the 1950s.

The race track as metaphor suited Bukowski as it represented something more than luck or chance. A horse player had to work at it to be any good and beat the odds, and the odds were definitely stacked against the crowd as the track took its vigorish right off the top, when it wasn't outright and forthrightly fixing the race. Going with the crowd was to be avoided in order to improve one's odds, and the track, representing The Establishment, was out to fuck the bettor.

However, Bukowski's horseplayers, his railflies, are spiritual kin to Camus' Sisyphus: The bettor on nags had to have the wit to at least get the stone to the crown of the hill and avoid getting crushed as it courses its way back. The bettor was hip to the fact that the rock always fell back and would always fall back, but a good living or at least survival could be had by beating the track, beating the establishment, if the bettor knew how to play the horses. It was chip chip chip away at the rock.

Like writing itself, it was all a matter of developing one's own system, and standing aloof from the crowd, whose dumb, manipulated enthusiasms skewed the odds. And knowing when to change to a new system, to keep ahead of the track, and the crowd.

Bukowski was the antithesis of Carl Sandburg and Sandburg's "The People." Bukowski was and would remain a literary outsider. In 1973, tyro director Taylor Hackford presented Bukowski to a wider audience via an award-winning documentary for Los Angeles public television station KCET. Hackford's Bukowski won the San Francisco Film Festival's Silver Reel Award after being voted the best cultural film on public TV.

After his volatile and frequently vitriolic relationship with Linda King petered out, Bukowski took up with Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurateur twenty-five years his junior. In 1976, two years before the publication of Women, which documented the start of their relationship, they became a couple and Bukowski's life became more balanced.

With a stable relationship and steady royalties in the low six-figure range, Bukowski became a home owner, albeit in a middle class neighborhood in San Pedro. He now had a swimming pool, a hot tub, and drove a black BMW he paid cash for to the track. He palled around with actor Sean Penn, and the idealistic Irish band U2 dedicated a song to him at a Los Angeles concert.

The Muse, whom Buk bet on as faithfully as he did the ponies, left him when it came to the short story sometime in the 1980s. The poetry always ran through his head and down into his fingers, but it became less artful, though the powerful voice remained.

In the 1980s, Buk wrote a screenplay for Swiss director Barbet Schroeder, which was made into the movie "Barfly" (1987), and Bukowski became known in the United States at last. He refused to appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson , but let People magazine interview him as in his reasoning, it would be read by normal people at the supermarket checkout lines. It was the "Crowd" he despised but honored in his own way by refusing to be part of the "better" part of society that kept them down.

Always immensely prolific when it came to his poetry, and aided by a personal computer in the '80s, Bukowski generated so much material that originals are still being published a decade after his death. He finished his last novel, an L.A./Chandler/private detective/noir spoof called Pulp shortly before he lost his battle with leukemia; it, like the final poetry collection published in his lifetime, The Last Night of the Earth Poems, is full of intimations of mortality, and of course, his mordant humor.

On March 9, 1994, in his native Los Angeles, the man Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre ranked as America's "greatest poet" died. In his short story collection Hot Water Music, Bukowski wrote,

"'There are so many,' she said, 'who go by the name of poet. But they have no training, no feeling for their craft. The savages have taken over the castle. There's no workmanship, no care, simply a demand to be accepted.'"

The remarkable endurance of the man who never asked for acceptance, the endurance that took him almost a full forty years beyond the near-death his drinking and despair had brought him in 1955, finally gave out, and not to the booze and the carousing and anomie, but to a cancer. Many of his fans thought it was remarkable that the "Dirty Old Man" had made it to 74, but it was a brave front: they greatly mourned the passing of their favorite writer, a man that could be read by anyone of any class or educational background.

His friend, Sean Penn, dedicated his 1995 film, "The Crossing Guard, The", to Bukowski, with the words felt by many who had loved him: "Hank, I still miss you."

We still do.