Charles Bukowski, 1920-1994

Suzanne Lummis is the founding director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival

A large gravelly head, deep-set eyes often hidden in shadow. This is either the head of some creature that staggered from its cave to tear Sinbad and his sailors limb from limb, or a profound and formidable visage that would look fine on Mount Rushmore alongside the other notables.

A face like that must give a man a sense of destiny. Los Angeles poet and fiction writer Charles Bukowski, who died of leukemia on March 9 at the age of 73, managed to create a life worthy of his face. And he produced a voluminous body of work that documented that life in the underbelly of Los Angeles, tales of ribald exploits laced with self-deprecating humor. Prostitutes broke his heart. Beefy men beat him up in fights he usually started. And there were old men, too, in this urban landscape, generally "in four dollar rooms / looking for socks in dresser drawers / while standing in brown underwear . . . " (from "lack of almost everything").

Bukowski went by the alias Henry Chinaski in his fiction and by his own name in his poetry, but the boorish, half-endearing underdog persona never changed. It won him a folk hero status in the international literary underground.

Bukowski once wrote that style came from lack of pretension. Well, Bukowski had a little pretension, all that magnificent self-debasement, those public displays of excess. Yet he had a style anyway, a blunt, no-frills one, and it spawned a ton of imitators.

Wordsworth, Whitman, William Carlos Williams and The Beats in their respective generations moved poetry toward a more natural language. Bukowski moved it a little farther. He was never a university poets' poet but a populist voice, a Carl Sandburg for the down-and-out set. "I like desperate men, men with broken teeth and broken minds and broken ways," he wrote in his story, "Guts." "I also like vile women, drunk cursing bitches with loose stockings and sloppy mascara faces."

Unlike Sandburg, though, Bukowski never declared himself to be an ambassador of the people; that would have been too corny. He never declared himself to be anything except a hard drinker, a womanizer, a racetrack aficionado and above all--absolutely above all--a poet.

And one more thing: He declared himself to be Bukowski. His biographer Neeli Cherkovski recalls that Bukowski was fond of saying: "When I met Neeli he was 16 and I was Bukowski."

When word of Bukowski's death got out, John Martin, Bukowski's editor at Black Sparrow Press in Santa Rosa, received calls from readers in Latin America, France, the Netherlands, all over, many of them crying. The owner of a coffee shop in Seattle called: "Someone's put a sign outside my place that says Charles Bukowski's dead. People are crying. Is it true?"

And here in Los Angeles, poets who liked him and those who didn't will remember for a long time where they were and what they were doing when they got the news.

On Saturday, March 26, drivers passing the 8300 block of Beverly Boulevard must have wondered briefly at the rows of folding chairs on the sidewalk and the standing-room-only crowd gazing through the window of Arundel Antiquarian Books. KCRW had set up a microphone so that the overflow crowd could hear the Bukowski memorial addresses taking place inside. Several speakers recounted a similar experience:

"I heard a poem on the radio and recognized it as Bukowski's, but it was an AM station. I thought, 'oh oh, this can't be good." (Bill Mohr)

"I was in Hawaii. I saw his name on the front page of the news with a photograph. I knew there was no Nobel Prize. I knew it was something dreadful." (Neeli Cherkovski)

Those who'd known him called him "Hank" or "Buk," and those who hadn't nevertheless felt as if they had. Though he'd been living rather reclusively in San Pedro with his wife and had not given a public reading for years, in literary L.A. his presence was keenly felt. He didn't hold out for prestigious publications; the most famous poet of the region published in everything, even homemade ventures, stapled, photocopied, lousy-looking things. As Charles Webb testified, one only had to ask and he'd send a bunch of poems with a note--"Take what you need . . . Buk"--and always a little doodle next to his name. Of course he could afford to; he turned out poems like one possessed or driven, as if that dog from hell noted in one of his titles was nipping at his heels.

There were anecdotes and laughter on this occasion, but Joan Jobe Smith altered the mood, suddenly putting down her book. "I don't want to read anything," she said quietly. "Charles Bukowski has left the building. Charles Bukowski has left L.A. Hail Bukowski."

"Hail Bukowski," said the audience.

But although he had been writing about and imagining his death for 30 years, it seemed impossible that Charles could leave L.A.

Bukowski was born in Germany on Aug. 16, 1920, and came to Los Angeles at age 3. He had the kind of childhood that qualifies people to weep on all the afternoon talk shows. Brutal father, indifferent mother. In adolescence he broke out with terrible boils, which scarred his face and deepened his sense of isolation. (Much of that period is revealed in the novel "Ham On Rye.") Until he began to make a living from his writing at around age 50, he worked every odd job known to man or woman, in a dog biscuit factory, a New York subway, women's dress factories and meat-packing plants, on a track gang laying train tracks across the country, two days as a janitor at the L.A. Times, and finally, a job that lasted for a while--at the Central Post Office. He commemorated that one in his first novel, "Post Office" (1971), a turning point for the writer who till then had only a tiny cult following as a poet.

Later he would write about those rough years honestly and sometimes humorously, but seldom with the raw vulnerability revealed in his more personal letters of the time. In September, 1962, Bukowski was bleeding from a drinking-related malady and suicidally depressed over the conditions of his life. Jane, the woman he is said never to have forgotten, had recently died of alcoholism. "Blood again this morning. And do you know it's ugly? Not the bright red that floats at the top. . . . They drained it out of my love when she died. She used to wear my torn yellow bathrobe and walk about the room. Plop, plop, plop, she walked like a simple child. And I loved her. I loved her from Armenia to the top of the sun, and now the yellow robe hangs in my closet and she's rotting in a grave. So I sit here in my triangle; madness, death by hemorrhage, and suicide. . . ."

He had little reason to believe at the time that 30 years down the line his collected letters, "Screams from the Balcony," would sell 10,000 copies in two days. (The letter to Jon Webb quoted above appears not in that collection but in Webb's 1960s magazine, The Outsider.) He didn't imagine that someday a famous actor named Mickey Rourke would give a comic, affectionate portrayal of him in a film called "Barfly" and that Faye Dunaway would play Jane.

The unguarded emotion in the letter is stunning, coming from one who later would insist on being perceived as a crusty anti-romantic. And it seems to contradict the charge that he didn't like women.

"What are you going to say about Bukowski and women?" a woman called to ask me when she heard this article was in the works.

Some women have noted Bukowski's insensitive language--he liked to talk dirty--but this caller had a more serious complaint; she'd been shallowly characterized in one of his books. One must say this: He did not often draw his women characters with much depth or distinction. He did not often let his readers glimpse the Bukowski of Sept. 12, 1962. He was probably as leery of sentimentality as he was of self-pity. He did not always do much better by men.

He seems to have felt something, though, for the women he kept crawling back to after they'd struck him down and left him for dead. Henry Chinaski is beaten up by more women than any man in Western literature.

Of course, Charles Bukowski was politically incorrect before some thinly talented radio personality made it the rage. He sported the grunge look before a Seattle band set the fashion. He predated the new appreciation of older women; he declared women are the most desirable at the age when they're just starting to fall apart, which is good news for some of us. He continued to drink hard liquor straight from the bottle long after imported water had replaced martinis on the social scene, and only the influence of a woman he loved, then married, was able to slow him down. He was a writer who insisted on being out-of-step with his times.

"The most important thing to realize about him," said John Martin, "is that he didn't want to go with any trends or join groups. Charles Bukowski stood alone."

Something else is important to know about him. He said of his typewriter, as Scott Wannberg recalled at the memorial: "It all begins and ends here. In the moment." His "typer" he called it, and it was the love of his life.

Bukowski said: "The first thing writing must do is save your own ass." And so it did, for longer than he imagined it could. Writing, poetry: the mad dog nipping at his heels, and the wild horse running away over the hills.

The Secret, by CHARLES BUKOWSKI

don't worry, nobody has the

beautiful lady, not really, and

nobody has the strange and

hidden power, nobody is

exceptional or wonderful or

magic, they only seem to be

it's all a trick, an in, a con,

don't buy it, don't believe it.

the world is packed with

billions of people whose lives

and deaths are useless and

when one of these jumps up

and the light of history shines

upon them, forget it, it's not

what it seems, it's just

another act to fool the fools

again.

there are no strong men, there

are no beautiful women.

at least, you can die knowing

this

and you will have

the only possible

victory.

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