Do we need to admire Charles Bukowski to honor his poetry?
Oscar Wilde went to prison in 1895 for flaunting his homosexuality. Ezra Pound was indicted for treason in 1943 for broadcasting on behalf of the Italian fascists in the Second World War. Dylan Thomas died in 1953 after proclaiming that he had just downed 18 straight whiskeys and wondering if it were a record.
I mention them to emphasize that not all poets are whispering pixies. Some are maniacs, some are drunks and some are general hell-raisers. Which brings us to Charles Bukowski, who was probably all of the above. Although those who knew him might agree that he was a raving, brawling alcoholic, the question has arisen: Was he a Jew-hating Nazi sympathizer? I knew you’d wonder.
The allegation was made by a one-time Bukowski friend turned severe critic who wrote a book suggesting that both might be true. The observation became an issue when the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission proposed that the East Hollywood house in which Bukowski wrote much of his poetry be declared a historical landmark. The current owner of the home said, more or less, over her dead body, and hired a lawyer.
Victoria Gureyeva is quoted by L.A. Weekly as saying, “This man [Bukowski] loved Hitler. This is my house, not Bukowski’s. I will never allow the city of Los Angeles to turn it into a monument for this man.” But the commission voted to do just that, and now it’s up to the City Council to confirm or deny.
Among those commenting on the issue -- and there are many -- is the poet FrancEyE, who lived with Bukowski for three years and bore him a daughter. She said that the whole thing was, to rephrase it into more acceptable terms, bull manure. “He’d get drunk and say anything,” she said, “but he wasn’t a Nazi.”
Her real name is Frances Smith, but someone told her that Frances sounded plural so she changed it to FrancEyE. A sprightly woman in her mid-80s, she lives alone in a small Venice apartment adorned with posters of Bukowski. They once occupied the ramshackle place at 5124 De Longpre Ave. that is being proposed as a landmark.
FrancEyE says that Buk, as she calls him, was never a Nazi but often made outrageous statements while drinking in order to drive away those he no longer wanted around. She recalled that he once physically threw a man in a wheelchair out of the house. “He was in a wheelchair,” she remembered, “because he had thrown himself out of a second-story window in anger from people below calling him a beatnik.” She added, somewhat wryly, “The guy just seemed to lend himself to being thrown out.”
Allegations of Bukowski’s Nazi sympathies came in a book, “Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers,” by Ben Pleasants, a onetime acquaintance of the poet. Pleasants, who may have been one of those that Bukowski didn’t want around, seems to be yet another guy who wishes he had been born with Bukowski’s awesome talent.
Making it easier for him to pretty much say what he wants is the fact that Bukowski has been dead for 14 years and can’t defend himself, which is probably fortunate for Pleasants.
OK, so probably Buk wasn’t a Nazi, but was he anti-Semitic? FrancEyE isn’t sure but says he never made a public issue of it if he was. He was born in Germany, and his maternal grandmother, whose last name was Israel, was Jewish. It’s difficult to imagine anti-Semitism evolving from that. Basically, he was a man challenging the world, both with fists and words, a provocateur of amazing abilities.
Bukowski’s poetry is often powerful, emerging with explosive force. An admirer once described his work as “the spoken word nailed to paper.” But he could also be reflective, almost mournful. In one poem he writes: “in the company of fools/we relax upon/ordinary embankments, enjoy bad food, cheap/drink,/mingle with the men and/ladies from/hell./in the company of fools/we throw days away like/paper napkins.”
I have been a Bukowski fan since moving to L.A. 35 years ago. I never drank with him and it’s just as well because I can be argumentative as hell too, and being smashed in the face by another drunk is not my idea of a poetic evening. I may not even have liked him in person, but that isn’t the point. Poetry is not to be judged by the manners of the poet but by the impact of the stanzas he produces.
Like Ezra Pound, Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas, Buk left us with the magnificence of words and images born in dark places of the soul, unfiltered by antipathies, refined by a chemistry that is beyond description. Forget his drunken bombast. We’re not bringing Bukowski home to tea here, we’re having a few ghostly beers with him on De Longpre Avenue. In the company of fools, we can all party.