Celebrating Charles Bukowski, ‘poet laureate of L.A. lowlife’
Charles Bukowski was called many things: “poet laureate of L.A. lowlife,” “the enfant terrible of the Meat School poets,” “the prophet of the underemployed” and “a flamboyant provincial.” Those comments are all from our own reporters.
The L.A. Times was slow to warm to Bukowski’s charms. Even in 1985, when he was one of America’s bestselling poets, we were still describing him as “A low-life drifter from out of the ‘40s whose gnarled face is to ugliness and abuse what Paul Bunyan’s body was to size and strength.”
Two years later, when Mickey Rourke starred in the semi-biographical film “Barfly” based on Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novels, the Los Angeles cultural establishment finally, grudgingly, came around.
Bukowski was born in Germany on Aug. 16, 1920. His family soon moved to Los Angeles, where he grew up with an abusive father. He was an outcast in school. He started drinking. He moved around the country, living on the margins, during World War II and after. He wound up back in Los Angeles as unlikely a candidate for becoming a poet, much less an acclaimed one, as you might find.
Of course, that was part of his appeal. Plainspoken poetry set in the streets and bars, peopled by shady characters -- including his hard-drinking, big-hearted, angry, gambling, womanizing self. One of our readers, upset by seeing him written about in print, called him “an X-rated Oscar the Grouch,” which might actually not be all that insulting after all.
To celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the poet laureate of L.A. lowlife, here are 18 things he wrote and said and did.
1. “The wine does most of my writing,” he told the L.A. Times in 1987. “I just open a bottle and turn on the radio, and it just comes pouring out. I only type every third night. I have no plan. My mind is a blank. I sit down. The typewriter gives me things I don’t even know I’m working on. It’s a free lunch. A free dinner. I don’t know how long it is going to continue, but so far there is nothing easier than writing.”
2. He wrote constantly, fruitlessly, for years. In the 1940s, with little hope of getting published, he was writing all the time. “He needed to write so much,” his daughter said, “that he’d write with a pencil on a brown paper bag.”
3. Bukowski worked at the post office in Los Angeles for 11 years. He hated it.
4. He paid $29 a month in rent. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Bukowski lived in a 500-square-foot apartment at 5124 De Longpre Ave. in Hollywood; rent was $29 per month. Saved from near-destruction, the multi-unit building sold in 2008 for $910,000.
5. He was discovered by a novice publisher who would make him famous. John Martin, the founder of the fledgling Black Sparrow Press, had read Bukowski’s individual poems in underground publications. He learned Bukowski was living in Los Angeles and tracked him down. Martin’s first words to him: “I worship you.”
6. And? When, at their first meeting, Martin told Bukowski he worshiped him, Bukowski replied, “That’s all right. Would you like a beer?”
7. “You can do without a woman but not a typewriter,” he told students at a poetry reading in Bellevue, Wash., in 1970, one of his earliest. He later earned a reputation for misogyny.
8. He lived off $100 a month. Bukowski quit the post office in 1969 after Martin offered to pay him $100 per month to write full time. He quickly turned in the autobiographical novel “Post Office,” which after a slow start paved the way to literary success.
10. He wrote more than 1,000 poems. Titles of five of them: “i wanted to overthrow the government but all i brought down was somebody’s wife,” “shot of redeye,” “the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck,” “cut while shaving,” and “to the whore that took my poems.”
11. “When you clean up the city, you kill it,” Bukowski told Barbet Shroeder in his 1985 documentary “Charles Bukowski.” Bukowski was bemoaning the losses of pimps and prostitutes and seedy bars from Los Angeles. If only he could see the city now.
12. About 2.5 million copies of Bukowski’s books had been sold by 1987 -- in West Germany alone.
13. He liked David Lynch’s “crazy inventiveness.” In 1987, his favorite film was David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” “I love the crazy inventiveness of it. You can’t analyze it -- you don’t even know what it means. It just gives you the chills.”
14. Grudging acceptance. After “Barfly” was released, the L.A. Times recognized Bukowski as “the literary scene’s most celebrated dirty old man.”
15. Sean Penn saw Bukowski’s “big heart.” Penn was briefly considered for the Bukowski role in “Barfly.” “The delicate way he lights his cigarettes somehow tells the whole story,” Penn said. “He does have a big heart.”
16. “Bluebird.” For all his toughness, he also wrote poems like “bluebird,” which includes the stanza:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
17. Bukowski and a Gutenberg Bible. Bukowski’s papers were acquired by the Huntington Library in Pasadena, a research library and museum whose tremendously valuable collections include a Gutenberg Bible. The Huntington put on a Bukowski exhibit in 2011. Bukowski’s widow, Linda Lee, chose the Huntington in part because it was located just down the way from the racetrack where Bukowski liked to gamble.
18. We are here to laugh at the odds. Asked what the meaning of life was by Life magazine in 1988, Bukowski wrote, “We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
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