Happy birthday, Charles Bukowski!


This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

Were he still with us, Charles Bukowski would be 93 Friday. Happy birthday, Charles Bukowski!

Bukowski was dubbed the Poet Laureate of Skid Row; he wrote about the gritty neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the bars and racetracks and cheap hotel rooms.


Born in Germany to parents who moved to Los Angeles when he was a toddler, Bukowski had a difficult time growing up. As a boy, he was subject to his father’s abuse; as a teen, a terrible case of acne made him an outcast.

He had a writing career that sputtered rather than taking off, and, through a hard-drinking 10-year binge, supported himself with a series of menial jobs, the last of which was for the U.S. post office.

His breakthrough came in 1969, when John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered the little-known 49 year-old writer a deal to quit his day job and work full time. The initial result, the 1971 novel “Post Office,” featured his alter ego Henry Chinaski, a character that would appear again and again.

Bukowski became a prolific underground writer of both prose and poetry, publishing more than 40 books. He often maintained an outsider stance in his writing, leading off poems with lines like, “don’t ever get the idea I am a poet; you can see me / at the racetrack any day half drunk.” Yet before long he was celebrated in France and eventually given grudging respect by the American literary establishment.

Although he died in 1994, he lived long enough to see his work move from the underground to the mainstream and then on to Hollywood. His personal story was made into the semi-biographcal film “Barfly” starring Mickey Rourke and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Now his work is read in classrooms and by rock stars (see Bono and Tom Waits read his poetry, below, via Open Culture). And here’s Bukowski reading himself.

Bukowski’s papers now reside at the prestigious Huntington Library, alongside such literary rarities as a Gutenberg Bible and a folio of The Canterbury Tales -- which, come to think of it, are as bawdy as the work of Charles Bukowski.

[For the Record, 12:10 p.m. PDT, Aug. 16: A previous version of this post mistakenly referred to the character Henry Chinaski as Harry Chianski and has been corrected.]


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