Changes to Posthumously Published Poems by Charles Bukowski

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In an article published on Spiked I discuss the editing of posthumously published collections of Charles Bukowski’s poetry.

Link to Distortion of a Dissident Poet?, Spiked, 7 September 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.Ve16ZPldU5k

Extent of the Changes

In that article I draw attention to changes made to poems by Bukowski in posthumous publications. Since Bukowski’s death in 1994 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of detectable changes made to Bukowski’s poems between magazine publication/manuscript form and republication in Black Sparrow Press (BSP) and Ecco book collections. This heavy editing has been so extensive as to amount to rewriting in some cases.

The details of editorial changes to book collections have been collated by Michael J Phillips, using available manuscripts and BSP/Ecco publications. Percentage of poems changed between manuscript text and appearance in BSP/Ecco collections is as follows (based on available data):

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (BSP, 1969): 0 manuscripts available, 0 changed = N/A

Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (BSP, 1972): 1 MS, 0 changed = 0%

Burning in Water Drowning in Flame (BSP, 1974): 2 MS, 1 changed = 50%

Love is a Dog from Hell (BSP, 1977): 17 MS, 3 changed = 18%

Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (BSP, 1979): 2 MS, 0 changed = 0%

Dangling in the Tournefortia (BSP, 1981): 8 MS, 1 changed = 13%

War All the Time (BSP, 1984): 32 MS, 3 changed = 9%

You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (BSP, 1986): 27 MS, 0 changed = 0%

The Roominghouse Madrigals (BSP, 1988): 0 MS, 0 changed = N/A

Septuagenarian Stew (BSP, 1990): 26 MS, 0 changed = 0%

The Last Night of the Earth Poems (BSP, 1992): 1 MS, 0 changed = 0%

Betting on the Muse (BSP, 1996): 11 MS, 0 changed = 0%

Bone Palace Ballet (BSP, 1997): 22 MS, 11 changed = 50%

What matters most is how well you walk through the fire (BSP, 1999): 70 MS, 69 changed = 99%

Open All Night (BSP, 2000): 70 MS, 63 changed = 90%

the night torn mad with footsteps (BSP, 2001): 69 MS, 68 changed = 99%

Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way (Ecco, 2002): 54 MS, 50 changed = 93%

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain (Ecco, 2003): 27 MS, 25 changed = 93%

Slouching Toward Nirvana (Ecco, 2005): 41 MS, 40 changed = 98%

Come On In! (Ecco, 2006): 45 MS, 45 changed = 100%

The People Look Like Flowers At Last (Ecco, 2007): 22 MS, 19 changed = 86%

The Continual Condition (Ecco, 2009): 20 MS, 19 changed = 95%

No changes to Bukowski’s posthumously published prose have been detected, though it should be noted that all but one of Bukowski’s novels were published by BSP during his lifetime and the author checked the proofs of the last novel, Pulp, before he died. During his lifetime, Bukowski detected substantial rewriting in his novel Women in 1979 and immediately required BSP reprint his original text. BSP published some short stories but most of Bukowski’s short fiction has been republished by City Lights Books, edited independently of BSP.

All of the BSP volumes and Ecco volumes (up to 2009) were edited by John Martin. No other editor had such a privileged position with regard to Bukowski’s writing from 1969 to 2009.

Nature of the Changes

Bald data on the number of changes does not convey their peculiarity of the changes. Poems halve in length or almost double. Titles get altered. “dirty poem” goes to the “vulgar poem”; “do you want to enter the area?” becomes “so you want to be a writer?”. An odd verbose banality creeps into the verse. “this class lady” goes to “that rich and educated lady”;  “wait” goes to “wait patiently”, an example of the use of redundant adverbs that the poet shunned. In a metaphor, Bukowski wrote “a cork laugh filled with sand and idiocy”; the reviser changed it to “a cork laugh filled with sand and broken glass”. (Examples can be found here: http://bukowski.net/comparisons/)

In the most extreme of heretofore detected rewritings is the poem Bukowski published in New York Quarterly (1976) as “big grey balloon things, heavy”. In Pleasures of the Damned (a posthumous compilation, published by Ecco, 2008) it appears as “elephants in the zoo”. The original seven stanzas have been cut to one. The 47 lines have been reduced to five, with only one line left unaltered. Unless there is evidence that Bukowski made these changes, it should not be considered a poem by Charles Bukowski in any meaningful sense. (Comparison here: http://bukowski.net/comparisons/elephants_in_the_zoo.php)

It is curious that all the changes in the posthumous poems blunt the force and asperity of the language. Why did Bukowski – in his purported revisions – never sharpen his diction and never make images more forceful? Why did none of the additions result in pungent metaphors or memorable collocations? In other words, why do all of the changes serve to undercut Bukowski’s known characteristics as a writer? The most obvious answer is that the changes were not made by Bukowski.

Source of the Changes

When changes in posthumous volumes have been criticised as heavy-handed, the editor claimed that all changes were by Bukowski himself who, before his death, had amended manuscripts in the possession of BSP. These amended manuscripts have not been made public. It stretches credulity to believe that Bukowski suddenly – in the last years of his life – started to amend his poems in ways that he had previously vigorously and frequently condemned. The replacing of direct terms with indirect ones, softening curse words, adding adverbs and extensively deleting references to sex, drinking and madness are all at odds with his established approach to writing. The evidence of his letters shows that, aside from correcting misspellings, Bukowski expected what he wrote to be published as he had written it. When he came across lazy or interfering editing of his work he spoke out against it in the strongest terms.

Bukowski’s last poems (those that were published during his lifetime) display none of the primness and caution of the posthumously republished poems. What is more, Bukowski did not have a habit (as Auden did) of rewriting old poems because he fundamentally disagreed with literary traits of his earlier self. Bukowski was well known during his lifetime for not redrafting. He did sometimes have to write a poem again from memory because he had lost his original text but he rewrote in approximately the same style. It is inconceivable that Bukowski was working in secret in a new mealy-mouthed style, meticulously rewriting previously published work and sending these rewritings to BSP, while at the same time allowing publication of poems in his established forceful style. This scenario lacks logic, credibility and evidence.

Furthermore, there is factual evidence the editing was not done by the poet.

Changes betray the fact the editor was not familiar with poems’ subject matter. In one drastically rewritten poem the editor has interpreted “Princess Tina” (a boat converted into a floating restaurant) as a person – arbitrarily determined to be a singer of some sort. Likewise, in “I’VE FOUGHT THEM FROM THE MOMENT I SAW LIGHT FROM THE WOMB” (which has been turned into “I fought them from the moment I saw light”), the reviser traduced Chopin clutching “his Pollack soil” to Chopin “clutching my Polack soul”. Bukowski was a fan of classical music and was aware of the story that when Chopin lived in France he always carried with him a vial of soil from his sacred Polish homeland – a detail which the rewriter was ignorant of and which had led him to alter the poem nonsensically. Clearly, the rewriting of these poems was done by someone who did not write the original poem and lacked the poet’s frames of reference.

Evidence suggests: a) that the editing/rewriting is not by Bukowski, b) that it has taken place posthumously, and c) that there is one individual responsible for the revisions.

Summary

Evidence suggests that the majority – or the entirety – of changes to Bukowski’s posthumously published poetry was not made by Bukowski himself, based on the following reasons:

  1. A dramatic increase in the number of changes apparent in posthumous collections compared to lifetime collections.
  2. The character of changes being inconsistent with Bukowski’s known attitude towards diction, punctuation and style.
  3. The tendency for all changes (be they additions, subtractions or exchanges) to work against Bukowski’s established style and to undermine the dry laconic tone which was one of Bukowski’s principal characteristics as a poet.
  4. The practice of heavy revision of MSS already submitted for publication is out of character for Bukowski, who is known to have edited/revised his own work sparingly.
  5. The apparent absence of MSS amended in Bukowski’s own hand which accord to the changes in posthumous collections.
  6. Evidence of factual mistakes in revised versions, which indicates that the reviser was not the original writer.
  7. Absence of circumstantial evidence to indicate that in his last years (and apparently in secret) Bukowski commenced a campaign of rewriting his poems.
  8. John Martin was the sole editor of Bukowski’s poems at BSP and Ecco (up to 2009). Bukowski is known to have had differences of opinion with him about editorial intervention, as witnessed by numerous published letters by Bukowski and the Women incident of 1979. It seems reasonable to infer that Martin, acting as controlling editor, either permitted revisions to be made or was himself the source of these revisions.

The posthumously published revised texts have been widely disseminated and accepted as authentic Bukowski. As discussed above, there is no reason or evidence for us to accept the revised texts as authentic revisions by the hand of the poet. Indeed, both logic and all understanding of Bukowski’s character as a writer and an individual lead us to believe that the revisions are not his. Unless manuscripts showing amendments in Bukowski’s own hand that support posthumously published texts are made available for scrutiny, it is reasonable to conclude the revisions are not by Bukowski.

Both this article and the one on Spiked relied on the hard work, dedication and stubbornness of Michael J Phillips and members of www.bukowski.net, an excellent online resource for examples of Bukowski’s unedited writing and information about the author.

Edit, 9/9/2015: Abel Debritto has mentioned that his new compilation of Bukowski’s (On Writing, Ecco, 2015) is drawn from original manuscripts and that for forthcoming editions he is preparing (On Cats and On Love) texts will be taken from manuscripts or original publications, not from the posthumous publications. This means future publications edited by Debritto for Ecco should be free of the changes introduced posthumously.

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