Bukowski: On Drinking



for me

it was or


a manner of


with boots on

and gun

smoking and a

symphony music

background. […]

For Bukowski drinking was heroic. It was humiliating, destructive and alienating. It was self-poisoning and an attempt to capture a fragment of the vastness of human potential in an infinite universe. It killed time; it killed sexual potency; it killed friendships; it killed friends. Drink killed Jane Cooney Baker, the great first love of Bukowski’s life. Drinking was ridiculous and a source of boundless pleasure. It freed him of his natural shyness and sensitivity; it intensified everything. It made him fat. The beer bottle became Bukowski’s personal attribute, the way Camus’s Gauloise and Burroughs’s fedora were theirs.

All of the central parts of Bukowski’s life were prominent in his writing: love (and sex), reading, writing and drinking. (Other parts which appear less often are the life of the writer, gambling, childhood experiences and his troubled relationship with his father.) In that respect, Bukowski was an autobiographical writer, using the experiences of daily life – and recalling (and transforming) anecdotes – in his writing. He did not shy away from the truth of his addiction. When asked if he was an alcoholic, he replied “Hell, yes”. “Drinking makes things happen.”

Bukowski’s early years were spent moving between major American cities. Later he returned to his native Los Angeles. Those days were filled with bar hopping, manual labour, black-market ad hoc work, drink driving, hanging out with winos and whores, participating in drinking contests and sleeping off hangovers in the drunk tank. In one column, Bukowski riffs on Chinaski (his alter ego) in the drunk tank demanding Alcoholic Liberation – freedom from cop oppression in a time of radical politics. Bukowski tells tales of dramatic fights but also confessed “That stuff gets old, gets stale – you get your eyes all cut, and your lips all puffed up, a tooth loose… There’s no glory in it. Usually, you’re too drunk to fight well, you’re starving, you know…”

Drinking almost killed the writer. In 1954 he suffered a grave internal haemorrhage. Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (excerpted here) includes a description of his emergency hospitalisation which is stark and gruesome – though not humourless; Bukowski always has a wry take on matters, the more important the topic the more trenchant and dry the humour. He characterises the staff of the charity ward in LA as a mixture of cruelly indifferent and competently professional.

He resumed drinking but (either through luck or moderation) he never became as sick again. Over the years he switched between American and German beers, Riesling wine and whiskey.

By the time Bukowski wrote about drinking he was already deeply steeped in the cults of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Li Po. He knew the stories of heavy-drinking Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other creative pioneers. He bellied up to the bar and squared up to his big-drinking dead colleagues, matching their ghostly legendary drinks with his own bottles of Schlitz or Miller. As a writer and a drinking man, he engaged in banter, sparring and intimate confidences with dead creators with whom he felt kinship. He did it through competitive writing, drinking and emulation. Yet, as an honest man and an honest writer, he knew the painful reality of a drinker’s life and included in his writings the humiliations and transgressions brave and selfish. He knew that drinking numbs loneliness. Although many of his stories involved barroom encounters and drunken couplings, Bukowski most often drank alone while writing and listening to symphony music on the radio, especially when he became a full-time writer in 1970. “Heavy drinking is a substitute for companionship and it’s a substitute for suicide,” he admitted. “Drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.”

Drinking helped Bukowski cope with public readings. He began on the reading circuit in the 1970s, invited to universities by poet-professors who were friends-cum-rivals. To deal with stage fright (“I always vomit before a reading,”) and to take the boredom out of post-reading faculty parties Bukowski drank. As his reputation grew (mainly after the publication of his first novel, Post Office, in 1971 and the appearance in underground newspapers of his bawdy column), fans expected to see him drinking or drunk at readings. The proud and sensitive Bukowski realised that some people came to see a spectacle and despised this aspect (and his willingness to perform that role) but his response to the shame and anger that provoked only made him drink harder. Later on, he drank to take the edge off interviews.

The editorial approach to On Drinking conforms to the other books in the recent series from Ecco, edited by Bukowski expert Abel Debritto. It comprises chronologically arranged selection of poems, stories, columns and extracts from letters, novels and interviews. Although some pieces are familiar from previous books, a number have only appeared in periodicals and a few are hitherto unpublished. Bukowski himself approved of a mixture of verse and prose in books, including a collection called Run with the Hunted (1993) which is the best introduction to Bukowski’s writing. Illustrations are line drawings by the writer, photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Debritto has – where possible – used the original periodical text or the manuscript for the text of On Drinking. This avoids the corrupted texts published by Bukowski’s former editor, John Martin. (For discussion of the posthumous editing of Bukowski, see my article here.) Paradoxically, after years of having drinking posthumously neutered in publications, this shot of drunken Bukowski feels positively healthy.

Certain stories recur in variations over the years in stories, poems and newspaper columns. The book includes one of my favourite stories, “The Blinds”, in which Chinaski volunteers to wash filthy venetian blinds in a dive bar. After hours of work, all the regulars join in to finish the job. Chinaski takes his $5 pay and buys everyone a drink. The bartender pours the drinks then tells Chinaski he owes $3.15.

In a poem entitled “shit time” Bukowski turns a shared defecation at a beachside latrine into an event of melancholy camaraderie between drunks. Afterwards, the tightness of hangover adds contrast when he confronts the grand and indifferent view:

I looked at the ocean and the

ocean looked good, full of blues and

greens and sharks.

I walked back out of there

and down the street

determined to find my automobile.


Some of these pieces are barroom yarns, full of improbable and seemingly exaggerated incidents. “I came up from the floor with the punch. It was a perfect shot. He staggered back all the way across the room […]” Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. Many tales are very funny. (Any poem which ends with “pulling up my pants / I tried to explain.” beats every limerick ever written.) It is hard to tell what is meant to be the humorous telling of actual story and what is a comic vignette cooked up from nothing. Ultimately, it does not matter. The point of the story is the story. Anyone dissecting Bukowski looking for truth is bound to come away vexed. Anyone who reads Bukowski for anything else will come away satisfied.


Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto (ed.), On Drinking, Ecco, February 2019, hardback, 272pp, mono illus., £20

© 2018 Alexander Adams. Edited 5 December 2018 to correct two dates.

See my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art


Charles Bukowski: The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way  


Interviewer: What do you hold responsible for your success?

Bukowski: A brutal childhood, alcohol, half a dozen rotten jobs, a dozen rotten women, plus an overpowering fear of everything, plus a strange arrival of luck and bravery in sub-zero situations.

In this new collection of stories, essays, reviews, statements and interviews (compiled and introduced by Bukowski expert David Calonne) we read Bukowski meditating on writing: the experience of writing, how he judged writers, his writing process and why one could (and should) write. There are also a few unpublished items.

Charles Bukowski often thought about what writing was good for (and not) and which writers made it (and which did not). Writing was his occupation and trade. He did a lot of reading. He frequented libraries and read voraciously. Despite not finishing his college education he was familiar with the classics (verse, prose and drama) and the early Moderns, as well as pulp writing, Chinese poetry and a host of other writers recent and ancient. He formed and expressed strong opinions but he was prepared to qualify. For example, he said he greatly admired Hemingway when he was younger but had cooled towards Hemingway because his writing lacked humour. But he was prepared to admit Hemingway’s greatness and conceded his jealous rivalry with the giant of American Twentieth Century literature. This is amply apparent in a very ambivalent review of the posthumously published Islands in the Stream.

This book does not make it. I wanted this book to make it. I have been pulling for Hemingway to hit one out of the lot for a long time now […] Hemingway knows his drinks and his drunks and the bar scene is good and the conversation is a little bit on-stage but not bad. You can get thirsty reading this part. I didn’t. […] No, this book doesn’t make it. Few do.

Writers Bukowski expressly admired included Dostoevsky, Gorky, Céline, Li Po, Hamsun, John Fante, early Hemingway, early Saroyan. He did not tend to publicly praise contemporary poets. This was perhaps partly professional jealousy and ego, but he had reasons to be sceptical. In the 1960s and 1970s Bukowski read a large amount of verse in connection with his work on little magazines. He claimed that the poor quality of American verse published at the time did not come close to matching the awfulness of the verse not published. Reading the dregs that were submitted for publication led him to make sweeping public statements and the largely dismiss American verse of the era. Yet Bukowski is nothing if not honest and we see that in his warm and generous introductions to his fellow poet Steve Richmond’s poem collections. Doug Blazek, Al Masarik and Al Purdy all get words of praise of varying intensity. No matter how rebarbative and brusque he could be generally, when encountering specific poems Bukowski would be as sensitive and responsive as one could wish for in an intelligent commentator. Due to that, when Bukowski trained his critical gaze on writing and found it wanting his verdicts were all the more brutal.

The most brutal of reviews is the verdict on a book of poems by John William Corrington. The pair had been friends and written each other many letters. Bukowski cooled on Corrington’s craft and conduct, attributing highfalutin diction and lifeless conjunctions in Corrington’s verse to his university education and work as a professor of English. Bukowski provides many examples of terrible self-conscious verse (“the strum of lost evening”, “sob chill rumor of your sinking flesh”, “grief stands like squad of riflemen”, etc.) which will leave readers wincing. Bukowski identifies instances of derivativeness and near plagiarism. Yet even within such a crushing and closely argued demolition, he quotes and praises a fine poem. Bukowski’s honesty will not allow him to lie or elide an awkward truth to strengthen his hand. To be fair, Bukowski the critic applied the principle of minimum-necessary force. No one could have finished the review thinking that Corrington’s Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965) was anything other than a disappointing pretentious mess. This is poetry reviewing as bullfighting and there is a certain vicarious pleasure in seeing this matador drive the sword in to the hilt. Bukowski should have written more reviews.

The selected stories here are uncollected since their original publications, mostly in weekly columns published in National Underground Review, Candid Press, L.A. Free Press and other counter-cultural newspapers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bukowski spins yarns about fellow writers, writing columns and giving poetry readings at universities. At events he would drink while reading poems, deal drily with hecklers, behave boorishly at faculty parties and fend off groupies. Or not fend them off. He admitted – or boasted, depending on your view – of bedding admiring students, aspiring poetesses and wives of faculty members on numerous tours and reading engagements. Bukowski rarely spares himself and no matter how selfish, hypocritical and shallow his characters are, the writer himself hardly emerges any more dignified. Many of the stories are based on true events and earned the ire of fellow writers. My favourite is supposedly a veiled tale about “Tony Kinnard”. The poet injures his back and retires to a sickbed while his wife collects money to support him, even after his death. The story’s origin is unclear. As others at the time did, Calonne identifies Kinnard as Kenneth Patchen. Patchen did have severe spinal injury that left him bedbound over the years but this story was published in 1971 – a year before Patchen’s actual death.

The stories make fun of the farcical contradictions and false piety regarding the life of famous writers while always upholding the importance of what writing is and what writing can do. Bukowski experienced the pain of rejection and poverty and so when the empty adulation and wealth of great fame became his life, he could view the business with a gimlet eye. He is disarming frank about the variable quality of his weekly column, admitting that they were written for money and that some were weak. However, Bukowski never suggests that writing for money is wrong or that it necessarily degrades the writer.

A handful of interview transcripts and some questionnaires allow Bukowski to explain his thoughts on writing. He admits in interviews that the character Henry Chinaski is actually himself, embellished only slightly. He also says that the raucous stories of fights and one-night stands are largely true but mainly from the 1940s and 1950s and played up for effect. He was aware of his reputation as a “badass poet”, prepared to brawl, puke, gamble and screw his way through life and turn that life into writing. Bukowski never suggests a solution to the quandary of the writer using his own life as material and perhaps living in a certain way in order to provide literary subject matter – and the implicit danger of self-consciousness and autobiographical cannibalisation that this situation gives rise to. He concedes it happens but it is content to rely on literary judgment on a case by case basis. Ultimately, that is a reasonable response – perhaps that only one he could have in his circumstances.

Bukowski’s comments on his writing process shed light on recent controversies regarding the posthumous editing of his verse.

I write right off the typer. […] I revise but not much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing – to make the poem have more balls, more balance.

This late (1985) interview directly contradicts the idea that editor John Martin of Black Sparrow Press has put forth. Black Sparrow Press published all the collected volumes of Bukowski’s poems from the late 1960s until after his death. When readers commented on minor and major changes between original versions of poems Bukowski submitted to magazines and the poems Martin published posthumously, Martin implied that all the changes had been made by Bukowski. However, Martin never produced manuscripts to substantiate the claim that Bukowski had embarked on a late, major and secret campaign of revision. The revision that readers detected in posthumous volumes was not the revision the poet describes in this interview – light contemporaneous revision designed to “make the poem have more balls” – but in fact atypical revision that neutered poems. Unless holograph manuscripts in Bukowski’s hand are provided attesting to the veracity of the posthumously published revisions, I am happy to take the poet at his word.

David Calonne and City Lights Books have done fans proud by publishing so much rare material of high quality. Some of Bukowski’s original illustrations for his stories are reproduced. The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way is a rich, surprising and very enjoyable collection. It is warmly recommended to all Bukowski readers and to anyone curious about Bukowski’s deeply felt thoughts on his trade and craft.


Charles Bukowski, David Calonne (ed.), The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way: On Writers and Writing, City Lights Books, 2018, paperback, 292pp, some line illus., $15.95, ISBN 978 0 87286 759 8


© 2018 Alexander Adams

Bukowski: “Storm for the Living and the Dead”, book review


Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Storm for the Living and the Dead: Uncollected and Unpublished Poems, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017, HB, 272pp, $25.99 ISBN 978 0 06 265651 3 (US version reviewed; British edition also available)


Storm for the Living and the Dead shows Bukowski at his earthiest, drunkest, most vulgar and most bawdy. The poet pukes, screws and argues; he sits in his room staring at his typewriter. He types as if he is manning the last remaining machine-gun on a high redoubt. His comrades Pound, Hemingway, Fante and Celine have all fallen and Bukowski is the last soldier left, gunning down opponents, knowing he will be next.

Bukowski’s ruminations on his past, his reputation and the approach of death dominate this new collection of previously uncollected and unpublished poems. It starts in 1959 and ends in 1994 with what is probably Bukowski’s final poem. To counter the posthumous editing which so neutered the collections published immediately after the poet’s death, editor Abel Debritto has transcribed the texts from original manuscripts and rare early chapbooks to give us Bukowski at his most pure. Topics covered include love, sex, gambling, drinking, writing and fatherhood. A parade of lovers, groupies, poets, editors and friends pass through the poems; few go unscathed. The most scathed is Bukowski himself. He shows his weaknesses and is weak enough to show himself grandiose, egocentric, petty, despairing, dying.

Charles Bukowski             disputes the indisputable

                                              used to work in the Post Office

                                              scares people on the streets

                                              is neurotic

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex


Charles Bukowski             is the King of the Hard-Mouthed Poets

Charles Bukowski             used to work for the Post Office

Charles Bukowski             writes tough and acts scared

                                              acts scared and writes tough

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex


Technically, the selection shows the breadth of the poet’s techniques. We have the standard Bukowski – free-verse, short lines, sparse capitalisation, clipped diction, telegraphic grammar. There are also rambling yarns – or shaggy-dog stories – as well as dialogue, paraphrase, letter-as-poem, poem-as-letter and other approaches which will surprise even seasoned Bukowski fans. The decision to transcribe exactly has paid off to show Bukowski unvarnished and experimental. “kuv stuff mox out” is a stream-of-consciousness flow where line ending sever words without hyphenation. There are cautionary tales, comic lampoons and family histories.

The collection has a number of multi-page apocalyptic fulminations against the madness of life. In these we have the sweeping array of the multitudes coming within the poet’s purview; “ice cream-men, necktie-salesman, corner paperboys, warehousemen, stockboys, messengerboys, pimps, elevator operators, plumbers, dentists, clowns, hot-walkers, jockeys, murderers (we’ve been hearing from the murdered), barbers, mechanics, waiters, bellboys, dope-runners, boxers, bartenders, others others others.” In other poems lists are of animals, activities and events. The dizzying list is one of Bukowski’s favourite approaches. Despite being too often an easy reach for the poet, it remains an effectively striking technique.

In many poems we find Bukowski sparring with the perennial heavyweights – Hemingway, Pound, Céline, Dostoyevsky and others – sometimes landing a stinging hook, sometimes coming out even or being outclassed. One of the more touching poems is “the way it goes”, about his writer friend John Fante, whom he greatly admired.

he wrote a clear simple line

a passionate line,

fine short stories and novels;

he was stricken late in life,

became blind, had both legs

amputated, and they kept cutting

at him…


While it is true that Bukowski had a large ego (and who, writing for publication, does not?), he admits as much and sometimes makes fun of himself. (In one poem Bukowski appears as a secondary character who the narrator rails against: “[that editor] prints Bukowski/so he’ll print anybody”.) Bukowski was also big enough as a man and a writer to pay tribute to his heroes. He also measured his work against theirs. One of the functions of the canon is to allow creative people to judge themselves against the best; another is that it offers the prize of immortality to those who measure up.

Some of Bukowski’s most effective poems are when he recounts events or recall people. “a rope of glass” is a beautifully concise yet descriptive poem which tells of an encounter with an old man on a train. The old man tells him about taking mules to the Italian front in the Great War.

we made bridges of rope from

mountain to mountain

always going up

and the mules pulled the cannon

across […]

when we got the cannon to the top

we pointed them down and

shelled the city below



The sparseness and clarity is exhilarating. Some readers might wish this narrative prosodic mode appeared more often in Bukowski’s verse. Another fine example is a state-of-world poem (“Venice, Calif. nov. 1977:”) which compresses a set of observations of the Venice Beach into a single dense page. It is cynical, elegiac and pithy. It benefits from not having a grand theme and lacking the powerful emotion of poems such as “Dinosauria, we”.

Not all the poems connect. The poem about his father seems simply sour and self-regarding. Not that the poet should have been forgiving or modest, just that this poem failed. A handful of others seem slight (struggling with a typewriter ribbon, farting in the bath) or to be reworkings of ideas done better elsewhere. One rich premise falls flat: “the world of valets” is about the prosperous elderly Bukowski having power over valets while also submitting to their power, but it seems botched. On the whole, the quality is high. The inclusion of the poet’s comic drawings is welcome.

A number of very late poems show us the writer reflecting on his life and considering his own extinction. The title poem is one of Bukowski’s best late works. He describes being inside his house and hearing a storm outside. His wife enters his room and they talk. He feels cold. The sturm und drang has gone; “the party is over”. The storm has gone and Bukowski will follow soon enough. It is restated in a later poem:

you’re an old man in a chair

in a yard

in the world.

a leaf drops on your white belly

and that’s all there



Book Review: Essential Bukowski


Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Essential Bukowski: Poetry, Fourth Estate, paperback, 218pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 00 822515 5 (British edition; US edition also available)


“To the whore who took my poems” opens:

some say we should keep personal remorse from the poem,

stay abstract, and there is some reason in this,

but jezus:

12 poems gone and I don’t keep carbons and you have my

paintings too, my best ones; it’s stifling:

are you trying to crush me out like the rest of them?


Bukowski was a vastly prolific poet, far too prolific for the good of his reputation and for his readers’ patience, but writing was a lifeline for Bukowski. It made sense of a crazy world and a crazy life. It was a way of fending off despair and madness and anger that would have turned his heart black. He wrote more than he needed to and more than any half-critical reader would have wanted him to. He wrote because he had to. When his publisher John Martin restricted publishing his collections of poetry to a volume a year (when Bukowski produced enough material for three collections a year), Bukowski claimed he was being suffocated. Bukowski had a point but Martin also had one. One volume a year was commercially viable and kept the cream of the recent years’ production circulating, though Bukowski claimed some of his best material was never collected. Besides, Bukowski published prodigiously in fanzines and obscure journals. The real issue was not about making work available but control of the poet’s reputation. For a man who had deep-seated resentment towards his authoritarian father, any constriction on the publication of his writing might have felt to Bukowski like a constriction on his windpipe.

Anyone facing the task of selecting the best of Bukowski’s poetry has questions to answer to his own satisfaction: What is most characteristic of the poet? Of the many repetitions of a theme, which version is better to select: the grandly sweeping or the concisely understated? Do popular favourites select themselves or should I exclude poems that fans might expect to encounter? Beyond these questions is the sheer effort of reading and digesting thousands of poems in an analytical frame of mind. The editor also has to decide how to balance the expectations of long-time fans with neophytes who may never have read more than snippets. Every selection of highlights such as this volume has also to be an introduction to the poetry, in this case the work of a poet very diverse in range, tone and subject. Almost the only constants are the use of free-verse form and lack of meter and rhyme.

Editor Abel Debritto points out in his introduction to this new selection, that these 92 poems represent 2% of Bukowski’s surviving output. Almost all of the poems (dating from the late 1950s up to 1994, the year of Bukowski’s death) are in chronological order, allowing us to see Bukowski develop as a poet and a thinker. This is – if needed – final proof that in old age Bukowski never went soft or sold out and never lost his talent. If anything, the late poems are even crisper and drier than the early works. I’ll confess my favourite poem, “no. 6”, a lovely poem about watching horses at the track, made the selection and I’m happy for it.

In Essential Bukowski we encounter the poet as a raging juvenile, a street-preaching philosopher who does not believe in philosophy, a son in revolt, a cynical lover, a furious and bereft widower, an American citizen living through a supercharged global stalemate, a writer passing judgement on art, an old sick man staring death in the face. We get poems as vulgar, desperate, funny, exciting, beautiful and incomprehensible as the world itself. The only significant aspect of Bukowski missing here is the poet as father; instead we have Bukowski as poet paternally admonishing the young, all the time his raddled face creased with a half-smile.

Bukowski writes of cats and men that survived impossible odds and stories of people driven mad by the accumulated infringements upon logic, dignity and humanity. We get stories. We get aphorisms. We get – paraphrased – the letters of fans, lectures of girlfriends and the homilies of teachers. There’s no fat and no repetition. It is a curious fact that although Bukowski wrote a fair number of wholly redundant poems, he never wrote a redundant line, barely even a misjudged word.

So much of Bukowski’s poetry is personal (even internal) that it comes as a relief when we see others in his verse. He writes of the poor. “if I suffer at this / typewriter / think how I’d feel / among the lettuce- / pickers / of Salinas” and the bums in a downtown homeless shelter. When we think of Bukowski we might picture him in a wide-collared shirt in a 1970s’ poetry reading or being interviewed on French television ten years later; it is easy to overlook the poet’s Depression-era childhood. “we ain’t got no money, honey, but we got rain” is a poetic recollection of Bukowski’s past, shot through with threads of cynicism, sadness and painful beauty.

Although Bukowski is considered a poet of the underworld, an inveterate drinker, brawler and womaniser, any reader of one or two books by him will tell you he was also a great reader. He grieved at the burning of the public library where he educated himself. It is fitting that almost the longest poem in the book is a hymn to the time he spent in that library and the writing he encountered there.

Among the best-known poems here are “the genius of the crowd”, “the bluebird”, “Dinosauria, we.”, “one for the shoeshine man” and “the shower”. The selection is very good and the length of the collection is right. The poems are all effective and assured. Beyond that the collection itself is well-paced, balancing shorter and longer pieces, biographical and general, humorous and grave. That is a tribute to the editor’s skill. A collection based purely on popularity or the editor’s own taste would probably not have worked as well as this selection. There’s not a poem here that does not, having read it, make you feel more alive and more human. For sheer reading pleasure and consistent quality of content, Essential Bukowski really is the best Bukowski book published.

Edit: It has come to my attention that the American version has 95 poems, not the 92 in the British edition. One of the poems dropped is about Marina, Bukowski’s daughter, hence the peculiar omission of that aspect of Bukowski’s poetry and life in the collection I reviewed. Nonetheless, the British edition is still a fine collection and thoroughly recommended.

18 November 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Love: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/review-charles-bukowski-on-love/

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

Review: Charles Bukowski, On Love


Charles Bukowski (ed. Abel Debritto), On Love, 2016, Canongate, 216pp, pb, ISBN 978 1 78211 730 8

The third volume in the series of new publications of Charles Bukowski’s writings collects poems on the subject (loosely) of love. The new collections edited by Bukowski scholar Abel Debritto use original manuscripts or first printed appearances, usually in low-circulation poetry journals. Debritto correctly identifies serious editorial interference in the posthumous Black Sparrow Books of Bukowski’s poems and has taken pains to use Bukowski’s original texts where possible.

This is the first of the new series to contain no prose. It benefits thereby. Although Bukowski did publish a few mixed collections – and there are times when his verse turns conversationally prosodic – the changes in tone and density give those collections (and the recent collections) an odd fast-slow-fast feeling. The poems in this volume date from 1957 to 1993 and span the poet’s entire mature career. The poems are ordered chronologically. Some of the poems were not previously collected and a handful was never published at all.

The range of love here is great. The majority of these poems were written about and to Bukowski’s lovers. The most prominent among those are Jane Cooney Baker, Linda King and Linda Lee. There are two poetic eulogies to Jane, seared by grief following her death in 1962. He describes their bodies and snatches of dialogue suggest Bukowski’s relationships with them. Other women go unnamed in the poems and they may or may not be these prominent women in the poet’s emotional landscape.

There are poems of frank sexual excitement and reflections on the absurdity of sex. (These are the poems Black Sparrow decided not to republish.) There is a tender poem written about an anonymous pick-up. “I sit up in bed at night and listen to you / snore / I met you in a bus station / and now I wonder at your back / sick white and stained with / children’s freckles / as the lamp divests the unsolvable / sorrow of the world / upon your sleep.” Another recalls a stripper who enchanted the poet as an adolescent. Others are more passing acquaintances. There the regret about a relationship ended by an argument is more self-centred, like that of a gambler misplaying a hand of cards. Bukowski does not always come out of the poems looking so gallant, which the poet knew well enough. Bukowski is always willing to tell tales against himself for the sake of an insight into human behaviour – or just to raise a smile.

As it turns out, the most delightful and unalloyed poems are to the poet’s only child, Marina. He writes of her as an infant, a child, an adolescent and a woman. The poems document their mutual affection despite Bukowski’s difficult relationship with her mother (“old snaggle-tooth”), who also has some poems to her in the collection. Bukowski’s own parents are mentioned but bitterness towards a bullying father, and a mother who would not take young Bukowski’s side, lasted until the end of Bukowski’s life.

Bukowski writes of his first love – reading – and of other strong bonds of affection, to his typewriter and the “unbelievable gallantry” of his old car as it is towed away to the scrap yard. He writes a eulogy to a trap-driver who raced in Los Angeles at the tracks Bukowski frequented. It is odd that there is no poem specifically about his love for horseracing, but that poem “a magician, gone” stands as a tribute to the sport he loved and the respect he had artists in all fields. The perennial favourite “the bluebird” is included. It is one of his most touching poems, sad in its joyfulness, shot through with loneliness and fierce protectiveness. “there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders / and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there.”

The selection is fitting, as it includes favourites (such as “for Jane”, “shower”, “the bluebird”) and unknown poems; it covers the major figures in Bukowski’s life and hits notes of pathos and hilarity. The decision to order chronologically has its drawbacks (one cannot read poems about one period or one lover, as they were written at different times) but we do see Bukowski’s concerns change as he ages. At the end he writes a heartfelt message to his future widow, which makes a fitting ending. Throughout the book are (black-and-white) illustrations of photographs and Bukowski’s own paintings and drawings. The famous Bukowski cartoon protagonist Hank makes many appearances – lumpen, laconic, lecherous and laughable.

The collection is fine, readable and accessible, yet has a single flaw: it is simply that it is thematic. With the exception of a collection of writings on horseracing, Bukowski himself never published a collection on a single subject. His range is part of his outlook; he wished to be able to cover life in the telling vignette and also to provide the vast and grandiose overview of humanity. He wanted to write about crowds, cities, ages, civilisations and philosophy as well as writing about a man and a woman in bed together, the dog in the street, the man at the typewriter. Bukowski’s urge was not only to encompass the grand and intimate but to be able to do so – if he wished – in a single page and for that reason the approach of any thematic collection is inappropriately limited for a writer such as Charles Bukowski.

But never mind. This is a bracing, amusing and enjoyable collection of Bukowski’s poems faithfully presented as he wrote them. And that is good enough to unhesitatingly recommend On Love.

24 September 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Essential Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/book-review-essential-bukowski/

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

Review: Charles Bukowski, On Cats

The latest collection of prose and poetry culled from Bukowski’s writing centres on cats. To someone only aware of Bukowski’s reputation as a hard-drinking, womanising rebel this might seem an odd choice. Yet anyone who reads Bukowski cannot help noticing the writer’s sharp-eyed observation and acute awareness of suffering; this is apparent in On Cats. The poet’s subjects were often domestic, seen through the eyes of the poet at his desk or in his bed.

The book might be short but it is not slight. Bukowski’s attitude to cats varied. Sometimes sardonic and exasperated, he also mused (indirectly) about the cat as a guide and companion, admirable because of its independence and tenacity. Bukowski’s compassion for cats is also a reflection of his compassion for the outsider – the outcast battered by fortune and spurned by society. Bukowski’s cats were sometimes strays which bore the scars of hard lives on their bodies. Yet the cats in Bukowski’s writing are always cats. Bukowski’s reactions to cats are full of sentiment though he never anthropomorphises his subjects. He differentiates the characters of the cats. Bukowski’s affection for cats is also an aspect of his misanthropy; there is no contradiction in noting that Bukowski can be by turns a humanitarian and a misanthrope depending on mood and circumstance, very evident here. His tales about the cats, and living with them, can be touching, grandiloquent, gritty, comic and ironic. Included are photographs of some of the cats Bukowski writes about. Perhaps to sedentary Bukowski – his eye ever on competition and posterity – cats were to him what bulls were to Hemingway.

How does this book differ from those coffee-table books one finds promoted at Christmas: 100 Dogs in Art or Cats in Paintings at the National Gallery, where incidental details of paintings are compiled in picturesque manner? The very removal from context and turning individual elements into the centre of attention is a rather dubious practice, even disingenuous. It is not much different to editing Hamlet to make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern protagonists.

There are differences between extracting details of larger works and placing individual poems together. Poems have rather ambiguous statuses; they both stand alone and yet exist as part of the continuum of a poet’s output. They initially appear in magazines accompanied by a couple of other poems by the same poet and by a mass of other writers’ poems fairly random in subject, tone and technique; then they are published with the poet’s other poems in a book collection; maybe later still they are anthologised as a favourite example of the writer’s work. So in effect, poems are never written or read isolated but their context varies dramatically, the way individual paintings are exhibited and published in different contexts. To extend that analogy, we can say it is sensible and informative to exhibit Picasso’s paintings in an exhibition of his Blue Period or only still-lifes by Picasso, but does it make any sense to curate an exhibition Picasso paintings which include  cadmium orange? Where does one draw the line between a meaningful category and an arbitrary one? By deciding to collect thematically or by subject (there is a definite difference between those) the compiler posits that there is a) a definite sub-category within the creator’s output, b) that we benefit from encountering these individual pieces together, c) that this recontextualisation does not create a misleading impression on to the individual pieces.

In the case of On Cats, can we say that Bukowski’s cat poems form a distinct group? Well, by subject alone, yes, there are a handful of poems that dwell upon Bukowski’s reactions to individual cats. These are supplemented by a story which features a cat, also extracts from letters discussing cats that Bukowski and his wife cared for. We do benefit from reading the pieces together not least because these poems and extracts are widely dispersed and some were unpublished, others were uncollected. The editor Abel Debritto points out that some of the previously collected poems were altered significantly between first publication and republication in collections, altered by an unknown hand. By republishing the original text, Debritto corrects the text in the absence any evidence that Bukowski made post-publication changes, putting the authentic text back into circulation. This continues Debritto’s commitment evident in On Writing (2015), where his editing methodology effectively rebuked (and replaced) the policy of excessive and interfering editing apparent in posthumously published Bukowski volumes.

It is the third point, misleading presentation, that is the most difficult to assess. There is no evidence that Bukowski ever considered themes or subjects especially important to presenting his writing, with the exception of Horsemeat, a collection of texts accompanying photographs of Bukowski at the racetrack, one of his favourite locations. That was published during his lifetime and with his co-operation. Bukowski’s lifetime poem collections were usually broadly catholic but collected poems of a recent vintage. What we imagine Bukowski’s feelings about a collection such as On Cats might have been is as irrelevant as it is moot. On Cats does not distort Bukowski’s writing by suggesting that the poet treated cats as a topic distinctly important compared to his many other topics. The fragmentary nature of the story, poems, letter extracts and epigrams does make clear that Bukowski never conceived of cats as distinct literary subject for him.

What this collection does is gather material on a certain subject and present it in book form. What we take from this book is not different in tone or style from what we might get from a multi-subject collection and that in itself shows that the editor’s approach is not distorting.

Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), On Cats, Canongate, hardback, 118pp, b&w illus., £12.99

My other Bukowski reviews

On Love: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/review-charles-bukowski-on-love/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Essential Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/book-review-essential-bukowski/

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

Changes to Posthumously Published Poems by Charles Bukowski


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:


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.


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.