Bukowski: On Drinking

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drinking

for me

it was or

is

a manner of

dying

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

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

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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

us.

 

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

is.