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 There are also a few unpublished items.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