The Poet who Vanished

 

“Anyone who picked up a new copy of the New Republic from his or her local newsstand on the morning of 18 July 1955 could have opened it to read an article called ‘How to be happy: installment 1053’. What they couldn’t have guessed is that the author would, in all probability, choose to extinguish his life mere hours later. With a flourish sour, sardonic and elegant, the author would disappear. His name was Weldon Kees.

“Kees had the knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. As a writer-artist, Kees had been in all the best cultural hotspots of the period. He was in New York in 1943-48 during the early Abstract Expressionist boom, but left before the market took off. He had also been in artists’ haven Provincetown, but had sold relatively little work. In 1950, he arrived in San Francisco. Somehow he had managed to be in these places and failed to make critical breakthroughs. He (and his wife Ann) had quit places without getting the most out of them. He seemed to have turned missing opportunities into his greatest art form.

“Admired for his talents as a poet, storywriter, critic, musician, composer, painter, film-maker and photographer, Kees never broke through in any one field despite his talent…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 26 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/weldon-kees-the-poet-who-vanished/19874#.WShlYGkrLIU

Review: The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence

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B.S. Johnson, Zulfikar Ghose, Vanessa Guignery (ed.), The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, cloth hb, 457pp + xxiv pp,  ISBN 978 1 4438 7266 9

 

1.

Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) and Zulfikar Ghose (b. 1935) were fellow writers who achieved success in the London literary scene of the 1960s. They came into contact with each other in 1959, while still English undergraduates. They entered into a correspondence about the editing of Ghose’s university literary journal, a dialogue that developed into a close alliance, partly epistolary because although they both lived in London at the same time, they also lived apart for periods. This volume collects all the surviving letters, cards and telegrams between the pair, covering the years 1959 to 1973.

B.S. Johnson is once again fairly well known. He achieved professional respect, modest sales and occasional (brief) notoriety as a writer of mildly avant-garde fiction, verse and drama. His first novel was published in 1963 and in the following decade he produced a substantial amount of fiction, drama and prose (much of sports journalism and literary criticism). He covered the 1966 football World Cup for The Observer and The Times of India. He wrote and directed a number of short films and television programmes. His most notable works are novels employing avant-garde techniques, such as text in parallel columns, holes cut into pages and blank and patterned pages. The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of 27 loose sections in a box, to be read – aside from sections marked “first” and “last” – in any order.

Johnson was vociferous in his advocacy of Modernism and experimental techniques in preference to more traditional narrative plot and ostensible realism. He compared the novelist’s position to that of an architect’s, saying that it was dishonest to work as if Modernist innovations had never taken place. It was the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to embody the intellectual developments of his era in formal characteristics of prose. Johnson could be dogmatic and intemperate on this matter, though he could also be generous to fellow writers and his left-wing principles steered him towards occasional collective action and attempts to better the lot of authors who made their living from their work. It is clear from the progression of the novels, as well as from various letters and articles, that at least by the 1972 Johnson felt he had reached a point of exhaustion in his pursuit of technical novelty. Indeed, it seemed clear that his rigid view that “telling stories is telling lies” had left him with only his own life to mine for material, which he had exhausted by the time he finished his last novel.

See the Old Lady Decently (posthumously published in 1975) was an admission of Johnson’s exhaustion It was a reconstruction of his mother’s life, drawn partially from interviews. He had reached the limits of usable material from his own life and struggled to assemble a disjointed assemblage of aspects from his own life and that of his mother. He interpolated fragments of his experience writing the book into the book and thereby became drawn into a web of self-reference and self-absorption that was denser than ever. Writing about writing is dull stuff, largely. As a chronicler of ordinary life, Johnson could see that the subject of See the Old Lady Decently was writing itself, an arid area destined to become ever more self-regarding. The novel was to be part of a trilogy but Johnson understood the line he was pursuing was exhausted, not least because he had already quarried his own life for material in previous novels. He did not write the subsequent two books planned and died shortly after delivering the manuscript of the first to his publisher; See the Old Lady Decently has never been republished.

It could be argued that technical novelty was actually impeding Johnson. He was in danger of being known – when he was known at all by the reading public – as a producer of literary gimmicks. It is the case that some of his novels were very slight in terms of narrative substance. More substantial characters, denser stories, more complete back stories to indicate motivation – all of these would have made Johnson’s novels more satisfying. It is possible that Johnson’s devices would have proved even more taxing to readers if the books had been longer. Johnson was often writing under the pressure of deadlines because of his contracts and he was hamstrung by his ideological position resisting pure invention. Seven novels, two collections of poems and a number of play and film scripts written in the curse of a decade was a relatively demanding production rate for an author who had additionally to write a fair quantity of journalism and who involved himself in the life of his young family.

Johnson’s novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) are rewarding and memorable novels, which are largely successful as literature. What stands out in these books is not so much the technical experimentation – which is often quite modest and to a degree peripheral to the overall experience of reading the novels – but the clarity of writing, the author’s intelligence and sensitivity, the memorable images and humour. The formal innovations do not distract from the substance of the novels. Other nouvelle roman novelists could be much more ambitious than Johnson, whose attachment to radical formalism was tempered by a desire to reach a mass audience.  Johnson wanted to have a readership comparable to that for the novels of James Joyce and the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett. Johnson was always ready to promote his books and to be interviewed. He frequently made suggestions to his publishers and agents about how to market his books. He wanted to be a respected novelist, earn a living from royalties and advances alone and also maintain intellectual credibility. That he managed to sustain all of these three to a degree (however erratically or uncertainly) is a measure of Johnson’s skill and tenacity. However, depressed by the death of his mother and marital difficulties and anxious about the relative commercial failure of his books and – most importantly – frustrated by the apparent dead-end he had reached in his literary work, Johnson took his own life in November 1973. His reputation ebbed over the following decades, with most of books out of print, and it was only with the republication of some of his novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Johnson reached a new generation. It seems unlikely that the revival of Johnson’s reputation will extend to his poetry. This minor revival was aided by an intelligent and sympathetic biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), by Jonathan Coe.

Zulfikar Ghose is less known to general British readers, though he was a highly regarded young poet in the 1960s, frequently anthologised and widely published. Many readers while approach this volume of correspondence knowing some of Johnson’s novels and perhaps nothing at all of Ghose’s writings. Ghose was born in Sialkot, India (later Pakistan) and moved to London in the late 1940s. He later read English at the Keele University. His poems were published from the late 1950s onwards and his first novel (The Contradictions) appeared in 1966. His writing style displays greater diversity than Johnson’s, ranging from formally experimental Modernism to more traditional narrative realism. Ghose has rejected the label as a diaspora or post-colonial writer, although some of his early subjects included topics related to his country of origin.

Ghose was more successful as a poet than Johnson was, though no jealousy is apparent in the correspondence. After earning a living as a teacher, Ghose was offered a position in the English department of the University of Texas at Austin, where he moved in 1969. He has been resident in Texas since then. Like Johnson, Ghose wrote sports journalism, including cricket reports for The Observer. He visited Brazil with his Brazilian wife and wrote three novels based on his experiences there (The Incredible Brazilian (1972-8)). His extensive literary friendships generated a large body of correspondence, some of which is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the British Library. His relocation to Texas has probably contributed to the decline of Ghose’s current profile in Britain.

Johnson and Ghose collaborated a number of times: first on Ghose’s university literary review, later on some pieces of journalism, a book of short stories (Statement Against Corpses (1964)), an unpublished book of social satire and some unrealised projects. Johnson and Ghose’s poetry was published together alongside the poems of Gavin Ewart in the Penguin Modern Poets series (1975). These projects form many of the subjects the pair discussed by letter.

One of the pleasures of this collection of correspondence is discovering Ghose as a writer. Any reader of Johnson’s novels and biography already knows his topics, prosodic rhythm and idioms, which are to be found in abundance in these letters. The biography has mined this correspondence so thoroughly that one recognises many passages word for word. What one discovers in Ghose’s letters is an opinionated and vigorous commentator on literature – especially of his time – who is struggling to make a living as a writer. The publication of this correspondence may stimulate Johnson fans to read Ghose’s books.

 

This collection consists of all surviving letters from Ghose to Johnson present in the Johnson archive at the British Library (donated by Johnson’s widow, Virginia) and letters from Johnson to Ghose present in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas (donated by Ghose). In addition to the letters and cards, there are poems by Johnson and Ghose about each other, a statement about Ghose’s writing by Johnson dating from 1967, Ghose’s memoir entitled “Bryan” (originally published in 1985) and an interview with Ghose by this volume’s editor (originally published in 2013). There are extensive indices.

The letters are organised chronologically. The first letter is from Ghose to Johnson, dated 6 March 1959. Johnson’s letters from January 1961 to late 1962 are missing. The letters divide roughly equally in terms of proportion per writer. Most were typed, with a number of postcards being handwritten. No item is reproduced in facsimile except the telegram of 17 November 1973 notifying Ghose of Johnson’s death, which concludes the correspondence.

The initial subject of letters is literary editing. Both Johnson and Ghose edited student journals and anthologies and exchanged opinions or asked for recommendation. Some names which come up will be familiar while others are of writers now forgotten. The pair wrote about literature in general. There is a mutual aversion to Movement writers, a distrust of Eliot’s verse drama and scepticism towards many of the big literary names of the era. Ghose grew to admire contemporary American writers while Johnson was most attached to Joyce and Beckett.

Johnson greatly admired Beckett and frequently described him as the greatest living writer. When he had the chance, he contacted Beckett and became a correspondent and friendly acquaintance, visiting Beckett when he was in Paris. It is interesting that no letters from Beckett to Johnson are included in the four volumes of Beckett letters, though there are letters to others recommending Johnson as a worthy recipient of literary awards and prizes. Johnson credited Beckett’s intervention as instrumental in getting Christie Malry published in America. Upon learning of Johnson’s death, Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell, Johnson’s agent.

Dear Michael

Thanks for yours of 14.

I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.

I have had a brief card from Virginia.

I missed T.C. in Paris.

It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.

Best always,

Sam[i]

(“T.C.” is “telephone call”, a reference to the fact that Johnson attempted (and failed) to contact Beckett by telephone several times in the days before his suicide.)

Johnson retained – and often seemed to nurture – a class-based resentment of successful middle-class writers. As the child of a working-class family, the first of his family to receive a university education, Johnson had the aspiration to be accepted by a literary class composed largely of middle-class writers and was quick to ascribe professional slights against him to class snobbery. Not that Johnson wasn’t a snob. He could be dismissive of people, books and social trends that did not conform with his views and his inflexibility on political and artistic matters seems very much the product of personal insecurity. Johnson simultaneously wanted to be accepted into a social set that he resented while experiencing a degree of guilt at his inevitable separation from his roots. One reason for Johnson’s idealisation of Wales, which he visited many times, must have been its apparent lack of class distinctions – not apparent to him at least.

Taking sides – even inventing sides if no clear distinction was visible – was a way of making social issues and art adversarial, a kind of moral dialectical football match between progressives and conservatives. It gave Johnson a purpose but it was an approach which inevitably isolated him and caused resentment among colleagues and people who potentially might have supported his writing. Johnson became belatedly politically involved when the Conservative party gained power in the general election of 1970. As a left-winger, he was ambivalent about Communism following visits to Eastern Bloc countries as part of cultural delegations. He found the systems of government oppressive and absurd but he admired the respect that literature was held in by the general public.

Johnson was resentful of the advantages graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had in the literary world and willing to bludgeon perceived enemies as relying on social ties to advance themselves beyond the levels their talents (or lack thereof) befitted them to. Ghose made few such comments. Ghose never mentions racial or religious prejudice in the letters, finding a lack of Oxfordian connections more of a hindrance than any resistance to his Pakistani heritage.

One of the most prominent characteristics of this correspondence is the humour. The writers shared a common mordant sense of humour and exchanged jokes and limericks they had encountered or invented. Upon learning that her husband would be receiving compensatory damages for libel, Virginia Johnson told him that she wanted to use the money to buy a freezer. “Freezer a jolly good fellow,” Johnson commented. On another occasion, school pupils were asked the meaning of “fructify”, to which one pupil muttered “Fructify I know”.

In the letters, the pair rate brands of typewriters (Olympia poor, Olivetti good) and pass on family news (they attended dinner parties at each other’s homes when they lived in London). There is relatively little literary gossip outside of tips and warnings regarding editors, publishers and agents that the pair dealt with professionally. Current affairs do not get much of a look in. Letters sent by Ghose from Brazil and India, and by Johnson from Paris, are richer in description and more informative about their daily lives than their usual letters.

We were almost killed in a car crash exactly a month ago in the wilderness of the state of Goias on our way back from Brasilia. We did the daft thing of going on a dirt road at night , were chased by a a lorry, misjudged a narrow wooden bridge, took it on two wheels and were going careering down into the river but were halted by a tree, which, saving us, made a concertina of the front of the car. I chipped a front tooth and that was all the personal damage.

Ghose to Johnson, 8 February 1967

Cars became a recurrent topic between them. They shared recommendations and comparisons of vehicles.

The main subject of their discussions is their writing. They exchanged newly written poems and stories and sent copies of books, expecting the other to comment honestly and constructively. Although they lived in London at the same time and met frequently, writing letters in privacy allowed them to set out clearly their responses to texts. Their comments are often technical, to do with metre or stress. Although many of the suggestions are minor, the writers did not shy away from criticising whole poems or books. The friendship relied upon candour and expertise depended on complete openness about the writer’s reservations regarding a piece of writing. Readers will often not have access to the poems analysed in these letters, though some poems are included in the body of the letters. Johnson’s novels are easily found, Ghose’s less so.

The pair were equally supportive and critical about each other’s writings, though generally in sympathy. Johnson was liable to be more dogmatic on literary questions.

Ghose’s savage criticism of Johnson’s script Whose Dog Are You Anyway? is a dispassionate dissection. The script was for an anti-clerical stage drama written by Johnson. The script was rejected and has never been performed complete, though extracts have been staged. Ghose’s comments bear quoting at length:

I did not like it. I thought the subject-matter merited a short essay but not a full-length play. It is certainly brave of you to try and write a play about a general idea and the play is probably new in this respect, having no story or character involvement; but such an attempt ought to be either wildly funny or devastatingly aggressive in its use of language, and it is neither; it ought to punch the audience in its stomach, but it does not do so. It is only mildly amusing, too often the humour seemed to be weak. At some points you say in your directions that the audience will laugh; I did not do so nor could imagine myself doing so given the performance. I noticed, too, that at one point you leave the actors to invent their own joke; I don’t trust that and it makes me suspect, maybe wrongly, that you couldn’t be bothered to invent one yourself. For I’ve never known you to leave the slightest detail to anyone else. […]

I don’t expect a PhD disputation, but I do expect lively writing and a really convincing refutation, a once-and-for-all balls to god. Instead the dialogue had a bored air about it, the feeling that we’ve-been-through-it-before; this may well be your intention, but to the theme of the play this situation is an important one and you should have dealt with it with fierce rhetoric. The argument is valid, but its statement is without force. […]

The whole thing is too loose. From the moment when the MC begins to talk about normal and abnormal to the Evangelist’s speeded up insanity, I get the impression that you’re not being tough enough with your language; and intellectually, it’s less than a satisfactory performance.

Ghose to Johnson, 19 July 1967

Johnson responded with a mixture of despondent acceptance and exculpatory defensiveness. To the comment about allowing actors to invent dialogue he replied: “You must accept that (a) actors will not do exactly as you intended”. This is an evasion Samuel Beckett would not have given a second’s consideration to. “The main thing that upset me was your pointing out that the language wasn’t up to my usual standards […]” He admitted he was bored by the writing and that “I don’t have the rhetoric it wants”, implying that the play was an ultimately futile endeavour, as subsequent commentators have agreed it to be. It is more than a little unfair that many readers – perhaps a majority – will be more familiar with an unpublished and unperformed minor play by Johnson than they will be with perhaps any published novel of Ghose’s.

As the correspondence reaches the early 1970s, Johnson’s frustration with the publishing world in general and his career in particular becomes evident.

Did you know they’ve turned down my SELECTED SHORTER PROSE? Irresponsible publishing, I called it, and he got very annoyed. They did not even bother to discuss the book with me – just turned it down.

Johnson to Ghose, 25 September 1970

I’ve just about surfaced after a long (well, four months) period of financial depression, which gave me other sorts of depression as well. I was cheated out of directing a film for which I’d done the script on the understanding I’d be seriously considered to direct it.

Johnson to Ghose, 31 October 1971

Increasingly concerned about supporting his family on his earnings from writing, Johnson considered returning to school teaching. Ghose attempted to arrange for Johnson to take a position of visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, a plan which fell through. We can witness Ghose’s concern for his friend and the equanimity with which he treated Johnson’s rare outbursts of rancour in these letters.

As for The Writing Centre of Great Britain, I shall be pleased to be made its head at £50,000 a year, since I am best qualified. But I shall give one lecture a year, if I think so, on a subject of my own choosing, to last no longer than three seconds. I’m a writer, not a teacher.

Johnson to Ghose, 13 June 1972

With (infallible) hindsight we can see Johnson’s accelerating slide towards the point of extinction. Yet Johnson’s jocose morbidity takes on a suicidal cast only in retrospect and there is much here that – had Johnson’s career taken a slightly different turn and had he lived longer – would seem no more severe than Larkin’s pessimistic rationalisations in his letters.

Readers will be left with the impression of a close bond of friendship and a frank exchange of intellectual ideas between two accomplished writers, serious about not only their craft but also their subjects.

3.

As a publication of literary correspondence, this volume has serious flaws.

The editing of the volume leaves a lot to be desired. Meaningless misspellings such as “libary” and “silverbich” are retained, as is “out [sic] magazine” instead of a silent correction to “our” or “[our]”. “BFI” is best altered to “BFI [British Film Institute]” or written as a footnote rather than the intrusive “B[ritish]F[ilm]I[nstitute]”. Famous figures are given footnotes but some obscure ones are missed. Some obvious and unimportant slips go unremarked upon while others merit footnotes or “[sic]” insertions. Readers will be puzzled to see authors’ handwritten notes made on typewritten letters printed as footnotes rather than as part of the main letter text itself. (Or included in the text – the editing is consistently inconsistent.)

This volume ought to have been either a reading edition (silent corrections or corrections in parenthesis) or a critical edition (transcribed verbatim). Instead, it is an awkward mixture. We don’t get the authors in a fluently readable form because we stumble across intrusive annotation; at the same time, we wonder about what might have been silently corrected. Annotations are inconsistent, sometimes being placed later in the text than the first appearance of that reference or abbreviation. Common abbreviations of titles of Johnson’s work go unaltered, expanded or subject to footnotes, apparently at random.

Every editor must decide his/her methodology dependent upon an assessment of whether the letters under consideration will be read sequentially or individually. It is reasonable – with a group as cohesive as this – that readers will read the Johnson-Ghose letters sequentially and subsequently consult letters in isolation while retaining some familiarity. The methodology should therefore have been formulated accordingly, which it has not been. What the exact methodology is is unclear. There is no editorial procedure described in this book. Contrast this with the exemplary methodologies in the Beckett and Hemingway volumes.

Aside from a flawed methodology – and the inconsistent application thereof – there are some obvious editorial errors. Residents of Ruthin, Denbighshire will be crestfallen to read of Johnson’s visit to “Ruthkin, Denbigshire” in the footnotes.

These matters could have been avoided had there been a firm hand on the editorial tiller – or a clearer and rationalised methodology – and the employment of a competent proof-reader. Do not take from these comments that the editing is terrible. It is not. It is adequate but illogical, suffering frequent lapses and has an unsettling inconsistency which gives the attentive reader a vague unease about what has been missed, omitted and silently changed. This is a common problem in editions of texts that fall between the reading edition and the critical edition. While the substance of the volume is of great interest and a satisfying read, it is not – despite the impression given by the commentary, annotation, indices and presentation – close to critical-edition standard.

Finally, the binding deserves comment. This collection of correspondence is a valuable source of information not only about the writers but British print journalism, poetry and author-agent-publisher relations in the period covered and as such will be a reference work consulted for many decades to come. The imprint is an academic one and care has been taken to make the volume as comprehensive as possible. This shows that the editor and publishers understand that the volume is intended as a lasting reference work. The book is priced highly, as academic books generally are. However, while the hardcovers and binding in cloth (a silky black cloth) are sturdy and attractive, the pages are perfect bound not signature bound. Perfect binding is much less durable than signature binding. Furthermore, perfect-bound pages are generally not repairable if the internal spine splits; signature-bound pages can easily be repaired and re-bound. For a reference work intended to last many decades (and priced commensurately), perfect binding is entirely inappropriate. It is a production decision made to cut costs, one that will disappoint purchasers.

Alexander Adams

19 January 2017

[i] Quoted by Alan Burns, “Two chapters from a book provisionally titled “Human Like the Rest of Us: A Life of B. S. Johnson”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997. Reproduced on www.bsjohnson.co.uk

Samuel Beckett: a man of letters

“There are few figures in modern literature as enigmatic as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). His dramas Waiting for Godot and Happy Days present characters in predicaments equally pitiful and grotesque. His novels such as Murphy, Watt and Malone Dies give internal monologues of characters trapped in webs of memory and doubt. These works are quintessential examples of existential literature, though they have been described as absurdist. He was famously resistant to exegesis and refused to explain what his writings ‘meant’, a stance which generated exasperation and admiration in equal measure from detractors and supporters. ‘I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them.’

“A collection of approximately 2,500 letters, postcards and telegrams fills the 3,500 pages of the recently completed four-volume set, The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, and later his estate, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those directly addressing his work. Yet it would be incorrect to say the selection neglects the personal because writing described and defined Beckett’s outlook on life. As readers of his novels notice, there is often an overlap between the fiction and the events in Beckett’s own life….”

Read the full review of Samuel Beckett’s letters in 4 volumes on Spiked, 16 January 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/samuel-beckett-a-man-of-letters/19206#.WHy8SPl_s5k

Book Review: Essential Bukowski

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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

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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/

Changes to Posthumously Published Poems by Charles Bukowski

bukowski-foto-24

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.

Robert Crawford: Young T.S. Eliot

The Waste Land has stimulated, perplexed and antagonised millions of readers since its appearance in 1922. A multilingual collage of myth and observation, composed with sections of verse both original and filched, this epic poem popularised literary modernism (even though it was not the first modernist poem). Using new sources, and with the freedom to quote the poet’s writings, Robert Crawford has combined biography and literary analysis, in Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, to illuminate one of the most complex and influential poems in the English language and assess its author, TS Eliot.

“The Eliot family were upper-class Unitarians from New England who moved to St Louis, Missouri, before the birth of Tom. Born in 1888, young Tom grew up in a bubble of Puritan gentility in the commercial bustle of a polluted Midwestern city. Long before Tom became an expatriate American in London, he had already lived his life as an outsider. While he was a Harvard student, Eliot toured London, Paris and Germany and found his passion for European culture deepening. In 1911, while in Munich, Eliot wrote his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, in which the protagonist is an indecisive onlooker of life, aware of his impotence and marginality as if ‘etherised upon a table’. He effectively captures the situation of a man hemmed in by moral and social inhibitions that prevent him from functioning. ‘Do I dare?’, he asks himself, to eat a peach or change my fashion.

“Crawford’s biography shows how Eliot’s life experiences and reading material were woven into the rich tapestry of The Waste Land and other poems…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 6 March 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/ts-eliot-among-the-bankers-and-bloomsberries/16744#.Vd-O__ldU5k