Thursday, September 25, 2008


Like most college age men, I used to read a lot of Charles Bukowski. Like most college age men who aspire to put some words to paper (or screen), Bukowski poisoned everything I wrote for the better part of too long. Like a lot of literature majors, I encountered many a professor dismissive of drunk ol’ Buk, citing the usual litany of accusations: sparse, unadorned and simplistic prose. No attention to meter, rhyme, form, structure or any of the elements associated with poetry, even so-called free verse. Stories were too personal and unbelievable. Too much writing about drinking, whoring, and gambling on horses. Undeserved arrogance on the part of the author and undeserved adulation on the part of his fans. (The reason that is usually not stated by the tweed and leather-patch gang is that Bukowski rejected so much of the turgid and passionless poetry they unwaveringly believe to be worthwhile.)

All this is true. Then again, worse accusations could be launched at these professors, many of which Bukowski unflatteringly referred to as “university boys” who played it safe and robbed poetry of truth, spark, excitement, and style—a thing Bukowski argued was the most essential quality in writing. And, like it or not, Bukowski had style to burn. He seemingly did so night after night in front of a typewriter with a bottle and classical music on the radio and cats at his feet. The result was a series of novels that only seemed to get better as the years progressed (his last novel, Pulp, is maybe his finest achievement), stories that ranged from fair to amazing to hilarious to bizarre, and poems, poems, poems. Bukwoski produced an amazing amount of poetry in his lifetime. Sadly, the best of this was also published in his lifetime and the posthumous collections that appear on bookshelves with odd regularity don’t really inspire this reader to go back to Buk. The average Bukowski poem is usually either a confessional (to use a poor term and not to lump him in with Sylvia Plath) bit of odd anecdote, a tribute to a dead writer/composer/painter, a quasi-love poem, or, later in his career, a sad meditation on death (his own and ours). Those are the average poems. The above average, even extraordinary, poems are so much more. They may contain flashes of the before mentioned qualities, but they are elevated by that same style on which Hank was so fixated. It’s difficult to describe what separates the average Buk poem from the superb material, but, like the congressional definition of pornography, I know it when I see it.

Black Sparrow Press closed it’s doors a while back and let Ecco have the Bukowski material for reprint, and while they also appear to have the rights to the unpublished works, the latest release from this long dead writer came out on City Lights (who also published three of Bukowski’s older collections). For whatever retarded reason I was happy to see City Lights put out the new Bukowski collection. I even bought it. This book, Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook, is unlike the other posthumous works in as much as it is a collection of early stories and essays (not something often seen in other books). I’ve only just read the introduction and the first story, both of which got me a bit nostalgic about Hank and skipping class and drinking beer on the early morning beach and thinking, “this is the life, this is what it’s all about.” Ah, was I ever that young?