“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.
In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure, providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.
Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.
Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.
Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject. Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ – Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
I spent my formative years reading the works of Sylvia Plath, convinced that there was no one in the world that could topple that high priestess of verse from her throne of poetic supremacy. Until, that is, I discovered Anne Sexton. I was awestruck and startled by her words, her choice of subject matter and its reverberating resonance, by her ability to deploy metaphorical structures at once synthetic and analytical, her unerring descriptive powers, extemporaneous wit and muscular rhythms. Her poetry, antithetical to that of the previous generation, was often characterised by multiplicity and simplicity, the sacred and the profane as she strived to illuminate the uttermost struggle of human experience. And there is little doubt that Sexton shone an edifying light on human nature from the beginning of her career until her death which she “wanted so badly and for so long”.
On October 4th 1974, Anne Sexton had lunch with friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin to revise her manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon her return home she donned her mother’s vintage fur coat, poured herself a large vodka, locked herself in the garage and ignited her car engine thus committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. And just like that, the woman who’d been courting death for the last three decades had finally seized it. Martin Heidegger once said that human beings live toward and for death; this could not have been more true of Sexton. Her work canonised the connection between extremist art and suicide as a form of poetic destiny, most notably in Her Kind where she asserts that a woman like herself “is not afraid to die”. Similarly, Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn ends with the line “there is no safe place,” a belief which haunted her throughout her life, and in Wanting to Die the poetess admits that even when she has “nothing against life” the “almost unnameable lust returns” because despite all reason “to die whole/riddled with nothing/ but desire for it/is like breakfast/ after love”.
It is difficult to write of her posthumous royal shadow, her imprecating confrontations, her insolent righteousness and the reflective truths she exposed by breaking boundaries and violating taboos. The largely critical response to her poetry stems, in part, from the fact that she wrote about the unspeakable – death, suicide, sexual anxiety, madness, familial wounds, adultery, lust – discarding her well-bred prudence in favour of candour and a personal, prejudiced and plaintive manner, thereby carving herself out a role as the creatrix of the confessional. In turn, she was often rebuked for the intensity of her artistic preoccupation with the self and her unashamedly self-reflective, auto-referential rodomontade innate in her linguistic identity. But while many find these qualities inherently repellent, I think they constitute the virtues of her craft. Though often disparaged, Sexton managed to maintain an admirably impervious disposition toward the critic, highlighted quite auspiciously in Alan Dugan’s poem called Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton when the poetess declares with hardened conviction: “I don’t care what you think,” an attitude which Sexton seemed to have maintain throughout her career.
But it was her poetry that was her real strength, a calling, and one she saw as her vocation, once saying in an interview: “When I’m writing, I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” Her concentration on human relationships produced masterly, virile portraits of those who’d crossed her path. Her take on love and all its particulars comprises some of my favourite works, as well as those poems about and to her lovers, including Admonitions to a Special Person where she declares that, “to love another is something/like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall/ into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief,” before warning that special someone to “watch out for intellect/ because it knows so much it knows nothing/and leaves you hanging upside down,/mouthing knowledge as your heart/falls out of your mouth.” And the ever-so-brilliant For My Lover Returning to His Wife where she bids her paramour to go back to his connubial stead saying: “I give you back your heart/ I give you permission” after all “I have been momentary/She is more than that” for “she is the sum of yourself and your dream/ Climb her like a monument/ step after step/She is solid/ As for me, I am a watercolour/I wash off.” And one of my all-time favourite openings, in The Kiss which commences with a masterfully vivid illustration of emotional emptiness when she says:“My mouth blooms like a cut/ I’ve been wronged all year, tedious/nights, nothing but rough elbows in them/and delicate boxes of Kleenex calling crybaby/crybaby, you fool!”
Sexton exercised not only formidable control in her work but also a remarkable visceral fortitude. Although her style and approach shifted, she continued to deal with the subjects that had concerned her from the start: personal transformations from wife to poet, from sanity to madness, from love to loss, from life to death. Her knack for autology remains in principal unmatched. Prompted to write by her long-term psychiatrist, Dr Martin Orne, she sought to make her art a salvation, an exercise which was only in part a success as her work attests to the continuous backslides from struggles with destruction to affirmation of life. In As It Was Written she expresses a deep cynicism when she says, “all in all, I’d say/ the world is strangling/ And I, in my bed each night/ listen to my twenty shoes/converse about it/And the moon/ under its dark hood/ falls out of the sky each night/ with its hungry red mouth/ to suck at my scars.” This fatalistic attitude is later supplanted by a sense of contented acceptance in The Truth the Dead Know when the poetess exclaims: “My darling, the wind falls in like stones/ from the whitehearted water and when we touch/ we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone/Men kill for this, or for as much.” But then the foreboding returns in Despair when Sexton once again begins to question the purpose of life, asking is it “The love that goes down the drain like spit?/The love that said forever, forever/ and then runs you over like a truck?” before addressing Despair itself by saying: “I don’t like you very well/You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes/ Why do you locate here/ as large as a tank/aiming at one half of a lifetime?” And again in All My Pretty Ones a poem about her father whom she forgives all his wrongs in the closing lines, “Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you/ bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you,” yet later she renegades on that forgiveness. The backward and forward shift and the presence of vacillation is a continuous theme in Sexton’s work. And while hope is never far away neither is hopelessness.
The extent to which Anne Sexton connected art and self-destruction may have been symptomatic of her illness and later her addiction to pills and alcohol. For all her efforts to purge her innermost demons, her anger remained turned inward albeit she fought against it with spectacular might. Her work dares to defy convention and carries the capacity to linger in the reader’s memory with a complex unease. It makes for difficult, sometimes uncomfortable reading but it also demands to be read. And as I sit here, over three decades after her death, contemplating her work, I realise that Sexton was an embodiment of something that’s in all of us, a reminder that while we can change, a part of us never does. But beyond that, I will always think of her as a “walking miracle” in her elegant shift dress, her smouldering aristocratic face framed by a shag of liberated hair, reading her verses in her coarse patrician burr, pausing to take a drag on her cigarette before exclaiming: “A woman who writes feels too much.” I have been her kind.