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Tag: Bukowski Poetry

David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

“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
ISBN: 9781780230238


Seminal Lines

“The best often die by their own hand
Just to get away,
And those left behind
Can never quite understand
Why anybody
Would ever want to
Get away

Cause and Effect – Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski: “There’s a bluebird in my heart”

Having spent most of the morning trying to fend off an incredible hangover and a mounting sense of loneliness I picked up The Pleasures of the Damned and headed down to Hyde Park. Sat on a bench, the book in my lap, I watched orgiastic crowds partake in various forms of revelry.  In a bid to discourage anyone from invading my solitude I stretched myself out to the length of the seat,  flipped the book open and began to read, my eyes darting from poem to poem, each incomparable yet sibling to the next in theme and tone and matter. Each one dashed off, no doubt, in haste in between bouts of drinking, longing, loathing and fucking in his shabby one-room Hollywood apartment. It is incredible to think that Bukowski spent his life imbibing rotgut beer and actually managed to write but he once confessed he’d never “written a poem sober”. Perhaps daunted by the prospect he preferred to write while recklessly inebriated or “under the hammer of a black hangover,” unsure “whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing”.  It was usually another drink.  Bukowski began the lifelong habit in the late 1930s “during the last semester of the school year” and carried on throughout his life.

Sitting sedately in the depressingly bright midday sun I turned the pages to a poem called For Jane – a paean to Jane Cooney Baker, Bukwoski’s lover of 10 years who died when he was 38. Addressing her he says: “When you left you took almost everything,” and yet the “hours of love” spent together “still make shadows” impinging on the present. Writing about her later in his novel Women Bukowski simply said: “I had been in love only once. She had died of acute alcoholism.” The other two poems written in Baker’s honour appear simple yet sting you like a sudden throng in the bicuspid. It takes a very argute kind of simple to make that sort of impact. In For Jane: With All the Love I Had Bukowski explores grief by inciting “all the gods” to give her back to him before concluding “they will not”. While in Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame he reminisces, saying: “You’ve been dead/28 years/yet I remember you/better than any of/the rest.” The sense of sadness in these works pulsates through every beat, besmirching Bukowski’s belief that what he prized most “could never die/in the common variety of dying”.

There are many reasons why I love Bukowski, but perhaps the most pertinent one is that he had the knack of a thaumaturge to express the variegation of every emotion effortlessly. There has been a lot of contention about his writing credentials throughout the years, his tawdry gutter-friendly scribe and carefree vitriolic disregard of the literary establishment. Bukowski was adamant, however, that the bombastic marmots expectorating their elitist catechisms never bothered him and in a poem entitled “Scene from 1940”, says “praise was the only thing I couldn’t handle.” Notoriously self-deprecating and acutely conscious of his own shortcomings he once noted: “It takes a lot of desperation, dissatisfaction and disillusion to write.” Bukowski had all three in abundance – a result of a turbulent childhood spent in the shadow of an iconoclastic heavy-drinking father, his own dependence on alcohol, physical self-disgust fuelled by a severe case of acne vulgaris and a sense of alienation in the “wasted landscape” of middle class America. Bukowski chose his subjects accordingly and filled his poetry and prose with “saints, heroes, beggars, madmen…banality and booze”. He documents his fatidic disenchantment with modern day life in “Putrefaction”, asserting that “We have/More than ever/The selfish wants of power/The disregard for the/Weak/The old/The impoverished/The helpless” and have become so benumbed “We can’t even cry”, as well as in The Genius of the Crowd (There is enough treachery, hatred/Violence/ Absurdity in the average human being/ To supply any given army on any given day), and in Hug the Dark when the poet declares with a fixed conviction: “There is no god/There are no politics/There is no peace/There is no love/There is no control/There is no plan/Stay away from god/Remain disturbed/Slide.”

And for his part, Bukowski always did slide from one bar to another, from love to lust, from job to job, boozing, fighting, gambling and collecting rejection slips from numerous publishers. In his 20s he wrote a great number of short stories, one of which was published in Story Magazine. Nevertheless, Bukowski became increasingly disheartened and consoled himself with thoughts of suicide – a theme which features heavily throughout his work, as do his other lifelong fascinations conveyed in scabrous odes to nocturnal Hollywood and its characters, masturbation, whores, brawls, isolation and beer. Albeit the poetry came later, the themes remained the same – “the pleasures of the damned” and their “brief moments of happiness”.  In this collection Bukowski invites the reader into his world by saying “Welcome to my wormy hell” and keeps him captive, immersed in the poems which he himself describes as “as bits of scratchings/on the floor of a/cage”. Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that there must always “be a man behind the book”.  Bukowski made himself an open one and thus whatever happened to Bukowski – love, sex, heartbreak, impotence or flatulence – inevitably snaked its way into his work.

This particular collection, which heaps together four decades worth of toil, contains the poems of senescent resignation as well as those written in the throes of life, in constupration  of whores and liquor bottles. The former is best captured in this snapshot from It Is Not Much when Bukowski exclaims: “I suppose like others/I have come through fire and sword/Love gone wrong/Head-on crashes/Drunk at sea/And I have listened to the simple sound of water running/In tubs/And wished to die,” fought against it only to realise that “Some god pissed a rain of reason/To make things grow/Only to die.” Near the end of his life many poems revolved around the theme of mortality. Bukwoski ruminates over the subject saying “It bothers the young most, I think/An unviolent slow death,” while the idea of it makes the old consolable, accepting. Many of his poems are pessimistic, sardonic in tone, but resolute in extracting most of what life has to offer before “death gets as close as any love has”. The poems also emphasize the puissance of catharsis, its place in literature and the ability it has to redeem even the most sordid, second-rate life. Bukowski’s observations range from the shallow to the etiological in almost one sweep as he talks about the makings of true friendship before relaying the debauchery of yielding, blue-eyed odalisques.  And yet there’s something truly heart-wrenching when he notes: “I’ve always said/If you want to know who your friends are/Go to a madhouse/Or jail/And if you want to find out where love is not/Be a perpetual/Loser.” Perhaps because he really knew what he was talking about.

The self proclaimed “dirty old man” was driven by some divine eleutheromania, a need to break from the cultural and social status quo, elitist attitudes in art and academia and the capitalistic conventions of booming 1960s America. In doing so he often and unashamedly depicted himself as a congenital loser trapped in a dead end job pinpointing the oppressiveness of the workplace and thereby contradicting all the antecedent, romantic notions of the American Dream. Before walking out on his one and only long-term job with the US Post Office, Bukowski weighed up his options by saying: “I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy . . . or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” Despite his reputation as a proto-slacker, Bukowski was a working man, an underclass one, with sweat on his brow and calluses on his hands, who obdurately laboured at his typewriter and never lost the drive.  That’s not to say he didn’t toil in uncertainty. He opens One More Good One for example by saying: “To be writing poetry at the age of 50/Like a schoolboy/Surely I must be crazy.” And that he was, but not where writing was concerned – his body of work is testament to that. Bukowski was the genuine article, a visionary, a complicated man engrossed in simple pursuits interspersed with “working stiff” for eight hours straight in front of the typewriter.  Thus when a man like that implores you to read what he’s written and “then forget it all” I personally know there’s no chance because “there’s a bluebird in my heart” and I don’t think he’d go for that.

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