Are we still talking about THAT Charles Bukowski, the one who lived in LA and wrote and did many of the things described last year in The New York Times?
"... his nearly constant drunkenness; his bar-fights; his arrests; his whoring; his volcanic feuds with editors, friends and the women who dared take up with him; his liquor-induced hemorrhages and vomiting spells and apartment-smashing rampages ..."
In the week since I wrote about Bukowski's influence on the LA Literary scene, I've begun to wonder if I might be thinking of a different writer than the one who lived in the East Hollywood bungalow that's on its way through the city's hoops of preservation.
The Los Angeles Times provided scant detail in its endorsement Saturday of the local effort to preserve 5124 De Longpre Ave, a squat stucco bungalow that the late author and poet once rented. The editorial referenced a "hard-knock life," a "hard life," and "grit," but nothing that approached the sureness of Bukowski's aim when throwing a radio through a window.
It's what was left out that ought to bother Bukowski's admirers and critics alike.
If indeed the bungalow is the last of the rented residences left standing, then why not wonder aloud whether Bukowski might have helped knock the others down one booze-sodden punch at a time? It's no stretch to suggest that, if those walls could talk, they'd either stutter like a traumatized crime victim, or get up in your face and spit something like: "Bring it on you ugly mother!"
THAT was Bukowski, not this clever, sentimental adaptation that almost makes him sound like a prolific writer who enjoyed the company of women, got in a tussle now and then, and consumed more than two glasses of wine at fireside each evening.
I'm not talking about factual inaccuracies, although there has been one of those. Bukowski is not LA's "native son," as described by the preservation effort blog, which used the term in a form letter to the Cultural Heritage Commission. He was born in Germany.
This is about communicating the essence of an artist.
For example, the LA Times editorial was factually accurate, but the poem it chose to quote — Crucifix in a Deathhand" — was about as typical of Bukowski's work as "High Hopes" was of Frank Sinatra's career.
"Crucifix" is safe, almost lacy, and Bukowski was neither of those.
If we must engage in this search for approval from beyond the grave, then why not quote from "The Tragedy of the Leaves," which appeared on page 15 of "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame" in 1983?
"... and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent
because the world had failed us
Why not pull a couple lines from "Old Man, Dead in a Room," which first appeared in the small magazine "The Outsider" in 1961?
"... and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
nor the treasure
of my escape."
Even the elementary lines of "B as in Bullshit," which was first published in the New York Quarterly in 1989, offers a better sense of what Bukowski might think of all this:
"B able to love
B able to feel superior
B able to understand that too much education is a fart in the dark
B able to dislike poets and poetry
B able to understand that the rich can be poor in spirit
B able to understand that the poor live better than the rich
B able to understand that shit is necessary
B aware that in every life a little bit of shit must fall
B aware that a hell of a lot more shit falls on some more than on others
B aware that many dumb bastards crawl the earth ..."
Bukowski was hard bits and sharp pieces, not just the few tender lines that seem to have become popular in the effort to court bureaucrats and politicians.
Bukowski was a writer, but not one of these bespectacled ones (I am bespectacled, so save the hate mail). There were no cream-colored suits in Bukowski's wardrobe; no Panama hats either, at least none that we shouldn't expect to have been ringed in sweat and dulled by road dirt and dried blood.
Bukowski told it like it was, but his truth was a writer's truth, something completely different from its distant cousin, journalistic fact. Bukowski's work was a reflection on and of the experiences he lived. As for what he thought outside the margins, there's plenty of accounts online that illustrate his notorious brashness, such as how he would sometimes hector the audience at his readings.
Bukowski was incendiary, given to outrageousness, like the time he was "caught on film, drunk, praising Idi Amin and Hitler." At one point in his life he "supported himself writing for skin magazines like 'Hustler' with humorous and very cynical pieces such as the provocatively entitled Western-spoof 'Stop Staring at My Tites, Mister...'"
Many people might find Bukowski's life shameful. Others will see it as typical of an artistic temperament and worthy of forgiveness. Regardless, the greatest shame of all would be for anyone to conveniently omit or curtail the most vibrant parts of his life in an attempt to honor it. Salute him, or spurn him, but make it clear that we're talking about that most rare of individuals, THAT Bukowski.
Remember, as he wrote:
"... there'll always be money and whores and drunkards
down to the last bomb,
but as God said,
crossing his legs,
I see where I have made plenty of poets
but not so very much
— "To The Whore Who Took My Poems," By Charles Bukowski, "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame" (1983)