The Hardest Work Imaginable: Bukowski's Wine-Stained Notebook

Fear, one must understand, is the lubricant that keeps the wheels of human progress greased. Charles Bukowski understood this concept all too well.

Did George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, preside over a nation motivated by fear, or was he an agent of fear? Many critics and social historians would opt for the latter, citing a long list of actions taken by the Bush administration that were packaged in bunting laced with fear: Osama Bin Laden, the terror mastermind behind 9/11, was hiding in Afghanistan so combat troops were needed to ferret him out and oust the theocratic Taliban from power in the process. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, a supporter of worldwide terror, was engaging in ethnic cleansing in Iraq and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; once again, it was imperative to throw tanks and guns and troops at the problem.

“Shock and awe” it was called, from the military doctrine authored by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, the use of overwhelming power, dominant battlefield awareness, dominant maneuvers and spectacular displays of force to scare the living crap out of the enemy and destroy their willingness to fight. In a word: fear.

More recently, when the bubble finally burst on the so-called “ownership society”, George W. Bush and his Federal Reserve and US Treasury stooges urgently pushed for a multi-billion dollar bailout of ailing US financial institutions to avoid wide scale bank failures, even more home foreclosures, the dissolution of Social Security and Medicare, a return to bread and soup lines and, presumably, riots in the streets, martial law, and the inevitable reunion of Tony Orlando and Dawn to soothe our frayed nerves.

On the surface of it, all of the above may seem like dark Karl Rove-inspired fear mongering to provoke a desired response but fear, one must understand, is the lubricant that keeps the wheels of human progress greased. Charles Bukowski understood this concept all too well.

In 1944, at the age of 24, young Bukowski found himself far from his beloved Los Angeles. His aimless wanderings from one common labor job to another (humorously chronicled in the 1975 novel Factotum) took the aspiring writer to New York City where he “found a job, reluctantly, as a stock boy or something for a distributing house of magazines and books.” When the foreman discovered that his new hire had been published in the latest issue of Whit Burnett’s acclaimed fiction anthology, Story, Bukowski was immediately promoted to foreman.

“I wasn’t a very good foreman,” Bukowski recalls in the 1971 essay Dirty Old Man Confesses. “I’d come in drunk and goose the workers with hammer handles while they were nailing their crates shut. But they liked me. Which was wrong – a good foreman is a man you fear. The entire world functions on fear.”

Dirty Old Man Confesses is one of 36 previously uncollected works from perhaps the most infamous and provocative American writer of the 20th century. Many of the stories and essays collected in Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook, masterfully curated and edited by David Stephen Calonne, seem designed to counteract the public myth of Bukowski as a drunken, hedonistic, marginally talented Bard of the dispossessed who despised the 9 to 5 ethos (he condemned it as “toil without meaning”) and to underscore the writer’s contempt toward a culture that “will admire a man for his way of life rather than what he produces.”

“I have created the eternal drunk image somewhere in my work,” Bukowski laments in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, “and there is a minor reality behind it. Yet, I feel that my work has said other things. But only the eternal drunk seems to come through.”

In Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook, the most important contribution to Bukowski studies to date, the image of the eternal drunk may not be exactly laid to rest, but a new blood-swollen, multi-dimensional creature arises from these pages. It's a sensitive, tortured, “vulnerable man of genius trapped in a small room with a typewriter”, a fiery provocateur for social change, a profoundly serious producer and defender of poetry, a passionate spokesman for “the defeated but still hopeful” dwelling in the lower depths of America (though he would never claim to speak for anyone but himself), an intense lover of classical music and the possessed madmen who created it, and a keen-eyed, hard-bitten naturalist essaying the hardscrabble existence of a writer (“The life of a writer is unbearable … starving writers live worse than skid row bums”) and the harsh desperation of life on the margins of Los Angeles.

Bukowski believed that pride “has no right in things upright and mechanical”, that primal feeling trumped intellect in any race of the body or mind, and that a thousand scarlet sunsets bleeding into the Pacific Ocean were no match for a woman’s beauty. But beauty, Bukowski instructs, “would not be beautiful without flaws.”

Stigmata and Mozart

“Bukowski’s art is dedicated to revealing his own bloody stigmata,” writes Stephen Calonne in the scholarly introduction to Portions, “to dramatizing himself (often humorously) as sacrificial victim in simple, direct, raw hammered language free of pretense and affectation.”

Henry Charles Bukowski’s troubled upbringing, his “bloody stigmata”, is memorably captured in the fan favorite novel Ham on Rye (1982), but the traumas of his youth remained a subject of constant angry and bewildered reflection in a great deal of his poems, fiction, and personal musings, represented in this outstanding collection in at least four essays. From Dirty Old Man Confesses (October 1971):

I was born a bastard – that is, out of wedlock – in Andernach, Germany, August 16, 1920. My father was an American soldier with the army of occupation; my mother was a dumb German wench. I was brought to the United States at the age of two – Baltimore first, then Los Angeles, where most of my youth was wasted and where I live today.

My father was a brutal and cowardly man who continually whipped me with a razor strap for the slightest reasons, often invented. My mother was in sympathy with his treatment of me. “Children should be seen and not heard” was my father’s favorite expression … I never spoke except to say yes or no. After the age of five or six, I stopped crying when I was beaten. I hated the man so much that my only revenge upon him was not to cry, which made him beat me harder. The tears would come but they were silent tears. The beatings were always in the bathroom – I guess because the razor strap was there. And when he was finished he would say, “Go to your room.”

I was in the Underground early.

Young Bukowski grew to be a six foot tall man, and other monsters would replac his father. After maturity he “bummed the country at random, back and forth, up and down, in and out”, briefly attending Los Angeles City College to study Journalism and English, and losing his virginity at the age of 23 to a woman he described as “a 300 pound whore”.

Exempted from service in World War II for “Failing to Meet Medical Standards” after a physical and psychological evaluation, Bukowski roamed about the country, working in the Southern Pacific Railroad yards, tool warehouses, department stores, various janitorial and grunt jobs, but he always returned to Los Angeles, “living in a falling down court just off the poor man’s Sunset Strip” for many long, despairing years:

There is a whole section of people down there who live on air and hope and empty returnable bottles and the grace of their brothers and sisters. They live in small rooms, always behind in the rent, dreaming of the next bottle of wine, the next free drink in the bar. They starve, go mad, are murdered and mutilated. Until you live and drink among these you will never know the abandoned people of America. They are abandoned and they have abandoned themselves.” -- "The L.A. Scene"

In March 1952, Charles “Hank” Bukowski was accepted as an Indefinite Substitute Carrier for the United States Postal Service in Los Angeles; he was promoted to Distribution Clerk in March 1959, a position he would hold until January 1970. During all that time, the war years and the post-war prosperity, Bukowski had been writing, writing, writing, a scribe in search of a voice. After the 1944 publication of "Aftermath of a Rejection Slip" in Story (the same published effort that resulted in his promotion from stock boy to foreman, reproduced in Portions), he sold the dark and brooding short story ”20 Tanks From Kasseldown" to Portfolio III in 1946 (also included in this collection) and his first series of poems were published in Matrix the same year.

Legend has it that after the sale of "20 Tanks" to Portfolio in 1946, Bukowski stopped writing for ten years, a myth promoted by the author himself in interviews and reinforced on the dust jacket to The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories (City Lights Publishers, 2001). Well, legends and bibliographies must now be revised because one of the previously uncollected treasures in this collection is a stirring short story, "Hard Without Music", a tale of a typical Bukowski down-and-outer named Larry (he had yet to create his “Hank Chinaski” alter-ego) who is forced to sell his vast collection of classical music recordings to two nuns. Larry, “feeling suddenly old and worldly” is compelled to share with the nuns what the music means to him:

Good music crept up on me. I don’t know how. But suddenly, there it was, and I was a young man in San Francisco spending whatever money I could get feeding symphonies to the hungry inside’s of my landlady’s wooden, man-high victrola. I think those were the nest days of them all, being very young and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge from my window. Almost every day I discovered a new symphony … I selected my albums pretty much by chance, being too nervous and uncomfortable to understand them in the glass partitions of the somehow clinical music shops … There are moments, I have found, when a piece, after previous listenings that were sterile and dry … I have found that a moment comes when the piece at last unfolds itself fully to the mind. - Hard Without Music"

"Hard Without Music" was published in a special Spring-Summer issue of Matrix in 1948 and the early appearance of this previously uncollected work of fiction probably represents the very first of many Bukowski pieces to come that would dwell on his love of classical music. Editor Calonne notes: “Bukowski composed a wide array of poems which are either direct homages to great composers or make references to their lives and works including Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Chopin, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Vivaldi, and Wagner.”

A New Poetic Concept Born of Blood

In 1955, at the age of 35, Bukowski was rushed to the charity ward of the Los Angeles County hospital, hemorrhaging at the bright red climax to a ten-year drinking bout. He was “dying, hemorrhaging out of my mouth and ass continually … all that cheap wine and hard living coming through and out – fountains of blood.”

Bukowski’s experience in the cold-hearted, bureaucratic charity ward, the dumping ground for the Underground, would inexorably begin the alteration of his life’s path, if indeed it can be said that he was following a well-charted path to begin with. Observing the walking wounded in the hospital, Calonne explains, drawing on Bukowski’s own account in "Life and Death in the Charity Ward" from The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, imbued him with the burning question of “why the official, safe, Establishment literature of the ages had so often been silent about those in the most pain: the victimized, the poor, the mad, the unemployed, the skid row bums, the alcoholics, the misfits, the abused children, the working class. His poetic world, like Samuel Beckett’s, (would become) the world of the dispossessed, ‘the thin, proud, dying,’ and he defined himself as a poetic outlaw; there can be no safety in a life lived in extremis at the edges of madness and death.”

After receiving 13 pints of blood and glucose at the charity ward, Bukowski embarked on a new life: “I found a place on Kingsley Drive, got a job driving a truck and bought an old typewriter. And each night after work I’d get drunk. I wouldn’t eat, just knock out eight or ten poems … I was writing poems but I didn’t know why.”

The market Bukowski focused on was the newly-emerging “little magazines”, which he considered “a much finer stomping ground for the little bit of good and realistic writing” that was being done.

I wrote more poems, changed jobs and women … and then they began to pick up on me. Little chapbooks of poems appeared: Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, Run with the Hunted, Pomes for Broken Players. My style was very simple and I said whatever I wanted to. The books sold out right away. I was understood by Kansas City whores and Harvard professors. Who knows more? … I was the new poetic concept – far from the educated and careful poesy – I laid it down raw. Some hated it, others loved it. I couldn’t be bothered. I just drank more and wrote more poems. My typewriter was my machine gun and it was loaded. -- "Dirty Old Man Confesses"

With the exception of the title piece, which is a unique hybrid of journalism and poetic verse, Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook does not contain any previously uncollected poetry. There is, however, an ample abundance of essays on the topic of poetry, a subject that Bukowski could orate upon with the fire and epic pomposity of a Southern Baptist minister on Sunday morning.

“It’s like the old weather gag,” Bukowski writes in "A Rambling Essay on Poetics and the Bleeding Life Written While Drinking a Six Pack (Tall)", “everybody talks about poetry but nobody can do anything about it.”

Many American readers, schooled in traditional form, have great trouble with Bukowski’s almost formless poetry (“prose with line breaks” is the most commonly-heard complaint), despite the fact that there are over 40 volumes of his poems available in the market, which means, by most reasonable standards, that the old man must have been doing something right. After all, Kellogg’s would cease production of Corn Flakes if consumers stopped placing the hearty cereal on their breakfast tables and Ecco (an imprint of publishing conglomerate Harper Collins) would’ve long ago ceased publication of books like Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 if there wasn’t an audience hungry for the product.

In the 1966 essay "In Defense of A Certain Type of Poetry, A Certain Type of Life, A Certain Type of Blood-Filled Creature Who Will Someday Die", Bukowski railed against Establishment poetry for “talking about useless things with great subtlety. A dirty dull little game. Most of our bad and acceptable poetry is written by English professors of state-supported, rich-supported, industry-supported universities.”

It was the gatekeepers, “the artistically intelligent who have fallen into money and position”, that the poet most resented. Bukowski believed that poetry, to remain true and pure, had to be freed from shackles and restraints, like other art forms that constantly evolve (painting and architecture immediately spring to mind). It was the common man, he proselytized, who was capable of creating the most honest poetry: “Our days in the jails and madhouses and flophouses have let us know more (about) where the sun comes up than from than any workable knowledge of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley.”

In the title essay, Bukowski ponders further with a fair measure of self-deprecation: “When I have a poem accepted by a magazine that prints so-called quality poetry, I ask myself where I have failed. Poetry must continually move out of itself, away from shadows and reflections. The reason so much bad poetry is written is that it is written as poetry instead of concept. And the reason the public doesn’t understand poetry is that there is nothing to understand, and the reason that most poets write it is that they think they understand. Nothing is to be understood or ‘regained’. It is simply to be written. By someone. Sometime. And not too often.”

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