Everybody comes to Charles Bukowski in their own way. In my life, it has been in two, distinct phases. The first was during my senior year of college when I was working at a campus bar and became friends with Thom, an ex-con, whose hardscrabble life seemed almost romantic compared to what I had known up to that point. He gave me a copy of Post Office (1971), which I devoured, my eyes opened to a style of writing I hadn’t before experienced. That phase of my life was dominated by Bukowski’s fiction, like Women (1978), and collections of letters like Reach for the Sun (1999).
In my late 30s, I came back to Bukowski in a wholly different way, and this time it was his poetry that captured me. My re-introduction came by way of finally reading the man who had changed Bukowski’s life, and had given him the emotional courage to write honestly about Los Angeles: John Fante. After I read Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939), Bukowski’s poetry finally made sense to me and I became mesmerized with his output, which seemed to go on forever.
For every fan of Bukowski, there are ten people who claim that he represents all that is wrong in society. But I have to think that if he were alive today, his work would not be nearly as popular as it has become since his death in 1994, now immortalized in volume after volume of material that continues to be published posthumously. But unlike anthologies, which tend to recycle greatest hits with a few surprises, Bukowski-related output has tended to focus on previously unpublished or uncollected works. His output over half a century was so tremendous that scholars and editors continue to find works of his that have never been published or received such limited visibility that they are basically unknown.
Enter Bukowski expert Abel DeBritto, author of Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground. In collaboration with Ecco, DeBritto has compiled three volumes of specialized Bukowski poetry and free verse that have been published over the last year: On Writing (2015), On Cats (2015), and On Love (2016). There’s a huge market now for Bukowski who, like Frank Zappa, was so prolific to be almost unapproachable, but for whom there are enough fans, from the casual to the academic, to warrant a constant stream of media content.
But all Bukowski is not good Bukowski, a criticism that he internalized and mentioned in much of his work. His voice and style swung wildly over his lifetime, and collections varied considerably in quality depending on the whims of editors. The People Look Like Flowers at Last (2007) is exponentially better than Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981), but is this a function of the poet, or is it the press?
I had the chance to review the DeBritto-edited On Cats and On Love and both volumes build on the ever-expanding market by allowing any type of reader to get a foothold into the Bukowski psyche through focused subject matter. Is it a worthwhile trip?
First, DeBritto succeeds by including selections chronologically, and it’s quite beautiful to see Bukowski grow as a poet. “Hank” was no stranger to self-mockery and self-deprecation, especially on the topic of old age, and his references to his own age, as well as certain years, provide unexpected runes along this lyrical hike. Second, there’s an emphasis not only on previously unpublished Bukowski, but also poems, excerpts from letters, and free verse that were previously uncollected. This makes both volumes valuable in a unique way.
This, however, is where the comparisons end. On Cats is a transparently-sad attempt at appealing to the cat-crazy global market, which will buy damn near anything cat-related, including a collection of average poems. To add insult to injury, this book was about 120 pages, but cost $25.99, which is a dollar more than the 216-page On Love. Does that make any sense? One could argue that Bukowski wrote enough about cats to warrant this collection, but I would challenge that the best poems here are about one cat, Butch Van Gogh (actual name), and that despite the cat’s injuries and poor health, is the feline love of Bukowski’s life, why not include these poems, and perhaps a few more, in the collection on love?
What makes the second volume, by contrast, so good is that love is broadly understood and includes not only the women that Bukowski lusted after for his entire life, but tender expressions towards his daughter, and their evolving relationship as they both age; ex-partners; childhood inspirations; and other writers. The love he felt for his ex-partner, Jane Cooney Baker, is so profound that she populates his work, decades after her death. The 1983 poem, “eulogy to a hell of a dame”, “for Jane: with all the love I had, which was not enough” (1962), and “for Jane” (1962), are all gorgeous.
My favorite poems in the collection are “the mischief of expiration” (1962), “I can hear the sound of human lives being ripped to pieces” (1973) and, perhaps most poignantly, “a definition” (1975), where Bukowski entertains us with his definitions of love, in the form of non-rhyming couplets. The best of these sentence-pairs are:
love is what happens one day a
one year in ten
love is what you think the other
person has destroyed
love is rain upon the roof
of the cheapest hotel
in Los Angeles
On Love has its own share of poor poems and their one commonality is that they tend to be the raunchiest. Yes, there’s a certain Bukowski fan who appreciats his filth, but I would argue that the dirtiest poems are just not good, and reading about him soaping someone’s cunt in the shower, getting a rim job, or fucking are also some of the least exciting poems. Every Bukowski fan knows he loved women, so perhaps this is just DeBritto using his editorial license to include that OPP that Bukowski loved.
While eulogizing David Bowie during Episode 672 of his podcast, Marc Maron quipped, “I think one of the hardest things about your heroes dying is that your heroes die.” During his 73 years, Bukowski endured as much torture — physically, emotionally, and psychologically — as anyone possibly could have, but it didn’t break him. While he’s no longer here to write, his inability, or refusal, to give up through the difficulties he experienced continues to inspire us as every year sees more of his poems coming to light.
Perhaps we will never know just how much he actually wrote, but I have to think that “Hank” would be smiling if he could see his posthumous work resonating in the hearts of so many people.