My first encounter with Charles Bukowski was in the late 1980s at Dutton’s Books in North Hollywood. Davis Dutton had a rack of Black Sparrow Press editions next to the door of the shop, and it was there I picked up the poet’s work and was instantly hooked. His words were profane and often misogynistic, but also bloody and heartfelt. I scanned through several poems that lit up my nervous system like 50,000 volts off a live wire. I tried to read everything I could find by him and about him. For sheer testosterone, he outdid Hemingway by a long shot. Somewhere in his more than 60 books, I remember a scene in a stairwell in an old Skid Row hotel. The character is trying to make it to the hospital when he realizes it is too late. Blood vomits from his mouth and down his shirt as he collapses, suffering from a ruptured stomach due to an untreated ulcer. Alcohol and hard living finished him and left him to rot in that tenement hotel. It was powerful stuff. That was Bukowski, brutal and bloody, but clinging to life.
He was born 94 years ago this month in Germany, but his family relocated to Los Angeles in the 1930s where he grew up and lived most of his life. He is truly a Los Angeles poet, having lived in Hollywood, Downtown, East L.A., and San Pedro, often in cheap boarding houses, rundown apartments, and seedy motels. He wasn’t a pretender; he lived life as he wrote it.
As a child, his father beat him and abused him physically and verbally. His mother was powerless to stop the violence, but Bukowski often said the beatings helped his writing later in life because it forced him to understand the suffering of others. He also was inflicted with a severe case of cystic acne that left him with deep pock marks and a craggy face that looked boiled and angry for his entire life. Every sin the man committed was plain in his scarred complexion. A handsome gent, he was not.
Alcohol played a major role in his art and life. His alcoholism mirrored that of his characters in his writing. The drinking started in high school and continued throughout his life. In 1955, he nearly died from a bleeding ulcer, most likely similar to the one he assigned to a character in the work I read so long ago. He worked for the United States Post Office until the age of 49 when he quit to devote himself to writing full time. The books—novels, poems, plays nonfiction, chapbooks—rolled out of his typewriter at a blistering pace. His was scorched earth writing; he took no prisoners while pointing his pen at Hollywood, drinking, whores, pimps, losers, transients, and other down-on-their-luck denizens of the streets of L.A. All of it in writing that was on fire with nerve and emotion: brazen, angry literature.
The first book I plucked off the shelves at Dutton’s was The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Ecco, 2002; originally published 1969). It sits on my shelf to this day, as well as several other works collected over the years. What I love to do when procrastinating from some writing project or a set of papers needing comments is to browse one of the online databases of quotes from him. I have many, many favorites. Here are a few:
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can't readily accept the God formula, the big answers don't remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
“You have to die a few times before you can really live.”
“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”
“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
“Find what you love and let it kill you.”
My final thought about Charles Bukowski concerns his gravestone. The poet is buried in Rancho Palos Verdes down near Long Beach and the harbor of Los Angeles. On his stone one will find the words, “Don’t try.” It was the poet’s own philosophy of life, a way of accepting the fact that we have little control in this world. There is fate and the choices we make, but in the end, life takes us where it will, and we can either be dragged, kicking and screaming, or we can do our best where we are with what we have. Bukowski had his bottle, his pen and typewriter, and his life experiences to steel him against the vagaries and disappointments, the sheer violence of being alive. And in that dark existence, he found true beauty in the profane, the decayed, the broken down. We are lucky that he shared his vision with the world. We have his poetry to get us through the rain and for that, I am grateful.