2004-06-10 15:18:16 UTC
On a San Pedro, Calif. hillside opposite the Pacific, dirt covers the man
whose once-expressive appetite for life continues to sustain his cult hero
status beyond this grave where movie stars and drinkers laid him three years
ago this month.
The simple headstone of Henry Charles Bukowski, 1920-1994, tells those who
visit him: ``Don't try.''
Good advice rarely followed, that ambiguous message from his grave is a
challenge outlasting the man whose life and art compels thousands to try,
try, try to understand, analyze and even emulate the illegitimate father of
In more than 60 books of poetry, short stories, novels and a screenplay
(``Barfly'') about a brief but remarkable period of his life, Charles`Hank''
Bukowski wrote from the twisted guts of his own incredible life,
fashioning those experiences into provocative shapes for our amusement.
Since his death, Bukowski has become something of a worldwide industry, with
copies of his work multiplying in value, new fans finding him on dozens of
Bukowski-related Internet sites and old ones sporting Team Bukowski
sweatshirts. His publishers plan at least one book of unpublished work a
year for the next five years.
Bukowski gave the finger to poetry as effete intellectualism and replaced
adorned sentiment with naked, disturbing, compelling, repulsive, vicious
He was a drunk and a genius, and he beat life to hell and lived longer than
most expected and better than most knew. These years after his death, the
legend grows, sustained by a body of work
so deep that books of poetry are planned through 2001.
He was a Southern California god, but even before this country acknowledged
him, Europeans were already treating Bukowski with the pop iconoclasm of
movie stars. Now, his work is translated into at least 21 languages, with
his newest fans building a Bukowski movement in Japan.
An Orange County, Calif., college professor claims Bukowski as an influence.
So does an Irish rock star.
To his fans, the mythic man who settled with a view of the grimy harbor of
San Pedro is an adorable bastard, a voice that rumbled from a blue collar to
offend, challenge, stimulate the complacent, and to console the
disenfranchised for whom labor was survival.
To Linda Lee Bukowski, he is the man whose passing left a bottomless hole in
There are women who dismiss Bukowski as chauvinistic, as misogynistic.
The woman who loved him for many years and was married to him for the last
nine says this:
``To you,'' Linda Lee Bukowski says, ``he is the great writer. But to me,
first, he is the great man.
``I cry every day and night. It's horrible, horrible, horrible. Right down
in the human gut level, it's terrible. I miss him like, boy, half of me is
There is little middle ground with Charles Bukowski.
Critics dismissed his writing as abusive and indulgent, about which he wrote
to a friend:
``We don't write to be judged, we write to get it out of us so we don't do
And those who loved him became disciples.
Bono of U2 dedicated a Los Angeles show to Hank and Linda and sent a limo to
bring them to the concert, along with other devotees, actors Harry Dean
Stanton and Sean Penn, whom the Bukowskis referred to as their ``surrogate
He was gentle to animals, mean to those who crossed him, encouraging to
younger talents and never too far from an immigrant child whose father beat
him with a razor strap.
At 13 Bukowski discovered alcohol; he said it saved his life.
To his friend Gerald Locklin, a writer and professor at California State
University, Long Beach, Bukowski (in one of a volume of letters over two
``I don't trust men who don't drink. There is something about drinking which
opens a man to extraordinary disaster: you meet all the wrong women and you
step out into alleys to duke it with all the wrong men. It's kind of a lesson
in stupidity but you learn more in that kind of life than most men
who live 10 lives.''
That life, glorified by the Mickey Rourke-Faye Dunaway characters of
``Barfly,'' is as much a part of the Bukowski legacy as are his poems,
novels, recordings and even paintings.
But those who focus on his love of drink, his tolerance for abuse, and his
impulse toward denigration of the cognoscenti _ without considering the
effect of these things on his sizable contribution to literature _ miss,
sadly, a greater part of Charles Bukowski.
In one of his several books of poetry, Locklin writes a poem to address the
single-minded Bukowski reader:
those who would write like bukowski
know that he, as a young man, loved
classical music, wrote every day,
read world literature, supported himself
without parental or government assistance,
and drank a lot.
but when it comes to modeling themselves
on him as writers
they tend to forget everything
except the drinking.
In his novel ``Ham on Rye'' Bukowski chronicles a childhood full of severe
and capricious punishment by his father.
A central element of the Bukowski house in an L.A. neighborhood was his
father's razor strap, which hung above the bathroom sink area where young
Charles Bukowski would be forced to disrobe and be lashed, often for minor
The stress of his life caused a nervous reaction that resulted in boils over
his body, leaving his skin pockmarked for life. His rough appearance
contributed to his aloofness from other kids, which in
later years would become a general distaste for people whose allegiance to
mainstream existence Bukowski saw as a betrayal of the soul.
His legend as a barroom fighter, as a drinker, a womanizer and a proud
maverick who rejected self-restraint was well earned.
But even when he was flopping in dirtbag hotels and working day labor for
liquor, Bukowski was no bum.
His life was a notebook in which he documented experiences few could survive
but millions found meaningful.
``People like to ask me, `Did that really happen to you?''' he wrote to
Locklin. ``And I used to tell them. Now, I don't. I think it's good for them
to wonder. OK. Then most did and what didn't should have.''
Although he drew on experiences beginning with the earliest moments of his
life, Bukowski, who at times had been a shipping clerk and a postal
employee, was middle-aged before he was ``discovered.''
Some of Bukowski's earliest published work was for Open City and LA Weekly
in the late '60s, which later became his book, ``Notes of a Dirty Old Man.''
In the comfortable home where Linda Lee Bukowski's life is a vigil to her
artist husband, the walls, the bookshelves, the picture frames, the swimming
pool, the spa, the photo albums and the numerous sketches from the Great
Man's hand, tell a fuller story than most are privileged to know. He loved
cats and would sit for hours enticing a stray.
We know from his work, of course, that horseracing was part of his daily
routine. But who would have known that he enjoyed relaxing, alcohol-free, in
the whirlpool upon returning from Hollywood Park or Santa Anita?
He is easily pictured, almost boxer-like, pounding the keys of an Underwood
manual ``typer.'' But his work tripled, say both Linda and his Black Sparrow
editor, John Martin, when he got a computer.
Near the end of his life, he meditated: twice a day, 20 minutes at a time.
And for all his reputation as a devotee of cheap liquor and easy women, the
older Bukowski enjoyed good wine and imported beer, and was loyal to the
woman he loved. There are, in the Bukowski household, relics to mark his
``Linda will ya be my Valentine,'' says one of many child-like paintings
that reveal a side of the man more capable of common feeling than his
sandpaper exterior would suggest.
One Bukowski painting _ a poem really _ reveals a man we might have
suspected but rarely find exposed this way through his writing:
``Arrange for me this splendid insecurity.''
``I don't even want to go into that,'' Linda Bukowski says. ```It means what
it means.'' Bukowski once wrote to his friend Locklin that he liked eating
at the Glide
'er Inn in Seal Beach, where he was a frequent Sunday guest for crab legs.
``Those booths,'' he wrote, ``with high walls hide me away from the
He was the most human, Hank Bukowksi was.
Whatever misrepresentation ``Barfly'' might have left on the legacy of the
``poet laureate of Los Angeles,'' one scene perhaps speaks for all those
whose devotion made Bukowski a wealthy man, after long years of writing in
During a scene in the Golden Horn bar, a crusty patron says to Jim the
bartender, regarding the Bukowski character:
``I don't see what you see in the guy.''
Says the bartender: ``He's as right as any of us.''
And so he was. And so, too, are those who find comfort, acceptance and
escape from lives of incredible normalcy in the writing of Bukowski.
``What he taught me is that you can make poetry out of your daily life,''
Locklin says. ``You don't have to wait for the great moments; it doesn't
have to be love, death, war.''
It is a lesson learned by the professor, yes, but also by a contract
painter-turned-poet whose life change was sparked partly by Bukowski's
influence. Or by a merchant who recognizes her own life in the drastically
different reference of an artist whose work transcended common experience.
Raindog, a San Pedro housepainter, poet and literary magazine publisher who
used to follow Bukowski around but was too reverential ever to introduce
himself to the man, says now: ``I felt like Bukowski was pinning a narrative
in the back of my head, like, `Ok, I'm not alone. There's someone out there
Andrea Kuwalski, proprietor of Vinegar Hill Books, where the poet used to
visit to hang out with Chet, the store cat, now devotes a whole shelf to
``I can't take offense as a woman at any of what he said, because he's
right; things do get goofy,'' she says. ``And I don't think he painted such
a rosy picture of his own gender.''
Rancho Santiago College professor and poet Lee Mallory, who used to show up
at Bukowski's door with a 12-pack of beer and an appetite to learn, says
Bukowski ``lived his work, and in the sense that he did, the body of work is
totally authentic. You knew he was writing from a base of experience, which
is where the best poetry comes from.''
To Mallory, Bukowksi wrote: ``On mornings of doom, have a drink or two and
wait. Wait on the word. She's more faithful than any woman. It's our final
He was, probably, an alcoholic. He was, decidedly, a workaholic.
``He was a brilliant machine,'' his widow says. o one knows that better than
his editor, John Martin at Black Sparrow Press
in Santa Rosa.
``A couple or three times a week,'' Martin says, ``(Bukowski) would send me
a batch of poems. And he did that for 30 years. He's one of the few writers
who has made substantial money just off royalties.''
Martin says he has enough Bukowski material for four or five more books and
next month will publish ``Bone Palace Ballet'' a 370-page collection of
previously unpublished work.
``His work will always be there and always have an avid readership,''
Locklin says, ``in the same way of Henry Miller and e.e. cummings and poets
who are read out of a sense of pleasure rather than a sense of duty.''
Linda Lee Bukowski laughs at her husband's epitaph, on the grave that she
refers to as another room of the house.
``I think it means, if you spend all your time trying, then all you're doing
is trying. So, the thing is to do. Don't try. Just do.''
He tried. He did.
And Henry Charles Bukowski left us richer for the effort.
We read him like watching a daredevil, from the safety of complacent
comfort. We revel in his lifestyle. But we dishonor his powerful voice if we
him and his work at the bottom of a bottle.
``People are always pointing out things about me,'' Bukowski wrote to Gerald
Locklin. ``I'm a drunk or I'm rich or I'm something else. How about the
writing? Does it work or doesn't it?''
(c) 1997, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).
... Charles Bukowski, the greatest poet of the 20th century. Nobody but nobody