It was about the time of Charles Bukowski's death twenty years ago that I began reading his poetry. I came across two of his poetry collections –The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses and Love Is A Dog From Hell at a second hand store. As I came to find out, Bukowski's books (at least his poetry) always had provocative titles. I not only read, but I devoured these poems. To me, they were not only poems but short stories and monologues, comedies and tragedies. I was immediately drawn into Bukowski's world – the world of the underprivileged, the underpaid, the under-appreciated, the underfed, and the overworked. His writing didn't suffuse these people in sentimentality. They were what they were. They weren't "beautiful losers". They were often "ugly", exposed in their ugliness, their unlucky lives on parade down a route only they travelled. They hung out in seedy bars and rundown motels bearing the scars of a world weary existence. Bukowski was considered underground before underground was considered cool and hip. His poetry was not written with a scholarly detachment of an academic. Writer's workshops and poetry societies were not his bag. His language was often crude, rude, vulgar, and brash. That's why it was easy for so many in the publishing world to dismiss Bukowski as a poet. But one could always find diamonds among the dung. Buk could cut and polish those diamonds like an expert craftsman. And just as you get bogged down in the sordid underbelly that is Bukowski world, you can't help but notice a spirituality that overwhelms you. Though vastly different poets, Buk reminds me of another favorite of mine – T.S. Eliot as they navigate the wasteland of a decadent and degraded society. Unlike Eliot, Bukowski didn't consider himself a religious or spiritual being even as his writing called out for the transcendent, the "something" that is greater than ourselves. The something that calls out to the alcoholic on Skid Row even as he is succumbed by his disease. He did explore the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism toward the last years of his life. And while Eliot smothered you in layers of meaning, Buk came at you full throttle with a punch to the gut.
He disdained success even as he was achieving it. As his poetry and novels gained a wider readership combined with the acclaim of Barfly (the 1987 film starring Mickey Rourke starring as Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski), he married, settled down, bought a house and a BMW, and got some cats. But he always worried about "selling out", becoming a commercial entity unrecognizable to himself.
What fueled his writing- the things he was passionate about were a slight modification of the old wine, women, and song clichÃ©: drinking, women, classical music, and the racetrack.
Drinking – Bukowski was a legendary drinker. Many photos of him show an upturned bottle of wine, beer, whiskey, or whatever with his thirsty lips chugging away. He wasn't a sipper, he was an unrepentant alcoholic. Alcohol figures prominently in his writing. While a patient in a charity ward at a Los Angeles hospital in the 50's, a doctor advised him never to drink again or it would kill him. Bukowski promptly visited a liquor store upon his release. He would continue to drink for the rest of his life. He once claimed had it not been for alcohol, he would have committed suicide or killed someone. It's the upside of alcoholism according to Buk. In her excellent book The Trip To Echo Spring, author Olivia Laing explores the deleterious effects of alcoholism on some of America's preeminent writers such as Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, Ernest Hemmingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Laing cites aphasia, brain atrophy, and loss of memory as just a few of the ailments that plagued these great writers. Bukowski amazingly seemed to defy these afflictions. His writing remained strong and vibrant into his 70's. What he couldn't escape was the childhood trauma associated with people prone to addictions. An abusive father and a weak, uncaring mother built the foundation for his own addiction to alcohol.
Women – It's complicated, ok. It's interesting that he wrote a novel called what else- Women that chronicles the merry go round relationships, dalliances, and sometimes long term romances with the opposite sex. His mommy issues surely clouded every move he made with women. Sometimes he used them, sometimes they used him. It's not that he didn't want to be the romantic, he didn't know how. The two women that left a lasting impression and influence on Bukowski were the poet/sculptress Linda King and his last wife Linda Lee Bukowski.
Classical Music – It's shocking to many that Buk was a devotee of classical music. Many pegged him as a honky tonk man, perhaps a country western music fan considering his life in bars. He exhorted that classical music "gave heart to my life". Robert Sandarg has chronicled nearly 300 references to no less than 50 different classical composers in his body of work. His favorite composers were Handel, Bach, and Mozart. He would often write while a classical music station played in the background. It was music that soothed the savage Buk.
The Racetrack – Bukowski's widow Linda Lee Bukowski claimed that the racetrack was his church. It became a ritual early in his life. Like an ardent worshipper searching for meaning, he seemed to find it at the track. The betting was always secondary. The smell, the sights, the sounds, the people and the horses invigorated him. The track always provided material for his writing. He needed the track the way Hemmingway needed the bullfights. But while Hemmingway explored death, Bukowski explored life no matter how bleak it seemed to be.
There is one poem that seems to sum up all of these themes:
It beats love because there aren't any
Wounds: in the morning
She turns on the radio, Brahms or Ives
Or Stravinski or Mozart, she boils the
Eggs counting the seconds out loud: 56,
57, 58…she peels the eggs, brings
Them to me in bed, after breakfast it's
The same chair and listen to the class-
ical music, she's on her first glass of
Scotch and her third cigarette. I tell
Her I must go to the racetrack. She's
been here almost 2 nights and 2 days. "when
will I see you again?" I ask. She
suggests that might be up to me. I
nod and Mozart plays.