On Writing by Charles Bukowski
On Writing is not an instruction manual. Nobody who knows anything about Bukowski’s boozy, belligerent shambles of a life would expect one. As he was fond of confessing, Bukowski did not like people. Even as a baby in the cradle, he reports in his largely autobiographical 1982 novel Ham on Rye, he punched his grandmother on the nose when she tried to lift him up for a kiss. He mellowed a little towards his death in March 1994 – but only a little.
An ugly, solitary bookworm as a child, he grew up to become an ugly, solitary and generally hostile drunk – mean with his mouth, quick with his fists, although seldom victorious in his brawls. He hated being asked for tips when he was at the racecourse and he had a higher tolerance for fellow gamblers than for literati. Although he churned out poetry at an even more furious rate than James K Baxter, sometimes producing as many as 15 poems a day, he disliked public performances and the readings he gave were strictly for the cash. ‘Jesus Christ, do I have to answer these dumb-shit questions?’ he would snarl at audience members feckless enough to ask him things. Had you approached him with that ubiquitous chestnut of modern literary festivals – ‘What advice would you give to aspiring writers?’ – he would have done his damnedest to kick your teeth in.
So, no, the non-programmatic nature of On Writing does not a surprise. What disappoints is that it’s not a selection of his best (i.e. his fiercest and funniest) thoughts on the literary process either. It’s just a bunch of hitherto unpublished letters.
Far more sociable on the page than in person, Bukowski was a prolific correspondent. He not infrequently lost patience with pen-pals after a while and dropped them or else needled them with such pointed gibes they dropped him. Some, such as Southern scholar-poet John William Corrington (who appears often in the first half of On Writing and not at all in the second), were appalled on actually meeting Bukowski to encounter a sullen thug rather than the loveable, witty rogue they had imagined from his writing.
His longest-lasting epistolary contacts were with two men he rarely saw who were responsible for much of his income. The first of these was his publisher John Martin, founder of the Black Sparrow Press. Martin — a devout Christian Scientist and a tee-totaller and thus an alien life-form to Bukowski but one he generally respected. The other was his German translator Carl Weissner. In the 1970s and 80s Bukowski was more popular in Germany than in the United States. Both Martin and Weissner are heavily represented in On Writing.
In almost all his published letters Bukowski discusses his two favourite pastimes: drinking and writing. In many of them he also reports his age, sometimes down to the day. For a man who, by his own admission, wasted much of his life in dead-end jobs and low-life bars, he was acutely aware of time passing. The current volume does not depart from form. It might equally have been called On Booze or even On Time.
In just over 200 pages Bukowski writes to nearly 70 different people. None of them is identified for us. I’ve already told you more about Corrington, Martin and Weissner than the book does. There is a list of Bukowski’s other books (incomplete), but no index and no contents page. At first this annoyed me. Then I had to laugh at myself. What sort of a wally bangs on about the lack of scholarly apparatus when the book in question is Drunken Old Hank’s Leftover Letters?
Editor Abel Debritto contributes a horrible preface — studded with adverbs and mostly in the passive voice — and a more informative but still blowsy afterword, which reads like a extended blurb. At first this annoyed me too. Then I saw the funny side. Debritto’s vices are so un-Bukowski-like he seems to have learned next to nothing about writing from his idol. ‘Bukowski pours himself forth in every single letter,’ he gushes, ‘discussing daily events with genuine excitement.’ I like to imagine Bukowski responding to that with a disabling kick to starry-eyed Abel’s teeth.
To be fair to Debritto, though, he’s not just a chancer. He really has spent years in American libraries sifting through Bukowski’s neglected manuscripts. And, as well as much that is similar in tone and theme to existing material, he has unearthed a few gems.
One of my favourites is the first letter in the book, dating from October 1945. Hallie Burnett, co-editor of Story magazine, has fobbed off one of Bukowski’s submissions with reference to anonymous “manuscript readers” (probably, in fact, just herself and husband Whit Burnett). Bukowski retaliates: ‘Should you need an extra manuscript reader, please let me know. I can’t find a job anywhere, so I might as well try you too.’
Nine years later, Judson Crews, Texan poet and editor of an esteemed little magazine called The Naked Ear, accustomed no doubt to dealing with prickly and precious egos, sends Bukowski an apology for holding on to some manuscripts so long. ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ Bukowski writes back. ‘You might as well keep those as long as you want to because when you do send them back I’ll just throw them away.’
Boot on the other foot, when he edited a little magazine himself in 1969, Bukowski was unmerciful. ‘Ah shit, Carol, these are not very good,’ he informs New York City performance poet and Black Sparrow Press stablemate Carol Berge. ‘I am sitting here drunk + it is raining, has been for days, and these are not very good.’
Yet elsewhere in the collection, amidst the steady vitriol directed at then-living contemporaries such as Faulkner, Ginsberg, Creeley and Lowell (all of whom he detested), there are unexpected moments of decency. He writes a courteous little note of appreciation to Hilda Doolittle in June 1961 when he learns she is dying. He sends an endearingly school boyish fan letter to Californian novelist John Fante (one of his few heroes) in 1982 when Fante — near blind and a double amputee — is fighting a losing battle with diabetes. Sick himself with leukaemia and consequently off the turps, he concludes a letter to John Martin in January 1992 with uncharacteristic tenderness: ‘Thanks, old boy, it’s been beautiful.’
Overall, although I would not rank On Writing among the top 10 or even the top 20 of the 60-odd books published under Bukowski’s byline, it has enough juice to be worth trying. I doubt if it will swell the numbers of Bukowski’s existing fan-base. A fair chunk of it is barely comprehensible unless you have prior knowledge of his life and work.
Splenetic old nose-thumbing Hank has always appealed most to me just after I’ve been sickened by some piece of literary pretentiousness or just read three books in a row that exist only because the authors had to push put a product of some kind, however dodgy, to keep their careers afloat. After an hour or so of Bukowski’s grubby, bellicose company, however, I’m ready for a nice cup of Lady Grey tea in my best china and a soothing instalment of Antiques Roadshow. Even Bukowski frequently needed to escape from Bukowski to a more refined atmosphere. Classical music was his constant solace. ‘I listen to hours of it, it’s my drug,’ he tells Kevin Ring (English editor of Beat Scene) in September 1990. ‘It smooths the kinks in my poor ravaged brain.’
But I’ve been avoiding the big question. Does Bukowski have any advice on writing worth following? I think so, but it emerges more from his practice than his preaching. When he’s concentrating and not too blotto, Bukowski attains in both his prose and his verse a lean muscularity that serves, by example, as a potent reminder to other writers to cut down on the wow and flutter, the gas and flab. He hated laborious writing, believing that words lose their vitality when fussed over too much. I half-agree, but subtlety never interested Bukowski much. There are fine nuances that only a fusspot like Henry James can achieve.
I become more resistant to Bukowski’s ‘don’t try’ philosophy when he brags to William Packard (editor of the New York Quarterly): ‘Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer.’ Only crap poems arrive that easily. Bukowski had a gift for the striking phrase and was savvy enough to use it in some of his book titles: The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, Love is a Dog from Hell, You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. But, alas, too often in his poems, particularly as he aged, he was content to settle for diary-like flatness and hand-me-down language.
Finally, there is the question of Bukowski’s much-vaunted honesty. I’ve met admirers over the years who assured me they valued Bukowski because he told it like it was. But did he? Granted, he wrote about himself — far and away his favourite topic — with ruthless candour.
But, when examining his life, he cut out the boring bits (about nine-tenths, by his own count), tightened the wayward dialogue and played about the absurdities. Henry Chinaski, the fictive alter ego of his stories and novels, differs from his creator by being funnier, more succinct, easier to like and forgive. In other words, Bukowski transformed life through style, as all artists do. He was, I believe, essentially a caricaturist. When I ask myself which authors have been most influenced to him, graphic novelists spring quickest to mind: Harvey Pekar in the American Splendor series, Joe Matt in Spent, Chester Brown in Paying For It.
And, although Matt Dillon had a decent stab at Chinaski in the movie version of Factotum, I think that Barney Gumble, the Springfield town drunk in The Simpsons, being a cartoon character, is a truer rendition.
On Writing by Charles Bukowski (Canongate, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.