Sifting Through The Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way
By Charles Bukowski
Ecco/HarperCollins. 395 pp. $27.50

 

For much of his life he worked at low-wage, temporary jobs, ending with an eleven-year stint as a postal clerk. At age forty-nine, divorced and in debt, on the verge of mental collapse, he quit the longest employment he’d ever had, writing to a friend that, given the alternative, "I have decided to starve." Concentrating, then, on "sifting through the madness for the Word, the line, / the way, / hoping for a check from somewhere, / dreaming of a letter from a great editor," two years later his first novel, "Post Office," was published.

Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, during the early years of the Great Depression. His G.I. father and German mother eventually settled in Los Angeles, where "father was a brute and my mother / was, his assistant." Besides being abused by his parents, the young man suffered from an acute case of acne. Although a published writer by age twenty-four, he fashioned himself as an outcast, a bum, really, writing with what one critic called the "honesty of a hangover." In the 1987 movie "Barfly," based on his years as a dedicated drunkard, Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego, says, "Experience is more important than truth." This goes a long way toward understanding his life and his work, which were inseparable. A denizen of the streets, his most telling poems read like a jackhammer, "pumping it out, day after / day, day and night, words…" cursing their way through the concretions of society’s norms.

To achieve success on one’s own terms, Bukowski knew that he needed "a great editor" to champion his work. He found this in John Martin, owner/editor of Black Sparrow Press. Martin, who became the poet’s lifelong friend, and to whom he bequeathed a large stash of unpublished manuscripts, also did an extensive search through obscure literary journals in which Bukowski had placed, and sometimes lost, his early work. Last year, upon Martin’s retirement, and Black Sparrow Press’s demise, Ecco/HarperCollins agreed to publish five collections of "what the author considered to be his finest writing," of which this volume is the first.

By the time of his death, in 1994, Bukowski had published more than forty-five books of poetry and prose. Translated into all the European languages, he became a working-class hero around the world; a romantic too, "and I do / not apologize for this," or for anything else.
In "a sickness?," he presents a long list of how well-known artists lived their last years, from Hemingway, "at the end of his endurance, / sticking the / barrel of the gun into his trembling / mouth," to "Robinson Jeffers / (the proudest poet of them all) / writing / begging letters to those in power." The poem ends with: "some gang! / they are a source of light! / they are a source of joy! / all of them / heroes you can be / grateful for / and admire from afar

as you wake up
from your ordinary dreams
each morning.

 

Philadelphia Enquirer 2003