Visiting my grandson and his family in the San Francisco last month, Carolyn and I stopped by City Lights, a landmark bookstore near Chinatown that helped propel a number of writers into public consciousness, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, and Charles Bukowski.
I'd never met the man, but years ago Bukowski had done a reading at our college. Carolyn had heard him speak. She said, as did so many others who attended the event, that he was a very ugly man, huge, hulking, leering, surly…yet powerful.
At City Lights, I found a Bukowski reader and paged through it. Then I experienced one of those rare reading events I've had maybe three times in my life. The rush-hour street traffic outside seemed to go silent, the bright California sun dimmed, and every word I read rang hard in my heart. I felt, as with only a few other poets (Bill Knott, maybe Patti Smith) that here was a writer I immediately understood and appreciated.
I bought the book, of course, and as we cruised through the miraculously beautiful Marin countryside, returning from (ironically) a Wine Road tour of Sonoma,* I could not take my eyes off the page. I read a few poems and stories aloud for Carolyn as she drove, though finally her wincing and cringing persuaded me to relent. Bukowski writes some raw stuff.
There's something about Bukowski's work that created, for me, an immediate connection. Regarding Bukowski, Bono of U2 remarked in the documentary "Born into It" (available on Netflix) that with Bukowski, you can "Forget metaphor." It's all direct. No fancy stuff. And whether you're ugly, poor and lazy, like Bukowski, or pretty, wealthy and ambitious, all of us, at some time, have stood outside the window and looked in, enviously.
Bukowski drank, of course, a lot.* It's hard to find a picture of him where he's not holding a bottle or a glass. Booze was not – however and surprisingly – his cause of death: he died of leukemia. Earlier, when he got sick, his doctors told him that if he had another drink, it would kill him: he proceeded to drink for several decades more before he died.
What I find so attractive about Bukowski is his Promethean, Satanic, Bartleby-like refusal to obey.
You want me to settle down and get a career? No.
You want me to be monogamous? No.
You want me to stop drinking? No.
But aside from such negatives, there's much in Bukowski that's positive.
Yes I will write every day.
Yes I will remain free.
Yes I will enjoy every sip.
I was delighted to see that both the Book Table and the Oak Park Public Library carry a rather large selection of Bukowski's work. I've got a lot of reading to do.
*obligatory food reference