The late Los Angeles writer Charles Bukowski is the “poet laureate of Skid Row” to some - the dirty old man of underground literature to others.
The hard living poet’s life and work is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at the Huntington Library, now home to the largest collection of Bukowski manuscripts and ephemera.
Visitors to the Huntington’s Bukowski exhibit are welcomed by three of the writer’s greatest vices: words, wine and music. Bukowski’s last manual typewriter is perched behind glass on a small table.
It’s joined by a dirty wine glass and a battered portable radio – locked on a classical station. In the evenings, as the wine flowed and the words came, it could get loud.
“The radio plays Vivaldi/and there are two women with me, one with raven hair, the other a blonde/they have small breasts and beautiful legs and they laugh at everything I say.”
Women were another passion, and betting on the horses. Bukowski haunted Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
These vices underpin his bawdy, bruising poems and stories. While some critics complain that Bukowski marooned himself on a concrete island of racetracks, women and barstool existentialism, fans connect to his tough, no-nonsense style.
“The thing he didn’t do was use poetic artifice," says Sue Hodson, the Huntington's chief of manuscripts. “A lot of people think to read that fluidly, naturally and easily it must have been easy to write, therefore it can’t be serious, can’t be important if it’s not difficult. I got it on the first read through, so there can’t be much to it. Well, au contraire. There is a lot to it.”
When Bukowski was down and out in L.A., he spent hours at the L.A. Library downtown, burning through poetry, literature and philosophy. He settled on a tight, hardboiled writing style inspired by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson and Louis Ferdinand Celine.
Bukowski in a 1973 documentary, just as the 52-year-old writer’s career was taking off, said, “Everybody was disgusted with poetry, you know. When I was a kid, the poet was nothing. And it’s true – they were, they are, a lot of them.
“The realities were never explained, everything was hidden in poetry. The reason I kept writing was not because I was so good, but because they were so damn bad.”
The exhibit at the Huntington maps Bukowski’s life from his abusive childhood in L.A., through his days working factory and warehouse jobs, to his drunken but disciplined rise to literary fame. It was a tough road paved with dead end jobs, piles of rejection slips and even bigger piles of beer bottles.
“He did drink heavily," says Hodson. "If you watch videos of his poetry readings he has a bottle of wine and an 8 or 10 ounce tumbler, and fills it with wine and drinks it straight back and fills it again.”
“Everything is calculated," said Bukowski. "When I finish the last poem the last drink will arrive at the same time. I started drinking before you people were born, I’ll be drinking after I bury you.”
Hard liquor almost killed Bukowski before he was 40. He switched to wine and beer and made it another 33.
The boozing didn’t diminish the humor and vulnerability that courses through his work. Especially when writing about a rough childhood. “To be the blood of that very hated blood/made the windows intolerable/but one lives/suicide before the age of 10 is rare/brutal were the calla lilies/brutal the nectar and the kiss/brutal the recess bells of school.”
“I think that’s a large part of his appeal to readers," says Hodson. "He was able to reach out to them because he suffered, he lived through these things and he understood.
“So he could hang with prostitutes, drunks and gamblers. And he also spoke to blue collar workers, people simply trying to survive. He understood that because he had been there. He could speak very directly and personally to their lives and people recognize that and they bond with him.”
Bukowski’s writings have been translated into more than 30 languages. They’ve inspired plays, pop songs and Hollywood films.
Seventeen years after Bukowski died of leukemia at 74, his widow is still finding unpublished works.
“We found a box, and I think he left it," said Linda Bukowski, laughing. "It was in the garage, I took it down, opened it up and it was filled with manuscripts! Papers, poems, hand signed and dated.”
Linda Bukowski oversees her late husband’s literary estate from the roomy hillside home the couple shared in San Pedro for almost 20 years.