Bukowski’s Centenary: A Birthday Homage

August 16, 2020

Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994)
“Even the dead are growing old.” — Philip Levine

Los Angeles poets “of a certain age” have an odd relationship with their best-known peer. Fifty years ago, he provided a response to the out-of-town taunts that none of us were known outside of Southern California. While he certainly was not as famous as Allen Ginsberg, he was well enough known to provoke a counter-attack:”Oh, Bukowski’s not a poet.” The exclusion of Bukowski from any serious consideration didn’t let up as the years went by. It was sometime in the late 1980s that I spontaneously decided to address the neglect, at least on a local level.

Things were not particularly propitious in the late 1980s. Ronald Reagan had made life horrific for people in Central America, and the Savings-and-Loan debacle had pretty much been an economic tsunami in the United States. For reasons I never quite understood, a poet who was a fairly successful businessman named Victor di Suvero showed up in Los Angeles with the intention of organizing a poetry festival. I don’t remember who told him to contact me; it might have been Suzanne Lummis, whose poems he published in a chapbook in 1990.

I remember I met him in a very modest, narrow restaurant on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, with a counter and a set of booth along one wall. Di Suvero sat across from me in a rear booth and eventually got to his main pitch: he wanted me to organize some poets for a special event. He was visibly disappointed with my lack of enthusiasm. I had been active in the various scenes in Los Angeles poetry for over 15 years by that point, and I could see little reason to give time that had long been detoured into supporting other people’s writing into yet another ephemeral public presentation. Most readings turn out to be primarily private memories, whereas an issue of a magazine or a book can more easily straddle public memory. There it is, on the library shelf, and anyone can check it out.

Things were quiet for several minutes. Neither of us said much. Suddenly, a possibility presented itself to me. “I’ll tell you what,” I said. “How about an evening to honor Charles Bukowski? I’ll get together a dozen writers and we’ll talk about why he has been an important poet to us.”

Di Suvero agreed, not that he had much choice if he wanted me to be part of his publicity for his festival. I got together the poets, who included one of Bukowski’s oldest friends, John Thomas, as well as Michael Mollett, Brooks Roddan, and Susan Hayden. I did not contact Bukowski, and the publicity — what little I did for the event — emphasized that he was not going to appear. This was going to be nothing more than a super-sized panel. A decent crowd showed up, and so did Bukowski, much to my surprise.

I didn’t bring a camera, which I regret. On the other hand, I suspect that Bukowski by that point knew that I was no fawning acolyte. I never sent him poems asking for his approval, either before this event or after. On the other hand, he knew that I respected him enough to know that he deserved to have one of his best poems featured in my anthology, POETRY LOVES POETRY. “The Souls of Dead Animals” has one of the best lines in all of American poetry: “and the blood-smell begins to fulminate.” It’s surprising how few undergraduate students know what the word “fulminate” means. Bukowski had little use for meter, but it would take a determined academic to ignore how that line scans, and it’s not much different than many of the best lines in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Open with a pyrrhic foot, then a spondee, (caesura), then three iambs. In the midst of casual free verse, a moment of finger-picking on the blue guitar that has never stopped echoing in my mind’s ear.

So, manbe, Buckowski showed up because there would be no cameras, at least on my part. And no letters afterward asking him to help me get my poems published. Or simply begging for attention.

In fact, he read excerpts from letters from “fans” that night. “Dear Mr. Bukowski, / You probably won’t answer this letter…” Bukowski looked up at the audience, “You’re right, kid.” We laughed.

It was a small tribute; in recollecting it, I realize how little attention — serious attention — his work has received in the academy. Even at CSU Long Beach, I am perhaps the only tenured professor in creative writing who has consistently assigned a book of his in various classes; and I know of no other professor who gives extra credit to students who go to the special collections department and spend some time with the original edition of IT CATCHES MY HEART IN ITS HANDS. I’ve never had a single student say, “Oh, that was a waste of my time.”

If you are a fan of Bukowski’s work, you would do best to skip the kind of mainstream culture commentary that is to be found on National Purveyor Radio. The following article is embarrassing:


Instead, if you are a fan, treat yourself to Laurence Goldstein’s POETRY Los Angeles, which has an entire chapter devoted to Bukowski’s poetry. Along with an essay by Robert Peters, Professor Goldstein’s commentary is one of those rare instances in which the candor of the criticism makes the praise glow. Indeed, I am grateful for several dozen of Bukowski’s poems. IF, in another hundred years, (or even sooner, by the centenary of his death) he turns out to be a minor figure in this period, he will be minor in all the ways that matter to the most memorable parts of human consciousness.