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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Charles Bukowski - a review of Art, Survival and So Forth by Jules Smith


Sixteen years ago my pal Jules Smith published his critical biography of a writer whose work I truly admire, Charles Bukowski. At the time I wrote a review, hoping to place it in the quality press. I never found a home for it and last week unearthed it, read it and thought it would be better to have it out there than festering in a drawer, albeit an electronic one.



Bukowski is a difficult writer.  He’s rarely dull, always accessible, and he seems to inhabit a dangerous and exciting world.  So what’s the problem? 
 
It starts with the persona he projects, which speaks directly to something inside men that most of us – at least, most readers of poetry -  would rather leave under wraps.  He invokes a vision of manhood that we hope we have outgrown, even though we love to read about it: domestically untrammelled, sexually rampant, foul-mouthed, economically reckless.  On top of all that, Bukowski is a damned good poet.  That’s what the problem is.
 
There’s more to be said about the Dirty Old Man of American Letters, of course.  There’s the whole business of disentangling the poet from his narrators; the matter of his apparent ability to toss off poems at will; and the matter of his critical standing.  Jules Smith’s new book tackles all of these with scholarly zest.
 
Bukowski certainly had zest, as evinced by his output: eleven books of poetry in the `60s alone, four in the seventies (the decade in which he overcame his reserve and started performing) and some sixteen prose works in the period 1965-1989.  And not for him the coy little packages with one spare verse per embroidered page: his later poetry anthologies tended towards 400 pages.  Add this to his working life, his voluminous correspondence, his live readings, and there can’t have been too much time for boozing and womanising.  The womanising, in any case, only seems to be have taken off  when the poor man was on the road as a performer – and pestered by groupies. 
 
For all Bukowski’s expansive claims that he opened a bottle of wine, put on some Beethoven and the poetry “just came pouring out”, Smith comes up with  plenty of evidence of the reflection and graft that went into perfecting a technique which would liberate poetry from what Bukowski called its “glass-prison terminology”. 
 
The Bukowski of  “Let’s make poetry the way we make love” is the same Bukowski who in the fifties was writing recognisably romantic and literary poems, and corresponding with academics on the matter of aesthetics, discussing not just Hemingway and Yeats and William Carlos Williams, but Camus and Pascal too.  He took great pains over details. One publisher speaks of corresponding for weeks over a single (four-letter) word.   His poetic vernacular was arrived at by endless chiselling at a much more formal diction
 
After demonstrating Bukowski’s links to American precursors such as Robinson Jeffers, Hemingway, and through him Gertrude Stein, Smith shows how he shared a common aesthetic with the new generation that rose to prominence before he himself had found his true voice – the Beats.  Indeed, he argues that their eruption onto the West Coast scene in 1955 (the celebrated Howl reading at the Gallery Six) inspired him to re-start his stalled writing career. 
 
But that is not to say that he had much in common with the Beats.  A crucial six years older than Ginsberg, and ten years older than Gary Snyder, he was closer to the generation overshadowed by Depression than by Cold War.  Where the Beats found a spiritual home in San Francisco, and saw themselves as a `movement`; he was a loner, a Los Angeleno -  and down the coast it’s dog-eat-dog: the Individual reigns.  Most tellingly, where the Beats sought a spiritual or even ecological alternative to the American Dream, Bukowski’s narrators – for all their sufferings on the outer edges of a capitalist society -  dreamed of fast cars and glamorous women, if only they could score at  the racetrack.
 
What Art, Survival And So Forth  doesn’t offer is any real mapping of the poet’s life.   Smith points to two biographies of the `90s – Hank, by Neeli Cherkovski, and Locked In The Arms of A Crazy Life by Howard Sounes.  But the stated aim of this engaging work is to show how much at variance the myth was from the reality, and to that end some sort of chronology would have helped.
 
While we are offered a detailed account of Bukowski’s expansive - and scattered - record of publication, the context isn’t always clear.  The same goes for the poet’s working life: while his narrators assume the identity of skid-row losers, Bukowski was – as suggested by his novels Post Office and  Factotum – in full-time employment.  But when, precisely, and for how long?   And inasmuch as the poet’s relationships with women informed his work, it would have been useful to know precisely when he was co-habiting, and with whom. 
 
Nevertheless, Smith makes his point about the disjunction between man and (self-made) myth, reminding us that throughout the 1960s Bukowski was working a steady job for the U.S. Post Office, paying child support and taxes, running a car and “conspicuously failing to plot Capitalism’s downfall”.  And he re-iterates: the man wrote fiction, not autobiography.
 
Perhaps the greatest difficulty most readers have with Bukowski is in his relationships with women – or rather with the way his male characters treat their women.   They  are generally reduced to stereotypes:  whores, bitches, blondes, redheads.  And they tend to be untrustworthy, faithless, in most cases trouble.  Moreover, while they stand to get beaten, abused, abandoned, their men are often held up as victims.  While Smith acknowledges this sexism – with the caveat that we shouldn’t confuse the artist with his work – his defence isn’t entirely convincing.  The fact that some women like Bukowski’s work, and that some women were able to live with him is no more re-assuring than the observation that the man grew up in a sexist age. 
 
Art, Survival And So Forth is a witty, well-written book,  rooted in an impressive understanding of American culture.  If the weight of detail occasionally drags, the author’s own enthusiasm for his subject – and his wry asides – unfailingly buoy the narrative.  Smith’s painstaking scholarship is most evident in some substantial passages on the Los Angeles poetry and small press scene over the past forty-odd years, which should be a treasure-trove for fans and students of other `underground` writers.  The impressive number of names invoked highlights my one slight irritation: the lack of an index.