Now That’s What I Call Art

Charles Bukowski 1920-1994

Poet: Charles Bukowski
Born: 16 August 1920, Andernach, Germany
Nationality: German-American
Died: 9 March 1994, California, USA

Bukowski was a poet, novelist, and short story writer. The influences on his writing were the social, cultural, and economic ambiance of Los Angeles, his hometown. In his work, he addressed the lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, relationships with women, the drudgery of work, and alcohol. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, eventually publishing over 60 books. The FBI kept a file on him, a result of his column Notes of a Dirty Old Man.

Bukowski extensively published in small literary magazines and with small presses from the 1940s through to the 1990s. Due to his antics and deliberate clownish performances, he was considered the king of the underground. Since his death, he has been the subject of critical articles and books about his work and life, despite his work receiving little attention from US academia in his lifetime. However, Bukowski enjoyed fame in Europe, especially in his home country of Germany

Bukowski, born Heinrich Karl Bukowski, was born in Andernach, Rhine Province, The Free State of Prussia, Weimar Republic. His father was a German-American in the US Army of Occupation after World War I who remained in Germany after his military service. Bukowski’s grandfather emigrated to the US from the German Empire in the 1880s.

Bukowski’s parents met in Andernach, Germany, after World War I. His father was in the US Army serving in Germany after the war and had an affair with Katharina, a German friend’s sister, resulting in her becoming pregnant. Bukowski repeatedly claimed he was born on the wrong side of the blanket, but records show the couple were married one month before his birth. His father became a building contractor and moved the family to Pfaffendorf. The post-war stagnant German economy and high inflation meant Henry Bukowski could not make a living and the family moved to Baltimore in 1923.

In 1930, the family moved to Los Angeles, the city where Bukowski’s father and grandfather had previously lived. The young Bukowski spoke English with a German accent and was taunted by his peers. During his youth, he was shy and socially withdrawn, and in his teens, this was exacerbated by extreme acne. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended City College for two years studying art, literature, and journalism. At the start of World War II, he left college and moved to New York to work as a financially squeezed blue-collar worker with his dreams of becoming a writer.

With the Second World War ongoing Bukowski, a suspect of draft evasion was arrested by the FBI in July 1944. The USA was at war with Germany, and many Germans and German-Americans in the USA were suspected of disloyalty, Bukowski’s German birth troubled the US authorities and he was held 17 days in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia for seventeen days, He failed a psychological examination that formed part of the mandatory military entrance physical test and was declared unfit for military service just sixteen days later.

At 24 Bukowski’s short story ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip’ was published in Story magazine. Two years later ’20 Tanks from Kasseldown’ was published by the Black Sun Press. Bukowski grew disillusioned by the publication process and quit writing for nearly a decade. These ‘lost years’ formed the basis for the semibiographical chronicles. During this time Bukowski continued to live in Los Angeles and for a short time worked in a pickle factory. He also spent some time roaming the United States, sporadically working, and staying in cheap rooming houses.

Bukowski took a job as a fill-in letter courier with the USPO, Los Angeles in the early 1950s, however, he resigned before reaching three years of service. In 1955, after suffering from a near-fatal bleeding ulcer, Bukowski began writing poetry and married Barbara Frye a Texas poet. Following their divorce in 1958 resumed drinking and continued writing poetry. Several of Bukowski’s poems were published during the late 1950s in the poetry magazine Gallows published by Jon Griffith. However, it was the small avant-garde magazine Nomad, published by Anthony Linick and Donald Factor, that offered Bukowski’s early work a home, featuring two of his poems in the inaugural issue in 1959. A year later Bukowski’s essay, “Manifesto: A Call for Our Own Critics,” was published in the magazine.

By 1960 Bukowski returned to Los Angeles and the post office where he worked as a letter filing clerk for over a decade. In 1962 the death of his first serious girlfriend, Jane Cooney Baker, left him distraught, a devastation Bukowski turned into a series of poems and stories. In 1964 his live-in girlfriend, Frances Smith, gave birth to their daughter Marina Louise Bukowski.

Bukowski’s first printed publication, “His Wife, the Painter,” was published by Kearse Press in June 1960. In October 1960, Hearse Press also published “Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wall,” Bukowski’s first chapbook of poems. “His Wife, the Painter,” “The Paper on the Floor,” “The Old Man on the Corner,” and “Waste Basket” formed the centrepiece of Hearse Press’ “Coffin 1,” a small poetry publication in the form of a pocketed folder containing 42 broadsheets and lithographs, published in 1964. Hearse Press continued to publish Bukowski’s poetry throughout the 1960s to the early 1980s.

In 1963/65 Jon and Louise Webb, publishers of The Outsider literary magazine, featured Bukowski’s poems “It Catches My Heart in Its Hands” and “Crucifix in a Deathhand” In 1967 Bukowski wrote a column “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” for Los Angeles’ Open City, an underground newspaper. When the newspaper was shut down in 1969, the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press and the hippie underground paper NOLA Express in New Orleans. That same year Bukowski and Neelie Cherkovski launched the short-lived literary magazine, “Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns.”

Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, in 1969 and quit his office job to dedicate his career to full-time writing. less than a month after quitting the postal service he finished his first novel “Post Office.” As a mark of respect to Martin Bukowski published almost all his major works through Black Sparrow Press, which became a highly successful enterprise. However, as a supporter of the small independent presses he submitted poems and short stories to innumerable small publications throughout his career.

Bukowski had a series of love affairs and one-night trysts. One of these relationships was with Linda King, a poet, and sculptor. They were seen performing a stage reading of the first act of King’s play “Only a Tenant” in a one-off performance at the Pasadena Museum of the Artist.

Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle in 1976. Two years later he moved from the East Hollywood area where he had lived for most of his life to San Pedro, a harbourside community. Beighle followed him and they lived together off and on for the next two years. They eventually married in 1985.

Bukowski collaborated with Robert Crumb on a series of comic books in the 1980s with Bukowski providing the writing and Crumb the artwork. Crumb also illustrated several of Bukowski’s stories during the 1990s including “The Captain Is Out to Lunch” collection.

Bukowski died in March 1994 of leukaemia in San Pedro. His funeral rites were conducted by Buddhist monks and he is buried at Green Hills Memorial Park, Rancho Palos Verdes.


Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes

The Dirty Old Man of American Literature: A Biography of Charles Bukowski by Paul Brody

The Night I Was Going to Die by Charles Bukowski

the night I was going to die
I was sweating on the bed
and I could hear the crickets
and there was a cat fight outside
and I could feel my soul dropping down through the
and just before it hit the floor I jumped up
I was almost too weak to walk
but I walked around and turned on all the lights
and then I went back to bed
and dropped it down again and
I was up
turning on all the lights
I had a 7-year-old daughter
and I felt sure she wouldn’t want me dead
otherwise it wouldn’t have
but all that night
nobody phoned
nobody came by with a beer
my girlfriend didn’t phone
all I could hear were the crickets and it was
and I kept working at it
getting up and down
until the first of the sun came through the window
through the bushes
and then I got on the bed
and the soul stayed
inside at last and
I slept.
now people come by
beating on the doors and windows
the phone rings
the phone rings again and again
I get great letters in the mail
hate letters and love letters.
everything is the same again

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