Charles Bukowski | Critical Review by Gary Dretzka

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 1,105 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gary Dretzka

Critical Review by Gary Dretzka

SOURCE: "Cries of pain from a man of letters," in Chicago Tribune Books, January 30, 1994, p. 7.

In the following review, Dretzka reviews the collection of Bukowski's letters: Screams from the Balcony.

Hearse, Gallows, Eros, Scimitar and Song, Harlequin, Coffin, Outsider, Black Cat Review, Wormwood Review, Windfall Press, Ole, Evidence, Choice, Mimeo Press, Klacto, Intrepid, Open City … Black Sparrow.

Such were the names of the little magazines, chapbooks, literary pamphlets and broadsheets that flourished in a purely non-financial sense of the word in the 1960's, before Xerox machines and desktop computers would revolutionize the way writers placed their words in front of hungry readers.

The titles roll off the tongue like poetry itself and represent, at least for Charles Bukowski—America's grand old man of letters—a neat encapsulation of his struggle to be regularly published between 1958 and 1970, the period covered in this collection of letters. Letters?… Cries of pain would be more like it.

The span takes us from Hearse—one of the little magazines that first printed Bukowski's poems after his 10-year break from writing—to Black Sparrow, which continues to produce lovely books from its Santa Rosa, Calif, base. It also matches the Los Angeles barfly's abject search for recognition, from actually paying to have poems reproduced, or selling them for the price of a six-pack, to becoming a columnist in L.A.'s Open City underground newspaper and finally leaving the post office to pursue a literary career at age 50.

These 350-plus pages of letters—a fraction of his actual output—tell the story of that challenge, much in the same way that Bukowski's inter novels would describe the life of Chinaski, his dirty-old-man alter ego. Full of cranky opinions, critiques and misanthropic observations, they were written to other scribes and editors who either share his dark visions or are actively working to make him a star. That many are penned under the influence, from some flophouse or lonely kitchen table, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bukowski's work.

Imagine something like this brightening your mailbox: "… the alka seltzer's sparkling and down it goes, depressed fit of cut cat running by without a tail where it had a tail before, or my head is strung around a savage day. All that crap. Anyhow, I have been drinking too much, and on top of that—another kind of mess, and the time has gone by and I haven't done anything, I am ashamed, I am lazy, I am stupid, I am King Kong bending over for a button, I am a torn picture postcard of East Bermuda."

Bukowski writes, seemingly incessantly, as if it might help him think, or feed "the impulse to write poems," according to editor Seamus Cooney. How prolific: 10-, 12-page tomes, day after day, to a dozen or so people, commenting on everything from how the horses are running to the relative merits of the day's poets, celebrated and obscure. Some of those targeted in published critiques would take offense at the candor of this largely unknown writer.

"I began (to write) at 35," he replies. "but I knew whether I liked a poem or not and why, and men don't write with their reputations; they write, most of them, with typewriters, each time you sit down reputation is gone with yesterday's sun; every man begins even again, right now, I am very glad I do not have a hotshot reputation—it keeps me clear with myself."

Mostly, though, he writes about Buk, himself, and his personal struggles with the ladies, his editors, foremen, whiskey, bad teeth and hemorrhoids. He does this not to avoid writing poems, but in addition to turning them out, mailing them off and hoping the rejected ones are returned, since he never kept carbons.

"I think the letter is an important form. You can touch about everything as you run around. It lets you out of the straight-jacket of pure Art, and you've got to get out once in a while. Of course, I don't restrict myself as much in the poem as most do, but I have made this my business, this freedom with the word and idea, because … to be perfectly corny … I know I'll only be around once and I want to make it easy on myself."

Nothing elegant here, but the words reveal the life inside this one man's work, and the struggle to get other people to listen to his often discordant sounds and perhaps' dip into his skid-row milieu for a while. There isn't much irony or symbolic swordsmanship; Bukowski's view is much like that of a video camera—somewhat grainy and distorted, but full of movement and studied, self-deprecating humor.

Here, circa 1967: "I've kind of dropped out of the letter-writing phrase (sic) in order to batch up enough glue to hold myself together a bit longer, the letter-writing thing can become a trap—I started by writing one or 2, then it got to three or four, then it got to 13 or 14, and all I was doing was writing letters. now, if this were my prime purpose, fine enough, but there are other things to do along the way too like … inking out a sketch or catching few winners at the track, or just staring at the walls, wondering about toes and your waste, and what the game was about, there are times TIMES TO DO NOTHING, very important times, hard to get between women and jobs and sickness and and and … so the writing of too many letters to too many people can get like carrying 50 pound rocks back and forth during your few moments of leisure, but people will … think you're up light or writing President Johnson or essays for the Atlantic. me, I'm hanging onto the slippery walls."

Cooney, of Western Michigan University, did a nice job editing these often-difficult epistles (examples of the actual letters, complete with sketches and smears are included) from their much longer and messier original forms, while maintaining all their flavor and character. If you're a fan, this is a must acquisition.

My hope—beyond that president Clinton will name Bukowski Poet Laureate some April 1—is that young people, especially those attracted to the zines and poetry slams, will stumble upon this book and realize what a pure joy it is to write and receive letters as full of life and raw humanity as this. Yes, I know this is the digital age and we can call each other or correspond via something called E-mail, but many of us are old enough to remember when it was the postman who delivered the treasures of our day, and words filled the sails of our imagination.

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This section contains 1,105 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gary Dretzka
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