So… there’s a drunken uncle at every wedding. And at this fancy occasion, it’s a shambling Old Drunkard of Letters.
a man who banged out poetry from,
who drank himself from a shy withdrawn young man
to the gritty,
poet laureate of the underworld: Charles Bukowski.
When this event’s curator, Ellen Koshland, asked me to talk about my necessary poet, I said something like:
You know, Ellen, I’ve always thought I hated Charles Bukowski. But I have five of his books on my shelf. So here’s the thing, I think he might actually be my necessary poet... And I’m not even an angsty adolescent… boy.
The thing is… over the years… I’ve watched people close to me struggle with something society still sweeps under the carpet, still shuns… serious mental illness. I’ve come to appreciate a man who has come apart so completely… in so many ways…and who is never ashamed of it. And that’s my confession. Here’s Bukowski’s: confession
Sometimes it’s hard not to love the old goat. Here he is, at the end of his life… a sentimental realist. As much as this doesn’t seem to fit the profile of the misogynist… misanthrope… associated with Bukowski in the popular imagination… this is as much Bukowski as anything the man wrote.
He was a confessional poet who made art of his messy life. Who really tried to play up the nastiness of it… but who revelled in his perceived purity of purpose. Living to write.
But I guess another thing that has drawn me to Bukowski is his superb rendering of life on the streets. Life on the margins. He sweeps the city into a dirty little mound… but it’s teeming with real humanity. And then… with a quick little dash he will cleverly remind you that he is a writer. That you are reading a thing of his creation. That he’s earnest… and sentimental… but he’s also messing with you. [reads: a poem is a city]
I work for The Big Issue, I’m the associate editor there and I’ve worked on the magazine for five years. Over that time I’ve gotten to know a lot of the street vendors, my colleagues, my friends. Some of the people I work with have had lives to rival Bukowski’s. I know that because each edition on our Street Sheet page vendors write about life from their perspective. Write about their dogs, about making ends meet, about mental illness, about their exes, about that nice lady who gives them a tip and buys them a coffee on cold days.
We also run a vendor profile. And this is where it becomes so clear, at times, that there is little dividing the people who sell the magazine from the people who buy it and the people who run it.
Okay, that’s a little disingenuous. The biggest difference is that some of us are born with advantages and some with next to none. That is a huge sorter of humanity. But when it comes down to it, many among us are few mortgage or rent payments, a personal disaster, a couple of pay cheques, a serious illness or run of bad luck away from the precipice. And mental illness can be a great leveler. I’ve learnt to appreciate that there but for the grace of the universe go I. Bukowski knew it all too well: [reads: on the sidewalk in the sun]
So, thanks to the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, you’d be hard pressed NOT to have heard WH Auden’s lament ‘Funeral Blues’. You know, stop all the clocks… etc
Well, I guess I was delighted to find that Bukowski had his own version of ‘Funeral Blues’; it’s called ‘notice’, and it’s less catchy. But I felt the grief in its staccato conceits. It appears in The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills, a book of poems dedicated to his own great lost love: Jane Cooney Baker.
Bukowski and Cooney Baker lived together for five years, from 1945 at the end of World War II. Bukowski had been deemed too mentally unfit for service. When they met Bukowski was 25, Cooney Baker 35. And if it was love, it was a violent passion of the near homicidal variety, judging by Bukowski’s descriptions. Cooney Baker had a serious drinking problem as well. And in the early 1960s died of a related illness.
In his grief, Bukowski wrote his heart out to the woman who had once, he alleges, tried to bludgeon him to death with a cold cream jar, only to call up the next day and say 'Baby, I love you. Can I come back?'. ‘She came back’, Bukowski later told his friend Ben Pleasants. ‘That was my first love, Jane Cooney Baker’. notice
So Charles Bukowski died in 1994, he was about 73 years old. Not bad for a misspent youth, middle and old age. He had a daughter, Marina. Who he wrote tenderly of and to. And I even found a picture of Bukowski and Marina at her wedding. He dances with her. And he looks pretty happy. I hope he was happy.
So, there it is. Charles Bukowski. My necessary poet. Because as well as all that woman hating stuff, he writes about the underdog, blends the sentimental with the stark and ugly, because he loves word play, even as he eschews elitism. And because, like the street vendors I work with, he has been largely stereotyped and perhaps a bit misunderstood.
Which is best said with this final, and most well-loved, Bukowski poem: bluebird.