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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book Review: Charles Bukowski SCREAMS From the Balcony Selected Letters 1960-1970 Volume 1 (Edited by Seamus Cooney) First published 1978 (372 pages)

This was the first volume of Bukowski’s letters that he allowed to be published in book form. The letters are sequenced in chronological order and include letters to about twenty-five people, mostly editors,  publishers and fellow poets between 1958 and 1969. Seamus Cooney states in his Editor’s Note that he worked from photocopies of letters in private and public collections available to him at the time. Subsequently, about eighty pages of letters from the 1960s were published by Cooney in Volume 2: Living On Luck-Selected Letters 1960s-1970s. To minimize repetition and to ‘maximize vividness’ Cooney transcribed and selected roughly only 50% of the letters’ contents. Despite the wide variety of correspondents and subject matter, Cooney focuses primarily on Bukowski’s literary life and aids the general reader by providing brief notes on the many identities and publications when they first appear in the letters.

Bukowski never holds back and he realizes early on that he is writing the letters for posterity. He writes to Jon Webb in 1962 about the sense of ‘freedom with the word and idea’ that the letter brings: ‘I think the letter is an important form. You can touch about everything as you run around. It lets you out of the straightjacket of pure Art, and you’ve got to get out once in a while.’ He encourages many of his correspondents to publish his letters upon their request. He tells Douglas Blazek: ‘I am not ashamed of anything I have written in letters. You print what you want and how you want.’ In 1968 an American university offers Bukowski thousands of dollars for his papers and letters and hoping he may be able to leave the Post Office, he desperately asks his correspondents for the return of his letters. He receives many, notably from Carl Weissner, who later became Bukowski’s literary agent in Germany, but he is furious there are some holdouts. He tells Weissner, ‘I know the fuckers can prob. sell these letters after I die and make a few bucks, but I’ve tried to tell them it is more important that I live NOW.’ In a particularly nasty letter to his old friend John William Corrington, Bukowski ferally concludes: ‘You said you would send me your last novel. You never did. Did you steal it from my letters? You have failed to answer a request upon last letter mailed to you. Southern Gentleman. My dear Southern Gentleman, I’d sure as hell hate to meet a Southern boor. I won’t bother you any more, professor, you are a pro.’

It is fascinating to trace Bukowski’s dealings with his early publishers E.V. Griffith (Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail) and Jon and Louise Webb (It Catches My Heart in Its Hands). Due to the delay in the publication of his first book, he threatens Griffith that he will expose ‘this notorious and impossible nightmare’: ‘I can not see it that sloppy and amateur editorialism, a downright horror of coldness and cruelty and ineptness go unchallenged.’ A week later Bukowski goes down to the post office ‘and there it was: Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, never a baby born in more pain, but finally brought through by the good Doctor Griffith- a beautiful baby, beautiful! The first collected poems of a man of 40, who began to writing late’. In the next paragraphs he remembers with shame his venomous letter and pleads to Griffith for forgiveness: ‘I DON’T KNOW HOW IN THE HELL TO APOLOGIZE, E.V., BUT JESUS I ASK FORGIVENESS.’

Bukowski’s  correspondence with the Webbs is more extensive and every topic is open for discussion- the writing process, drinking, suicide, his own self doubts as a poet who he thinks does not measure up to the image he projects in his poems- to name a few. In giving the Webbs exclusive rights to his second collection he expresses in 1963 an admiration for their pain-staking dedication to producing beautiful books: ‘You are my kind of people. Not a bunch of phoney literary bullshit or slick-assed business people, but people in love with their work and their lives, asking nothing but enough to continue to stay alive in order to continue to do the thing.’ Out of loyalty to the Webbs, Bukowski writes that the ‘bigger publishers’ ‘can go to hell.’ As with his first collection, Bukowski will not be paid royalties but instead will but paid in copies of his books. This relationship with the Webbs is ongoing but begins to fade after John Martin begins to publish Bukowski in 1967. In May 1968 he writes Martin, ‘I must somehow shake Webb, who’s a good man and has done well by my work, but the no royalties thing is the setback- I’m only human, after all, my friend. A week later, after Outsider publish some Bukowski poems he tells the Webbs John Martin will publish his next book of poetry.

Bukowski’s letters to Douglas Blazek, the innovative editor and publisher of Ole Magazine easily represent the most extensive and the most valuable & interesting in the book. Their correspondence began after Blazek accepted three of Bukowski’s poems for the first issue of Ole in October 1964. It’s a pity the reader only hears Bukowski’s perspective on their relationship, because Buk is obviously fueled and highly entertained by what Blazek has to say. In April 1965 he tells Blazek: ‘I hope you remain alive in order to keep sending me the good letters- your letters mean more to me than any poetry I have ever read because your plain and even and screaming and clear voice talking certainly beats T.S. Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, John Fante, even Jeffers…for me. How do you do it?’ A few of Blazek’s letters to Bukowski were published in Open Skull #1 in 1967 but it appears the full correspondence between the two men has never been released. Cooney publishes some of Bukowski’s letters to Blazek in their entirety to provide the reader with a feel of their extraordinary freefalling conversations. 

The letters to Douglas Blazek reveal best Bukowski’s venomous attack on American values & institutions, the intricacies of his writing processes and his darker, more disturbing self-loathing. In a series of important 1965 letters he moves from a questioning of the Vietnam War and the nightmarish possibility of a nuclear war to an unveiling of his vulnerabilities & physical pain: ‘Blaz I’m nothing, all the poetry I’ve written is swill, I hurt all over, and it’s just not the tooth. Now fucking rain dripping down like hemorrhage of my brain and my elbows and knees busted and bloody now from falling down in the streets gaging plunging 2 nights ago, naked albatross of hell, me, falling again and again, until all blood blood, nose blood toes blood, I don’t understand anything, anything, look look, now I wake up this morning and I ask this woman, I tell the woman, OH MOTHER OF GOD THIS TOOTH IS FUCKING THE SHIT OUT OF ME!!’ In another vicious but well directed diatribe he tells Blazek that he regards modern poetry as ‘pretty’, as ‘a con game’: ‘The most famous poets of our Age, they appear in the pages of the New Yorker, silk white, and you read the poems again and again; and the poems say/ NOTHING. He is disgusted that even Ginsberg and Corso and the rest ‘have been sucked in playing their entrails across the applause of the crowd’ and soon tersely says, ‘fuck poetry. Poetry makes me vomit.’ Another core letter which was written in October 1965 reveals the amazing confidence that Bukowski placed in Blazek and this allowed him to strip his soul bare: ‘I think I am made of some kind of hard and unfriendly stone. Most things disgust me; I don’t know what I want. Then I begin thinking that I am insane, that I can’t see what they see, that I can’t understand what they understand; that they are naturally warm and that I am a dribbling fake. And then, in the next flash, I suddenly think that they are damned fools and I don’t give a damn what they think, all my strings fight in discord; my cock is trying to screw my brain, or the other way.’ In 1967 when Blazek moved to San Francisco, he visited Bukowski for the first time. They continued to exchange letters but unfortunately never with the same intimacy or zing.

Bukowski also conducts extensive correspondence with many poets including the Canadian Al Purdy, the ex-crim William Wantling, John William Corrington, Steve Richmond, Jory Sherman,  Anne Bauman and others. The correspondence is filled with his anecdotal views on dozens of issues, including his poetics- such as the need to create poetry with balls and the need to ‘scream sometimes’ as the screws tighten.

In reading this sampling of letters one of the things which really strikes you is how often Bukowski was physically sick or tottering on the edge of his sanity in the 1960s. He frequently experienced blackouts and dizzy spells and these increased as he aged. His diet was shit and he didn’t sleep for ‘more than one or 2 hours a night’.  He wrote to Blazek in 1965 that ‘the only way to sleep is to drink yourself senseless.’ He was constantly dogged by depression and also revealed to Blazek, ‘I have felt plenty of times like going to bed and crying for a week.’ In a 1967 letter to the poet Michael Forrest he refers to this ‘deep gauze stuff’ as the ‘Comedy of Agony’. After a painful hemorrhoids operation in 1966 he graphically describes to Blazek through the use of black humour that each bowel movement is like ‘a childbirth, gripping elbows. Saying, “wwoowoo! Sweet son of a bitch, mother, sing to me, sing to me!!” that shit sliding past the incisions of 15 years’ worth of hemorrhoids and distorted intestine chopped loose.’ 

If you have never previously read a book of letters by an important literary figure, and more specifically, want to know more about what was going on in Bukowski’s fucked-up but hugely imaginative head in his early years as a published poet, Screams from the Balcony is highly recommended! The book captures brilliantly his huge mood swings, his boisterously mad humour, his poisonous tongue, his love for his daughter Marina and his unrelenting dedication to the craft of writing poetry.

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