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Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: Charles Bukowski LIVING ON LUCK: Selected Letters 1960s-1970s Volume 2 (edited by Seamus Cooney). ECCO, 1995 (283 pages).

This is a shadow of Bukowski’s first volume of letters Screams From the Balcony published near the end of his lifetime in 1993. You don’t see the venom of crazy, randy, drunken, stream of consciousness rants that you experience in the first collection. He covers a wide range of topics including civil rights, the stupidity of the masses, English teachers, the writing process, the assassination of JFK, the recession & many others . Towards its last limping fifty or so pages, Living On Luck appears more concerned with the balance sheets of his business of writing, especially after he befriends Linda Lee Beighle in 1977 and starts to think about his future.

Bukowski often mentions the idea of luck throughout his work. In this book, he often metaphorically uses the expression ‘the luck of the gods’, but ultimately he realizes that he makes his own luck. He writes Carl Weissner, his German translator and literary agent, drunkenly late one night, ‘It’s too late for anything else, I’m too ugly now, too insane, too old, I am just going to have to luck it. and the best luck is to keep this typewriter HOT. yes.’

Many of the early letters are addressed to the poet John William Corrington (1961-1964) and are more of a tacked on addition to Volume 1. He tells Corrington within the first couple of pages, ‘Death works a lot of avenues, and although you say you like my stuff, I want to let you know that if it turns to rot, it is not because I tried too hard or too little but because I either ran out of beer or blood’. 

He reveals to Corrington many fascinating aspects of his personal life. He tells him in December 1966; I have never written a novel, don’t feel like writing a novel, although if I live to be fifty I will try one’. In response to a Corrington question regarding Bukowski’s religious upbringing he says, ‘I was a Catholic. As a kid. Just got past the catechism bit…At 13, 14, 15, I stopped going and there wasn’t much my mother could do and the old man didn’t care’. In an earlier letter Bukowski colourfully stated his agnostic, stoical view of God: ‘It would be short-peckered wisdom indeed if we thought we could pull the curtain on God and expose his kisser…or the small pile of bleached bones. All we can do is work against the tide as best as we may’.

He defends his nonliterary, innovative style in a letter to James Boyar May of Trace in response to an article by Robert Vaughan ‘Essay on the Recent History of Immortality’ which appeared in the Jan-Mar 1961 edition through an insightful summation of his craft: ‘I think sometimes the great symphonies that we have accepted today that were hissed at and walked out upon when first heard… but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could instead of sweating out the correct image, the precise phrase, the turn of thought, simply sit down and write the god damned thing, throwing on the colour and sound, shaking us alive with the force, the blackbirds, the wheat fields, the ear in the hand of the whore, sun, sun, sun, SUN!' He concludes the letter forcefully, raging against the straight-jacket of formal rules in poetry: ‘Let’s make poetry the way we make love; let’s make poetry and leave the laws and the rules and the morals to the churches and the politicians; let’s make poetry the way we tilt the head back for the good liquor; let a drunken bum make his flame, and some day Robert, I’ll think of you, pretty and difficult, measuring vowels and adverbs, making rules instead of poetry.’

Probably more interesting are Bukowski’s explicit comments about his writing process. He tells Corrington he simply writes his poetry, he does not know what the poems mean and he doesn’t want to know: ‘When I write the poem it is only fingers on typewriter, something smacking down. It is that moment then, the walls, the weather of that day, the toothache, the hangover, what I ate, the face I passed, maybe a night 20 years ago on a park bench, an itch on the neck, whatever, and you get the poem- maybe. I don’t know much about what you can say about these poems’. He later tells editor Robert DeMaria, ‘Of course my work is not carefully worked-out and hastily written. that’s the point. I write down what I need. Poetry has long ago dulled me with its tricks and mechanics’. To John Martin, ‘You know, the writing must come out of the living, the reaction to the living. If I get a little scorched now and then, it’s all for the good of the barbecue’.

The most important correspondence in LIVING ON LUCK is addressed to John Martin, his Black Sparrow Press publisher, and Carl Weissner, his German translator and European literary agent.  Also interesting are his letters to fellow poets A.D. Winans and Gerald Locklin.

After Bukowski meets Linda Lee Beighle in March 1977 he becomes far more concerned with his financial concerns. In June 1978 he writes Carl Weissner thanking him for providing a ‘complete rundown of finances’ and in July he asks his publisher John Martin that he sign a new contract for each book. He also requests if Martin dies or sells Black Sparrow that whoever takes over pays him according to the contract. In closely examining some old contracts with City Lights in December 1978, Bukowski realizes they have underpaid him foreign rights royalties and  he pursues them. 

As the royalties started to flow in, Bukowski also sensibly became interested in minimizing his taxes. He buys a big old house in San Pedro which overlooked the harbor which he lived in until his death in 1994. He also purchases the latest model BWM for $16,000 cash. In the second last letter in the collection in December 1979, he justifies the purchases to his friend A.D. Winans and insists that he hasn’t lost his soul: ‘Both investments were made to help avoid some of the tax bite out of European royalties. Here in America, if you don’t lay the money off, they take it. I offer no excuses for buying a car or living in a house. Although some may take this as a sign I am losing, have lost, my soul’. 

He tells Martin straight-up, ‘We just have to forget about “the image.” I never hide anything. The car is a 1979 black BMW, sun roof and all. 32oI. (52% tax write-off.)’ Later, he will savor the image of his staunchest critics reading his ‘BMW poems’. In Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters Volume 3, Bukowski smirkingly tells Stephen Kessler, a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times: ‘I write the BMW poems to piss off those who hated me when I lounged upon park benches. If I get my American Express Gold Card you can damn well bet I’ll write a bit more to spoil their sated evenings.’

This is a fascinating collection of letters from a writer who becomes increasingly famous during the writing of this series of letters. Bukowski was grateful that fame came to him late in life because it never got to his head. He never forgot where he came from and compellingly wrote about his childhood, his life as a starving artist and his dodgy relationships with woman for decades.