Biography of Charles Bukowski
Henry Charles Bukowski was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural and economic ambience of his home city of Los Angeles. It is marked by an emphasis on the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually publishing over sixty books. In 1986 Time called Bukowski a "laureate of American lowlife". Regarding Bukowski's enduring popular appeal, Adam Kirsch of The New Yorker wrote, "the secret of Bukowski’s appeal. . . [is that] he combines the confessional poet’s promise of intimacy with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp-fiction hero."
Charles Bukowski was born as Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, to Heinrich Bukowski and Katharina (née Fett). Charles' mother was a native German and his father was an American serviceman. Charles' paternal grandfather Leonard had emigrated to America from Germany in the 1880s. In Cleveland, Leonard met Emilie Krausse who had emigrated from Danzig, then part of Germany. They married and settled in Pasadena. He worked as a carpenter, setting up his own very successful construction company. The couple had four children, including Henry, Charles Bukowski's father.
Charles Bukowski's parents met in Andernach, in Western Germany following World War I, the poet's father posted as a sergeant in the American army of occupation following Germany's defeat in 1918. He had an affair with Katherina, the German sister of a friend, and she quickly became pregnant. Charles Bukowski repeatedly claimed to be born out of wedlock, but Andernach marital records indicate that his parents married one month prior to his birth.His father set himself up as a building contractor, set to make great financial gains in the aftermath of the war. After two years that family moved to Pfaffendorf. Given the crippling reparations being required of Germany and high levels of inflation Henry was unable to make a living, and so he decided to move the family back to America. On April 23, 1923 they sailed from Bremerhaven to Baltimore, Maryland, where they settled. Wanting a more Anglophone name, Bukowski's parents began calling their son 'Henry', which the poet would later change to Charles. They altered the pronunciation of the family name from /bu?'k?fski/ boo-kof-skee to /bu?'ka?ski/ boo-kow-ski, Bukowski's parents were Roman Catholic.
The family settled in South Central Los Angeles in 1930, the city where Charles Bukowski's father and grandfather had previously worked and lived. In the '30s the poet's father was often unemployed. In the autobiographical Ham on Rye Charles Bukowski says that, with his mother's acquiescence, his father was frequently abusive, both physically and mentally, beating his son for the smallest imagined offence.During his youth Bukowski was shy and socially withdrawn, a condition exacerbated during his teens by an extreme case of acne. Neighborhood children ridiculed his German accent and the clothing his parents made him wear. Although he seemed to suffer from Dyslexia, he was highly praised at school for his art work.
In his early teens, Henry had an epiphany when he was introduced to alcohol by his loyal friend William "Baldy" Mullinax, depicted as "Eli Lacross" in Ham on Rye, son of an alcoholic surgeon. "This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time", he later wrote, describing the genesis of his chronic alcoholism; or, as he saw it, the genesis of a method he could utilize to come to more amicable terms with his own life. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism, and literature, before quitting at the start of World War II. He then moved to New York to begin a career as a writer.
On July 22, 1944, with World War II ongoing, Bukowski was arrested by FBI agents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was living at the time, on suspicion of draft evasion. He was held for 17 days in Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. Sixteen days later he failed a psychological exam that was part of his mandatory military entrance "physical" and was given a Selective Service Classification of 4-F (unfit for military service).
When Bukowski was 24, his short story, "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip", was published in Story magazine. Two years later, another short story, "20 Tanks from Kasseldown", was published by the Black Sun Press in Issue III of Portfolio: An Intercontinental Quarterly, a limited-run, loose-leaf broadside collection printed in 1946 and edited by Caresse Crosby. Failing to break into the literary world, Bukowski grew disillusioned with the publication process and quit writing for almost a decade, a time that he referred to as a "ten-year drunk." These "lost years" formed the basis for his later semi-autobiographical chronicles, although they are fictionalized versions of Bukowski's life through his highly stylized alter-ego, Henry Chinaski.
During part of this period he continued living in Los Angeles, working at a pickle factory for a short time but also spending some time roaming about the United States, working sporadically and staying in cheap rooming houses. In the early 1950s, Bukowski took a job as a fill-in letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles but resigned just before he reached three years' service.
In 1955 he was treated for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer. After leaving the hospital he began to write poetry. In 1957 he agreed to marry small-town Texas poet Barbara Frye, sight unseen, but they divorced in 1959. According to Howard Sounes's Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, she later died under mysterious circumstances in India. Following his divorce, Bukowski resumed drinking and continued writing poetry.
By 1960, Bukowski had returned to the post office in Los Angeles where he began work as a letter filing clerk, a position he held for more than a decade. In 1962, he was traumatized by the death of Jane Cooney Baker, the object of his first serious romantic attachment. Bukowski turned his inner devastation into a series of poems and stories lamenting her death. Jane is considered to be the greatest love of his life and was the most important in a long series of muses who inspired his writing, according to biographer Jory Sherman. In 1964 a daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski, was born to Bukowski and his live-in girlfriend Frances Smith, whom he referred to as a "white-haired hippie," "shack-job," and "old snaggle-tooth.".
Jon and Louise Webb, now recognized as giants of the post-war 'small-press movement', published The Outsider literary magazine and featured some of Bukowski's poetry. Under the Loujon Press imprint, they published Bukowski's It Catches My Heart in Its Hands in 1963 and Crucifix in a Deathhand in 1965.
Beginning in 1967, Bukowski wrote the column "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" for Los Angeles' Open City, an underground newspaper. When Open City was shut down in 1969, the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press as well as the hippie underground paper NOLA Express in New Orleans. In 1969 Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski launched their own short-lived mimeographed literary magazine, Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns. They produced three issues over the next two years.
Black Sparrow Years
In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin and quit his post office job to dedicate himself to full-time writing. He was then 49 years old. As he explained in a letter at the time, "I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." Less than one month after leaving the postal service he finished his first novel, Post Office. As a measure of respect for Martin's financial support and faith in a relatively unknown writer, Bukowski published almost all of his subsequent major works with Black Sparrow Press. An avid supporter of small independent presses, he continued to submit poems and short stories to innumerable small publications throughout his career.
Bukowski embarked on a series of love affairs and one-night trysts. One of these relationships was with Linda King, a poet and sculptress. Critic Robert Peters viewed the debut of Linda King’s play The Tenant in which she and Bukowski starred back in the 1970s in Los Angeles. This play was a one-off performance. His other affairs were with a recording executive and a 23-year-old redhead; he wrote a book of poetry as a tribute of his love for the latter, titled, "Scarlet" (Black Sparrow Press, 1976). His various affairs and relationships provided material for his stories and poems. Another important relationship was with "Tanya", pseudonym of "Amber O'Neil" (also a pseudonym), described in Bukowski's "Women" as a pen-pal that evolved into a weekend tryst at Bukowski's residence in Los Angeles in the 1970s. "Amber O'Neil" later self-published a chapbook about the affair entitled "Blowing My Hero."
In 1976, Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle, a health food restaurant owner, aspiring actress and devotee of Meher Baba, leader of an Indian religious society. Two years later Bukowski moved from the East Hollywood area, where he had lived for most of his life, to the harborside community of San Pedro, the southernmost district of the City of Los Angeles. Beighle followed him and they lived together intermittently over the next two years. They were eventually married by Manly Palmer Hall, a Canadian-born author and mystic, in 1985. Beighle is referred to as "Sara" in Bukowski's novels Women and Hollywood.
Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro, California, aged 73, shortly after completing his last novel, Pulp. The funeral rites, orchestrated by his widow, were conducted by Buddhist monks. An account of the proceedings can be found in Gerald Locklin's book Charles Bukowski: A Sure Bet. His gravestone reads: "Don't Try", a phrase which Bukowski uses in one of his poems, advising aspiring writers and poets about inspiration and creativity. Bukowski explained the phrase in a 1963 letter to John William Corrington: "Somebody at one of these places [...] asked me: 'What do you do? How do you write, create?' You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: 'not' to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it."
In 2007 and 2008 there was a movement to save Bukowski's bungalow at 5124 De Longpre Ave. from destruction. The campaign was spearheaded by preservationist Lauren Everett. The cause was covered extensively in the local and international press, including a feature in David S. Wills's Beatdom magazine, and was ultimately successful. The bungalow subsequently was listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument called Bukowski Court. The cause was criticized by some as cheapening Bukowski's "outsider" reputation.
Bukowski published extensively in small literary magazines and with small presses beginning in the early 1940s and continuing on through the early 1990s. These poems and stories were later republished by Black Sparrow Press (now HarperCollins/ECCO) as collected volumes of his work. In the 1980s he collaborated with illustrator Robert Crumb on a series of comic books, with Bukowski supplying the writing and Crumb providing the artwork.
Bukowski also performed live readings of his works, beginning in 1962 on radio station KPFK in Los Angeles and increasing in frequency through the 1970s. Drinking was often a featured part of the readings, along with a combative banter with the audience. By the late 1970s Bukowski's income was sufficient to give up live readings. His last international performance was in October 1979 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was released on DVD as There's Gonna Be a God Damn Riot in Here. In March 1980 he gave his very last reading at the Sweetwater club in Redondo Beach, which was released as Hostage on audio CD and The Last Straw on DVD.
Bukowski often spoke of Los Angeles as his favorite subject. In a 1974 interview he said, "You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every bitch on the street corner and half of them you have already messed around with. You've got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are.... Since I was raised in L.A., I've always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I've had time to learn this city. I can't see any other place than L.A."
One critic has described Bukowski's fiction as a "detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free", an image he tried to live up to with sometimes riotous public poetry readings and boorish party behaviour. Since his death in 1994 Bukowski has been the subject of a number of critical articles and books about both his life and writings. His work has received relatively little attention from academic critics. ECCO continues to release new collections of his poetry, culled from the thousands of works published in small literary magazines. According to ECCO, the 2007 release The People Look Like Flowers At Last will be his final posthumous release as now all his once-unpublished work has been published.
In June 2006 Bukowski's literary archive was donated by his widow to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Copies of all editions of his work published by the Black Sparrow Press are held at Western Michigan University which purchased the archive of the publishing house after its closure in 2003.
Bukowski: Born Into This, a film documenting the author's life, was released in 2003. It features contributions from Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton and Bono (U2's song "Dirty Day" was dedicated to Bukowski when released in 1993).
In 1981, the Italian director Marco Ferreri made a film, Storie di ordinaria follia aka Tales of Ordinary Madness, loosely based on the short stories of Bukowski; Ben Gazzara played the role of Bukowski's character.
Barfly, released in 1987, is a semi-autobiographical film written by Bukowski and starring Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, who represents Bukowski, and Faye Dunaway as his lover Wanda Wilcox. Sean Penn had offered to play the part of Chinaski for as little as a dollar as long as his friend Dennis Hopper would provide direction, but the European director Barbet Schroeder had invested many years and thousands of dollars in the project and Bukowski felt Schroeder deserved to make it. Bukowski wrote the screenplay for the film and appears as a bar patron in a brief cameo.
Also in 1987 a small Belgian film called Crazy Love came out, with script co-written by Bukowski himself. The film was loosely based upon 3 frequently-told episodes from his life.
A film adaptation of Factotum, starring Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, and Marisa Tomei, was released in 2005.
In 2011, the actor James Franco publicly stated that he is in the process of making a film adaptation of Bukowski's novel Ham on Rye. He is currently writing the script with his brother David Franco and explained that his reason for wanting to make the film is because "Ham on Rye is one of my favorite books of all time."
Charles Bukowski's Works:
Post Office (1971)
Ham on Rye (1982)
Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1960)
Poems and Drawings (1962)
Longshot Poems for Broke Players (1962)
Run with the Hunted (1962)
It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963)
Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965)
Cold Dogs in the Courtyard (1965)
The Genius of the Crowd (1966)
2 by Bukowski (1967)
The Curtains Are Waving (1967)
At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968)
Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 story Window (1968)
A Bukowski Sampler (1969)
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969)
Fire Station (1970)
Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (1972)
Me and Your Sometimes Love Poems (1972)
While the Music Played (1973)
Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (1974)
Africa, Paris, Greece (1975)
Maybe Tomorrow (1977)
Legs, Hips and Behind (1978)
Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977)
Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (1979)
Dangling in the Tournefortia (1982)
War All the Time (book)|War All the Time (1984)
Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I (1984)
You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986)
The Roominghouse Madrigals (1988)
Beauti-ful & Other Long Poems (1988)
Septuagenarian Stew: Stories & Poems (1990)
People Poems (1991)
The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992)
Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories (1996)
Bone Palace Ballet (book)|Bone Palace Ballet (1998)
What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. (1999)
All Night (2000)
The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps (2001)
Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way (2003)
As Buddha smiles (2003)
The Flash of the Lightning Behind the Mountain (2004)
Slouching Toward Nirvana (2005)
Come on In! (2006)
The People Look Like Flowers at Last (2007)
The Pleasures of the Damned (2007)
The Continual Condition (2009)
Short story chapbooks and collections
Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (1965)
All the Assholes in the World and Mine (1966)
Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969)
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972)
South of No North (1973)
Hot Water Music (1983)
Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983)
The Most Beautiful Woman in Town (1983)
Portions from a Wine-stained Notebook: Short Stories and Essays (2008) Absence of the Hero (2010)
More Notes of a Dirty Old Man (2011)
Shakespeare Never Did This (1979); expanded (1995)
The Bukowski/Purdy Letters (1983)
Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters (1993)
Living on Luck: Selected Letters, vol. 2 (1995)
The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship (1998)
Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters, vol. 3 (1999)
Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondense of Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli (2001)
Bukowski at Bellevue 1970 – Poetry Reading
Supervan 1977 – Feature Film (Not based on Bukowski's work but Bukowski had cameo appearance as Wet T-Shirt Contest Water Boy)
There's Gonna Be a God Damn Riot in Here – Filmed: 1979; DVD Release: 2008 – Poetry Reading
The Last Straw – Filmed: 1980; DVD Release: 2008 – Poetry Reading
Tales of Ordinary Madness – Feature Film
Poetry In Motion 1982 – General Poetry Documentary (Bukowski is a featured interviewee/talking head)
Barfly 1987 – Feature Film
Crazy Love 1987 – Feature Film (Belgium)
Bukowski: Born Into This 2002 – Biographical Documentary
Factotum 2005 – Feature Film
The Suicide 2006 – Short film
One Tough Mother 2010 Released on DVD – Poetry Reading
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- A Smile To Remember
- Alone With Everybody
- An Almost Made Up Poem
- And The Moon And The Stars And The World
- Are You Drinking?
- Be Kind
- Cause And Effect
- A Radio With Guts
- A Challenge To The Dark
- As The Sparrow
- As The Poems Go
- back to the machine gun
- Another Day
Did you read them?
this time has finished me.