“To me writing is never work no more than drinking is” – On Writing by Charles Bukowski

cbowGiven how prolific Charles Bukowski was it is faintly surprising that On Writing is a selection of previously unpublished letters. Especially surprising as there have been four or five collections of Bukowski’s letters published already but the editor of this selection, Abel Debritto, has shaped a volume that presents Bukowski’s opinions on the writing life, those who influenced him and those he despised (mainly Robert Creeley). A well-edited selection of letters can serve in place of an autobiography but everything Bukowski wrote was autobiographical, more or less. Do Bukowski’s letters shed a different perspective on his poetry and novels, provide some new context to the ‘Buk’ mythology he created (the mysterious drunken decade, the miserable childhood and lecherous old age, the afternoons spent gambling and the nights spent writing and drinking)? No. It’s still a delight to have this book, no matter how imitated Bukowski has been (perhaps only Hemingway has spawned more admirers who have perfected the great man’s style to ever diminishing effect) these letters are as vividly fresh, self-mocking and perfectly expressed as Bukowski’s best poetry (he wrote too much for it to be of an even quality), as witty and savagely unsentimental as Bukowski’s novels. One of the letters contains a perfectly expressed definition of what makes Bukowski’s writing so unique, “a poem should not be a poem, but more a chunk of something that happens to come out right.” Like Woody Allen’s movies the early letters are funny, endlessly quotable (or worth stealing):

“Well, I’m 34 now. If I don’t make it by the time I’m 60, I’m just going to give myself 10 more years.”

Most of these letters were written to Bukowski’s editors (at first to the editors of small magazines, the later letters to John Martin, editor/owner of Black Sparrow Press). The later letters refer to movie rights and foreign translations of Bukowski’s work, the trappings of remarkably rare success (for a writer), but in tone they are hardly distinguishable from the earlier letters. Bukowski’s opinions on literary life do not vary, he (admirably) met with repeated failure and poverty in the same way that he encountered success, a large measure of indifference and a determination to keep on:

“It is not so much for the fame of publication but more the good feeling that you are not perhaps insane and some of the things you say are understood.”

That may be the failing of On Writing, the repetition of a man who found a style and a world outlook in his thirties and never changed throughout the rest of his life, the honesty he valued above all means that the letters he wrote in the 1950s sound a good deal like those of the 1990s. The same anecdotes appear repeatedly. The letters are presented with minimal information about their recipients, some regular correspondents are identified but others are left for the reader to google (it is particularly worth googling Caresse Crosby, whose magazines were among the first to publish Bukowski, as not only was she the former wife of Harry Crosby, one of Hemingway’s friends, and the early publisher of James Joyce and Anais Nin but also the inventor of the modern bra).  It might also have been worthwhile to give some brief information on people mentioned in the letters, surely Bukowski’s work is now canonical enough to justify footnotes. Any Cop?: These letters are a part of the Bukowski continuum, “to me writing is never work no more than drinking is”, and any Bukowski fan will welcome them, but then any Bukowski fan will have already read versions of them many times before. James Doyle


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