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Editor’s Choice: ‘On Writing’ by Charles Bukowski

On Writing by Charles Bukowski, edited by Abel DeBritto, Ecco, 224 pages, $25.99. There are those who would, no doubt, be eager to tell you that a book on writing by Charles Bukowski is a little like a book on exercise and keeping fit by Tom Waits or a book on haute couture by Amy Schumer. What you have here is a lifetime of letters about the subject of writing from the gloriously disreputable poet – some written between 1945 and 1954 during the period the editor calls “Bukowski’s ten-year drunk, when he misleadingly said he didn’t write at all.”

In other periods, we even have his thoughts from a period when a man was throwing away his life and preparing for the time when he would stop. “I don’t write so much now,” he writes in 1953. “I’m getting on 33, pot belly and creeping dementia. Sold my typewriter to go on a drunk six or seven years ago, haven’t gotten enough non-alcoholic $ to buy another. Now print my occasionals out by hand and put them up with drawings (like any other madman.)”

In 1986, he’s describing himself as a man who wants only “to drink wine and type.” The letters of chaotic poets are so often arresting (try Dylan Thomas’ sometime), and Bukowski is no exception. Also in 1986, he writes from his lifelong pursuit of damnation “you know I’ve had well-meaning people tell me ‘everybody suffers.’ I always tell them ‘nobody suffers like the poor.’ Then I get rid of them.”

In 1990, Bukowski at 70 writes, “Sometimes I’ve called writing a disease. If so, I’m glad that it caught me. I’ve never walked into this room and looked at this typewriter without feeling that something somewhere, some strange gods or something utterly unnameable has touched me with blithering, blathering and wondrous luck that holds and holds and holds. Oh yes.”

At the same time, he tells someone else that as a reader he feels “cheated, larded-over [relieved upon] with obvious tricks of the trade, tricks hardly worth learning.” “I’ve had the best university training in literature anybody ever had. I’m out to blast through the ceiling of everywhere. Just to do it.”

I doubt if there will ever be a time when we don’t desperately need poets who want to “blast through the ceiling of everywhere.” – Jeff Simon