Dr David Stephen Calonne has written and edited a number of books around Beat-era American literature with a particular focus on Charles Bukowski. The recent collection More Notes of a Dirty Old Man will soon be followed by an appraisal for Reaktion’s Critical Lives series. With a James Franco adaptation of Ham on Rye in the works, Dolly Delightly spoke to Calonne about Bukowski’s enduring appeal
Dr David Stephen Calonne is an Eastern Michigan University professor specialising in Beat Literature. He has is the author of William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being, The Colossus of Armenia: G.I. Gurdjieff and Henry Miller, and most recently Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy: Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats (with an Introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti). He has lectured in Paris and elsewhere, including the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Berkeley, the European University Institute in Florence, the University of London, Harvard and Oxford. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan. During Spring Term 2009 he taught a seminar on William Saroyan at the University of Chicago and he presently teaches at Eastern Michigan University. He has edited three Charles Bukowski books for City Lights, including Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays 1944-1990 (2008), Absence of the Hero: Uncollected Stories and Essays Vol. 2, 1946-1992 (2010) and most recently More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns (2011). He also wrote Introductions to the first two volumes and an afterword for the latter. He has recently completed his own book on Charles Bukowski, which will be published sometime next year. Here he talks about his forthcoming work and the writer who continues to fascinate him.
I know you have just finished a book on Charles Bukowski, could you tell me a little bit about it?
Yes, I just completed writing Charles Bukowski for Reaktion Books based in London. It’s part of their Critical Lives series, which so far has included major cultural figures such as Wittgenstein, Bataille, Picasso, Foucault, Borges, Genet, Neruda, Burroughs, Beckett, Nabokov, et al. I was very happy to do it because I have long believed that Bukowski is, in fact, a great writer and belongs among the Olympians. The book is a literary biography – that is I write about both Bukowski’s life as well as interpret his prolific production of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and letters. Most of the books written about him have concentrated on his colorful life at the expense of treating his work in the manner it deserves. I have tried to set his achievements within the context of the writers he admired – Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gorky, Artaud, Nietzsche, Saroyan, Fante, Hemingway, Celine, Li Po – in order to show his originality in both poetry and prose.
There’s been quite a lot written about him in the last few years. Why do you think there has been such an upsurge of interest?
There has been a steady stream of his posthumous books from Black Sparrow and then Ecco/HarperCollins so I think his name is still very much in the public domain. I’m not sure there has been a particular upsurge; I think rather that there has been a steady show of interest since his death in 1994. But there have been recent events – such as the Levi-Strauss jeans advertisement in which his poetry is recited against the backdrop of various incendiary activities – that perhaps caught the eyes and ears of people in the past year or so.
As you say, there have been several posthumous books. Can we expect any more?
The last Ecco book of poetry, The Continual Condition, came out in 2009. I have edited three books for City Lights… I wrote Introductions to the first two and an afterword for More Notes in which I provide background information concerning Bukowski’s life during the time he was writing the works included in the aforementioned. If More Notes does well, I plan to do another volume of uncollected Notes of Aa Dirty Old Man. Bukowski composed hundreds of these and many are very good indeed, although only 40 were published in the original volume back in 1969. In the new volume I’d like to include some of his art work too – he was a very fine and humorous cartoonist – as well as his poetry.
You said you think Bukowski is a great writer. What to your mind makes him great?
My grandfather Vagharshak Galoostian was an Armenian poet who lived in a small town called Sanger, near Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley. When I was an adolescent and was first discovering great literature and music, I remember talking to him about art and recollect him saying: “David, de gustibus non est disputandum – you cannot argue about taste.” That has stuck with me. I think either you get Bukowski or you don’t. For me he’s great because he speaks to me, the way Saroyan, Salinger, Thoreau, Miller, Dostoyevsky, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane spoke to me in my teens and still continue to. He speaks to the heart, to the yearning for love and meaning, to the suffering of being human, to the existential choices we face every day. I think he does all these things in an utterly fresh and original way. He achieved Ezra Pound’s counsel and “made it new.” He learned from Hemingway – the short, pared-down, fat-free, muscled sentences with subject-verb-object syntax; from Saroyan a loose, easy, casual humorous style (compare Bukowski’s long, funny titles with Saroyan’s); from Fante a lyrical, direct “carving on the page” (as Bukowski put it). Saroyan was Armenian-American, Fante Italian-American and Bukowski as a German-American identified with their sense of immigrant grief and the feeling of being an outsider. Bukowski is included in several cult writers encyclopaedias, and inspires the same kind of loyalty as some of the greats (Tolkien, Salinger, Burroughs, Kerouac) seem to: a fanatic devotion, in some cases. I’ve seen several examples of tattoos of Bukowski’s poetry etched on the bodies of both male and female fans. So, I guess a great writer is someone who speaks to you.
I think you’re right his work does seem “fresh” not only that it also seems effortless. Do you think he revised much?
He did revise. You can see some examples if you visit Bukowski.net. There are many of his manuscripts on display there. His revisionary tendencies have caused some issues concerning the “authenticity” of his work, in particular his published poems. But the posthumous texts have also often been heavily edited by John Martin, sometimes with several lines removed and others added. This is an ongoing controversy, which is just now being aired. I think the poetry was more heavily revised than the prose. I do think his work was largely “effortless”, as you say, but he also often laboured very hard over it. He was very disciplined, very Germanic about sitting down and hitting the “typer” (as he called it). But in interviews he claimed he drank and wrote simultaneously and often spoke of his creativity as a gift bestowed upon him without all the sturm und drang we expect to hear about – the “agony and ecstasy” of being an “artist”. He seemed much more down to earth about it all, and I believe we can trust his testimony on that. Thinking about it in another way, I think he was closer to J.S. Bach than to Beethoven: my sense is that Bach pretty well just wrote it all out in a continual stream of unfathomable genius and Beethoven sort of struggled away at it measure by measure.
He was very talented indeed but like Henry Miller and a few others, achieved success in his 40s, which is quite late. Do you think a certain amount of maturity and life experience helped make him a better/more worldly/ insightful writer?
Bukowski often said that he was fortunate that he did not become known when he was younger. He said that often writers would burn themselves out, and it is true that in American literature, there are “no second acts” in some cases. He probably had in mind figures like Hemingway and Saroyan, whose work Bukowski felt in later life did not match that written at the beginning of their careers. So Bukowski felt glad he wasn’t known earlier. And he did say that he had not known enough yet. As for “maturity”, I do think that Bukowski’s work shows a clear “progression” – that his “late work” shows a philosophical depth which is obviously the result of much hard experience. Although it is also the case that one could argue that Bukowski’s psychological orientation had been set by adolescence: he knew at age 18 what he knew at 68. And I think Henry Miller would have said something similar: that he was an “old soul” in a young body, and that experience in some way simply confirmed what he had felt from the beginning. Perhaps I am not expressing this very clearly, but you raise an interesting question when you use words like “worldly” and “insightful”. Perhaps with essentially “Romantic” writers – their vision is their youth – they constantly go back to childhood to either the primal sense of wonder or the primal wound of their early years and examine and reexamine their experience – a bit as is the method of psychoanalysis – to find what is there. One thinks of Wordsworth and the role of memory of “something far more deeply interfused” which he struggles throughout his life to express.
Speaking of Miller, I know the two were passing acquaintances and the former disapproved of Bukowski’s drinking. Do you happen to know the exact nature of their relationship?
Bukowski had published a story ‘20 Tanks From Kasseldown’ in 1946 in Portfolio, edited by Caresse Crosby. Henry Miller was listed as a co-editor of the magazine at that time. Bukowski was also published by Loujon Press which was the creation of Jon Webb and his wife Gypsy Lou. The Webbs also began to publish Miller in the mid-60s, producing Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel and later Insomnia. Bukowski and Miller had crossed literary paths over the years and corresponded during the 60s. Miller praised Bukowski’s poetry but also cautioned him about his drinking. Bukowski was apparently rankled by this because he wrote a humorous poem about it published in Kauri 11, November/December 1965. It was humorously entitled: ‘I Am Afraid That I Will Continue to Drink Myself to Death For These Small Reasons Mentioned Here and for Other Reasons That Neither of Us Has Time for Because I Have Need to Get Drunk Now’ – another of those Saroyan-inspired long titles! He also refers to the incident in several interviews and letters. The poem begins: “I am mad like a dead angel/a great man of artistic renown writes me from Beverly Hills:/’don’t drink yourself to death. especially, don’t drink while/you are writing – it’ll ruin your inspiration’/my nights would be hell and my days unbearable without/drink./the streetwalkers, the whores, the one-night stands the/one-week stands the/one-month stands the/winos the mothers…” (Miller actually lived in Pacific Palisades, not Beverly Hills). Bukowski was often asked about Miller as an influence. He claimed he liked his sexual writing, but was irritated when Miller went off onto metaphysical flights. He mentions this in an essay I included in Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook entitled ‘Henry Miller Lives in Pacific Palisades and I Live on Skid Row, Still Writing About Sex’. Miller had a deep interest in esoteric and Eastern philosophy, reading Madame Blavatsky, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda whereas Bukowski had no interest in these matters, although he deeply appreciated Li Po and himself had, I think, a basically Zen Buddhist aspect to his personality and work. He is very much about paring life down to its barest essentials, rather like Henry David Thoreau. Bukowski and Miller were both German-Americans, Miller suffering with an unloving mother and Bukowski with an abusive father. And they both loved Dostoyevsky, Céline, Saroyan. Miller admired a French writer no one reads anymore but whom my 91-year-old father Pierre Calonne adores: Jean Giono.
Do you personally think the two were actually influenced by one another even if somewhat unwittingly?
I don’t think there was any influence of Bukowski on Miller at all. And stylistically, I don’t think Bukowski took much from Miller. Bukowski wrote a much more muscular, simple, Anglo-Saxon, subject-verb-object, Hemingwayesque prose. But there is a surreal element in Bukowski as in Miller. And you quoted a passage from one of the columns I included in More Notes of A Dirty Old Man in which Bukowski’s character has a sexual encounter with a red-head which he closes as follows: “And then BANG the walls shook, a man on the street stepped on a grease spot, fell and broke his ankle and we slid apart like worms going in different directions, and she stood there and said, “ooooh oooooh oooooh I liked it, I liked it I liked it, you filthy greasy pig…” This reminded me a bit of Miller’s Sexus: the odd shift to the man stepping “on a grease spot” (which obviously echoes the sexual action which is simultaneously occurring”, the seemingly absurd and unrelated fact of broken ankle, and then the typical Millersque “slid apart like worms”.
Another influence on Bukowski was alcohol as he once confessed never having written a poem sober. Do you think that’s true and if so you could perhaps tell me a little bit about how alcohol affected his writing/shaped his work?
One never knows how much is mythic or real in Bukowski, but I would guess that this is true. He would joke about whether he was a drinker who wrote or a writer who drank. Since he did both throughout his life, it is likely the two activities constantly overlapped. He was incredibly prolific. I think his output accounts for over 60 books so far, and there are more to come. We should also take him seriously when he says he wrote to avoid total madness. It was indeed his salvation. There are many books on alcohol and writers, so this probably somewhat of a pedestrian subject by now. There are many abstemious writers: Nabokov and Borges come to mind. I myself don’t believe it has anything to do with making you more or less “creative”. But the inner psychological pressures some humans labor under make alcohol a pleasant way to overcome the anguish for a while, to stretch time, to reach Dionysian ecstasy. The ancient Greeks called it “ex-stasis” meaning to “stand outside the self”. Bukowski frequently invokes the ancient Greek idea of wine as “the blood of the gods”. I think he was really a kind of pagan, elemental, pre-Western-logical-Aristotlian. He was a kind of mystic gnostic, finding meaning in the self, finding many “gods”, not one punishing, furious, judgmental Big Daddy with a Long Beard on a Throne God. I also find similarities in his work – particularly in the mid-60s when he drank but also experimented with various drugs – with the shamanistic idea of shape-shifting spiritual voyaging. Linda Lee Bukowski, his widow, has written about the long talks they had about spiritual matters and I think it is clear that although he “seemed” from the outside to be “just” a “dirty old man” to those who have not read all of his work (i.e. not just the more “sensational” works but also the essays and particularly the wonderful letters which I think are on the same level as those of D.H. Lawrence’s) that he was in fact always deeply trying to answer the fundamental existential questions. Alcohol was another facet of his quest, and I do think that he couldn’t have borne his suffering without it. Long answer. But it’s a difficult question really. Anything can be either an “escape” or an “entrance.”
You mention some of Bukowski’s love affairs, his wife, which brings me to the subject of women. He wrote about them extensively, sometimes in a positive, more often in a negative, light. This has caused many to accuse him of being a misogynist, any truth in that?
If one reads the complete works, it is clear that Bukowski was equally as rough on females, males and on himself. He constantly undercuts the “macho” pose by portraying his male anti-heroes as extremely comic personages. Bukowski’s obsession is with love, actually. His anguish and disappointments are due to the failure of romantic love – he says in an interview something like “love is like the fog which burns away from the sun of reality.” He read the great Roman love poet Catullus very deeply and Catullus’ influence can be seen in Bukowski’s poetry (he composed several homages to Catullus) especially in Love is a Dog From Hell. And he loved Boccaccio’s Decameron and intentionally sought to portray the “battle of the sexes” as a comedy. Remember too that he admired the American writer and artist James Thurber who wrote the funny illustrated book Is Sex Really Necessary? Bukowski admired D.H. Lawrence, but he often poked fun at him for being too serious and too cosmic about sex. In fact in my research I found a comic drawing Bukowski created of D.H. Lawrence urinating and I discovered recently that this is a parody of a water color Lawrence painted in 1928 called Dandelions depicting a naked man in nature relieving himself. So you have to read between the lines with Bukowski. He is always playing with expectations and conventions, and he is no “misogynist.” If anything, he is like his favorite French writer L.F. Céline a (sometimes) misanthrope, but in the Greek sense of “anthropos” being all of humanity, not just the male half. But even here, I think this derives from his disappointment in humanity, his hurt, his anguish. He cares a lot, and if you care, you get hurt.
While on the subject of hurt and romantic love, Bukowski was never more distraught than by the death of Jane Cooney Baker, his one true love. The two had a very destructive relationship, but when she died it almost broke him. Do you think that his attitude towards women was shaped by the overall experience?
Jane obsessed him, quite clearly. In his poem ‘my first affair with that older woman’, he wrote: “she was ten years older/and mortally hurt by the past/and the present;/she treated me badly: desertion, other/men;/she brought me immense/pain/continually.” I think that sums it up. And as you say, upon her death he composed some of his greatest poems. We enter again here psychoanalytic territory, but I suppose that when a person experiences severe trauma in childhood – as Bukowski did – that this then sets the pattern for later life. So that when such a person experiences great loss later, this reactivates the primary loss and the pain is experienced with extreme force. I don’t think it was the relationship with Jane that set the pattern, but the relationship with his parents. His father was insanely abusive and his mother neither defended him from this abuse nor gave him love. In his early poetry and stories of the 40s Bukowski begins to refer repeatedly to the spider who makes the web to catch the fly. This becomes his metaphor for love, for the totentanz of love, which can end in madness or death. He says this also in an interview, that Woman becomes for him Father often: the force that can destroy. But I think this vulnerability is not atypical with many American Romantics such as Hart Crane or Tennessee Williams.
Do you think then that writing about love is when Bukowski truly came into his own? Lawrence Durrell often talked of the writer’s need to make a breakthrough in his writing, to hear the sound of his own voice, is that how Bukowski acquired his?
A very good question. Firstly, we need to distinguish between Bukowski the poet and Bukowski the prose writer. He was always doing both poems and fiction. His early stories are both lyrical and sometimes very dark (like ‘20 Tanks From Kasseldown’ whose anti-hero is Dostoyevskian in his intense, mad, solitariness) and also light, deft and humorous like ‘Aftermath’. He would continue throughout his career to compose in these seemingly opposite styles: tragic and comic. As for “originality” or “finding his own voice”, these things can get complicated. Back to Beethoven: when did he become “Beethoven”? I suppose by the Third Symphony? Before he is still Haydnesque and Mozartian? People will debate these things. I think in some ways it was there from the beginning, but by the mid-60s, Bukowski really started to roar. I think that the Beats (though he often inveighed against them, he had much in common with them) and the hippies and the California counterculture of the 60s allowed him the freedom to become much more open. Censorship restrictions began to lessen, and he was able to combine the lyricism and sensitivity of his original vision with a more hip, direct, vivid style. He also became very fluent in combining these various elements – the absurd comic vision with the deep existential questioning. The fact is that he has several periods, perhaps again like Beethoven: early, middle and late. The early poems in particular are often densely metaphorical, allusive, condensed, intricate. We should remember that Bukowski often read the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, which were the bastions of the “New Critics” like John Crowe Ranson, Allan Tate, Cleanth Brooks who prized precisely this kind of poetry. Bukowski avidly read the essays in these journals but said he disliked the poetry. Another missing piece of the puzzle of his early influences is Conrad Aiken, who also had an intellectually dense style. So from 1944-1965 you get one Bukowski. Then as I have said, the 60s kick in and you get Bukowski 1966-1986 and then Barfly and the “Late Style” 1987-1994. These are very approximate dates, but in the middle period you get Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), and then the first novels – Post Office (1970) and Factotum (1974) – a very rich period when he had quit work at the post office and was writing full-time. His life was also very chaotic during this time. He had several mind-wrenching, life-giving, ecstatic love affairs (he was also re-reading Catullus during this period which left its mark) which brought Love is a Dog From Hell (1977) and Women (1978). Then a magnificent book of poetry Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981) and his bildungsroman Ham on Rye (1982). He was consolidating his early achievements during this middle period and also finishing his autobiographical exploration of his whole life, again rather like Henry Miller did in Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn, and the “Rosy Crucifixion” – Sexus, Nexus and Plexus. Then we get Barfly, which I think is the final summation of this period, in the final phase, 1987-1994. Theodor Adorno wrote about Beethoven’s “late style” and here with Bukowski we also get a final summary of his life’s themes. Again, rather like D.H. Lawrence in his late poems, Bukowski becomes more and more preoccupied with building his “ship of death” and the poems become profoundly metaphysical. His cats, listening to classical music on the radio, drinking fine German wine, invoking Li Po, constantly speaking of the quest for authentic selfhood – the late poems are way ahead of anything he had achieved before. And then we also get an experimentation with form – he writes a mystery novel Pulp (1994) and a splendid journal, published posthumously as The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over Ship (1998). So we have a relentless creativity as he tries out new forms as well as returns to earlier themes in a new manner.
Taking his experimentation into account, would you describe Bukowski as a daring writer?
Yes. He absorbed many influences yet succeed in doing what Ezra Pound advised: he “made it new.” I think he is original in fusing the elements of “low-brow” and “high-brow” culture in a vital and often funny way. In creating “Hank Chinaski” – his alter ego who listens to Mahler and Stravinsky, reads Li Po, Pound, Jeffers, and yet can speak in the most colloquial and “vulgar” manner, he brings a new energy and panache to literature. Bukowski learned from Whitman, Hemingway, cumin’s, Saroyan and Fante, and he succeeded in creating his own literary universe in which he fused the existential, dark themes of European literature (Céline, Hamsun, Dostyoevsky) with this particular American tradition of direct speech. He also often added a riotous, absurd humor anchored in the realities of the body. He said he was really a “Puritan”, and therefore went a good distance in the opposite direction to balance his yin and yang. Opinions are divided about Pulp: some really like it and others think it shouldn’t have been published. I myself am fond of it – it demonstrates Bukowski’s interest in crime fiction. He wrote a poem back in 1946 which bears the influence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Only Rings Twice. And he sends up this American tradition. He does this often – refers to a predecessor either in tribute or parody. The opening of Post Office is “It began as a mistake” and the opening of Céline’s Voyage au Bout de La Nuit is “Ça a débuté comme ça”. So Bukowski is always working in a tradition, alluding to other writers, but then going in his own direction. His late poetry is marked by the deepening of his Gnostic vision of life – humans struggling in an indifferent cosmos where each of us must “save ourselves.” This is a recurring theme, as well as a heartbreaking openness in poems such as ‘The Bluebird’. The parallel with late Beethoven I think is apt. If you listen to the Grosse Fuge, the Bagatelles and late sonatas for piano, the Ninth Symphony you can see that Beethoven is pushing way into new territory, pushing the limits of what you can do harmonically, polyphonically, what the instruments are capable of producing. The Germans as usual got this right because in one of the televised interviews they did of Bukowski late in life they played the ‘Scherzo’ from the Ninth Symphony as the opening music. I think that gets it just right.
You reference Germany quite frequently, would you say Bukowski is better appreciated in Europe?
He is immensely popular in Germany, and also in Spain, Italy and France. He is translated into Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Finnish, Russian, Swedish and others. His sales during his life were greater in Europe than the US. I’m not sure now what the situation is. He often said that the US was behind Europe in its appreciation of good art. In some ways, one recalls someone like Edgar Allan Poe who was appreciated by Baudelaire and Mallarmé before he was considered of any consequence here. Something similar happened I think with William Faulkner whom Sartre took up with great passion long before Faulkner achieved anything like acceptance in America. And the Russians have always appreciated writers like Steinbeck and Saroyan from a different angle than Americans. In writing my book for Reaktion, I did quite a bit of research into Bukowski and Germany and my feeling is that he fits into a long German literary tradition: he is really a German writer who was actually born in Andernach, Germany and came to Los Angeles at the age of three. He writes in the 60s of his pleasure in being translated into German, as if he is now returning to his original tongue. And when he went to Hamburg in 1978 to give a poetry reading at the Martkhalle, his first words were: “It’s good to be back.” He adored Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven. He has that sehnsucht of the German Romantics: that desire for what lies beyond. And he has the German hard, trenchant, ironic, side to balance the tenderness. I think too he often writes in very simple English, which translates well into other languages, rather like Hemingway. And he is firmly in the American Romantic tradition. As Hart Crane hymned in The Broken Tower: “And so it was I entered the broken world/To trace the visionary company of love, its voice/An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)/But not for long to hold each desperate choice.” And there are lines in Bukowski straight out of Walt Whitman. And he loved Voyage au Bout de la Nuit and Catullus and Rabelais and Li Po, Tu Fu and even has a poem about Vallejo. So one might say he is a figure of Weltliteratur, beyond national classification. He writes with verve, compassion and comedy about our common human plight. You know, like that English chap… what was his name?… (Matthew Arnold) something about how “we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Dolly Delightly reviews More Notes From a Dirty Old Man at her literary blog Book Me…