This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2017: all that

August 16, 2017: birthday: Charles Bukowski

Today is the birthday of the writer that The Washington Post called “the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots”: Charles Bukowski (books by this author), born in Andernach, Germany (1920). He wrote more than 45 books of poetry and prose, including It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Post Office (1971), Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977), Ham on Rye (1982), and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).

His American father had been stationed in Germany during World War I, and Bukowski was the product of the man’s affair with a German girl, whom he later married. The family moved to Los Angeles when Charles was a toddler, and that’s where he grew up. He was picked on for his small size and his German accent, and when he was a teenager, he had such bad acne that it left permanent scars. His father had a violent temper and used to beat him. Bukowski was 13 when a friend gave him his first drink, and he, Bukowski, said, “This is going to help me for a very long time.” He studied journalism in college for a couple of years, but then dropped out when World War II started, and he moved to New York to become a writer.

He published his first story when he was 24; the story was called “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” The rejection slip in the story reads, “Dear Mr. Bukowski: Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you’ve done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don’t know exactly when. That depends on you.” Bukowski would later estimate that his work was 93 percent autobiographical.

He published one more story after that but then received rejection after rejection, and he gave up writing for 10 years. He drank his way from New York to L.A., and wound up in a hospital, half dead from a bleeding ulcer. The doctor told him, “If you have another drink, it will kill you.” Bukowski kept drinking, and he worked a series of odd jobs — at a pickle factory, a dog biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and at the post office — and then, when he was 35, he started writing poetry. His first collection was called Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959). Ten years later, when he was 49, Bukowski accepted a job offer from John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press. Martin idolized Bukowski, and had started Black Sparrow with the sole aim of publishing his work. Martin was sure he was the next Walt Whitman, and he offered him $100 a month to quit his job and write. “I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve,” Bukowski wrote in a letter. “I have decided to starve.” In return for Martin’s faith and support, Bukowski published almost all of his major work through Black Sparrow from then on.

Bukowski summed up his philosophy in a letter he wrote in 1963: “Somebody […] 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.”