Charles Bukowski, Sober?
Lucidity in the serene eye of a drinking hurricane
Mark Cramer (photographs by Nancy Clendaniel)
September 22, 1978 marked the moment Charles Bukowski, a panelist on the iconic Apostrophes prime-time French literary show, staggered up from his chair, drunk, and stumbled off the set while insulting the host and guests on the way out.
Before Bukowski could recover from the hangover, his European book sales catapulted and the new-found fame shot back to the USA quicker than the coronavirus. (The ratings of the French show Apostrophes also skyrocketed.)
In a later documentary a tipsy Bukowski allowed himself to be filmed pushing around his wife. (He could have asked the filmmaker to cut out that part, but he didn’t.) My own wife was horrified, and she stopped reading Bukowski.
My encounters with Bukowski
In the early ’80s I was a regular visitor at Southern California racetracks. As a disciplined bettor I often had to wait an hour between bettable races, so I’d bring along Bukowski’s poetry. Bukowski, too, was a regular horseplayer, but I lacked the courage to approach him for an autograph, fearing I might crash head on into my own Apostrophes moment.
Having read his autobiographical novel Ham on Rye, about a battered childhood and a youth disfigured by a terrible skin disease, I put aside his mean-spirited persona and simply cherished his writing. But from afar.
One clear winter afternoon at Santa Anita, with the stark backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, I saw him seated alone in the grandstand, where the horses round into the stretch. He had once written that this is where an experienced horseplayer can already tell which horse is going to win.
I walked up to his seat.
“Bukowski, can you give me your autograph?” I brandished one of his greatest books of poetry, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills (1969).
You could not have met a more gracious human being. With a warm smile, he opened the book to the dedication page that already said “for Jane” and wrote: For Mark Cramer / Well shit, I had the / 4 / O.K. / Hails / Charles Bukowski, followed by a pen-drawn self-caricature.
He’d just won with the number 4 horse, the second favorite. He wished me good fortune in our common search for a winning bet.
It made sense for him to be sober while betting. Serious horseplayers know that the intense thinking involved in deciding on which horse to bet would be seriously impaired by alcohol.
During the same period, in working on an article about the influence of Pablo Neruda on American poetry, I sent Bukowski a letter asking for his opinion on Neruda. I held no high hopes for a response. (Nowadays, celebrities of click-bait fame do not bother to answer a well-meant letter.)
He did indeed write back. Surprisingly, he stretched his letter beyond a mere answer. He ended his Neruda comments questioning the political aspect in some of Neruda’s poems: “Although things might be solved in politics and ultimate government, there’s a tremendous waste in getting there. Not that Neruda doesn’t have the right to hope so.”
Even though he did not know me, he finished off the letter with a sober personal note: “There’s so much to be done and most of the time I’m just flopping on the bed in this state of perpetual mourning.”
For readers wanting to know the sober Bukowski, the one who both analyzes a horse race and decides on the precise language of a poem, is a good way to begin. (See “Postscript” at the end of this piece.) His poem “Style” opens the door for those who’ve not read his work:
Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art
Bullfighting can be an art
Boxing can be an art
Loving can be an art
Opening a can of sardines can be an art
Not many have style
Not many can keep style
I have seen dogs with more style than men,
although not many dogs have style.
Cats have it with abundance.
When Hemingway put his brains to the wall with a shotgun,
that was style.
Or sometimes people give you style
Joan of Arc had style
John the Baptist
I have met men in jail with style.
I have met more men in jail with style than men out of jail.
Style is the difference, a way of doing, a way of being done.
Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water,
or you, naked, walking out of the bathroom without seeing me.”
From Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck (1972)
For Bukowski’s fiction, I recommend starting with the second untitled story from Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). The story transcends the best baseball fiction. It’s about a baseball-playing angel whose wings get clipped by a gambling mobster before the last and deciding game of the season.
Here’s a slice from the beginning, just before the angel walks into the room and offers his services:
We were sitting in the office after dropping another one of those 7–1 ballgames, and the season was halfway over, and we were in the cellar, 25 games out of first place and I knew it was my last season as manager of the Blues. …
“On top of all this,” said Henderson, “I even caught the crabs about 2 weeks ago.”
“Jesus, sorry, boss.”
“You won’t be calling me boss much longer.”
“I know, but no manager can pull these rummies out of last place,” I said, knocking off a third of a pint.
“And worse,” said Henderson, “I think it was my wife who gave me the crabs.”
Then the baseball-playing angel walked in, making this story literally take off.
With Bukowski, poetry and story-telling are not separate genres, as seen in this fragment of his poem, “On the Train to Del Mar”:
…the bartender sees that
I am feeling good
he smiles a real smile and
“How’s it going?”
how’s it going? my heels are down
my shoes cracked
I am wearing my father’s pants and he died
ten years ago
I need 8 teeth pulled
my intestine has a partial blockage
I puff on a dime cigar
“Great!” I answer him,
“How you making?”
Lines like these can only be written in sobriety, even if these sober moments are the serene eye in a storm of drinking. The empathy that the working class poet Bukowski lacked when with the elite on the set of Apostrophes seems to have been reserved for the battered and downtrodden, as can be experienced in the final sobering lines of “The Tragedy of Leaves”:
and I walked into the dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final
sending me to hell
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent
because the world had failed us both.
Postscript: Poetry and horse betting crossing paths
If you’ve never analyzed past performances in order to wager on a horse, these Bukowski words will help you see the connection:
Somebody asked me, “Bukowski, if you taught a course in writing, what would you ask them to do?” I answered, “I’d send them all to the racetrack and force them to bet $5 on each race.” This ass thought that I was joking. The human race is very good at treachery and cheating and modifying a position. What people who want to be writers need is to be put in an area that they cannot maneuver out of by weak and dirty play.”
(From All’s Normal Here: A Charles Bukowski Primer, p. 82)