Charles Bukowski, Sober?

Lucidity in the serene eye of a drinking hurricane

September 22, 1978 marked the moment Charles Bukowski, a panelist on the iconic 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 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 moment.

(Photo by Nancy Clendaniel)

Having read his autobiographical novel 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 .

I walked up to his seat.

“Bukowski, can you give me your autograph?” I brandished one of his greatest books of poetry, (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: , 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.

(Photo by Nancy Clendaniel)

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:

From (1972)

For Bukowski’s fiction, I recommend starting with the second untitled story from (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:

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”:

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 seems to have been reserved for the battered and downtrodden, as can be experienced in the final sobering lines of “The Tragedy of Leaves”:

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:

(From p. 82)



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