bukowski: born into this

A writer or an artist will gain pure inspiration. His first stories were rejected by all the big houses, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, all the lit journals in New York. Hell even Steinbeck had a hard time invading those northeast intellectual camps….”


by p.l. george


So I’m traveling the Hollywood video racks, which is rapidly becoming my second home, looking for a comedy or pure horror, something that spurs me in either direction, just for mindless entertainment, to get my dire writer moods distracted. Get away from writing boy, you’re all consumed, my inner voice tells me. The last one I took a chance on here was Brokeback Mountain, which was utterly depressing and over-hyped. Make the theme handicapped or gay and you’ll have Hollywood sucking your cock.

My eyes are wandering along the new release B’s, and I find the yellow cover with Hank’s old, grizzled mug plastered across it. Shit, you gotta be kidding me. There’s only two copies of “Born Into This”, just the right amount for a down and out documentary on the life of the poet and author Charles Bukowski. I first saw the film two years ago at our newly renovated art museum theatre and have never forgotten it.

Its intro is hilarious, with snippets of publishers, filmmakers, and of course women giving their bouts with Hank, their favorites. One in particular is a woman he’d slept with after his meteoric rise. “He referred to his penis as a purple onion,” she says as she makes a disgusting roll of the eyes to the sky. Classic.

It starts with his childhood, the beatings from his father through his outsider-ness adolescence, due to horrible acne. The pussy wasn’t coming. I start to gain sympathy for him after this and understand why he wrote what he wrote, knowing where the harshness and the severity originates from. But Bukowski is not all testosterone, blood, and hate. He is a wounded lion, that naked side, the vulnerability, and the crying. Yes, Hank cries in this doc, sorry to burst the mythical bubble. Hell, he’s a poet after all.

A writer or an artist will gain pure inspiration. His first stories were rejected by all the big houses, Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, all the lit journals in New York. Hell even Steinbeck had a hard time invading those northeast intellectual camps. And as far as Bukowski was concerned, the rejection letters came back stamped “not good enough”. And to paraphrase an interview with the filmmaker, “Most people would have given up after that, find something else to do with your life”…”But Hank never did”. “That’s why he survived.”

And then Hank speaks, inside a scratchy, 8 mm clip, “You know, it came to me…” He’s got a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand, sitting on the dirty couch, old brown rolled cigarette in his hand, a young whore next to him, all just classic framing. “When they said that, I said to myself, you gotta keep that one spark, never let them take it away”. Then he cups his two chapped hands together. “If you protect it, don’t let them get to it, you can start a fire.” That line is pure underground gold for all the strugglers to give up the ghost for a more profitable road. Look, I got no delusions, he’s one in a million, all the fates lined up. I’m a realist, no fantasies dance along these jaded lines. It was a time when poets were rock stars. And, he was at the right place, at the right time, with the right newspaper (L.A. Free Press), and the right publisher. John Martin is to be commended for taking a chance on Bukowski. He constantly dismisses the questions of why he could put his name and reputation alongside such a raging alchoholic with these lines, “that’s just a myth, that’s not the man”. “He was most prolific writer of that generation.” “When every other poets were so structured, Hank wrote plainly to the blue collars, he spoke their language.” “When everyone else was copying, Hank was innovating.” So was Martin, we need more of his type in the lit world, as the years go along, they become ever more the conformist.

I get stuck on these underdogs. How lower can a man be, living on skid row, eternally poor, perpetually alcoholic? There would be no horizon without the writing and pit bull- sticktoitivness.

I don’t mean to bore you with all this Bukowski talk, as if he’s the end all, be all. But I magnetically adhere to different writers at different stages in my life. When I was a hermit, it was Thoreau. When I left the Catholic Church, it was Merton and Kirkegaard. When I was bitter it was Nietzsche and Schopenauer. When I was on Greyhounds, it was Kerouac. When I felt old, I kept my youth through Ginsberg. When I was in love, Neruda. When I hated politicians, Machiavelli. When I wanted to kill the rich, the new- found Bret Easton Ellis, and so on. But Bukowski has never left me.

You’ve got to get your mind ready for “Born Into This”. At times, it can become depressing, making you search for a high window. But in the end, it has this resounding lesson: Never give up.

Originally published:
Issue Forty-Three
June 2006


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