Elevate Difference

Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge

San Marino, California

The Huntington Library is a sprawling estate—part research library, museum, and botanical garden, all of which are tucked away in the uber-rich city of San Marino, CA. It's the kind of city that would have rejected ol’ Charles Bukowski—or Hank Chinaski, as he’s known in his many books and poems. So, this blindingly bright, beautiful library seemed an odd location for a retrospective of Bukowski’s work, but the two rooms that housed his life story were magic.

I try not to be ashamed to admit that Bukowski is my favorite writer. I discovered him around the age of thirteen, and while other geeky book-loving girls I knew were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Emily Dickinson’s breathy, delicate prose, I was devouring every Bukowski book in the library.

I had no idea that poetry could be so biting, so drunkenly sincere, so sexual, or so human. I had no idea you could write poems that weren't about feelings and flowers, but about the city and skid row, about being down and out or working shit jobs while living paycheck-to-paycheck. As Bukowski put it, his genius stemmed from his interest in “whores, working men, and street-car drivers—lonely, beaten-down people.”

Even as a young girl, I considered myself to be a feminist, and it was difficult to explain how I could feel so strongly for a notorious womanizer, a man who valued women mostly based on how good their legs looked. In his defense, Bukowski was also working class, a voice for the disaffected, though that’s hardly a defense. What I know, however, is that love is complicated, and my love for Bukowski is as complicated as his deep (and brutal) love of women.

For me, the single best part of Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge exhibit was what you saw immediately upon entrance: the writer’s desk. I stood and stared at it for a good ten minutes. Technically, there was just an old beat up radio, a typewriter, an incredibly thick pair of glasses, a couple of pens, and a stained wine glass, but it felt like so much more than that. Bukowski is a hometown hero for Angelinos, our patron saint of the downtrodden, and to see his desk exactly as it was when he was hammering away was nothing short of amazing. There was a recording of Bukowski reading aloud playing in the distance that was sort of intermingling with a never-ending loop of the poet’s favorite classical music, and it was sort of like he’d never left us, like we were standing in the middle of his late-night living room.

I’m not sure how Bukowski would feel about a retrospective of his life and work appearing at such a snooty, manicured museum, but I’m happy his wife Linda Lee made it happen. Part one, entitled “What Matters Most is How Well you Walk Through the Fire,” detailed his childhood. Bukowski endured a particularly painful adolescence, mostly because of an extreme case of acne that left his face and chest covered in boils. It’s doubtful he knew that the last chapter of his life would end with the heading “Hollywood,” as many of his books have now been made into mainstream movies.

For fans well-versed in his story, the eight-part walkthrough provided little insight into his inner workings or his writing, but being able to see childhood photographs, edited drafts of poems with Bukowski’s scribbles in the margins, and incredibly rare chapbooks was a real treat. Despite his many shortcomings as a human being, I respect Bukowski as a writer. Even after his struggle had ended and he began receiving the acclaim that escaped him for nearly thirty years, Bukowski was still simple in his needs and desires. “All I need now is what I needed then,” he said. “A desk lamp, a typewriter, the bottle, the radio, classical music, and this room on fire.”

This exhibit will run until February 14, 2011.

Written by: Tina Vasquez, February 8th 2011

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