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This item is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

CHARLES BUKOWSKI said, or is said to have said, lots of pithy things. They can be found on web sites such as, side by side with ‘Great Lessons You Can Learn from Theodore Roosevelt’ and other sustaining gobbets from Grant Cardone (‘Don’t Just Make Money, Make a Difference’), Lori Greiner, Kendrick Lamar, Andy Frisella, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael B. Jordan, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep. Streep has said no fewer than thirty-two ‘remarkable things’, including, ‘You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.’ Bukowski scores ‘14 Thought-Provoking Life Quotes’, rather below par in this context. On he scores well over two thousand, some of them quite long and several with over one thousand ‘likes’. ‘Without literature, life is hell’ gets one thousand and twenty-three. One quote gets no votes at all, though it merits a few:

Yes, I know what you mean about writing and writers. We seem to have lost the target. Writers seem to write to be known as writers. They don’t write because something is driving them toward the edge. I look back at when Pound, T.S. Eliot, e. e. Cummings, Jeffers, Auden, Spender were about. Their work cracked right through the paper, set it on fire. Poems became events, explosions. There was a high excitement. Now, for decades there has seemed to be this lull, almost a practiced lull, as if dullness indicated genius. And if a new talent came along it was only a flash, a few poems, a thin book and then he or she was sanded down, ingested into the quiet nothingness. Talent without durability is a god damned crime. It means they went to the soft trap, it means they believed the praise, it means they settled short. A writer is not a writer because he has written some books. A writer is not a writer because he teaches literature. A writer is only a writer if he can write now, tonight, this minute. We have too many x-writers who type. Books fall from my hand to the floor. They are total crap. I think we have just blown away half a century to the stinking winds. Yes.

Bukowski (1920–94), described by his publisher John Martin as ‘the new Walt Whitman’, is in the news again a quarter of a century after his death. The occasion is his posthumous poetry, an almost inexhaustible supply (he wrote copiously every day), and the outrageous news – not new, but now widely publicised – that his very long-time, faithful, long-suffering publisher, founder of Black Sparrow Press, had used the poet’s absence due to death as an occasion to edit the poems he added to the oeuvre in ways Bukowski would have resisted, and Linda Bukowski, his widow, has on his behalf. In a 2013 blog Michael Philips blew the whistle with a piece called ‘The senseless, tragic rape of Charles Bukowski’s ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press’. This blog, with prequels and sequels, is a fascinating study, fundamentalist in its hostility to editorial intervention in creative work.

Michael Hofmann in PNR in 1986 reviewed Bukowski’s Black Sparrow War All The Time: Poems 1981–1984, which weighed in at three hundred pages and was only the tiny tip of that four-year iceberg. We read, ‘Buk dishing it out to Mexicans, women, writers, critics, remembering his postman days, going out to the races and restaurants, commenting on his fame and the things that accompany it.’ Bukowski is always accessible. ‘The writing makes no great claims or demands, it gives itself up readily enough to the speed-reader, having itself been written at speed...’

John Martin, ten years Bukowski’s junior, published most of his work, setting up Black Sparrow for that purpose, paying Bukowski a retainer and encouraging him into fiction. Martin’s list came to include Paul Bowles, John Fante, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Reznikoff and many others. In 2002 Martin disposed of the press in two lots. Bukowski and the crown jewels went to Ecco, the bulk of the rich backlist to David Godine.

The poems Martin is accused of vandalising were those rejected from the books Martin and Bukowski assembled in the poet’s lifetime. Black Sparrow tried to keep faith with the ghost of Bukowski by sifting and re-sifting the manuscript remains, panning the dross. In Martin’s view the uncollected work had to come up to snuff or its publication might damage Bukowski’s reputation. His impulse was the opposite of vandalism, though his judgement may have been at fault. Philips claims the ‘Wholesale removal of references to drinking, drugs, sex and madness’, trademark themes. (Quite a lot of drinking, drugs, sex and madness survive.) Even readers not keen on Bukowski can see that Martin’s revisions are not invariably improvements.

Could it be that Martin’s strategy was to adjust the received impression of Bukowski so that, as the tides of critical fashion and theoretical censure shift, the poet who was ‘unafraid’, in Abel Debritto’s description, and ‘talked about anything and everything, as if taboo and fear were not part of his vocabulary’, might be in danger of losing his readership? ‘Smiling, he unleashed all kinds of hell on the blank page. He deliberately came up with this tough guy image, this Dirty Old Man persona that attracted and repulsed readers equally.’ Dirty Old Men have less currency than they once did. Martin was a publisher: he could read the runes. ‘Having little time for double standards, Bukowski punched readers in the gut,’ says Debritto approvingly, ‘hit them hard with his trademark uppercuts, making them feel each and every word on the page, spare and simple as they were.’ This language, like Bukowski’s, is unreflectingly gendered. Integrity would appear to entail unrestrained self-expression, regardless of whose gut is being punched.

The Los Angeles Review of Books (2 March 2018) featured Debritto’s substantial article on the topic. With chapter and quite a bit of verse, he makes the case. In his indignation, he does not consider what might have motivated Martin in making the changes. He puts Martin with Maxwell Perkins, who wrestled Thomas Wolfe into shape and engaged with Hemingway and Fitzgerald; and Gordon Lish, who helped make (it seems to some readers) rather than mar Raymond Carver. There are less literate and more righteous editors, too, who ‘change works back’ on the authority of writers’ manuscripts, even when the writers have agreed to edits. Such editors find integrity only in ‘first thought best thought’ (Ginsberg’s phrase).

Eleven collections appeared in Bukowski lifetime; twelve (one thousand six hundred poems) still under Martin’s aegis, followed his death. Among the mass of Bukowski’s manuscripts Martin no doubt made errors. He brought the books out, however; the poet stayed news. No other publisher would have had the patience, authority or means to support Bukowski as Martin did. When Debritto, a card-carrying Bukowski fan, says that ‘Bukowski’s original beauty is simply gone’ from the posthumous books, he forgets that the books themselves collect work that lacked the ‘original beauty’ and was excluded from titles published in the poet’s lifetime.

Michael Philips’s 2013 blog and the Los Angeles Review of Books article give telling examples of the changes introduced between manuscript and publication. Martin selected the content of Bukowski’s poetry books when the poet was alive. He did not rewrite, but he organised and shaped them. His part in Bukowski’s poems and fiction is central. He is part of a process that, as with so many writers, is collaboration. Admirers of Bukowski owe Martin a debt. When they cry ‘rape’ they unwrite literary history.

Ecco has published a new posthumous collection, Storm for the Living and the Dead, copied unedited from Bukowski’s scripts. It is an economy for a publisher not to edit. New purists celebrate: this patch of tapestry need not be unwoven. But when it comes to it, they cannot unweave the larger texture of Bukowski’s poetry, in which Martin’s contribution is part of the very fibre.

This item is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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