Aug. 16, 2010

two nights before my 72nd birthday

by Charles Bukowski

sitting here on a boiling hot night while
drinking a bottle of cabernet sauvignon
after winning $232 at the track.
there's not much I can tell you except
if it weren't for my bad right leg
I don't feel much different than I did
30 or 40 years ago (except that
now I have more money and should be able
to afford a decent
burial). also,
I drive better automobiles and have
stopped carrying a
I am still looking for a hero, a role model,
but can't find one.
I am no more tolerant of Humanity
than I ever was.
I am not bored with myself and find
that I am the only one I can
turn to in time of
I've been ready to die for decades and
I've been practicing, polishing up
for that end
but it's very
hot tonight
and I can think of little but
this fine cabernet,
that's gift enough for me.
sometimes I can't
believe I've come this far,
this has to be some kind of goddamned
just another old guy
blinking at the forces,
smiling a little,
as the cities tremble and the left
hand rises,

"two nights before my 72nd birthday" by Charles Bukowski, from Come On In!. © Harper Collins, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a poet who has been called "the poet of the bottle" and "the laureate of lowlife": Charles Bukowski, (books by this author) born in Andernach, Germany (1920). His mom was German and his dad was an American soldier, and he grew up in Los Angeles. He was a small kid and during adolescence he developed severe acne, which made him a target for bullies. He said, "That's when I started acting tough and writing. I'd take on anyone. I'd lose mostly, but, boy, could I take a helluva punch."

He published his first story when he was 24, tried to make it in the literary world, but after that first acceptance he got rejected over and over and stopped writing. Ten years of very heavy drinking brought on a near-fatal bleeding ulcer, and when he got out of the hospital, he started writing poetry again. Eventually, he wrote more than 45 books, poetry and fiction, many of them featuring his alter ego, Henry Chinaski. His books include It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Love Is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974–1977 (1977), Ham on Rye (1982), and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992). He died of leukemia in 1994.

He said: "This is very important — to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you're gonna lose everything. Whether you're an actor, anything, a housewife … there has to be great pauses between highs, where you do nothing at all. You just lay on a bed and stare at the ceiling."

And, "The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn't interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative."

It's the birthday of a novelist whose writing voice John Updike called "one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction." That's William Maxwell, (books by this author) born in Lincoln, Illinois (1908). He grew up in Lincoln and went to high school in Chicago, and he spent summers on a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. A frequent visitor to the farm was the writer Zona Gale, who had gone off to New York and then come back to write about her hometown. She became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. She was a huge influence on young William, talked to him seriously about writing, and shared her philosophy that writing should find "the mysterious beauty of the commonplace." And Maxwell learned more from Gale than writing style — she supported herself and her parents comfortably with her writing, and she taught him that writing could be a successful career.

He published his first short story in his high school magazine and went on to college at the University of Illinois and Harvard. From there, he went to New York City, where he was soon hired by The New Yorker as a fiction editor. He stayed at The New Yorker for nearly 40 years, from 1936 to 1975, and his career as an editor developed along with his career as a novelist. He wrote six novels, beginning with Bright Center of Heaven (1934), published when he was just 25. Like Gale, he relied on experiences and landscape that he knew well, basing much of his fiction on his boyhood growing up in small-town Illinois.

At The New Yorker, Maxwell was a beloved editor for writers including Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Frank O'Connor, J.D. Salinger, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. When Salinger finished Catcher in the Rye (1951), he drove to Maxwell's house out in the country and sat on the porch and read his new novel aloud to Maxwell and his wife.

As the poet Michael Collier wrote, "When writing about William Maxwell it is easy to make him sound saintly." But of course there was more to him than that. A small, unathletic, and bookish boy, he didn't have a close male friend until high school, when he became good friends with Jack Scully, who was handsome, popular, and great at sports. They hit it off, and ended up going to the University of Illinois together. But during their sophomore year, they were both involved in a complex love triangle with the daughter of a popular English professor. Maxwell was interested in her and introduced her to Scully, but his friend and the young woman became lovers, and Maxwell was so depressed that he attempted to commit suicide. He turned the experience into fiction in The Folded Leaf, a novel about two boys, Lymie (based on himself) and Spud (Jack Scully), and the girl who comes between them. In the novel, it is the relationship between the boys that is the most intense, and Lymie is devastated by the loss of Spud more than the loss of a possible romance with the girl.

William Maxwell said, "I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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