What Charles Bukowski’s Glamorous Displays of Alcoholism Left Out

David Orr in the New York Times:

Bukowski relished his image as a swaggering outsider, the kind of man who, having consented to read his poetry at a college, “put down my poems and asked if anybody wanted to arm wrestle.” (Someone did; naturally Bukowski won.) In “On Drinking,” his escapades are entirely typical and roughly as follows: He goes to, copes with or barely avoids jail. He mouths off to cops. He gets into unprovoked fistfights that take three pages to describe and that involve dozens of barehanded punches to the head. He offers to clean a bar’s dirty blinds for money and whiskey, and then, Tom Sawyer-style, persuades the other patrons to do the job for him. He is coated in vomit and/or blood with the regularity of an E.R. nurse. He pleasures, or fails to pleasure, scores of women, none of whom are dissuaded by the foregoing vomit or blood. And he wants nothing to do with modern writers who “lecture at universities / in tie and suit, / the little boys soberly studious, / the little girls with glazed eyes.”

This boozy, cartoon machismo has generally served Bukowski well, in the sense that 25 years after his death he still has a sizable audience by the standards of a fiction writer and a colossal audience by the standards of a poet. As you might expect, that readership is not there for displays of technical prowess. The poems in “On Drinking” are distinguishable from the prose mostly by virtue of line breaks that are inserted in why-not fashion; as in, “once in Paris / drunk on national TV / before 50 million Frenchmen / I began babbling vulgar thoughts / and when the host put his hand over my / mouth / I leaped up from the round table …” There’s basically no difference between these lines and the prose narrative that precedes them, except that the prose involves an extended brawl while the poem includes Bukowski pulling a knife on some French security guards.

More here.