Gambling is generally understood as a metaphor for giving up control of your fate. But a gambler knows that’s not true; a gambler knows you can’t win if you don’t play. Losing is the cost of trying to win. And losing and uncertainty hurt. Charles Bukowski knew this.

Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski grew up in California with a frequently unemployed, violent father and a sorrowful and ineffectual mother. Schoolmates ridiculed him for his German ancestry and his extreme case of acne. As an adult he became a raging alcoholic and gambler, and also either a ladies’ man or a misogynist, depending on whom you spoke to. And all along he wrote – prose, poetry, essays, mostly about the type of people who frequent bars and racetracks. He made himself the bard of society’s margins, and in doing so became a cult hero. Mickey Rourke played Bukowski in the 1987 movie Barfly.

“Eleven years shot through the head”, Bukowski writes of his time spent as a United States postal worker. Days as a carrier readying himself for monsoons, hostile people, vicious dogs, or insanity of some sort on his route. Nights as a clerk leaning against a cushioned stool, sentenced to perpetually sorting letters. Supervisors with vendettas, wives and girlfriends with vendettas, even the birds seem to have vendettas. Watching good men letting themselves be destroyed by the mind-deadening monotony of it all. “Well, as the boys said”, Bukowski writes, “you have to work somewhere. So they accepted what there was. This was the wisdom of a slave.”

Shortly before his 50th birthday, Bukowski resigned. It is then that he became his most prolific as a writer. He never said it was easy. “Things get bad for all of us, almost continually”, he writes, “and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.”

What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire is a posthumous collection of Bukowski’s poetry. Bukowski is among the more accessible poets, in that his poems border on prose, and that was deliberate. In Christmas Poem To A Man In Jail he wrote:

“I don’t like poetry for example,
so I write mine the way I like to read it”.

The poems range from stories drawn from experience, of his childhood and of betting parlors, of poetry readings and of benders. Dissipation became part of his image (his publicist warned him not to let his readers know when he stopped drinking), but few poets can match him for economy and precision.

This is not to say he romanticized the hard life he mostly chose – the drinking, the gambling, or the writing. In Combat Primer, after listing the trials faced by a slew of famous literary names, he writes,

“it’s that kind of war:
creation kills,
many go mad,
Some lose their way and
can’t do it
a few make it to old age, a few make money,
some starve (like Vallejo),
it’s that kind of war:
casualties everywhere.”

The long mind-numbing hours Bukowski spent as a postal worker and quitting that job, detailed in his book Post Office, inform many of his poems. In Wasted, he warns against dying with regret,

“too often the people complain that they have
done nothing with their
and then they wait for somebody to tell them
that this isn’t so.
look, you’ve done this and that and you’ve
done that and that’s
you really think so?
of course.
they had it right.
they’ve done nothing.
shown no courage.
no inventiveness.
they did what they were taught to do.
they did what they were told to
they had no resistance,
no thoughts
of their own.
they were pushed and shoved
and went obediently,
they had no heart,
they were cowardly.
they stank up life.
they stank up life.”

Don’t look to Bukowski for a feel-good hug. None coming. Bukowksi does tell you in the exhilarating and frightening roll the dice what to expect if and when you do throw off those shackles.

“if you’re going to try, go all the
otherwise, don’t even start.
if you’re going to try, go all the
this could mean losing girlfriends,
wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.
go all the way.
it could mean not eating for 3 or
4 days.
it could mean freezing on a park bench.
it could mean jail,
it could mean derision,
isolation is the gift,
all the others are a test of your
endurance, of
how much you really want to do it.
and you’ll do it
despite rejection and the
worst odds
and it will be better than anything else
you can imagine.

Bukowski’s roll the dice sings with lightning.

Are you ready to ride the lightning?

The Literary Chick is honored to be among those chosen to read at Three Rooms Press 12th Annual Charles Bukowski Memorial Reading on Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 6:30 PM -9:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge 158 Bleeker Street, New York, NY 10012. We hope to see you there!

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