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Huntington Highlight: 'Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge'

The Huntington’s survey on the hard-edged poet and novelist ends on Feb. 14. Whether or not you're a fan of this controversial writer's work, you’ll appreciate this glimpse into his life and writings.

A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me some Bukowski poems by e-mail—my first introduction to the work of Los Angeles’ iconic, dirty old man of letters. I have to admit, the appeal was somewhat lost on me. Consider this excerpt from his poem “John Dillinger and Le chasseur maudit”:

it's unfortunate, and simply not the style, but I don't care: 

girls remind me of hair in the sink, girls remind me of intestines 

and bladders and excretory movements…

Personal taste aside, there’s no denying that Bukowski holds an important place in L.A. literary history, so it makes sense that would want the man’s papers when his widow, Linda Lee, offered to donate them about six years ago. On the other hand, it’s kind of an odd match.

Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington, said as much when I met with her to discuss “Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge”, currently on view in the Library’s West Hall. “People are intrigued by [the exhibit],” she told me. “It’s disjunctive. Bukowski just doesn’t quite fit for some place as traditional and conservative and square-cornered as The Huntington.”

Hodson added: “He writes in a very visceral way and a very personal way. He reaches right out and grabs you.” Hodson shared how, after the exhibit was announced, people would corner her in the hallways, e-mail her or call her to tell their stories about what Bukowski meant to them, the way he changed their lives. “I thought, 'Wow. When a writer can do this for someone, for a lot of people, too, that’s pretty special.'”

Laurie Ochoa would agree. The Pasadena resident, former L.A. Weekly editor and current co-editor of the new literary quarterly, Slake: Los Angeles, wrote an article for Slake about Bukowski that featured Hodson and The Huntington, called “Notes on a Dirty Old Man”.

The piece opens with an arresting scene at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, where a panel discussion on Bukowski provokes a wild, weeping rant from a drunken fan who cannot contain his anger at some less-than-laudatory comments: “[Bukowski] was the first Paris Hilton—famous for being famous” and “Among poets, he might have been the Cheetos to filet mignon.” (Ouch.)

In a phone interview, Ochoa said, “He wrote constantly, so you know not everything’s going to be great, but at the same time, … it’s just wrong, I think, to dismiss him completely.” Ochoa also described Hodson as “a bridge” between the people who think Bukowski isn’t literary enough and those who defend his status as a great writer.

“What Sue has done with the exhibit is [bring] those worlds together, where you can have a place where there’s more common ground,” she said. 

Over 70 objects have been carefully selected to give a more rounded, compassionate view of the man people love to love, and hate—personal letters, first editions of his Black Sparrow Press publications and video of the author reading from his poetry. My favorite display features items that came right off of Bukowski’s desk, including his typewriter (with smudges of paint on it—Bukowski was also an artist), a used wine glass, a pair of eyeglasses and his radio, tuned to the station he loved and listened to when he wrote, classical KUSC.

I visited the exhibit twice, and though I'm not sure I'll ever be a fan, I certainly feel a deeper appreciation for the man who penned the following lines (from the poem The Bluebird, one of the items on display):

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
 to
let anybody see
you.

“Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge” closes on Feb. 14, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go. Stop in at to browse the selection of Bukowski merchandise, from T-shirts, novels and poetry collections to a beautiful necklace designed by Pasadena City College graduate Brianna Kay Allen. The round circle pendant is engraved with one of Bukowski’s famous lines: “What matters most is how you walk through the fire.”

Slake: Los Angeles will also host an evening celebrating love and Bukowski at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Sunday, Feb. 13. The reading will feature Laurie Ochoa and other contributors, such as Geoff Nicholson, Victoria Patterson, Sam Slovick, Lauren Weedman, Lawrence Wilson and Mary Woronov.

Joy February 07, 2011 at 06:45 PM
Wow, this actually makes me want to visit the exhibit! Really wish I could go to the Vroman's reading, too. I love that last quote you gave us from Bukowski...thanks for showing another side of him. Based on your first quote, I REALLY didn't like him!
Tiffanie Ma February 08, 2011 at 01:12 AM
Hi Grace. Nice overview of Bukowski and his work at the Huntington, especially with the contrasting quotes. I just finished reading Factotum, and like you, find it hard to call myself a fan; however, I share the same intrigue as mentioned in your article that many people do. I also agree that his work is important to L.A. history despite its controversial content and style. I am looking forward to seeing the exhibit and think that his work will diversify and add to the richness of the Huntington.
Grace Farag February 08, 2011 at 04:28 AM
Thanks, Joy and Tiffanie! I appreciate your taking the time to read and then share your comments. Bukowski is an interesting character for sure, even if you don't like his writing, and The Huntington exhibit is worth seeing. I particularly enjoyed reading the poems and personal letters on display, and watching the archived video footage of Bukowski reading his own poetry. I hope you'll check out the exhibit, and then come back and let us know what you thought. And don't miss the Vroman's Slake event on Sunday at 6:30 pm, either. I'll be there!
kameel February 08, 2011 at 01:24 PM
This was a novel article about an obscure dirty old man, that is been brought to light by a less obscure and aspiring rising star writer. Congratulation for an article well done.

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