Charles Bukowski, from the documentary "Born Into This," directed by John Dullaghan
Somehow it feels natural to wish most writers, even the deceased, a simple "Happy Birthday" in honor of their lives and work. But in the case of Bukowski, nothing was simply happy. Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany on August 16, 1920, the literary legend who rose to international fame as Charles Bukowski -- or the "laureate of lowlife" -- is best remembered in his own self-mythologizing words.
"I never met another man I'd rather be.
And even if that's a delusion, it's a lucky one."
On December 11, 1985, he wrote those lines in a letter to John Martin, publisher of the independent Black Sparrow Press and Bukowski's editor for most of his writing life. (The full letter and more of their correspondence is available in "Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters, 1978-1994.")
In a 2005 interview on NPR, Martin told Morning Edition's host Steve Inskeep about the origin of his working relationship with the prolific and profane Bukowski:
"I ran across his work in underground mimeograph magazines and underground tabloids in the '60s. And you do run across brilliant stories and poems from time to time reading that kind of material, but here was this one man who -- everything he wrote seemed, to me, to be brilliant. And he was in the phone book, and I called him up to tell him how wonderful his writing was, and we got together and talked, and the idea came to me to start a publishing company to publish him. I mean, he's a great American poet. I consider him the 20th century Whitman."
When Martin approached him, Bukowski was a poet with a job at the post office and a penchant for hard drinking. Martin offered him a deal: he would pay Bukowski $100 a month if he quit the postal service and dedicated himself to poetry. As much as Bukowski espoused independence and romanticized solitude, even isolation, his exchange with Martin reveals what was always lurking vulnerably beneath the bravado: self-doubt mixed with a yearning toward self-knowledge, even self-love.