Wednesday Aug. 16, 2017

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all that

the only things I remember about
New York City
in the summer
are the fire escapes
and how the people go
out on the fire escapes
in the evening
when the sun is setting
on the other side
of the buildings
and some stretch out
and sleep there
while others sit quietly
where it’s cool.

and on many
of the window sills
sit pots of geraniums or
planters filled with red
and the half-dressed people
rest there
on the fire escapes
and there are
red geraniums

this is really
something to see rather
than to talk about.

it’s like a great colorful
and surprising painting
not hanging anywhere

“all that” by Charles Bukowski from Open All Night. © Black Sparrow Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the writer that The Washington Post called "the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots": Charles Bukowski (books by this author), born in Andernach, Germany (1920). He wrote more than 45 books of poetry and prose, including It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Post Office (1971), Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977), Ham on Rye (1982), and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).

His American father had been stationed in Germany during World War I, and Bukowski was the product of the man's affair with a German girl, whom he later married. The family moved to Los Angeles when Charles was a toddler, and that's where he grew up. He was picked on for his small size and his German accent, and when he was a teenager, he had such bad acne that it left permanent scars. His father had a violent temper and used to beat him. Bukowski was 13 when a friend gave him his first drink, and he, Bukowski, said, "This is going to help me for a very long time." He studied journalism in college for a couple of years, but then dropped out when World War II started, and he moved to New York to become a writer.

He published his first story when he was 24; the story was called "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip." The rejection slip in the story reads, "Dear Mr. Bukowski: Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you've done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don't know exactly when. That depends on you." Bukowski would later estimate that his work was 93 percent autobiographical.

He published one more story after that but then received rejection after rejection, and he gave up writing for 10 years. He drank his way from New York to L.A., and wound up in a hospital, half dead from a bleeding ulcer. The doctor told him, "If you have another drink, it will kill you." Bukowski kept drinking, and he worked a series of odd jobs — at a pickle factory, a dog biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and at the post office — and then, when he was 35, he started writing poetry. His first collection was called Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959). Ten years later, when he was 49, Bukowski accepted a job offer from John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press. Martin idolized Bukowski, and had started Black Sparrow with the sole aim of publishing his work. Martin was sure he was the next Walt Whitman, and he offered him $100 a month to quit his job and write. "I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve," Bukowski wrote in a letter. "I have decided to starve." In return for Martin's faith and support, Bukowski published almost all of his major work through Black Sparrow from then on.

Bukowski summed up his philosophy in a letter he wrote in 1963: "Somebody [...] asked me: 'What do you do? How do you write, create?' You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: 'not' to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it."

Today is the birthday of English philosopher and playwright Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679) (books by this author), born in London. Not much is known of her childhood, except that her father, a sea captain, died of the plague when Catharine was four, and the family struggled to get by. She was a precocious child and taught herself to read and write at an early age. Her first novel, Adventures of a Young Lady (1693), was published anonymously when she was 14. She also learned French and Latin, and was a moderately successful playwright; her first play, Agnes de Castro, was produced when she was just 16, and she wrote and staged four more in the next few years. When she wasn't writing plays, she was reading philosophy, mostly the work of John Locke. She published her first philosophical essay, The Defence of Mr. Lock's [sic] Essay of Human Understanding (1702), at the age of 23, and Locke was so impressed that he sent her money and books. She married clergyman Patrick Cockburn in 1708, and gave up writing until 1726. She went on to publish two more works of moral philosophy; these, along with her letters, were published as her collected works after her death in 1749.

On this date in 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory in Canada, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush. George Carmack, Skookum Jim Mason, and Tagish Charlie found the gold in Rabbit Creek, near Dawson. They christened the creek "Bonanza Creek," and word spread among the locals, who staked claims and were soon gathering up the plentiful ore.

The discovery of large amounts of gold didn't hit the Seattle and San Francisco newspapers for almost a year, but when it did, a hundred thousand people set off for the Yukon to make their fortunes. A few thousand did indeed strike it rich, but the rest made the arduous journey for nothing. There are famous photographs of the long lines of prospectors and their pack animals trekking through the snowy mountains, all of them heavy laden because the Mounties required everyone to bring a year's supply of provisions. But starvation was not uncommon, and one man reportedly boiled his own boot so he could drink the broth. His story inspired the famous boot-eating scene in Charlie Chaplin's silent feature The Gold Rush (1925).

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