The senseless, tragic rape of Charles Bukowski’s ghost; the prequel

The article, The senseless, tragic rape of Charles Bukowski’s ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press tells the story (read that first if you haven’t already), but for the curious there is an interesting bit of back-story.

In the 1990s I ran an artists/writers/photography site called smog.net, and it had a Bukowski section. The primary tool on the site was a works database. A pretty comprehensive resource, and a valuable tool for anyone who was researching – or simply curious about – Bukowski’s mountain of work.

The database referenced manuscripts, taken from over a thousand manuscript images I had access to. Someone said, “Hey, you reference these manuscripts, how about you let us see ’em, eh?” which was a reasonable request. So I posted a few hundred manuscript images, and everyone said, “Hooray!”

Well, almost everyone.

John Martin contacted me and demanded that I remove the manuscripts from the site. We went back and forth on the issue for some time, my argument being that the manuscripts were a valuable research tool. Eventually he said that he felt that the manuscripts were “works in progress,” and that “Bukowski wouldn’t have wanted them made public.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I removed public access to them.

But as time went on and people continued to compare the available manuscripts to the published work it became quite clear that they were not works in progress. Most publications printed the poems verbatim from the manuscripts (as did Black Sparrow Press when Bukowski was alive – and that is the main point that I hope to make here).

Wormwood Review, for example, published more than 400 Bukowski poems, and when you compare them to the manuscripts, there are very few changes.

poem1983-06-15-repeat(ex)

The conclusion has to be that Bukowski sent them out expecting that what was in the manuscript would be what wound up in print. He couldn’t have any other expectation, since that is almost always what happened.

And that brings us to what I believe was Martin’s real reason for wanting the manuscripts to disappear; he didn’t want people comparing them to the posthumous books. Because when they did, they couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion that many of us have. That being, after Bukowski’s death, someone at Black Sparrow began making significant, damaging changes to Bukowski’s work.

Clearly a large number of manuscripts being made public is the only way a significant number of people can make the connection and realize what has been done in the posthumous books. If they weren’t publicly available, only a tiny number of Bukowski researchers (and by tiny I mean one or two) could ever connect the dots. And if they chose not to mention it or make a fuss over it, the gutting of the work would remain a secret.

To illustrate that point, almost all of the poem manuscript images that I had came from one seller on eBay, Scott Harrison. In 2011 he wrote to me, “For years John Dulaghan (the film maker that did Born Into This), and I have complained about Martin tampering with poems…” So they discuss the “tampering” among themselves, privately, but no one who has any sort of acquaintance with Martin will say anything about it publicly. Everyone seems to be waiting for “someone else” to say something.

Which is why the alteration of the work remained virtually unknown for a long time. But secrets are hard to keep now that the Internet is a pervasive part of people’s lives (ask Scientology). So it wasn’t a secret that could be kept forever. Perhaps Martin thought it was a secret that could be kept indefinitely, and he wouldn’t have to answer questions about it. Perhaps he didn’t know about it. Only he can answer that question.

Personally, I don’t have any questions for Martin. As I said in the first article, the “why” isn’t important. What’s important is that the issue is out in the open so people can read the posthumous work knowing that it has been defanged, and worse, made pedestrian by the editor. Either directly or through neglect.

softly sweeping sorrow

ourbones

If the fact becomes widely known, maybe one day we will get definitive editions of Bukowski’s posthumously published work. It seems unlikely at this point, but stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, you may have to do some digging to find authentic Bukowski. But if you take the time to dig, your efforts will be rewarded with a body of work that disrupted the status quo and changed the course of modern poetry forever.

Still haven’t had enough of this subject? Try the last (I promise) related post, The tragic flogging of a dead rape horse, a.k.a. locking the door on Bukowski’s ghost and throwing away the key.


22 Responses
  • James Stafford Reply

    Very interesting piece. Greatly appreciate you putting it together.

    • Michael Phillips Reply

      I appreciate you reading it.

  • prettyneet Reply

    Thanks for these blogs. I’d always felt the posthumous books lacked a certain edge that I had attributed to a softening with old age. Whilst that may have been the case in part, you really made it clear that a lot of these poems were pretty much gutted.

    To me the insertion of certain phrases is the most unforgivable thing. Losing a word here and there would be strange, but arguably not disastrous. Adding inane phrases that contribute nothing but causing the poems to meander aimlessly is pretty destructive. It loses lucidity. It flowers it up a bit. It changes the voice of the man talking.

    Fortunately, I only own a few of the ‘tainted’ books and all of the 100% Bukowski ones. Whilst I hadn’t understood the reason, I had felt the difference and not yet bothered to seek out the rest of the posthumous collections. Now I’m not sure if I ever will.

    • Michael Phillips Reply

      “It changes the voice of the man talking.”
      That sums up the problem, right there.

  • Erik Reply

    “We were born strong and we will die
    strong.”

    Erik

  • Mark Terrill Reply

    Dear Michael Phillips,

    I greatly appreciate your going to bat and sticking up for the literal integrity of the late, great Charles Bukowski. Unfortunately, your assumptions, as well as the entire discussion here, are based on one very large misconception; that it was John Martin who rewrote many of the poems in Bukowski’s posthumous Black Sparrow Press collections. That is simply not the case. In the late 1990s I visited John in his office in Santa Rosa. It proved to be a very opportune time, as the offices were being renovated and painted, meaning that John was unable to work in his office and thus had a little more time on his hands than usual. So I found him in the rear warehouse section of the building, sitting on a stool at one of the big packing tables, going over a large selection of loose-leaf typewritten pages which were collected in a bulging manila folder. I asked him what he was working on and he told me it was the manuscript for a forthcoming posthumous collection of Bukowski’s poems.

    My irrepressible curiosity overcame any sense of discretion or decorum, and I asked if I might have a look at some of the originals. John complied without a moment’s hesitation. He selected what he said he thought were some particularly good poems and handed me a large sheaf of pages from the folder. What I then saw greatly surprised me. Almost all of the poems, all of which were typewritten, were heavily rewritten in Bukowski’s familiar handwriting, with many words and even entire lines crossed out, with alternative words written in the margins, and with entirely rewritten stanzas scribbled in hand at the bottom of the pages, making it somewhat difficult to read the actual poem, or what Bukowski intended to be the final version of the poem. And while I did enjoy the poems, I found the aspect of Bukowski’s meticulous editing the single most astonishing revelation. I mentioned this to John, and he showed me more poems in the folder, as well as several other folders in a large metal filing cabinet in the adjacent hallway containing even more forthcoming Bukowski poems, all heavily rewritten, all apparently by Bukowski himself.

    I mentioned to John that the idea of Bukowski rewriting all of his poems greatly clashed with the popular image lodged in my head of Bukowski sitting at his desk listening to Mahler on his little red radio, drinking beer, and banging out poem after poem and sending them off fresh out of typewriter to the various little mags, without the slightest thought as to editing or rewriting. John then explained that it was Bukowski’s habit to do exactly that, but when he later received his contributor copies of the various magazines containing his work, he often subjected them to extensive rewrites before collecting them and sending them off to John for eventual inclusion in the various collections. Apparently, he explicitly set aside and grouped all of the poems which were intended to be published after his death, which were in the various manila folders I’d seen in the file cabinets.

    Obviously, this explains the huge discrepancies between what were essentially the first drafts that Bukowski sent off to the mags and journals, and the final edits he later sent to John for inclusion in his posthumous collections. It also might give reason for you to reconsider your assumptions and perhaps delete this entire discussion from your blog. The disservice you are doing John Martin is totally unwarranted, and the posthumous collections of Bukowski’s poems are as legitimate as anything else he wrote, even if Bukowski was not necessarily his own best editor.

    All best,
    Mark Terrill

  • Michael Phillips Reply

    Hello Mark. Thanks for your thorough, thoughtful comment.

    I found the aspect of Bukowski’s meticulous editing the single most astonishing revelation.

    You found that astonishing. Anyone who has seen a lot of manuscripts would not. We know Bukowski revised, there is plenty of evidence of that.

    What there is very little evidence of is Bukowski revising his work to make it worse, to make it clumsy and pedestrian. Yet so many of the changes seen in the posthumous collection do just that.

    When asked about the changes to the manuscripts Martin said (and this is a direct quote), “When Hank would revise his poems, he would retype them, not simply correct them by hand, before sending them to me. I have no idea what he did with any hand-corrected typescripts (assuming he did correct some by hand).”

    That would seem to contradict your story and indicate that one of you isn’t exactly telling the truth.

    your assumptions, as well as the entire discussion here, are based on one very large misconception; that it was John Martin who rewrote many of the poems in Bukowski’s posthumous Black Sparrow Press collections.

    That is not my assumption, that is my opinion. Two different things. And as I said in the first article, “Here’s the thing – whether he did it intentionally or simply allowed it to happen due to extreme negligence doesn’t even matter. He was the editor. The responsibility for the final product lies with him.”

    So I would just ask you to answer the central (and only important) question; why are the changes pervasive in the posthumous poetry collections and virtually nonexistent in the collections published during Bukowski’s lifetime?

    I – and several other people – have been studying these changes for a few years now. This isn’t something that we pulled out of thin air, and it isn’t a conclusion I came to on my own.

    As for any of this being a “disservice” to Mr. Martin, I would just remind you that he is a well respected, even revered, publisher. If he chose to make a statement regarding any of this, he would have everyone’s attention.

    What I am doing here is simply presenting the problem and giving my opinion on it. If there is no validity to it, then there is no disservice.

  • Mark Terrill Reply

    Michael,

    I have no idea why John Martin decided to tell you this:

    “When Hank would revise his poems, he would retype them, not simply correct them by hand, before sending them to me. I have no idea what he did with any hand-corrected typescripts (assuming that he did correct some by hand).”

    Like I said, during my visit with John I had in my hands and saw with my own eyes pages and pages of Bukowski’s typewritten poems with extensive handwritten changes, virtual palimpsests, made by Bukowski himself. No question, no doubts whatsoever.

    As we have all noticed, many of those posthumous collections of Bukowski’s poetry are not particularly strong, with final drafts that vary greatly from the original magazine publications, and not always for the better. Obviously many of those poems were set aside for the posthumous collections by Bukowski himself because of personal issues, while others were set aside because they were not up to par with his strongest work. I think much of Bukowski’s rewriting and editing of those poems was done in his later years, in which he had greatly mellowed compared to his earlier years when he wrote his best work. Even in the later collections that were published during Bukowski’s lifetime, there are many poems that are equally as “clumsy and pedestrian” as some of the poems in the posthumous collections. Obviously Bukowski tinkered on the manuscripts of his posthumous books over the years before sending them off to John, which would explain why the posthumous collections are so much more heavily edited than the collections published during his lifetime. That’s my answer to your central question.

    And yes, as an editor, John Martin is both respected and revered, and his contribution to post-war American poetry is enormous. For someone with that kind of a reputation to make such massive unauthorized editorial changes in the works of one of his own authors is a pretty preposterous idea and highly unrealistic. What possible motivation could he have had to do such a thing? That would be my central question. My only quip with the editorial process (regardless of who is responsible) is that the poems are neither chronological nor dated, so that we have poems written in the 50s and 60s page-to-page with poems written shortly before his death in 1994, without knowing when they were actually written.

    But those posthumous collections are also full of some of Bukowski’s greatest poems (“full moon” in what matters most is how well you walk through the fire is a fine example), and by deterring potential readers from enjoying these works and accusing John Martin of unauthorized editorial meddling you are doing a disservice to both. I think we all just need to accept the fact that not every poem in Bukowski’s oeuvre is a gem, that he was also capable of writing poems that were “clumsy and pedestrian,” and that his editorial decisions were not always the best, especially in his later years.

    • Michael Phillips Reply

      Hi Mark.

      I have no idea why John Martin decided to tell you this

      But he did. So, again, one of you are…mistaken, let’s say.

      Obviously many of those poems were set aside for the posthumous collections by Bukowski himself

      Incorrect. That is a longstanding, long ago debunked, myth.

      Obviously Bukowski tinkered on the manuscripts of his posthumous books over the years before sending them off to John

      You keep saying “obviously,” which undermines any point you’re trying to make. The only obvious thing here is the degradation of the work.

      This idea that Bukowski sat around in San Pedro reworking old poems would seem to be disproved by his new poem output, which remained steady throughout his life. If anything, his new poem output increased in San Pedro.

      For someone with that kind of a reputation to make such massive unauthorized editorial changes in the works of one of his own authors is a pretty preposterous idea and highly unrealistic.

      Preposterous? Then how do you explain the first edition of Women?

      What possible motivation could he have had to do such a thing? That would be my central question.

      His motivation is not something that you and I can ever know. We can only speculate. My speculation is he fancied himself a creative person, which he was not (see: Women).

      the poems are neither chronological nor dated, so that we have poems written in the 50s and 60s page-to-page with poems written shortly before his death in 1994, without knowing when they were actually written.

      There you go, Mark! Now you’re on to the meat of the matter.

      To accept the idea that Bukowski ruined his own poems in the posthumous collections you would have to believe that he went back and revised poems he had written decades earlier (and in some cases, poems that had already been published in Black Sparrow collections).

      He reworked poems, we know that. We have clear evidence of that. But never more than a few moths from their original versions. He simply did not revise years-old material. There is absolutely no evidence of that. None. Zero.

      I understand that you like, or have some relationship with, Mr. Martin. What I don’t understand – and this is something that all of you Martin apologists do – is your desire to squash any discussion that might cast him in a negative light.

      We have spent years stripping the myth away from Bukowski in the forums. When you do that, you expose the warts and the uncomfortable truths about things. We do that in an effort to get to the truth, that’s all. That’s the agenda; to try to paint a picture of what really happened, as opposed to the stories Bukowski (and Martin) would tell.

      What seems “preposterous” is the belief that somehow John Martin is exempt. That he is beyond reproach and what he did should never be questioned or doubted.

      Especially in light of the degradation of the work. Those of you who seek to “protect” Martin (from what?) throw Bukowski directly under the bus in the process. You raise your legs and piss all over his legacy. And that, to me, is inexplicable and unforgivable. As the kids say.

  • Mark Terrill Reply

    Michael,

    The evidence that Bukowski later went back and revised his older work is there and I have seen it and I’m certainly not the only one. Of course you can revise older work while simultaneously creating new work; that’s the metier of any serious, hardworking poet.

    Although I respect John Martin as an editor, I have no relationship with him, am not any kind of “apologist,” and am not trying to defend him. I am merely trying to set the record straight and clear up some crass misconceptions and misinformation which you have posted. The idea that John Martin would wilfully sabotage the work of his star poet, the bread & butter of Black Sparrow Press, is too far-fetched to even consider. There is no evidence that he did this, nor is there any feasible explanation as to why he would want to do such a thing. The fact that John Martin has chosen not to comment on your accusations can be read as a confirmation of the overall inconsequentiality of what you’ve posted here.

    You say that since you are only expressing your opinion, you are not doing anyone a disservice, as long as there is no validity to your opinions. The lack of validity is obvious. But there seems to be a glitch in your logic. If all your allegations and accusations proved to be true and were founded on facts, then you would be doing the entire literary community a great service by exposing what amounts to a major fraud. As it is, by propagating a lot of misinformation and ungrounded speculation and making accusations in a very mean-spirited tone, and insisting that people avoid reading certain of Bukowski’s books (all of this falls outside of the category of “opinion,”) you are indeed doing a disservice, to Bukowski, to John Martin, and to yourself.

    Sooner or later (maybe sooner than you think) those typewritten manuscript pages hand-corrected by Bukowski will be made available to the public, by way of university library exhibit, museum exhibit or public auction. At that point it will become common knowledge that it was Bukowski who was responsible for the extensive editing of his posthumous collections and not John Martin, as you have chosen to conjecture. For some it will be a bitter pill to swallow; for others it may provide some revealing insights into the methods and practice of one of the major figures in contemporary American poetry.

    I think we’ve reached the end of this thread here. I’ve definitely said all I have to say. I do appreciate the opportunity to openly discuss these issues. Thanks.

    All best,
    Mark

    • Michael Phillips Reply

      Oh, Mark.

      You can dismiss this (no surprise there), but the conversation has been going on for years, and it will continue, whether you think it should or not.

      I can’t help but notice that you chose not to comment on Martin’s “editing” and “improvements” to the first edition of Women. I understand it’s difficult to come to grips with such realities, as they fly in the face of your argument, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

      As for the manuscripts, we have easy access to more than a third of the manuscripts for Bukowski’s published poetry, and those manuscripts span his entire career as a poet. If I were a scientist or a statistician I would say that’s a pretty large sample. There are very few surprises waiting for anyone to uncover in the rest of the manuscripts.

      When you claim that “insisting that people avoid reading certain of Bukowski’s books” is a “disservice,” I think you give me too much credit. If not, I must be a very powerful man! I really should figure out a way to exploit that tremendous power and influence.

      What really does a disservice to Bukowski is the blind devotion of people like you to a man who is responsible (directly or indirectly) for the denigration of half of his published poetic output. And in you – being a poet yourself – I find that blindness baffling and incomprehensible. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      In my opinion.

      Your pal,

      mjp

  • Jim Pennington Reply

    Is there a concordance of the changes Martin made?

    • Michael Phillips Reply

      Hi Jim.

      You mean like these?

      A complete concordance would be thousands of pages long, so the answer to your question is ‘no.’ If such a thing already existed there wouldn’t be any need for articles like these.

      I don’t anticipate anyone devoting a year or two of their lives to such a project any time soon, and that is what it would take to comprehensively cover everything that Black Sparrow changed.

      • Jim Pennington Reply

        Thanks, Michael – you have answered my question. And thank you for pointing to bukowski.net … i can see a wealth of detail there.
        I shall go out and buy a 2nd edition and compare with my battered brown cover paperback from ’78 – which must be a 1st printing because it does not say otherwise. It may be laborious to compile the changes but en excellent excuse to read the book again.
        best wishes
        Jim

        • Michael Phillips Reply

          Women is a good start because it shows Martin’s “style,” which is in full bloom in the posthumous poetry collections. You might also check out this forum thread which spotlights the changes (at least in the first few chapters) to Women. (Oh, I see I already linked to that forum thread…)

  • Jason Oestreicher Reply

    Wow. I’m completely blown away by this. I believe at least 75% of the books I own are the posthumous versions. Damn, now I NEED to find the original works. Thanks for providing this information.

  • RichL Reply

    Reading some of the changes made brought back childhood memories of my aunt telling me to “Talk nice”. If my introduction to Bukowski had been a posthumous book I would never have picked up the second (or third or …) book.

    RichL

  • ken riccio Reply

    There does not seem a way to lock out or prevent a event like this from happening, I just wonder how many other greats were also tampered with. Altered , rearranged, placed in print differently. When you put man and money together some kind of bad shit is inevitable. And I would almost bet Buk himself would say the same thing.. THE HUMAN RACE SUCKS.

  • Phuckle Reply

    Sanity survives in pockets of air like this. Bravo!