"As the spirit wanes the form appears," wrote the poet Charles Bukowski toward the end of his life and career, implying that as one loses touch with one's artistry and skill, the more one falls back on the structural devices behind them. Tellingly, it takes twice as many words to reveal the meaning of this simple prose. And while he was surely referring to himself with that atypically lyrical sentiment, he is never seen in less than fighting spirit or formidable form throughout the documentary "Bukowski: Born into This." Bukowski was a massive, volatile man with a pockmarked face from a childhood bout of acne vulgaris and a bulbous W.C. Fields nose for trouble. Whatever the demons that drove him, he had a bellyful of them, if the losing battle his shirts fought with his girth is any indication. One thing that drove him was alcohol, and in the film's interviews, often conducted by European admirers, he is rarely seen without a bottle or glass in his hand. In one interview, the camera peers into an apartment barren, except for empty beer bottles, beat-up furniture and an ancient typewriter. In footage shot by filmmaker Taylor Hackford, Bukowski is shown at a reading with a beer-stocked refrigerator on stage. "Do you have a little pot on stage I can vomit in," he mumbles, at one performance. When he died in 1974 at the age of 74, it was surprising he lived that long, considering the sort of life he led. His prose was as homely and blunt as he was. If romantic poetry is about roses, his was about thorns. "He had no time for metaphor," says rock star Bono who, along with Tom Waits and Sean Penn, forms a celebrity chorus in the film by John Dullaghan. Bukowski "was a man of the street writing for the people of the street, the dispossessed," growls Waits. Bukowski said he "had all the pretense beat out of" him as a child by an abusive father, yet still waxed sentimental when revisiting his childhood or recalling a lost love. He spent years traveling across the country, living in rooming houses, working dead-end jobs, always writing, mostly fiction, and sometimes getting published. By the time he settled in Los Angeles, his prose was shaped into noirish and hard-bitten narrative-driven poetry. Despite his profligate ways, his discipline and work ethic were impressive. He spent 15 years working for the U.S. Postal Service, while writing countless poems and mailing them to magazines, without making carbon copies and never getting them back. He was the "king of little magazines," wrote a popular column called "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" for a free weekly newspaper and was finally hired by a small publishing company, after which writing poetry became his full-time job and his notoriety grew.
He was an American primitive whose poetry, according to his German translator, reflected "the fundamental waste of a man whose life is dictated by others." But it was ultimately lived on his own terms.