Charles Bukowski: Don’t Try

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Charles Bukowski: 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.”

charles-bukowskiCharles Bukowski was born as Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany. His mother was a native German and his father was a German-American soldier who met her after World War I had ended. He was only child of family. Bukowski’s parents began calling their son the Anglophone version of his first name (Heinrich), “Henry”, in order to help him assimilate, which the poet would later change to “Charles”. After the end of World War I, he was only three years old and his family emigrated to the United States in 1923.

The family settled in Los Angeles in 1930, the city where he lived most of his life, and his father had previously worked and lived. In the ’30s the poet’s father was often unemployed. Charles Bukowski mentioned that with his father was frequently abusive, both physically and mentally, beating his son for the smallest imagined offence in Ham on Rye. Also in Born Into This, Bukowski states that his father beat him with a razor strop three times a week from the ages of 6 to 11. He says that it helped his writing, as he came to understand undeserved pain.

“It seemed to me that I had never met
another person on earth
as discouraging to my happiness
as my father.
And it appeared that I had
the same effect upon

― Charles Bukowski, You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense


During his youth, Charles Bukowski was shy and socially withdrawn, a condition exacerbated during his teens by an extreme case of acne and also he suffered from dyslexia. In his teens, he contracted a particularly severe form of acne, which left him with facial scars for the rest of his life. In Ham on Rye, the novel based on his childhood, he describes going to the senior prom, looking through the gymnasium window at the others dancing, as he stood outside suffering from this disfiguring condition.

“It wasn’t my day. My week. My month. My year. My life. God damn it.” ― Charles Bukowski, Pulp

Longwood Avenue is Charles Bukowski’s childhood home. This is the place where his father would preach the values of the American Dream: Be industrious, make money, buy a house, have a family. But while his father was proselytizing, he was also meting out brutal beatings to the sensitive young boy several times a week. In ‘Bukowski: Born Into This’, he revisits this house as an older man and describes the beatings in the exact spot where they took place: the family bathroom.

“My parents were the two pieces of bread, and I was the ham that was continually getting bitten into.” ― Charles Bukowski

In 1982, Charles Bukowski explains in Ham on Rye. In this home, he encountered a powerful force that he would spend many years reacting against: Charles Bukowski would become a writer, an artist, a common laborer, a bum even — but he would not be them. Out of this early experience came much suffering but also self-reliance, individuality and an incredible strength.

“I think it was my father who made me decide to
become a bum.
I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich
then I want to be poor.

and I became a bum.
I lived on nickles and dimes and in cheap rooms and
on park benches.
I thought maybe the bums knew something.

but I found out that most of the bums wanted to be
rich too.
they had just failed at that.

so caught between my father and the bums
I had no place to go
and I went there fast and slow.
never voted Republican
never voted.

buried him
like an oddity of the earth
like a hundred thousand oddities
like millions of other oddities,

― A part from Charles Bukowski’s poem: ‘My Father’


At the outside of home also life was not easy for Charles Bukowski. Neighborhood children ridiculed his German accent and the clothing his parents made him wear. This depression later bolstered his rage as he grew, and gave him much of his voice and material for his writings.

 Throwing Away the Alarm Clock

My father always said, “Early to bed and
early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy
and wise.”

It was lights out at 8 p.m. in our house
and we were up at dawn to the smell of
coffee, frying bacon and scrambled

My father followed this general routine
for a lifetime and died young, broke,
and, I think, not too

Taking note, I rejected his advice and it
became, for me, late to bed and late
to rise.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve conquered
the world but I’ve avoided
numberless early traffic jams, bypassed some
common pitfalls
and have met some strange, wonderful

one of whom
myself—someone my father

― Charles Bukowski

In his early teens, Bukowski started to drink alcohol by his loyal friend William Baldy Mullinax, depicted as Eli LaCrosse in Ham on Rye, son of an alcoholic surgeon.

“This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time.” ― Charles Bukowski

After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Charles Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College. In two years, he took several courses in art, journalism, and literature. With the start of World War II, he quitted his study and moved to New York. Then he started to begin his career as a writer.

charles-bukowski-illustration-chris Seddon-cosmic-orgasm-biography-poem-quote-k
drawing by Chris Seddon

“He was like a Tyrannosaurus rex going into the library [Los Angeles Central Library] and devouring everything he could get his hands on.” ― Biographer Neeli Cherkovski’s note about  Bukowski

When Bukowski was 24, his short story Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip was published in Story magazine and after two years later another story was published. During part of this period he continued living in Los Angeles, working at several jobs and staying in cheap rooming houses.

In the early 1950s, Bukowski took a job as a fill-in letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles. About 20 years later, Post Office is the first novel written by Charles Bukowski, published in 1971 when he was 50 years old. the novel is ‘dedicated to nobody’ but an autobiographical account of Bukowski’s years working as a carrier and sorter for the United States Postal Service. Post Office introduces Bukowski’s autobiographical anti-hero, Henry Chinaski. It covers the period of Bukowski’s life from about 1952 to his resignation from the United States Postal Service three years later, to his return in 1958 and then to his final resignation in 1969. During this time, Chinaski/Bukowski worked as a mail carrier for a number of years. After a brief hiatus, in which he supported himself by gambling at horse races, he returned to the post office to work as a sorter.

“I wasn’t much of a petty thief. I wanted the whole world or nothing.” ― Charles Bukowski, Post Office

bukowski-03‘After dinner or lunch or whatever it was — with my crazy 12-hour night I was no longer sure what was what — I said, “Look, baby, I’m sorry, but don’t you realize that this job is driving me crazy? Look, let’s give it up. Let’s just lay around and make love and take walks and talk a little. Let’s go to the zoo. Let’s look at animals. Let’s drive down and look at the ocean. It’s only 45 minutes. Let’s play games in the arcades. Let’s go to the races, the Art Museum, the boxing matches. Let’s have friends. Let’s laugh. This kind of life like everybody else’s kind of life: it’s killing us.” ― Charles Bukowski, Post Office

In 1955 he was treated for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer. After leaving the hospital he began to write poetry. In 1957 he agreed to marry small-town Texas poet Barbara Frye. Frye was the editor of Harlequin magazine. During a period where Bukowski was having trouble getting published, he sent a stack of poems to Frye in response to an ad requesting submissions. They hardly knew each other when they married in Las Vegas, as she was from Texas and their courtship consisted entirely of letter writing. Frye wanted a child. Bukowski didn’t. When she finally became pregnant, she miscarried. The young couple was convinced that it was because Bukowski drank so much.

“Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” ― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

The marriage lasted little more than two years and they divorced in 1958. Despite publishing him, she was generally unimpressed with his writing skills. After the divorce, Bukowski resumed drinking and continued writing poetry.

”He drank wine all night of the 
28th, and he kept thinking of her: 
the way she walked and talked and loved 
the way she told him things that seemed true 
but were not, and he knew the color of each 
of her dresses 
and her shoes-he knew the stock and curve of 
each heel 
as well as the leg shaped by it.”

― Charles Bukowski, Freedom


In 1962, he was traumatized by the death of Jane Cooney Baker is first major romantic attachment and his biggest muse. She is lamented numerous times in his poetry and versions of her feature in the novels, first as Betty in Post Office and then as Laura in Factotum.

A heavy drinker and ten years his senior, she was living off donations from older men and skivvying in cheap hotels when Bukowski first met her in a bar. Out of all of all the wives and girlfriends, Jane Cooney Baker is considered to be the most important by most Bukowski biographers, both as a muse and as a lover. She died in 1962 from a burst stomach ulcer. Her death sent Bukowski into a long bought of depression; he continued being an alcoholic and suffering from a suicide complex.

For Jane:

With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough

I pick up the skirt,

I pick up the sparkling beads

in black,

this thing that moved once

around flesh,

and I call God a liar,

I say anything that moved

like that

or knew

my name

could never die

in the common verity of dying,

and I pick

up her lovely


all her loveliness gone,

and I speak to all the gods,

Jewish gods, Christ-gods,

chips of blinking things,

idols, pills, bread,

fathoms, risks,

knowledgeable surrender,

rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad

without a chance,

hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,

I lean upon this,

I lean on all of this

and I know

her dress upon my arm


they will not

give her back to me.

― Charles Bukowski


In 1964 a daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski, was born to Bukowski and his live-in girlfriend Frances Smith. Live-in girlfriend and the mother of Bukowski’s daughter, Marina. When he found out Francis was pregnant, Bukowski asked her to marry him, but she turned him down. A Los Angeles poet, she is sometimes referred to by Bukowski as: The White-haired Hippy, The Shack-job and Old Snaggle-tooth in his writing.

“I felt like crying but nothing came out. it was just a sort of sad sickness, sick sad, when you can’t feel any worse. I think you know it. I think everybody knows it now and then. but I think I have known it pretty often, too often.” ― Charles Bukowski, Tales of Ordinary Madness

Beginning in 1967, Bukowski wrote the column Notes of a Dirty Old Man for Los Angeles’ Open City, an underground newspaper. When Open City was shut down in 1969, the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press as well as the hippie underground paper NOLA Express in New Orleans. In 1969 Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski launched their own short-lived mimeographed literary magazine, Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns.

In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press and quit his post office job to dedicate himself to full-time writing. He was 49 years old and he explained in a letter at the time:

“I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

In that month after leaving the postal service he finished his first novel, Post Office.


Bukowski had a series of love affairs and one-night trysts. One of these relationships was with Linda King. She is poet and sculptor who had a tempestuous relationship with Bukowski for nearly 5 years during the early 1970s. Probably the most volatile of the Bukowski girlfriends. She and he got together after King asked Bukowski if she could make a sculpture of his head.

Their relationship was on-off and whenever they fell out, Bukowski would return the head to Linda. The turbulence of their affair could sometimes spill over into violence with Bukowski breaking her nose on one occasion. After an argument over his infidelity, King threw his typewriter and books out into the street.

“I stopped looking for a Dream Girl, I just wanted one that wasn’t a nightmare.” ― Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship

His various affairs and relationships provided material for his stories and poems. Another important relationship was with Tanya, pseudonym of Pseudonym of a woman who had regular trysts with Bukowski during the 1970s.  He named her, Tanya in his novel, Women, and was less than kind about her.  She got her own back by writing her own book about him entitled, Blowing My Hero.

“There is always one woman to save you from another and as that woman saves you she makes ready to destroy.” ― Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog from Hell



In 1976, Charles Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle. She was Bukowski’s second wife. She was working in a health food shop when he met her. They argued a lot, but Bukowski appreciated that she cared about him. He gave up his crazy women, bought a house in San Pedro with his writing royalties and married her.She was at Bukowski’s hospital bedside when he died of leukaemia in 1994. Linda Lee Beighle is referred to as Sara in Charles Bukowski’s novels, Women and Hollywood.

‘I carry death in my left pocket. Sometimes I take it out and talk to it: “Hello, baby, how you doing? When you coming for me? I’ll be ready.” ― Charles Bukowski

In 1994, Bukowski died of leukemia, in San Pedro, aged 73, shortly after completing his last novel, Pulp. The funeral rites, orchestrated by his widow, were conducted by Buddhist monks.

“I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed but all I could do was to get drunk again.” ― Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski: Don’t Try

Don’t Try is written on Bukowski’s grave. The origin of the inscription can be found in an interview with Linda Bukowski conducted by Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area:


What’s the story: ‘Don’t Try’? Is it from that piece he wrote?


See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put:

“Don’t Try.”

As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Charles Bukowski tell us:

“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.”

charles bukowski illustration james fenwick cosmic orgasm biography poem quote
illustration by James Fenwick


Waiting for death
like a cat
that will jump on the

I am so very sorry for
my wife

she will see this
shake it once, then


Hank won’t

it’s not my death that
worries me, it’s my wife
left with this
pile of

I want to
let her know
that all the nights
beside her

even the useless
were things
ever splendid

and the hard
I ever feared to
can now be

I love

Charles Bukowski


[books]: You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense , Charles Bukowski ° Pulp , Charles Bukowski ° Ham on Rye , Charles Bukowski ° From The Flash of Lighting Behind the Mountain, Charles Bukowski ° Post Office , Charles Bukowski ° Factotum , Charles Bukowski ° Tales of Ordinary Madness , Charles Bukowski ° Women , Charles Bukowski ° Hollywood , Charles Bukowski °  Love is a Dog From Hell , Charles Bukowski ° 

[photography]:  [writing + cover photos] 

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