THEM COMMUNISTS: CHARLES BUKOWSKI IN THE BELOIT POETRY JOURNAL*
by Abel Debritto
The Winter 1957-58 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal, though not a milestone in Charles Bukowski’s career, was definitely a relevant periodical appearance for several reasons. On the one hand, it was the first academic journal to champion Bukowski’s work, a fact often overlooked by most critics and scholars who try to prove that the quarterlies did not publish Bukowski’s material. As a matter of fact, the Beloit Poetry Journal printed his poetry both in the late 50s and in the early 90s. Nevertheless, it should be noted that during the 50s and early 60s Bukowski would submit the poems he termed “traditional” or “poetic” to those little magazines, such as Descant, Epos, Flame or Scimitar and Song, that would readily accept pieces that seemed unbukowskian. Indeed, the poem published in the Beloit Poetry Journal, “Treason,” constitutes an attempt at a more formal versification based on the reiterated use of dense language and imagery, an uncharacteristically ornate style that Bukowski would finally abandon in the late 60s; the poem begins thus: “Colyngbourne crossed a King with a poem / and inherited new gallows on Tower Hill / . . . ah, but visions and dragons and nothings!” (4-5).
The editorial choices made while assembling the Winter 1957-58 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal would eventually benefit Bukowski’s career. Marion Stocking, one of the editors of the journal, claimed that it was James Boyer May, publisher of Trace and its invaluable little magazine directory, who proposed Bukowski’s poem for that special issue: “I remember we picked ‘Treason’ having read it aloud, for its energy, its dramatic force, its imagination and—of course—its political stance. . . . James Boyer May selected poems for our special issue on the English ‘Movement’ and the U.S. ‘Underground.’ So he sought out ‘Treason.’ We then selected for the issue the poems from May we thought strongest” (Stocking). Likewise, collector Ed Blair argued that it was May who selected Bukowski’s poem: “James Boyer obviously had a hand, as commentator in a section on the new American poetry, in choosing Bukowski as the lead off poet in this special issue on the U.S. ‘underground’” (Blair). However, a chronological review of the decisions involved in selecting Bukowski’s poem offers a somewhat different view of the events: In June 1957, Stocking asked May to assemble the (American) “Underground” and (British) “New Movement” special issue of the journal; in July 1957, May suggested eleven authors, such as Curtis Zahn or Stuart Perkoff, but not Bukowski, for their inclusion in the magazine; on October 28, 1957, Stocking asked May his opinion about Bukowski: “What do you think of this fellow Bukowski? We have a large and most fascinating batch of MSS. from him” (Fullerton). The following day, May’s reply was unequivocal: “You mention Bukowski . . . I’d like at least to cast a ‘nay’ vote. Should it seem odd to you that I do this without seeing the work in question, I can only say that various things have caused me to doubt his basic sincerity, at least a good deal of the time” (Fullerton). Finally, on November 4, 1957, Stocking explained to May that the journal would run Bukowski’s poem in spite of his objection: “We weighted your opinion very heavily, but ‘Treason’ seemed to us just too powerful a thing to reject. It packed six times the punch of the poems that would have replaced it if we’d not taken it” (Fullerton).
Despite May’s rather unconvincing objection, Bukowski’s poem was indeed “too powerful a thing to reject” for Stocking and it was published in that Winter 1957-58 issue. In an unexpected volte-face, May would allow Bukowski to voice his literary opinions in several Trace issues in 1959-60, and he would even review Bukowski’s first chapbook, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, in positive terms in Trace in 1961. Perversely enough, Bukowski would express his “gratitude” by publicly sneering at May—and a thinly disguised Leslie Woolf Hedley—in a poem titled “I Am Visited by an Editor and a Poet,” first published in Hearse #7 (1961), where the value of literature would be discussed in rather skeptical terms: “ . . . and we talked about Flowers of Evil, Rimbaud, Villon, / and what some of the modern poets looked like: / J. B. May and Wolf the Hedley are very immaculate, clean / fingernails, etc.; . . . [I] wondered if we are writing poetry or all huddling in / one big tent / clasping assholes” (Roominghouse 217-18).
The Beloit Poetry Journal was also an important journal in Bukowski’s career because it was the first one in a series of periodicals featuring his work that would be suppressed or censored by a college board of trustees or even seized by the police. Northwest Review, Earth Rose, Open City’s literary insert, Renaissance, or d.a. levy’s literary ventures would be further instances of little magazines or small press publications being censored or confiscated by the authorities. Ironically enough, those acts of censorship were not directly triggered by Bukowski’s controversial or obscene material. At any rate, the fact that Bukowski’s work was printed in those polemical periodicals contributed noticeably to make him more popular in the literary scene. As J. B. May pointed out, “about the only times the general public has been made aware of the [alternative publications] have been when their editors were hauled into court for publishing sexual art or permitting contributors to use precise expressions such as fuck or cunt. The result was usually legal badgering and extinction” (24). Indeed, Bukowski’s involvement in some little magazines or underground newspapers would prove ill-fated to their editors. While in some cases the suppressed periodical would resurface under a different title, others would have to suspend publication to avoid bankruptcy.
As already discussed, the inception of the Winter 1957-58 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal took place in mid 1957 after editor Marion Stocking asked J. B. May that he request material to the most noteworthy “underground” poets of the period; Stocking would always stress May’s contribution to that issue: “I think it was Chad Walsh who suggested that we fill out the issue with contrasting poems from the West Coast poets calling themselves the ‘underground.’ . . . James Boyer May . . . assembled a stack of poems from which we selected the ones in the issue” (Stocking, “Bukowski”). The focus of the subsequent controversy was not Bukowski’s work, but a poem titled “Not” by Gil Orlovitz. Interestingly, Stocking and the other Beloit Poetry Journal editors had previously discarded several poems by Orlovitz and ended up selecting the one that would cause a stir; as Stocking confided to May: “Orlovitz was a problem. We had five or six we wanted to use . . . and finally chose this as most ‘Orlovitzy’” (Fullerton, 4 Nov. 1957). When the Beloit college board of trustees read that “Orlovitzy” poem as well as the other British “movement” and United States “underground” material, they immediately ceased to support the magazine, which they had sponsored since its creation. However, according to editor Lee Sharkey, the Beloit Poetry Journal was not apparently “hurt” and since then it “has always been independent of any formal or financial institutional affiliation, and the college has long since repented” (Sharkey). Whether Beloit college did actually repent or not, or whether Bukowski contributed to the Beloit Poetry Journal debacle or not, did not seem to be his main concern; in a letter to the editor of The Outsider magazine, Jon Webb, he distorted facts to become the main actor in the story: “I don’t want to brag . . . but it was after my appearance in the Beloit Poetry Journal’s ‘Underground Edition’ that the university withdrew its support. I had nothing to do with the Chicago Review deal, tho, I’m unhappy to report” (McCormick, Nov. 1960). Humorous tone notwithstanding, Bukowski probably considered it was admirable and beneficial to take part in those controversial events; hence his ironic tone for not having participated in the Chicago Review episode—-the 1958 Chicago Review issue, devoted to the San Francisco Renaissance, was suppressed because the University of Chicago did not want a chapter from Williams Burrough’s Naked Lunch printed in the journal; the censored material was subsequently incorporated into the first Big Table issue in 1959.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Bukowski submitted several poems to the Beloit Poetry Journal despite his then wife Barbara Fry's warnings, as he explained to J.B. May in a letter dated June 1, 1959 reproduced in Trace #33 that year: “Miss Fry, at one time, advised me not to appear with the Beloit Poetry Journal group in the Underground Edition because ‘some of them are known Communists.’ I don’t know anything about that. I judge a poem or a group by the quality and vitality of its Art” (“Editors Write” 16). Bukowski’s stance reveals his view regarding submissions: all magazines, “littles” or journals were potential outlets, regardless of their political bias or lack thereof, and the Beloit Poetry Journal was definitely no exception.
Blair, Edward, ed. Bukowski-Loujon Press. Catalog Number One. New Orleans, LA: House of Books, 1994.
Bukowski, Charles.“Editors Write.” Trace 33 (Aug./Sept. 1959): 15-16.
—. The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-66. Eighth Printing. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998.
“Treason.” Beloit Poetry Journal 8.2 (Winter 1957-58): 4-6.
Fullerton: James Boyer May/Amsberry Poetry Collection, University Archives & Special Collections, Pollak Library, CSU, Fullerton.
McCormick: Outsider Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
May, James Boyer. “The Original Underground.” Adam Feb. 1970: 23-25.
Sharkey, Lee. “Bukowski.” E-mail to the author. 30 Mar. 2007.
Stocking, Marion. “Bukowski.” E-mail to the author. 17 May 2007.
—. Letter to the author. 23 Dec. 2008.
* This following essay has been previously published in two chapbooks, “Too Powerful a Thing to Reject”: Charles Bukowski Transition Years (Chance Press, April 2010) and Charles Bukowski: Censorship Does Pay (Beat Scene Press, April 2010) and appears here with the permission of the author.