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Tender love and whores: Why alcoholic womanizer poet Charles Bukowski endures 14 years after his death

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Bukowski's most recently published book: a collection of poetry put out in 2007 by publisher Ecco, and imprint of HarperCollins. (Courtesy of Ecco)

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Charles Bukowski goes digital. The author immortalized on the cover of a new DVD of one of his last poetry readings. (Courtesy of mondayMEDIA)

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The recording of what was ostensibly Charles Bukowski's very last poetry reading, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Bukowski often had a contentious relationship with his audiences. (Courtesy of mondayMEDIA)

“Tonight is going to be a very dignified evening,” the poet tells his audience, prompting laughter from the crowd. “We shall comport ourselves as ladies and gentlemen of culture,” he continues, the scene captured in a newly released DVD. The crowd laughs even harder; they are in on the joke.

Henry Charles Bukowski, a prolific author and poet who hit the scene in the 1960s, was known for many things, but not dignified poetry readings. Bukowski would often berate his audiences, threatening to fight hecklers while pouring drink after drink from the liquor and wine bottles perched in front of him on stage.

Bukowski, a contemporary of the Beat generation who balked at that term, remains one of the most polarizing figures in American literature. His work explored and exposed the dark scenes of Skid Row: prostitution, alcoholism, violence. He wrote about rape and infidelity, sex and drugs. But it is the themes beneath the lurid descriptions of violent sex and rampant drinking that have continued to entice curious readers to his fiction and poetry. Fourteen years after his death, Bukowski’s work is enjoying a sudden resurgence, with new books, online videos, DVDs of his readings and a fan website that continues to expand daily.

“Bukowski's writing endures because he created a larger-than-life persona that continues to draw in the curious and rebellious,” said Michael Phillips, owner of the online fan forum Bukowski.net. Phillips said the site has 1,700 registered users and adds another 100 every month, with about 2,000 unique visitors a day.

Two DVDs of Bukowski’s poetry readings were released in February by Los Angeles-based mondayMEDIA. And two recent movies concern Bukowski: “Born Into This,” a 2003 documentary about Bukowski’s writing life, and “Factotum,” an adaptation of one of his later novels, starring Matt Dillon, released in 2005. Two Bukowski poetry books were published last year by the Harper Collins imprint Ecco: “The People Look Like Flowers At Last,” and “The Pleasures of the Damned.” Ecco continues to re-release Bukowski's novels, poems and collected shorts from the many publications he wrote for during his literary life.

In February, the rundown bungalow where Bukowski penned his first novel, “Post Office,” was named an historic landmark by the Los Angeles City Council. And Esotouric, a bus tour company that claims to take riders into the “secret heart of L.A.” runs a tour of Bukowski's life in the city, taking riders from his haunts on Skid Row; to the Postal Annex Terminal, where the author gathered material for “Post Office”; to his favorite liquor store, the Pink Elephant.

Gaylord Brewer, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University who wrote a critical analysis of Bukowski’s life and work, said Bukowski is often overlooked but has an undeniable appeal to readers.

“There’s a directness and, at least, seeming simplicity to the language that can grab a reader,” Brewer said. “There's something about the gritty themes.”

Brewer said critics have either wildly advocated or passionately damned Bukowski's work. Many critics have called him a misogynist. But to Brewer, “Bukowski seemed like a breath of fresh air.”

And, he said, “don’t overlook that sense of humor he has.”

“The night the 300-pound whore came in I was ready,” Bukowski wrote in the late 1960s for the underground L.A. publication “Open City.” He wrote in explicit detail about how he and the woman broke the legs off the bed in his rented room.

The story is typical of Bukowski’s fiction: brutally honest and likely biographical. The story was about finding happiness in the misery of a destitute life, and the ending reads like the opposite of the beginning: “I pulled the clean white sheet and the cover up to my chin and then I slept, alone, easy, gracious and touched by the miracle. It was o.k.”

Filmmaker Jon Monday, who produced the new DVDs (“The Last Straw” and “There’s Gonna be a God Damn Riot in Here!”) with Dennis Del Torre, said sales have been strong since their release in February.

“Yet it’s just released and we haven’t really started the promotion and PR,” he said.

“There's Gonna Be A God Damn Riot In Here!” was filmed in a small folk-rock club in Redondo Beach, Calif. Monday, who was working in the music industry at the time of the readings in 1979 and 1980, said in an e-mail, “Bukowski challenged members of the audience to a fight, at another point he pulled out a knife and baited a heckler to keep it up. He laughed at a woman who complained she paid to get in.”

Bukowski perseveres in online videos as well. One of the many clips of the author available on YouTube has been viewed, according to the site, over 100,000 times. In it, he sits in a dark room, hovering over a table crowded with beer bottles, and perhaps inadvertently, explains his enduring irreverent appeal.

“Tolstoy is supposed to be special? I go to bed, I read ‘War and Peace,’ I read it, I read it, I say, where’s the specialness in ‘War and Peace?’” he says in the video in a surprisingly soft voice, drawing out the sound of each word. “Many of the great poets of the past, I’ve read their stuff. I read it. All I get is a goddamned headache.”

E-mail: cr2379@columbia.edu