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Bukowski collection at UB looks at poet's early years

Charles Bukowski in yearbook

Charles Bukowski, once dubbed the “laureate of American lowlife,” during his senior year at Los Angeles High School in 1939.

By CORY NEALON

Published August 15, 2013

Hard-living poet Charles Bukowski, once described by Time magazine as the “laureate of American lowlife,” is known for writing about alcohol, turbulent relationships and the slums of Los Angeles.

Yet Bukowski, born 93 years ago tomorrow (Aug. 16, 1920), didn’t look much like an anti-hero during high school.

Photos from a classmate’s yearbook on display in UB’s prized Poetry Collection show him clean-shaven, wearing a jacket and tie, and, perhaps more surprising, as an ROTC sergeant. The man who would be portrayed on film by Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon professed a fondness for fishing and noted his plan to attend Los Angeles City College.

Charles Bukowski ROTC

Iconic poet Charles Bukowski (top row, third from left) served in the ROTC to avoid gym class.

The yearbook is among a stash of Bukowski-related items in the Ross Runfola Charles Bukowski Collection at UB. Runfola, a lawyer, professor, writer and poet in Buffalo, donated the materials to UB. The collection includes limited editions of books, handwritten notes, original artwork and other items from and concerning Bukowski.

Biographies portray Bukowski, whose novels include “Post Office” and “Factotum,” as an unhappy student who felt out of place at Los Angeles High School. According to his semi-autobiographical novel, “Ham on Rye,” Bukowski said ROTC “was for the misfits. Like I said, it was either that or gym. I would have taken gym but I didn't want people to see the boils on my back. There was something wrong with everybody enrolled in R.O.T.C. It almost entirely consisted of guys who didn't like sports or guys whose parents forced them to take R.O.T.C. because they thought it was patriotic.”

Charles Bukowski's handmade book

A rare handmade book from Bukowski called “It Catches My Heart in Its Hand.”

The Bukowski collection and other items at UB—including one of the world’s foremost collections of James Joyce materials and significant collections on Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan and other poets and writers—are on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays in 420 Capen Hall, North Campus.

For more information about the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, visit the collection’s website or call 716-645-2917.