Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, and the Computer

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

16-bit Intel 8088 chip

with an Apple Macintosh
you can’t run Radio Shack programs
in its disc drive.
nor can a Commodore 64
drive read a file
you have created on an
IBM Personal Computer.
both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
the CP/M operating system
but can’t read each other’s
for they format (write
on) discs in different
the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
can’t use most programs produced for
the IBM Personal Computer
unless certain
bits and bytes are
but the wind still blows over
and in the Spring
the turkey buzzard struts and
flounces before his

— Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski and the Computer

On Christmas Day, 1990, Charles Bukowski received a Macintosh IIsi computer and a laser printer from his wife, Linda. The computer utilized the 6.0.7 operating system and was installed with the MacWrite II word processing program. By January 18 of the next year, the computer was up and running and so, after a brief period of fumbling and stumbling, was Bukowski. His output of poems doubled in 1991. In letters he remarked that he had more poems than outlets to send them to. The fact that several books of new poems appeared in the years following Bukowski’s death in 1994 can partially be attributed to this amazing burst of creative energy late in life. The Macintosh IIsi helped to enable this creative explosion.

Charles Bukowski and his Apple ComputerFlying in the face of the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” Bukowski kept an open mind about new technologies. Although he wondered if Dostoevsky would have ever used a computer or if he would lose his soul as a writer, Bukowski quickly realized the substantial benefits of the Macintosh and wondered how he ever wrote without one, considering the typewriter archaic. In correspondence, Bukowski championed his computer to friends, stating that they would never regret getting one for themselves. Linda signed Bukowski up for a computer class, and he went willingly, demonstrating his eagerness to master the new technology. A short time later, Bukowski characteristically claimed that he had a secret, foolproof system for dealing with his computer’s many shutdowns and malfunctions, much like he had a system at the racetrack.

In general Bukowski kept abreast of new innovations that would further his writing. In a letter to John Martin, his Black Sparrow publisher, Bukowski mentioned the availability of a technology (the Internet) that would allow him to send poems instantly. The speed and ease of new technologies amazed, excited, and inspired him. When he first got a fax machine, Bukowski immediately wrote Martin a fax poem. In late 1992, Bruce Kijewski approached Bukowski with the idea of electronic books. Bukowski was intrigued. He wrote back, “Yes, you have a strange project: electronic books. It might be the future as more and more people find that the computer is such a magic thing: time-saver, charmer, energizer.” Bukowski’s open-mindedness in old age is refreshing, when you consider all the aging writers who fall back and rely on the familiar, be it in technologies of writing or actual writing style. But there are still reservations and a sense of nostalgia. The same letter to Kijewski continues, “But, still, when [the electronic book] comes I will still miss the old fashioned book.” Despite such statements, it is clear that Bukowski was a writer not afraid of, or pessimistic about, the future.

Bukowski’s embrace of new technology should not surprise me, but it always does. Putting aside the transgressive nature of Bukowski’s subject matter, part of me considers him a conservative poet. On the level of poetics, he rarely impresses me as particularly innovative. For example he never experimented with the page as a field, a technique that I have a weakness for. In addition, his use of poetic form and the line seems rather simple and direct. Yet this was not always so. The poems from the 1960s used a much longer and freer line that incorporated elements of surrealism. There is a playfulness of language in these poems. Bukowski gets drunk on words and the joys of putting them together. This excess gets stripped down later in his career. I tend to see this as a lack of innovation, but it is not; it is an adaptation and, in fact, addresses Bukowski’s intense concern with the line. Bukowski as he got older sought a simpler, more direct poem and used a shorter line. I should think of William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, or HD when I see Bukowski’s later poems with their four to five word lines. As with new technology, Bukowski possessed an open mind with all manner of writing styles and techniques. He would try anything once. For a brief period in the later 1960s, Bukowski, at the urging of Carl Weissner, addressed the cut-up and flirted with the idea in a few poems. A great letter from the period parodies the cut-up, even though the cut-ups probably came from Bukowski’s imagination rather than the scissors.

I do not want to suggest that Bukowski was pioneer or a radical in his use of the computer. He is no Michael Joyce, to mention a pioneer in the field, and his work never did incorporate the possibilities of, nor test the boundaries of, digital technology, like the more innovative literature of this nature. In fact, Bukowski readily admitted that he used the computer as a typewriter. He marveled at basic capabilities such as formatting, fonts, and spell check. Yet there is more to Bukowski’s relationship with computer than that. In a letter to Ivan Suvanjieff on February 20,, 1992, Bukowski set out in some detail his thoughts on the computer and writing. He writes, “One editor writes me an almost snarling letter. ‘All a computer does is allow you to correct the composition of your work!’ This man understands nothing.” Pound, Olson, and Zukofsky demonstrated the value of the typewriter in composition so this ability on the computer is no small matter, as are fonts and the like, but for Bukowski, the computer actually altered how he felt about and approached his writing. In the same letter he writes, “There is something about seeing your words on a screen before you that makes you send the word with a better bite, sighted in closer to the target. I know a computer can’t make a writer but I think it makes a writer better. Simplicity in writing and simplicity in getting it down, hot and real.” He continues, “When this computer is in the shop and I go back to the electric, it’s like trying to break rock with a hammer. Of course, the essence of writing is there but you have to wait on it, it doesn’t leap from the gut as quickly, you begin to trail your thoughts — your thoughts are ahead of your fingers which are trying to catch up. It causes a block of sorts indeed.” Bukowski directly links the ease of writing on the computer with his later, simpler style. One might think that a computer would lead to a longer line, an increased verbiage, not with Bukowski. The ease of the delete / edit functions was as important as the ability to get one’s thoughts down quickly. In addition, the visual aspect of the screen and the feel of writing on a computer influenced the form of Bukowski’s later poetry.

Robert Crumb, Old Writer (Charles Bukowski) Leers into Computer ScreenBukowski also incorporated the computer as a metaphor in his later writing. From early 1991 to his death in 1994, computers and the act of writing on one appeared repeatedly. In The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken over the Ship, R. Crumb provided an illustration of Bukowski sitting in front of his Macintosh. The caption reads, “Old writer puts on sweater, sits down, leers into the computer screen and writes about life. How holy can we get?” Clearly, the computer re-energized Bukowski and gave him new life as a writer. Yet much of Bukowski’s late writing was about old age and death. The computer fit into this. In poems, letters, and in The Captain, Bukowski chronicled his struggles with the computer. The shutdowns, the lost poems, the time at the shop for repairs. This mirrored Bukowski’s own health problems and trips to the hospital. The computer represented the writer in old age. The computer and the digital revolution also suggest the end of the book and of print. As a result, the computer spelled the death of the traditional author, a fact that must have struck Bukowski as he faced death himself. Yet all was not doom and gloom as the computer (old age and death) also provides the material and means for new poems. So the computer also represents the old writer’s creative impulse. In the four letters collected in Reach for the Sun for 1994, two mention the computer. In Bukowski’s late writing, the computer simultaneously symbolized the persistent creativity and eventual death of the aging writer.

Considering the importance of the computer to Bukowski’s later work and creative process, I wonder if his computer, hard drives, and disks were sent to the Huntington Library with the rest of his archive. Again the level of study directed at Bukowski’s computer would not be on the same level as, say, a Michael Joyce, but a familiarity with a Macintosh IIsi, the 6.0.7 operating system, and MacWrite II would provide insight into Bukowski’s working habits and the resulting output. Given the creative charge Bukowski felt facing the black computer screen, a scholar would be well served experiencing the same working environment. Did Bukowski tailor his poems to the screen? Was the journal / diary aspect of The Captain derived from the computer in any way? How did Bukowski edit on the computer? Did his writing process differ from his use of the typewriter or his writing by hand? Bukowski mentioned experimenting with fonts and formatting. Did he keep any of these efforts and what was the extent of this practice? How did he format his blank “page” on the screen?

As Bukowski’s letters and other writing of the early 1990s show, he was aware of the importance of these questions. Take the poem “16 Bit Intel 8088 Chip.” Here, the incompatibility of computers is contrasted with the harmony of nature. The themes of rebirth, death and the poet in old age are all present as with much of Bukowski’s writing addressing the computer. Yet the poem also touches on a central dilemma for the contemporary librarian and archivist. How do you store and make sense of all the different computer technologies that proliferate in the digital age? The poem also hints at the transitory nature of computer technology. Like microfiche, tape cassettes and CDs, computer operating systems change rapidly and deteriorate. Unlike paper, unlike the traditional, soon to be “obsolete” book. Despite the changing technology, writers and artists will still create, but how is a librarian to keep track of this output and keep it available ten, fifty, a hundred years from now?

As a generation of baby-boom writers approach the completion of their creative careers, these are becoming central questions for today’s librarians. Currently, the University of Texas Library has 37 author archives that contain computer technology. This number is going to explode in the next decade. Famously, the computers of Ralph Ellison proved a major obstacle in piecing together the thousands of pages of draft of his never-completed follow-up to Invisible Man. Ellison used several different computers with different operating systems to store his drafts.

When I was briefly in graduate school, I was required to be fluent in a foreign language. This was a major roadblock for me. Today, a mastery of computers, their operating systems, their languages, and how they work is becoming mandatory for scholars and librarians. They need to be computer programmers and designers as well as experts on bibliographic matters. The questions this technology raises are numerous. How do you create electronic versions of texts? What are the standards and critical approaches to these texts? How are various electronic drafts to be approached and prioritized? What are the ethics of digging into a writer’s personal computer? What is a writer’s obligation to save drafts and email? Such questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Kyle Schlesinger, my co-editor on Mimeo Mimeo, sent me a link to the work of Matthew G. Kirchenbaum, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland. He and other forward-looking academics are addressing these questions. Jerome McGann, as I have mentioned before, is one of the pioneers in this respect. His work on the Rossetti Project and with IVANHOE shows what is possible as well as the endless possibilities. I also mentioned in my Beat Critics article about the desire to create an electronic version of On the Road complete with Kerouac’s revisions and scholarly commentary. As Beat criticism moves away from definitions and canon formation, it will have to address many technological questions. Kirchenbaum and others are mapping this field. The white paper, Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use, is a case in point.

William Burroughs and the Computer

This takes me to the William Burroughs archive at the Berg. The index of the archive was just posted on the Berg’s website. It makes for fascinating reading. The breadth of the archive is immense and intimidating. Quite possibly, the traditional book may not be the best manner to present the contents of this archive to the public. For example, maybe an electronic Naked Lunch along the lines of the electronic Melville described in John Bryant’s paper on On the Road is what is needed. Thus, making sense of the Burroughs archive may require a solid knowledge of computers and computer design.

William Burroughs at Typewriter in 1953, Photograph by Allen GinsbergThat said, none of the items in the Burroughs archive are born digital, i.e., they were not initially created on a computer or by other digital means. Burroughs used a typewriter or wrote by hand. Everything Lost highlights the incredible set of challenges that results from holograph manuscripts while also showing how modern technology can suggest solutions to these problems. While I have heard mention that Burroughs possessed a computer in Lawrence, I have never seen evidence that he utilized it in his creative process. The Berg shows no computers, disks, hard drives or print outs. This makes sense given that the collection dated from 1951 to 1972, but I am unaware of such items elsewhere, such as Ohio State University. I have never seen an original Burroughs manuscript, such as a laser printout, that shows his work was ever born digital. I believe Last Words was handwritten in a journal. Somebody correct me if I am wrong here.

As far back as the mid-1960s, Burroughs was aware of the possibilities of the computer and computer-generated poetry. In Insect Trust Gazette, Burroughs’ work appears alongside an early computer poem. In his interview with Conrad Knickerbocker in Paris Review, he stated that he had yet to experiment with the computer, but thought that such literature was valid and interesting, if it stood on its own merit. Yet as time passed — again, as far as I know — Burroughs never experimented with the computer. On one level this makes sense given the fact that Burroughs was well advanced in age and set in his ways by the time the personal computer was generally available. You might say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Bukowski proves that you, in fact, can.

Part of me has always found it weird that Burroughs was not more involved in the Internet and computers. It seems right up his alley. His work has often been connected to cyberpunk fiction as an early influence. His writing is routinely described as a form of hypertext (“You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point”). One might think Burroughs would be curious to explore this aspect of his work further, given the hype surrounding hypertext in the early 1990s. Burroughs readily embraced the technologies of film, tape, and painting into his creative process, so he was open to new media and mediums. The idea of the Composite City and Interzone seem, as critics have noted, to have a particular affinity to hypertext and the Internet. The free-flowing and interconnected nature of the City draws many comparisons to the Web. I tend to link Interzone and the Composite City with Borges’ concept of the Tower of Babel and the all-inclusive library. The idea of an endless novel and a digital archive seem Burroughsian to me. Burroughs, computers, and the Internet seem a match made in, if not heaven, cyberspace.

In 1994, Wired announced the imminent launch of an official Burroughs website in conjunction with Timothy Leary. It never came off. The venture proved to be largely an example of financial speculation, rather than a creative enterprise. The presence of Leary cements this fact for me. From psychedelics to cyberspace, Leary was more P.T. Barnum than anything else. He was a promoter and a popularizer rather than a true astronaut of inner- or cyberspace. Leary was not a creator. Yet this idea of a website with Burroughs’ input continues to fascinate. What would Burroughs have done with an Ian Sommerville-type collaborator who knew the nuts and bolts of computers and the Internet, was aware of their philosophical and cultural implications, and also possessed a desire to expand the medium creatively? Like many on the forum at RealityStudio, I wonder what if? It was not to be.

William Burroughs and his Typewriter, Photograph by Robert MapplethorpeMaybe the lack of born-digital material in Burroughs’ archives can be simply explained by the fact that the digital age had passed him by in his old age. An interview from 1987 suggests as much. On the question of Burroughs’ involvement with word processors, he answers, “No, I’m very poor with any mechanical contrivances. I don’t know how a typewriter works, for example. I can use it, but I don’t know how it works. Right now, word processors seem just too complicated to get into. I guess they would be helpful, save a great deal of time, undoubtedly, but at this point the effort involved in learning how to use them just doesn’t seem worthwhile.”

But there might be more to Burroughs’ less than enthusiastic attitude toward computers than that. By the 1990s, Burroughs had largely left writing behind and was exploring painting more fully. He clearly still burned with the desire to create. The process of painting excited Burroughs, particularly the use of the hand and gesture. In an interview with Klaus Maek in 1990, Burroughs states, “When I started painting, I said, I will have to see with my hands and I just let my hands do it. And my hands, sometimes they know.” The cut-up was a similar physical process. Burroughs needed that direct confrontation with his materials in order to create. He wrote in Naked Lunch: “There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing.” Painting provided a slightly different intimacy and immediacy. Burroughs states, “For one thing when you are writing you can’t help but know what you’re writing about because it’s right there in front of you, but I never know what I’m painting until I am finished. I sometimes paint with my eyes closed because I see with my hands when I paint. In a sense, painting is easier than writing because you just let your hands do it…” Possibly, the blank computer screen provided too much distance to interest and to inspire Burroughs. As I mentioned Bukowski felt the opposite: the computer got him directly into the writing.

Looking through Burroughs’ archive suggests another roadblock to the computer. The archive clearly demonstrates how intimately Burroughs dealt with the materials of print culture. Burroughs was particularly fascinated by that epitome of mass print culture: the newspaper as well as magazines and journals. Bukowski was interested in the little magazine and underground paper solely as outlets for his work. In contrast, Burroughs sought to detourn mass print culture and turn it back on itself. How mass print culture operated, disseminated, and influenced public opinion intrigued Burroughs. He was also intensely involved with the materiality of print. The printed word was an object to be manipulated. The cut-up and his use of collage in scrapbooks highlight this. Writing on a computer lacks this materiality. Of course this is not true as data recovery makes clear. Even a deleted document leaves a trace burned into the hard drive. Yet the immediacy of the typewriter biting into paper is not there, to say nothing of the pleasure of the act of handwriting. Cutting and pasting digitally lacks the obvious physical effort of scissors and glue. We come back to Burroughs’ pleasure in the tactile.

Nostalgia plays a large role in Burroughs’ work. For all of Burroughs’ claims of embracing the future, moving towards the space age (“We are here to go!”), he felt strongly the pull of the past. He looked back fondly at silent films of the 1920s and the same holds true for the print culture of bygone days like boy’s weeklies. The digital age supposedly spells the death of print. Clearly the newspaper as Burroughs knew it is, if not dying, in a profound period of change. Burroughs would have felt that loss keenly. The age of the electronic book and the Internet may have been a world that Burroughs predicted but it seems, looking at his archive and his interest in painting, to have been a world he chose not to get involved in and maybe, creatively, could not embrace. For the most part, Burroughs approached the digital age with what he ultimately sought and demanded in his writing, silence.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 11 September 2009. See also “Collaborating on the Computer with William S. Burroughs” by Roger Holden.

13 thoughts on “Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, and the Computer

  1. A nice piece Jed. I’ve been thinking about this anomaly lately and have come tot the conclusion that once Burroughs left the experimental stuff in the early 1970’s behind and embraced the more nostalgic, even gentle, work he did until his death he seems to have lost interest in new technology and replaced it with something reliable like a gun.

  2. Fascinating piece, as ever, Jed. Using a computer might have assisted in making Bukowski more prolific, but it certainly didn’t help in making the increased poem-output of a decent quality. I get the feeling by the end of his life that Black Sparrow Press were just putting out ANYTHING by him cos they knew they had a built-in audience for it, regardless of how good or bad or ugly the wordwork was.

  3. Excellent piece. Very interesting. Am currently doing a study on artist’s books and the materiality of print and stumbled upon this. Thank you.

  4. My guess would be that Bukowski was into his toys and gadgets while Burroughs was less so (and perhaps he just did not have the money?).

    You can also approach the difference from another angle. Bukowski would probably be uninterested in the way his computer worked, and what it could do in theory. Burroughs on the other hand seems to have been greatly interested in the process of computation (a process independent of any piece of hardware embodying a computational principle and of which word processors are a poor manifestation).
    There is a small number of famous programmers, Donals Knuth for instance, who never need to touch a computer to do their work.

    What should also be factored in is that Burroughs’ hope to explore computers for literary experiments hinged on the presence and knowledge of Ian Sommerville. When their paths seperated Burroughs might well have lost his port of entry into the ‘digital revolution’.

    Btw Jed, do you know anything more about computer CONTROL (as mentioned in the retreat diaries):

    “Some years ago I put a question to CONTROL, a mysterious computer in London which purports to be from Venus and will answer any question.

    Question: Would rubbing out the word result in immediate exteriorisation from the body?
    Answer: Yes.
    Question: How can this be accomplished?
    Answer: At first automatic exercise.

    I took this to mean that once words talk on their own, they rub themselves out.”

  5. Wilifried,

    Thanks for your comments. Great point about Ian Sommerville. I wonder how much of Burroughs’ experimental work in the 1960s was tied not so much to Gysin but Sommerville. I hope somebody is working on a book or essay on that relationship. It would be a very important piece.

    I will also look into the concept of computation. Something I know nothing about but years ago I read an article on Sade and computation that was great. Something similar might prove fruitful with Burroughs.

    Dont know anything really about CONTROL. I will look into it.

  6. Interesting story… I was working at Red House recording studio in Lawrence, Kansas in the mid-90s. I was in the studio with him when he was recording the voice overs for The Dark Eye. The representative from the company that was doing the CD-ROM project was showing Burroughs some animation and I remember very distinctly him watching the computer screen, brushing it off and said something to the effect of “Bah, computers. Bullshit.” or something to that effect. :)

  7. I have an IBM Personal Typewriter which is collecting dust on my file cabinet. I have no use for it and wondering if I should now donate it to the Salvation Army. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.

  8. I wonder if anyone has begun writing poetry or other literature comprised of recovered data from partially erased drives. This would seem a logical next step in marrying the cut-up method with digital technology.

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