Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Poetry of Richard Brautigan

By Dan Barth on Wednesday, July 11, 2001 07:47 pm

Recently I reread two of Richard Brautigan's poetry books, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt. I had been reading Baudelaire and thought I remembered Brautigan using Baudelaire in his poems. Sure enough, "The Galilee Hitch-Hiker" section of Pill is comprised of nine poems involving Baudelaire. Here's one:

The American Hotel

Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Francisco's skidrow.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
dinosaurs.
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
"One must always be drunk,"
said Baudelaire.
"I live in the American Hotel,"
said the wino. "And I can
remember dinosaurs."
"Be you drunken ceaselessly,"
said Baudelaire.

I don't think Brautigan was a great poet. In fact his "poems," like his "short stories" and his "novels," are often not really poems, short stories and novels at all. They are all "Brautigans", as the writer W. P. Kinsella has pointed out. Like Kerouac said, "Something that you feel will find its own form."

Brautigan saw, felt and thought in his own unique way and let his scribblings find their own forms. The great virtue of his writing in these two volumes is that it is so readable. You can go through both books in two or three hours. This virtue can also be a vice in that some of the "poems" are throwaway pieces, little more than jottings and doodles. But when he hits it, Brautigan is just great.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is the earlier and, in my opinion, the better of the two books. Some of the poems were written as early as 1958. It's amazing to see Brautigan at this point already anticipating the acid goofiness of the next decade, and even the computer mania of the ones after that. Here's the first poem from the book:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Pas mal! It can also be kind of sad to read these poems, knowing that Brautigan ended as he did, an alcoholic egomaniac, a suicide. I read some of these funny and whimsical Brautigans and think how sad it is that his life took the direction it did. Here's one that hit me that way:

Our Beautiful West Coast Thing

We are a coast people
There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.
-- Jack Spicer

I sit here dreaming
long thoughts of California
at the end of a November day
below a cloudy twilight
near the Pacific

listening to The Mamas and The Papas
THEY'RE GREAT

singing a song about breaking
somebody's heart and digging it!

I think I'll get up
and dance around the room.

Here I go!

How can you not like a guy who writes like that. Or how about this one:

The Quail

There are three quail in a cage next door,
and they are the sweet delight of our mornings,
calling to us like small frosted cakes:
bobwhitebobwhitebobwhite,
but at night they drive our God-damn cat Jake crazy.
They run around that cage like pinballs
as he stands out there,
smelling their asses through the wire.

Brautigan wrote a lot of love poems. Pill is dedicated to a woman named Marcia Pacaud and a lot of the poems are about her. Here's one that uses another of Brautigan's off-the-wall similes:

I Feel Horrible. She Doesn't

I feel horrible. She doesn't
love me and I wander around
the house like sewing machine
that's just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.

Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt came out a couple of years after Pill. It has quite a few more throwaway pieces, indicating that Brautigan had already started to fall off the beam. But it still has a number that I like and that make me laugh, like:

The Memoirs of Jesse James

I remember all those thousands of hours
that I spent in grade school watching the clock,
waiting for recess or lunch or to go home.
Waiting: for anything but school.
My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James
for all the time they stole from me.

And:

Donner Party

Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.

I recommend these books to anyone who has not read Brautigan. It's a treat to read them for the first time. And if you read them years ago it's a treat to reread them and compare your reactions now with then, to compare your self now with then.

Try this: just go through and read the titles. If you don't laugh then maybe these books aren't for you.

Reading tip: Raymond Carver is a famous short story writer -- Robert Altman's movie Short Cuts is based on his work -- and even though he comes highly recommended by a lot of people whose opinions I respect, I have never been able to get into his stories. But the other day after reading Brautigan's poetry I picked up a Raymond Carver book and voila! Somehow the Brautigan had left my brainwaves in just the right shape to appreciate Carver. Though very different in style and content, they have a similar rainy Pacific Northwest sensibility. So if you have to read Carver, read Brautigan first. They go together like cheesecake and coffee.

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