Richard Brautigan’s (January 30, 1935 – ca. September 16, 1984) poems are usually brief, often humorous, sometimes childlike in their innocence, and decidedly antipoetic. Much of his poetry sounds like prose, in the same way that the prose of his novels is often poetic. “January 17” (from Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt) reads simply, “Drinking wine this afternoon/ I realize the days are getting/ longer.” His best poems resemble brief haiku, and some have a Zen Buddhist quality to them. The short verse “Haiku Ambulance” (from his popular collection The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster) reads, in its entirety, “A piece of green pepper/ fell/ off the wooden salad bowl:/ so what?” His imagination is sometimes startling, and his images and metaphors often surprise the reader, although they rarely leave an aftertaste.
Many of his poems are nonsense verse; for example “The Amelia Earhart Pancake” (from Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork) tells readers that he is giving up trying to find a poem to fit this title, and in several cases, he prints titles with no poems beneath them, as in “A 48-Year-Old Burglar from San Diego” and “1891-1944” (both from Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt). A good number of his poems are about love, love found and love lost (some in his first collection are dedicated “For Marcia” or simply “For M”), and some have explicit sexual images and language at their center.
His poetic voice is simple and direct, capturing the rhythms of the spoken word and providing easy access to his thoughts. A few of his poems are longer than a page, but most of his poems are only a few lines long. However, “The Galilee Hitch-Hiker” section of The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster contains nine linked poems, all but the last featuring the nineteenth century French poet Charles Baudelaire in twentieth century America; the “Group Portrait Without the Lions” section of Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork has fourteen short poems (part 9, “Betty Makes Wonderful Waffles,” reads simply, “Everybody agrees to/ that”); and the “Good Luck, Captain Martin” section of the same collection has seven poems. The last poem in the series, “Put the Coffee On, Bubbles, I’m Coming Home,” consists of two lines, “Everybody’s coming home/ except Captain Martin.”
Brautigan’s rise was sudden. He was known as a West Coast poet for about a decade, until the publication of his first major collection, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, in 1968, and for the next ten years—through his final three collections, Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, and June 30th, June 30th—he was a popular poet who was closely associated with the San Francisco cultural scene of rock bands, flower children, and drugs. Many of the poems in the first and second collections published during the peak of Brautigan’s popularity first appeared in Harper’s, Mademoiselle, Poetry, and Rolling Stone magazines. His later poetry collections, however, showed a falling off of poetic inspiration and imagination: More of the poems were flat or nonsense prose, with fewer startling images and metaphors than in his earlier collections.
The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster
Although Brautigan had been publishing in small presses and reading his own poetry in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, his 1968 collection, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, was the first to gain wide popularity with young American readers. The ideas and images expressed in this work seemed to capture the magical, antiauthoritarian spirit of the late 1960’s. Brautigan’s novels, along with those of writers such as Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn, 1968) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, 1969), were also vehicles of the counterculture.
The title poem of Brautigan’s first major collection conveys its tone:
When you take your pill
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
lost inside of you.
The metaphor jolts readers with its juxtaposition of images, and the poem becomes a kind of ironic haiku on the birth control pill. It was the poetic language, particularly the images and metaphors, of this collection that struck readers most forcefully. Death was “. . . a beautiful car parked only/ to be stolen . . . ,” a dish of ice cream looked “like Kafka’s hat.” The last three lines of “Your Departure Versus the Hindenburg” read, “When you leave the house, the/ shadow of the Hindenburg enters/ to take your place.” Even in this collection, there were poems that fit the definition of poetry only by virtue of their linear spacing: “Widow’s Lament” reads, “It’s not quite cold enough/ to go borrow some firewood/ from the neighbors.” Brautigan was drawing on William Carlos Williams and the Imagists, but often without a strong enough central image, and creating haiku without a sharp enough picture.
Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt
Brautigan’s second major poetry collection, Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, had many of the same qualities—the cryptic humor, the naïve tone, and the nonsense lyrics— but there seemed to be fewer fresh metaphors, and more poems seemed to be self-referential. “Critical Can Opener,” for example, reads, “There is something wrong/ with this poem. Can you/ find it?” “Third Eye/ For Gary Snyder” reads simply, “There is a motorcycle/ in New Mexico,” and “April 7, 1969” consists of the simple four-line lament: “I feel so bad today/ that I want to write a poem./ I don’t care: any poem, this/ poem.” Still, there were enough poems in which the images surprised and puzzled readers to maintain Brautigan’s reputation, such as the two-line “Cellular Coyote”: “He’s howling in the pines/ at the edge of your fingerprints.”
Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork
Brautigan’s third popular collection, Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, continued the hip Brautigan poetic style, with images such as those in the title poem; jokes such as that in the one-line poem “Nine Crows: Two Out of Sequence,” which reads, “1,2,3,4,5,7,6,8,9”; and the haiku-like brevity and irony of “Curiously Young Like a Freshly-Dug Grave”:
Curiously young like a freshly-dug grave
the day parades in circles like a top
with rain falling in its shadow.
Similarly, “Impasse” reads, “I talked a good hello/ but she talked an even/ better good-bye.” He writes “the moon shines like a dead garage” in one poem and snowflakes in New York City appear “. . . like millions/ of transparent washing machines swirling/ through the dirty air of this city, washing/ it” in another. More poems, however, devolve into prose in this collection: “Ginger” reads simply, “She’s glad/ that Bill/ likes her,” and “Two Guys Get out of a Car,” consists of three simple lines:
Two guys get out of a car.
They stand beside it.
They don’t know what else to do.
Other poems contain antipoetic gestures. In “Death Like a Needle,” Brautigan writes, “. . . [I can’t make/ the next two words out. I first/ wrote this poem in longhand]. . . .” Brautigan seems less imaginative and figurative in this collection and more inclined to write poems just to poke fun at the poetic process. As the spirit of the 1960’s dissipated, so too did Brautigan’s imaginative powers and popularity.
Long fiction: A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1964; Trout Fishing in America, 1967; In Watermelon Sugar, 1967; The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1971; The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, 1974; Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery, 1975; Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel, 1976; Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942, 1977; The Tokyo-Montana Express, 1980; So the Wind Won’t BlowIt Away, 1982; An UnfortunateWoman, 2000 (wr. 1982; first published in French as Cahier d’un Retour de Troie, 1994).
Short fiction: Revenge of the Lawn: Stories, 1962-1970, 1971.
Miscellaneous: The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings, 1995.
Abbott, Keith. Downstream from “Trout Fishing in America.” Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989.
Barber, John F., ed. Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007.
Boyer, Jay. Richard Brautigan. Western Writers Series 79. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987.
Brautigan, Ianthe. You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Cutler, Edward. “Richard Brautigan.” In Twentieth Century American Western Writers, First Series. Vol. 206 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
McDermott, James Dishon. Austere Style in Twentieth-Century Literature: Literary Minimalism. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006.