Sunday, July 26, 2009

Thoughts On Two Short Poems By Richard Brautigan

By Lars Trodson

Idealism, at least in literature, does not age well. I was thinking of this the other day after reading poems by Richard Brautigan in his book “The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster.” Brautigan is a writer hardly anyone reads any more, and one of the reasons is his close association with the counterculture movement of the late 1960s. He was a hippy, or at least he looked like one, and his books do have the kind of trippy, flighty looseness associated with an era when people were trying to break the rules -- both socially and literarily.

Worse still, the counterculture movement of that time is now seen as naive and ineffective. So the literature of that time is also seen through those two damaging prisms. In The New York Times obituary from 1984, Brautigan was immediately identified as the “quixotic counterculture poet and writer...” United Press International identified him as a “long-haired writer...”

Even the Brautigan title I just mentioned -- “The Pill Versus the Spring Hill Mine Disaster” -- seems to live up to that free-form looseness that, when read outside the immediacy of the time in which it was created, had a reputation for losing much of its meaning and credibility.

But the poem that bears the title catches you short with its clarity and power:

When you take your pill

it’s like a mine disaster.

I think of all the people
   lost inside of you.

That’s the entire poem, and it’s mournful, strange. It turns an act of love into some kind of devastation, which in turn give you the sense that the writer has lost control of his feelings. That the love he has is almost too powerful.

Another has the same kind of goofy title, but the poem itself is melancholy and sweet, and not silly at all. This one is called “A Good-Talking Candle”:

I had a good-talking candle
in my room last night.

I was very tired but I wanted
someone to be with me,
   so I lit a candle

and listened to its comfortable

voice of light until I was asleep.

No flights of surrealistic fancy with some wax yammering away. Just the crystallization of a thought at the end of a long day.

Brautigan was born in Washington State in 1934 and committed suicide sometime in 1984. The date of his death is not certain because his body was not found until weeks after he had died.

By then, it seemed, Brautigan was already out of date; the social movement he was associated with had more power and stamina than he had.

My copy of “The Pill” is from 1968. Page 49-50 is ripped out, and there is a handwritten note on the blank inside page that begins, “Dear Mom, I’m dying a little more each day” and gets worse after that. Books are mysterious things.

I had recently found the book on a shelf. I took it down, but didn’t look at it for some time. One day I opened it randomly and started to read the poems. It is no small thing that they gave me pleasure, and I was happy to think that on a breezy summer day in 2009 with the clouds rolling in that some stranger was thinking of Richard Brautigan.