NOTE: I started this blog in Jan 2008 with excerpts from my presentation on writing. To start that from the beginining click on "Archives" and work backward. The current material is updated weekly. Let me know what you think of these. – John
Richard Brautigan was like the John Dillinger of poetry, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor:
Mooresville, Indiana, is the town that John Dillinger came from, and the town has a John Dillinger Museum. You can go in and look around.
Some towns are known as the peach capital of America or the cherry capital or the oyster capital, and there’s always a festival and the photograph of a pretty girl in a bathing suit.
Mooresville, Indiana, is the John Dillinger capital of America.
Recently a man moved there with his wife, and he discovered hundreds of rats in his basement. They were huge, slow moving child-eyed rats.
When his wife had to visit some of her relatives for a few days, the man went out and bought a .38 revolver and a lot of ammunition. Then he went down to the basement where the rats were, and he started shooting them. It didn’t bother the rats at all. They acted as if it were a movie and started eating their dead companions for popcorn.
The man walked over to a rat that was busy eating a friend and placed the pistol against the rat’s head. The rat didn’t move and continued eating away. When the hammer clicked back, the rat paused between bites and looked out of the corner of its eye. First at the pistol and then at the man. It was a kind of friendly look as if to say, “When my mother was young she sang like Deanna Durbin.”
The man pulled the trigger.
He had no sense of humor.
There’s always a single feature, a double feature and an eternal feature playing at the Great Theater in Mooresville, Indiana: the John Dillinger capital of America.
A friend of the poet, Keith Abbot, says, “Over the nineteen years I knew Brautigan, I never heard him refer to any people of the Northwest by name—not his sister, mother, father or stepfathers, not his girlfriends or teachers… The effect was ghostly, as if Brautigan’s past had faded into a kind of surrealist museum whose holdings were indicated only by chalk outlines. He once recalled his abandonment in a Montana hotel by his mother when he was nine or ten and he mentioned to me that he had met his biological father twice, once in a barbershop and once in a hotel room. Each time his father gave him some money to go see a movie.”
Perhaps you felt bad when she said that thing to you. She could have told it to someone else: Somebody who was more familiar with her problems.
That is my name.
Or it was a game that you played when you were a child or something that came idly into your mind when you were old and sitting at a chair near the window.
As I saythe kids at the high school where I found myself teaching didn’t go on to college. Oh maybe one or two went to some kind of car-mechanic training or beautician school. So threat of poor grades or homework assignments or anything didn’t really carry weight. These students were there because their friends were and if they were going to learn anything it had better have some relevance to their life that day. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald…forget it. That’s when I zeroxed this poem by Richard Brautigan:
If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”
I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.
I couldn’t say: Well, she looks just like Jane Fonda except that she’s got red hair and her mouth is different and of course she’s not a movie star.”
I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma, Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or ’42: somewhere in there. I think I was seven or eight or six. It was a movie about rural electrification and a perfect 1930s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids.
The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by at night, for sewing and reading, and they didn’t have any appliances, like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn’t listen to the radio.
Then they built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.
There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time.
Then the movie showed Electricity like a young Greek god coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life.
Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings.
The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.
It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt or hearing him on the radio.
“…The President of the United States…”
I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio.
That’s how you look to me.
And finally I gave my high school kids this. They didn’t know it, but it was how they would be graded…
I want your long blonde beauty
to be taught in high school,
so kids will learn that God
lives like music in the skin
and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord.
I want high school report cards
to look like this:
Playing with Gentle Glass Things
Writing Letters to Those You love
Finding out about Fish
Marcia’s Long Blonde Beauty
What Brautigan brought to those kids was a sense of, not how great and important he was, but how great and important each of them was. One convinced the principal to let him make the morning announcements, a bunch of others started an underground newspaper. “Creative Writing Class” became “Movie Making” and unemployed kids who had graduated the year before joined the cast. And I, who had missed The Sixties was getting a chance to see them first hand all over again.
Richard Brautigan was born January 30th, 1935, in the Pacific Northwest. He was the author of eleven novels, ten volumes of poetry and two collections of short stories. He lived for many years in San Francisco and become a literary idol of the 1960s whose iconoclastic vision of American life caught the imagination of young people everywhere. Maybe you were around then? Maybe you even remember reading this:
We’re staying with Pard and his girlfriend in this strange cabin above Mill Valley. They have rented a cabin for three months, June 15th to September 15th, for a hundred dollars. We are a funny bunch, all living here together.
Pard was born of Okie parents in British Nigeria and came to America when he was two years old and was raised as a ranch kid in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
He was a machine-gunner in the Second World War, against the Germans. He fought in France and Germany. Sergeant Pard. Then he came back from the war and went to some hick college in Idaho.
After he graduated from college, he went to Paris and became an Existentialist. He had a photograph taken of Existentialism and himself sitting at a sidewalk café. Pard was wearing a beard and he looked as if he had a huge soul, with barely enough room in his body to contain it.
Pard’s girlfriend is Jewish. Twenty-four years old, getting over a bad case of hepatitis, she kids Part about a nude photograph of her that has the possibility of appearing in Playboy Magazine. “There’s nothing to worry about,” she says. “If they use that photograph, it only means that 12,000,000 men will look at my boobs.” This is all very funny to her.
What we eat is funny and what we drink is even more hilarious: turkeys, Gallo port, hot dogs, watermelons, Popeyes, salmon croquettes, frappes, Christian Brothers port, orange rye bread, cantaloupes, Popeyes, salads, cheese—booze, grup and Popeyes.
We read books like The Thief’s Journal, Set This House on Fire and The Naked Lunch.
Pard and his girlfriend sleep in the cabin and we sleep outside, under the apple tree, waking at dawn to stare out across San Francisco Bay and then we go back to sleep again and wake once more, this time for a very strange thing to happen, and then we go back to sleep after it has happened, and wake at sunrise to stare out across the bay.
Afterwards we go back to sleep again and the sun rises steadily hour after hour, staying in the branches of a eucalyptus tree just a ways down the hill, keeping us cool and asleep and in the shade. At last the sun pours over the top of the tree and then we have to get up, the hot sun upon us.
We go into the house and begin that two-hour yak-yak activity we call breakfast. We sit around and bring ourselves slowly back to consciousness, treating ourselves like fine pieces of china, and after we finish the last cup of the last cup of the last cup of coffee, it’s time to think about lunch or go to the Goodwill in Fairfax.
One morning last week, part way through the dawn, I awoke under the apple tree, to hear a dog barking and the rapid sound of hoofs coming toward me. The millennium? An invasion of Russians all wearing deer feet?
I opened my eyes and saw a deer running straight at me. It was a buck with large horns. There was a police dog chasing after it.
I could have reached out and touched him when he went by.
He ran around the house, circling the john, with the dog hot after him. They vanished over the hillside, leaving streamers of toilet paper behind them, flowing out and entangled through the bushes and vines.
Then along came the doe. She started up the same way, but not moving as fast. Maybe she had strawberries in her head.
“Whoa!” I shouted. “Enough is enough! I’m not selling newspapers!”
The doe stopped in her tracks, twenty-five feet away and turned and went down around the eucalyptus tree.
Well, that’s how it’s gone now for days and days. I wake up just before they come. I wake up for them in the same manner as I do for the dawn and the sunrise. Suddenly knowing they’re on their way.
HOW I DISCOVERED RICHARD BRAUTINGAN
I couldn’t hang out in the Army forever. For one thing, my wife back then couldn’t stand it. For another, I was curious about what was going on at home. We had some whitewashed accounts, but it was time to experience this for myself. The only practical way I could do that without money was to attend grad school on the GI Bill. What would I take? Anything I wanted, because I was going into high school education.
The school that hired me, Whitehall Michigan, was interesting. They had fired all their hippy teachers from the year before, and I couldn’t have been more surprised when, after my interview, they hired this guy with a foot long beard and shoulder length hair (My wife, infant son and I had been camping around Europe for a year after I was released from the service.) But here was the catch.
The kids at that school didn’t go on to college. Oh maybe one or two went to some kind of car-mechanic training or beautician school. So threat of poor grades or homework assignments or anything didn’t really carry weight. These students were there because their friends were and if they were going to learn anything it had better have some relevance to their life that day. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald…forget it.
That’s when I xeroxed this poem by Richard Brautigan:
Hi, I’m John Lehman, not Richard Brautigan. He’s dead, but I am a big fan of his work and tonight I want to share some of it with you and perhaps figure out why, years later, it still seems special.
HOW AND WHY I MISSED THE SIXTIES
First of all, let me tell you that I missed most of what people today think of as “The Sixties.” Oh I remember how as a senior at Notre Dame in 1963 we all felt somewhat discontent. Some said it was the fluoride in the water, or the fact that we had had the worst football record for our four years in the history of the school. But now, looking back, I wonder. Our parents had worked hard to buy nice homes, nice cars, nice TV sets. They’d put us through college and now we were about to go out into the world and become managers of savings and loans, get married, have kid… be unhappy like our parents and their parents before. Or were we?
Here’s what I do remember. About a week before graduation several hundreds of us gathered on the quad. The university president, the Reverend Theodore Hesburg, had for years been pushing “academic excellence.” Perhaps he meant it, or perhaps it was a ploy to get our minds off the losing Irish. In any case we all came together chanting, “To hell with excellence!”
Now the oldest building on campus was the Administration Building at the head of the quadrangle. Tradition had it that undergraduates were not allowed to walk up the old, stone stairs leading to the second floor main entrance. That privilege was reserved for graduate students and complete strangers. On this warm, May evening, we hesitated then rushed up those stairs, turned around and rushed up them again. Causes were to become more serious and the demonstrations more violent, but “The Sixties” had begun.
Why I missed the rest, is because I joined the Army. Most of the rest of the next seven years I spent twiddling my thumbs overseas.
RICHARD BRAUTIGAN SPEAKS
Here’s what he says:
I am an unknown poet. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any friends. It means mostly my friends know I’m a poet, because I have told them so.
Let’s pretend that my mind is a taxi and suddenly (“What the hell’s coming off!”) your are riding in it.
a very beautiful,
I guess you’re kind of curious as to who I am, but I’m one of those who don’t have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.
If you’re thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you didn’t know the answer.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was raining very hard.
That is my name.
Or somebody wanted you to do something. You did it. Then they told you what you did was wrong—“Sorry for the mistake,”—and you had to do something else.
That is my name.
Or you walked someplace. There were flowers all around.
That is my name.
(John settles down into an easy chair, relaxes into memory.)
This is Brautigan too:
The cover for my book Trout Fishing in America is a photograph taken late in the afternoon, a photograph of the Benjamin Franklin statue in San Francisco’s Washington Square.
Born 1706—Died 1790, Benjamin Franklin stands on a pedestal that looks like a house containing stone furniture. He holds some papers in one hand and his hat in the other.
Then the statue speaks, saying in marble:
BOYS AND GIRLS
WHO WILL SOON
TAKE OUR PLACES
AND PASS ON.
Around the base of the stature are four words facing the directions of this world, to the east WELCOME, to the west WELCOME, to the north WELCOME, to the south WELCOME. Just behind the statue are three poplar trees, almost leafless except for the top branches. The statue stands in front of the middle tree. All around the grass is wet from the rains of early February.
Way in the background is a tall cypress tree, almost dark like a room. Adlai Stevenson spoke under the tree in 1956, before a crowd of 40,000 people.
There is a tall church across the street from the statue with crosses, steeples, bells and a vast door that looks like a huge mouse hole, perhaps from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and written above the door is “Per L’Universo.”
Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in this park across the street from the church and they are hungry.
It’s sandwich time for the poor.
But they cannot cross the street until the signal is given. Then they all run across the street to the church and get their sandwiches that are wrapped in newspaper. They go back to the park and unwrap the newspaper and see what their sandwiches are all about.
A friend of mine unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all.
Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin…
Kafka who said, “I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.”