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Richard Brautigan On Saturday Night

By Jeffrey S. Golden

I DON'T think that Richard Brautigan is crazy. Granted, he was the focus of a crazy Saturday night, but that doesn't make him crazy. In fact, he's the most lucid person I've heard in quite a while. It was the context of the reading (created largely by my own expectations), not Brautigan's poetry, that accounted for the craziness.

Early Saturday night, you see, I was off to a Poetry Reading. I hadn't been to a Poetry Reading since Robert Lowell came to Quincy House last spring. Now, I knew enough about Brautigan to understand that he wasn't Lowell. Hippies talked to me about Brautigan, and they rarely mention Lowell. Still, I was going to a Poetry Reading, and Lowell's erudite gruffness remained in my mind. I'd have to put on my cultural sport coat and practice furrowing my forehead. It seemed reasonable when the friend that I'd invited asked me, "Do I really want to see this man read?" I told her I thought so.

So off we went to Lowell Lecture Hall. As we entered the inner doors, a multi-sensory flash suggested that perhaps my preconceptions were a tad inaccurate. I saw twice as many people as I have ever seen in a lecture hall. The crowd made last year's standing-room-only SDS meetings look like steering committee caucuses. I led interference for my friend, and with good cheer we barreled our way through the aisles to look for seats.

One good whiff hinted another way in which the reading was going to depart from Robert Lowell's format. There were about three parts of grass vapor to one part of oxygen in the room, and after a few deep breaths we had caught up to everyone else.

We finally sat down and glanced at the stage. There, on the same platform that has been the launching pad for hundreds of dry, Karl Deutschean pearls (sailing through both ears of thousands of sleeping Gov 1 students), was a mass of wriggling bodies. The whole stage looked like a Life photo of the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Gallon bottles of white wine and scores of joints passed through tangles of arms and legs and, by all means, heads.

A T-shirted, slightly flabby guy with shoulder-length blond hair and a floppy walrus mustache stood up from the group and stepped to the podium. After a couple of words of non-introduction, he began to read poems from a sheath of white paper. I assumed he was Richard Brautigan. He ranks very high on the list of characters that least remind me of Robert Lowell.

A few of the poems he read were from The Spring Hill Mine Disaster Versus the Pill or Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan's two major collections. Most of the poems hadn't been published. Few were longer than three or four lines. One poem, with a complex/compound sentence as its title, was one word long.

He read them in quick succession with an urgent, almost feminine sing-song. He stepped back from the mike for just a second after each one, flashing a sly twinkle or a sheepish shrug as the poem demanded. The crowd loved the shrugs: each one said, What the hell, sounds good, don't it? The boyishness of his manner-you got the idea that the whole role of the Coming Poet strikes him as outrageously funny-endeared him to the audience. They liked him because he is profound, but they loved him be he thinks he's one of us.

It is no accident that I haven't directly commented on his poetry. The only thing I can say with confidence is that you should read his work, and then perhaps tell me how to classify it. A review could center on the grandiose and (to me) largely irrelevant question, Is it poetry? Even without fully understanding the question, I could sympathize with a negative answer. Brautigan's two-and three-and four-liners are hip-pithy kernels of experiential truth. This is his uncrazy lucidity. His simpleness is so skillful that he evoked an audible response with each poem: laugher, knowing chuckles, or almost pained gasps. He maneuvered the crowd with alternating gentle satire and bitter cynicism.

The connoisseur might claim that "true" poetry relies on a lot more than visceral communion with your audience. "Poetry," one might say, has to be less mortal, more enduring than Brautigan's verbal hand grenades.

He writes about the emotional rather than the metaphysical. He writes about the passionate more than the romantic. And though not wholly unconcerned with the sound of words, he clearly subordinates poetry's musical dimension to the wisdom of the message. Rhythm is there (particularly when he reads), but is hardly a major concern.

THE complaining connoisseur has a moot point, and even if we accept it, we are tempted to ask, So what? Whatever you call those units of writing that he lays down on paper, they speak to us. They laugh at the absurdity of our obsessions and they clarity the source of our worries. He writes about sex:

"Everyone wants to sleep with everyone else./ They're lined up for blocks./ I have an idea: / I'll go to bed with you./ They won't miss us."

He writes about love:

"Love is that thing that people do to you/ that when you do it back to them/ they stop"

(written by a Brautigan disciple in faithful Brautiganese). And right in Karl Deutsch's spiritual presence, Brautigan read his "Up Against the Ivory Tower," which tells the hotshot academic

"Remember/ You're all you'll ever hope to be."

He turns his blasts back on himself without a blink:

"I feel so bad today/ I think I'll write a poem./ But what poem?/ Any poem./ This poem."

Makes sense.

After forty minutes, Brautigan said goodbye and sat down. Nobody moved. The crowd stared at Brautigan. Brautigan stared at the crowd. Both laughed. After it was clear that no one was going anywhere, Brautigan sat down to get good and smashed while some of his friends read poems (his and theirs). Brautigan came back to the mike every now and then to lead the festivities. The same poem was read by about twenty people for an experiment in sound, and five or six distinct poems, not twenty, was the result.

The mike was opened to anyone who wanted to use it. Magazine-rejected poems, N. Y. Times articles, and Richard Daley anecdotes followed one after the other. It was a psychedelic Ted Mack Amatcur Hour. Farce reached its peak when a bearded guy in khaki stepped up and dead-panned in down-home Okie, "Ah'm new heah, an'ah ain't nevah seen so many people befoah. These nice folks done tol'me ah could read a pome, an'ah shorely do 'preciate it." A pause. I assured my friend that yes, he was for real. He continued. "Wow. I always did want to read my poetry on stage. Particularly at Harvard, since I go to B. U." Brautigan crupted in laughter and passed him the wine.

Someone else came to the mike holding something to his mouth. Great raunchy harmonica blues came over the speakers instead of words, and everyone stomped and clapped and danced in excited surprise.

Eventually everyone on stage was too tired or drunk to read or play, and we emptied out of the hall. The cold was refreshing after the body heat and smoke of indoors. We strolled through the Yard, talking about Brautigan and hoping to be things that we aren't now.

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