Richard Brautigan's The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster is probably his most read collection of poems and has been reader selected for the Near Perfect Books of Poetry list. It also appears to be the only volume of his poems, with the exception of his early fifties writings The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings (which contains some poetry) to still be in print. The Pill may be found in the omnibus volume Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar. However, most of his poetry may currently be found on line at richardbrautigan.net.
The Pill ... is subtitled "the selected poems 1957-1968 of Richard Brautigan" and collects previously published small press collections of his work. Here's the description from richardbrautigan.net:
In addition to thirty eight previously uncollected poems, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster included The Return of the Rivers (May 1957), all nine parts of The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958), nine poems from the Lay The Marble Tea (1959), seventeen poems from The Octopus Frontier (1960), and all thirty two poems from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (1967).
Coupled with In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America this is the one volume of Brautigan to get if there is only room for one on your shelf (or in your budget). A number of the poems in The Pill ... regularly show up around the net, which is testimony to the enduring quality of work that is sometimes viewed as whimsical and representative of a bygone era. They strike, however, a very deep emotional vein and have a universal appeal that speaks especially well to non-readers of poetry. Admittedly, they are not everyone's cup of meat; a great deal of his work does, however, resonate with me. Here's a taste:
The Beautiful PoemI go to bed in Los Angeles thinking
Pissing a few moments ago
I looked down at my penis
Knowing it has been inside
you twice today makes me
Private Eye Lettuce
Three crates of Private Eye Lettuce
the name and drawing of a detective
with magnifying glass on the sides
of the crates of lettuce,
form a great cross in man's imagination
and his desire to name
the objects of the world.
I think I'll call this place Golgotha
and have some salad for dinner.
A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
A Baseball Game
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
The New York Yankees
the Detroit Tigers.
In the 4th inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
to crack like
was called on
So, what's so great about these poems? For me, with the possible exception of "Haiku Ambulance" (and I'd argue even for that), they balance a lightness of tone with a seriousness of subject that defies comparison. Of course, they are funny; when the laughter ends, though, the reader is left to wonder exactly what s/he was laughing at (or with). As an editor, I can tell you that people are still writing in the style of "A Baseball Game, Part 7" 40 years later. In fact, if there is any style that might be said to truly define the small press (as opposed to the so-called university"small" press), this is it. I get them submitted to Lilliput by the boatloads, have for the 20 years I've been doing this. Of course, there is one minor drawback.
Nobody, but nobody, writes this style of poem this well. It's like watching a trapeze artist - they don't call them artists for nothing - like watching somebody walk a high wire between two skyscrapers in a brisk breeze. Somehow you know they'll never fall, but everyone shouldn't even try.
In addition, the fact of the matter is I love baseball and it is precisely this consuming passion that makes me detest baseball poems. I can't abide them. I have a huge blind spot when it comes to them. I have to turn away. I'm at once embarrassed and repelled. What can I say?
Well, what I can say is I love this baseball poem, unashamedly, unabashedly, I love this poem.
Is "Private Eye Lettuce" really about the human science of naming, of the need for language and classification? The power of a single word is demonstrated here, turning a humorous poem dead serious, and then back again.
What kind of dressing you want with that salad, bub?
And, yeah, it's 40 years later and when's the last time you heard a man say he felt beautiful? Squeezed into a poem of a mere 24 words which also happens to contain the word penis, a word a poem rarely, if at all, contained back in the soon-to-banished uptight day.
It certainly could be argued that Brautigan himself was a victim of the transition from those up-tight days to an unimagined freedom, as were Plath and Sexton. But I won't argue it here. It all is simply what it is. Beautiful.
By a beautiful man who knew he was.
How about that, hey, bub?