Friday, January 9, 2009

Brautigan's Near Perfect Book of Poetry: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster

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

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

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 Poem
I go to bed in Los Angeles thinking
---about you.

Pissing a few moments ago
I looked down at my penis

Knowing it has been inside
you twice today makes me
---feel beautiful.

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.

Haiku Ambulance

A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
--so what?

A Baseball Game
---Part 7

Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
of opium.
The New York Yankees
were playing
the Detroit Tigers.
In the 4th inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
causing the
whole infield
to crack like
a mirror.
The game
was called on
account of

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.

'Nuff said.

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.

Beautiful poetry.

By a beautiful man who knew he was.

How about that, hey, bub?




Jim H. said...


That is also my favorite baseball poem. I share (generally) your distaste for baseball poems, but there are a few others (Gail Mazur comes to mind) worth a look.

I didn't realize that my Brautigan collection has perhaps fallen into the 'rare books' class. Mybe I'll crate them up and haul them to the Antiques Road Show.

Terific post.

Jim Haas

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm one of those for who these poems don't resonate. I imagine they achieve their point, but the point is not that intersting to me, I'm afraid.

Leigh Anne said...

A Baseball Game Pt. 7 = oh. my. stars.


Um, yeah. I'll be post-verbal for the next decade or so. Slain, and that utterly.


Greg Schwartz said...

great poems. that Brautigan omnibus is on my to-buy list.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Jim, thanks, I'll have to take a look for the Mazur work ... with, of course, trepidation. Glad you liked the post cause, well, you'd know

Hey, Charles, I appreciate what you're saying. There are tons of people who these poems don't grab. Obviously, there is nothing to explain ... they are just there. They have the whimsy of a dandelion puff ...

Leigh Anne, I see a fellow baseball fan is also enthralled ...

Greg, you won't be sorry, especially since the other two novels in the omnibus are considered his best ...


Anonymous said...

Hi Don:

Thanks for the wonderful Brautigan post. I've always thought, and still think, that Brautigan was one of our most interesting and distinctive Twentieth Century authors and poets. You are right in the fact that he is often imitated, but impossibly so. He did it like no one else could, or can. A very unusual man. I always thought Robert Bly's "With Pale Women In Maryland" from "Silence In The Snowy Fields" was a stunning Brautigan imitation attempt! Brautigan was much more influential than he is generally given credit for. I've very much appreciated your Bly and Wright commentaries recently, too.



Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for the kind words. Interesting perspective on Bly's poem, which I just reread ... the book literally in the pile next to the computer as I weigh and reweigh
all these great works. Sometimes influence isn't such an obvious thing, it works like waves in pond. In that, I see influence.

I think this is often why Brautigan
doesn't get specific credit. His work is something we internalize, it becomes part of us and we move on and he is with us always.

I appreciate your Bly thoughts ... I finally got time to reply to your previous comment. Been under the weather with this cold that everyone seems to have.


Ed Baker said...

nestled next to (my) Franco Beltrametti's "Another Earthquake"

Richard Brautigan's "An Unfortunate Woman"

now this was his last novel! and from the vantage point of my 'xcruciating Psyatic Nerve Pain I shall take 5,000 mgs of Ibueprofin

crawl into bed and re:read this fun book.
a random quote:
"I said, 'Meow,' again with the cat looking at me.

I passed out of the cat's sight as I walked around the corner and started up the hill toward the house where the woman had hanged herself about a year ago."

the story opens with a "right now" letter...

re: mortality...

..and a priceless attitude/sense of humor..

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, hopefully if the drugs don't work, the Brautigan will.

Hope you feel better


Anonymous said...

Don & Ed:

"An Unfortunate Woman" . . . another most interesting Brautigan book. I bought it when it came out at a common Barnes & Noble, but I remember they had a large pile, maybe twenty copies, of the book in stock and I thought that interesting. Apparently they expected a demand.


Anonymous said...

speaking of Barnes and Noble:

they recently connected with LULU! I guess they are trying to "get their share" of $$$ from those 400 books PER DAY that are being "published" (an article in the NYTIMES)

I think they charge $399 per book as first "rung" of that (LULU) Ladder-to-FAME

not sure the link
to Braut-again... but, what IS?

and, I like that hat. I got a brown Cunny Fur one... think I'll grow (back) my beard, put it on... and take a photo of myself! ...send it to Stone Girl!

Ed Baker said...

Looking for something to read last night (1/22.09) wayyy over there on a shelf containig (mostly) "zen-buddhist "stuff" I found "You Can't Catch Death"... (A Daughter's Memoirs ...Ianthe Brautigan) written/published in 2000.

Now, you must remember:

1. I had totally dropped out 1978-1998 so, didn't know what was done/written/happened (lit-wise) during that period


started "catching up... buying books finding out 'things'

SOOO: when up in The City visiting Fay every morning I walked over to Borders (on that square) AND the book I found last night I BOUGHT therre 07/14/2001! (tehe sales recpt. is in the book.

so.. just reading the book last night!


-Richard Brautigan shot himself dead !

-was in that same mental hospital where One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest was filmed..

- an , welll, read this book! 9

last time I was in that Border's Book Store was about 9 am Sept 10, 2001! Then I walked over to Tower 1 didn't take elevator up to top (cost too much)

That night Fay "sent me packing) next morning via the tv I "was ther" live broadcasting of...


the preface of this book by Richard's daughter is "something-else-again"