EUGENE, Ore. – Next to Ken Kesey, the late poet Richard Brautigan – who was the same age as Kesey and grew-up near Ken outside Eugene – is viewed as one of the most celebrated “Hippie poets” in this region now as National Poetry Month nears its end.
It was nearly 20 years ago that famed Eugene poet Richard Brautigan took his life, as explained in the very first lines from the new book “Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan” by William Hjortsberg who writes: “Richard Brautigan never heard his final gunshot. Traveling three times the speed of sound, the Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow point exploded up through the poet’s head, destroying his face, dislodging his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, blasting off the back of his skull.” In turn, Hjortsberg goes on to explain how “it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon: September 16, 1984 when a distraught Brautigan decided to end it all" in the same way as his hero Ernest Hemingway, and “in the way lovers often do,” as poet’s like to say about suicide in their musings. “Clad in tan corduroy trousers, a T-shirt, and socks," Hjortsberg writes how "Richard Brautigan’s body lay on its back in the main living area of the second floor of his house at 6 Terrace Avenue in Bolinas, California, a small seacoast village he referred to as 'the freeze-dried Sixties.' His left front pocket had a crumpled $5 bill and a couple singles. A radio in the kitchen at the back of the house blared at full volume. Richard Brautigan was forty-nine years old when he died.”
National Poetry Month honors Richard Brautigan
Today, Brautigan and other West coast poets are being celebrated at various poetry reading events in Eugene, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, states an overview of National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets that honor America’s poets every April when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together and remember those who put words to paper in a “most special way,” as was the case with Brautigan.
In turn, Hjortsberg quotes Ken Kesey on page 20 of his 852-page new book “Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan” by stating how Kesey, a close friend of Brautigan’s since their childhood in the Eugene area, called Richard “an American Basho.”
“Five hundred years from now,” Kesey observed, “when the rest of us are forgotten, they’ll still be reading Brautigan.”
Brautigan the reluctant poet
“I started writing poetry when I was 17-years old,” Brautigan scrawled in a notebook dating from 1955. “At the age of twenty, I’m through writing poetry. Why does a poet stop writing poetry? I guess for the same reason the wind goes down in the evening.”
In turn, Hjortsberg writes in his new book on page 61 how “Brautigan never stopped writing poetry. Everything he wrote remained essentially poetic, even when labeled short stories or novels.”
Hjortsberg also explains how “like many other teenage boys who dreamed of becoming writers in the early 1950s, Dick’s idol was Ernest Hemingway. Papa’s rough-and-tumble enthusiasms (his irresistible grin serene amid the carnage of bullrings, African safaris, and Gulf Stream blue-water fishing) had erased any lingering public notion that writers were sissies. Twain, London, and Crane had earlier blazed their own adventurous trails for boys of Hemingway’s generation to follow. Peter Webster recalled, ‘Richard talked about (Hemingway) all the time.’”
At the same time, Brautigan also took to the bottle like Papa Hemingway. His biography explains how Brautigan was “an alcoholic throughout his adult life and suffered years of despair;” according to his daughter who also revealed how, like Hemingway, her father “often mentioned suicide over a period of more than a decade before ending his life.”
In turn, Brautigan left a suicide note that simply read: “Messy, isn’t it?”
Also, Brautigan once wrote about death in a poetic sort of way saying: “All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds.”
Moreover, friends of Brautigan here in Eugene remember his work as being “lots of black comedy, parody and satire;” while Brautigan is best known in “hippie” circles for his famed 1967 novel “Trout Fishing in America.”
The poet in Brautigan emerges
Brautigan’s first poetry book publication was “The Return of the Rivers” in 1957. This single poem was followed by two collections of poetry: “The Galilee Hitch-Hiker” in 1958 and “Lay the Marble Tea” in 1959.
Also, during the Sixties, Brautigan became involved in the burgeoning San Francisco “counterculture scene,” often appearing as “a performance-poet” with the likes of friends Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Jack Kerouac, Larry Ferlinghetti and Ken Kesey at “North Beach” and “City Lights” hangouts in San Francisco in the early Sixties when it “was real cool, man.”
In turn, Brautigan – who was a very tall man at between 6’ 9” to 6’ 11” (in his famed hippie boots) – was the standout at various San Francisco activities of the famed protesters, “The Diggers;” while Brautigan was also a writer for “Change,” a cult underground newspaper on the West coast that talked of early “Occupy Movement” protests here in Eugene and up and down the West coast during the Sixties peace and anti-war protests that also demanded both Civil Rights for people of color and Equal Rights for women.
Thus, Brautigan is now credited with creating what’s now dubbed as “the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.”
Brautigan branches out as top Hippie poet
When Richard Brautigan arrived “in Frisco in August of 1956,” Hjortsberg writes on page 111 in his new book, “that Richard headed right for the bookstore City Lights that served as the hub of the bohemian community, with thumbtacked notices on the bulletin board advertising rides, cheap rooms and apartments, lots pets, used vehicles, astrological charts and other arcane offerings.”
This place and time offered Brautigan the “muse” for creating his art, his poetry.
In turn, Brautigan wrote “A Confederate General From Big Sur,” that became his first published novel but was met with little critical or commercial success. Today, copies of this book in first edition are only viewed in locked glass book cases at the University of Oregon library and at other West coast universities where Brautigan is now being re-discovered, say his devote fans here in Eugene.
Moreover, one can’t “hardly find even a dog-eared copy or any copy of Trout Fishing in America,” explains Eugene Brautigan fan Vincent who told Huliq during a recent interview that “find a first edition of the ‘Trout’ and you have gold. It’s that valued, it’s that important to the Hippie community,” this Baby Boomer added.
Also, as of last count, Brautigan’s master work, “Trout Fishing in America,” has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. The book is right up there with “On the Road,” “Be Here Now,” “Sometimes A Great Notion,” and other classics featured at the famed Oregon Country Fair held each July outside Eugene where Brautigan “would hang out with Kesey and the Pranksters when back home in Eugene,” adds Vincent who pointed to a Eugene High School yearbook he’s saved with a photo of Brautigan and the word “poet” under his school photo.
In Brautigan’s first published poem, “The Light,” he writes:
“Into the sorrow of the night
Through the valley of dark despair
Across the black sea of iniquity
Where the wind is the cry of the suffering
There came a glorious saving light
The light of eternal peace”
Brautigan the Godfather of the Hippie movement
While Ken Kesey is a true “godfather” of the Sixties “Hippie” movement in the Eugene area, William Hjortsberg’s new book “Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan” goes further and explains Brautigan’s role back in April 1965.
Back then, the year 1965 remained a “blissful time” but that changed when Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Kay Boyle, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Brautigan released hell with their poetry musings during a famed Berkeley anti-war demonstration that drew a record 16,000 demonstrators who listened to their speeches.
For instance, Hjortsberg writes on page 236 of his new book how this group of “Hippies,” warmed-up these 16,000 demonstrators with a tune by Country Joe McDonald’s famed pre-Woodstock song “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rang.” In turn, Country Joe and the Fish rocked the crowd with the ever tall and spirited Brautigan waving and holding up the peace sign.
Thus, Hjortsberg writes on pages 236-237 how “Richard Brautigan, who had rejected the beatnik label, would soon find himself in the curious position of being one of the godfathers of the hippie movement. He continued his life as an impoverished artist and poet.”
Image source of a 1974 paperback edition of Richard Brautigan's famed novel “Trout Fishing in America,” which is considered to be this poet’s most famous work. Photo courtesy Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Brautigan