Monday, March 01, 2004

I was ragging on John Latta the other day, but his weblog has a couple of very nice pieces on Bill Bathurst, a San Francisco poet of the 1960s whose work I always liked. I never met the man myself, although he has apparently returned to Northern California after a very long stint working in radio in, of all places, Prague. I own what I was told was once Bathurst’s copy of the original edition of John Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems, which as I recall came very cheaply (50 cents or thereabouts) when I found it in a used bookshop because of Bathurst’s doodles on the inside cover. From my own perspective, they made the volume more, not less, valuable.


Bathurst is a poet I associate with a scene that showed up in print in Clifford Burke’s magazine, Hollow Orange. Burke was a poet & printer I met through my first wife, Shelley, when the two of them worked together for a Berkeley campus lecture notes publisher called, if memory serves me right, Slate. It was Burke, in fact, who loaned me the money to pay the preacher for my first wedding on Halloween, 1965.


The hinge poet in that scene seemed to be Richard Brautigan, not yet known as a writer of fiction. I met Brautigan just once, in David Sandberg’s print shop in the Haight, probably in 1967, tho I saw him read once or twice. Brautigan struck me as shy & had the softest voice. Sandberg was typesetting a chapbook of Brautigan’s – Curtis Faville no doubt could tell me which one – and I remember trying to keep up with the printing terms Sandberg & Brautigan were using.


I never got too close to that scene, tho – my sense of it was that these were older guys, really second generation Beats, who seemed far too fond of drink & drugs. I’d already gone through my own two-year cycle with various altered states, mostly psychedelics & speed, & was trying to stay clear of that world somewhat by then, especially since people like Sandberg were reputed to be into smack. Sandberg, in fact, died of an overdose in 1968 & it’s Bathurst’s memoir of him that Latta posts on his site, an excerpt from a 1973 book I recall as mostly a prison memoir.


When Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America first came out, my sense of it was as a narrative prose poem, not a novel, and I was amazed, frankly, when it took off after Dell Publishing reprinted it in 1969 & it became a gen-you-wine hippy best seller. I remember sitting on a bus going up Main Street in Buffalo in the summer of 1970 seeing two, maybe three, young women all reading copies at once. The first generation Beats had all been famous before I even began to read poetry seriously, so in my eyes they’d “always” been famous. Brautigan was the first poet I actually saw go through that process.


I always looked at Brautigan’s poetry as being heavily indebted to the forms of Jack Spicer, but not in the slightest in Spicer’s growly pessimism. It was as if he’d appropriated the mode & applied it instead to the lyric poem* – I still reread those works with considerable pleasure. In my mind, he’s still – and will always be – a poet who writes fiction, not a novelist who writes poetry. That’s a significant difference.


Brautigan committed suicide in 1984, having gone through & been chewed up by, the celebrity process in America as well as by alcohol. After he died, it took five weeks for his body to be found in his home in Bolinas & even then the person who discovered it was a private detective who’d been asked to look in on Brautigan by Becky Fonda. The day that news was published I cried myself to sleep out of some sense of helplessness of the individual in the face of the great American culture machine. Seven weeks later, I finally stopped the worst of my own bad habits, alternating glasses of Jack Daniels with bottles of beer every evening. I haven’t had a drink since.






* In this way, Brautigan’s poetry might be said to parallel Bill Berkson’s relationship to the work of John Ashbery.