Libraries, Language, and Richard Brautigan: a Prose Poetry Journey
Oz Hardwick writes....
I first discovered the prose poem in a library, around 1976, with that focused serendipity which was so much a part of the pre-digital age. I was looking at photography books for a course I was taking – I remember looking at Abby Hirsch’s The Photography of Rock (which I haven’t seen since and have just had to Google to find Hirsch’s name) – and found myself flicking through Allen and Creeley’s The New Writing in the USA (a copy of which I saw again a couple of years ago in The Beat Museum in San Francisco). Inside I found ‘The Cleveland Wrecking Yard’ by Richard Brautigan: something which looked like a short story, which I later found to be a chapter of his most famous novel, Trout Fishing in America, but which ‘felt’ to me like a poem.
As a result, I pretty much immediately got hold of everything I could that Brautigan had written up to that point: a couple of volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a few novels. And it seemed to my uneducated teenage self – as it still appears to my undeniably older and possibly wiser (I’ll let others make that call) self – that his prose is much better poetry than his poetry. It’s never been easy to explain this, but discovering that there was a form – or perhaps a genre, or perhaps a way of writing, or maybe a way of reading – called ‘prose poetry’ has helped. You can find a historical sketch of the evolution of prose poetry in Anne’s blog on this site, but for me – and I expect for most enthusiasts – the name came much later than a textual experience.
An intensely, yet playfully, literary (with a small l) writer, Brautigan’s work is full of references to other writers and texts, often stripping them of any Literary (with a big L) gravitas and placing them in absurd juxtaposition with the everyday: in Homage to the San Francisco YMCA, for instance, the protagonist replaces his household fixtures and fittings with poetry, with predictably problematic results. This is, however, just the most obvious way in which Brautigan foregrounds literature, language, and the limitations of both.
Brautigan’s plots, such as they are, are often insubstantial, inconclusive, or nonsensical: ‘The Cleveland Wrecking Yard’ captured me all those years ago because – amongst features that would take me longer to describe than the piece takes up itself – from its beginnings in a mundane anecdote about a friend’s roof repair, it evolves into a deadpan surrealist description of a trout stream that is stacked up and sold in lengths at the titular yard. Not wishing to spoil it for anyone who has yet to read it, it concludes by observing a single word written on a door. The reader isn’t led through this door: instead we are left, as in so many of Brautigan’s works, in a place that is only made possible through language, and with a sense of potential rather than closure.
In Landscapes of Language, his 2013 study of Brautigan’s work, John Tanner suggests that the author may create symbolic links with no intention of sustained and coherent plan and, to a greater or lesser extent, this is what I have looked for in prose poems since long before I knew they had a name: something that uses language to create not only its own world, but its own universe – illuminated by Heaney’s ‘language in orbit’ – in which that world can exist, and which, rather than guiding the reader through that world, lets them find their own way through it, maybe settle down, and maybe open a library.
Brautigan opens his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (if I had world enough and time, I’d tell you what I think about that subtitle) with a description of ‘a beautiful library, timed perfectly, lush and American,’ going on to tell us that ‘The hour is midnight and the library is deep and carried like a dreaming child into the darkness of these pages.’ The library, based on the Presidio Library in San Francisco (which features in the original front cover photograph), is closed but, as we soon discover, is always open, because the librarian lives there, receiving unpublished manuscripts around the clock. Even as the librarian/narrator/writer inhabits the library, so it lives within him for as long as he can sustain it and give it existence in ‘the darkness of these pages.’ There’s a whole universe in that darkness, and the novel’s opening paragraph is a self-contained prose poem in its own right.
In summer 2016, fifty years on from The Abortion’s subtitle and about forty years since I entered a library and found myself before an enigmatic door in the Cleveland Wrecking Yard, I finally made the pilgrimage to the Presidio Library. It was closed.