It was 1980, a lovely summer day in San Francisco, Sunday to be exact, when my host and good friend Gene Ramey took me over to Sausalito for a brunch on Alan Watts’ houseboat. The special occasion was to celebrate the return of poet and filmmaker James Broughton, along with his partner, Joel Singer, from a lengthy stay in Sri Lanka. This was my first meeting with James and Joel and our friendships evolved and strengthened until his death in 1999 and continues with Joel, who presently lives in Bali.
A few years later James and Joel moved up the coast to Port Townsend, Washington where I had been living for several years. Over the course of our friendship, I worked with James on several of his books. (Graffiti for the Johns of Heaven, Syzygy press, 1982 and Ecstasies, Syzygy press, 1983) Several months before he died, I filmed James in a short interview which later became ‘Letters From James,’ parts of which were woven into the highly successful and award winning film ‘Big Joy,’ by Stephen Silla, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon, a must-see documentary on the Legend of Big Joy.
To Celebrate what would have been James Broughton’s 102nd birthday this month, I’m delighted and honored to reprint a wonderful interview between James and Jack Foley. And inasmuch as James and I met on the boat where Alan Watts lived, I’ll end with the Broughton poem, ‘Forget Me Nots For Alan Watts,’ a poem for Watts’ 50th birthday.
A James broughton Reader
by Jack Foley
BIG JOY, OCTOGENARIAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES BROUGHTON
James Broughton, dubbed “Big Joy” by Jonathan Williams, died peacefully at home on Monday, May 17, 1999, bringing to an end a long and extremely varied career. I interviewed James a number of times on my radio show. This last interview took place in Broughton’s home in Port Townsend, Washington on November 9, 1997, the day before his eighty-fourth birthday. Its subject was his then new book, Packing Up for Paradise: Selected Poems 1946-1996. Selections from the interview were broadcast on my radio show on April 1 and April 8, 1998. What follows is the complete interview.
I pray every night to wake up crazier
If my balmy days last I may end as I began
a dreamysmile Buddhafaced son of a gunman
from way out west where the sunny boys come from
—James Broughton, “Résumé” (1982)
JACK FOLEY: One of the pleasures of having this job is that occasionally you can interview somebody who’s a really wonderful poet and whose work you’ve admired for many many years, as I’ve admired James Broughton’s. We’re in Port Townsend, where James lives, and James is about to turn 84 years “young,” as they say. He’s looking at me. I’m not so sure he likes that “young.” Most people in their eighties are lucky if they are still able to function, let alone produce poems. James has been producing wonderful poems of his old age. Why don’t we begin with the opening poem of the new book, Packing Up for Paradise.
OPEN TO QUESTION
In a cool neck of the woods
a long walk from the village
I hide out from grunge and glitz
and pray for a tidy apocalypse.
Nothing much on my mind but
Love, God and Hereafter.
Though time is closing down
my life is still open to
whatever comes next
or whatever comes last.
With a shortening longevity
I need to consider last resorts.
A houseboat on the Styx?
A villa in Elysium?
A bedroll in the Void?
The forest darkens around me.
Where is my inevitable home?
Is that the ultimate surprise?
JACK FOLEY: Is it the “ultimate surprise”? We’ll see. “Open to Question,” with all that phrase might mean. You’ve often self-published beautiful editions of your books. For your birthday you made a little chapbook, eighty-four copies, one for each of your years, and Joel Singer made a beautiful image for the cover. It’s of a baby James moving quickly through the cosmos as if he were a water baby. The chapbook is called Big Joy (Syzygy Press, 1997). Why not read the opening poem, which is in “E Major,” as you mention.
HYMN TO BIG JOY
In E Major
He He Oh He
He is the completest jolly of a He
He is the immaculated jeu d’esprit
He is the aorta’s jigamaree
He Oh He He
His is the reekingest smell of free
His is the deafening fart of glee
His is jocosity’s apogee
Oh He He He
laughiest daffiest verity
JACK FOLEY: You’re quite serious in talking about that as “E Major.” That sound of “e” goes all the way through that poem. Tell us a little bit about “the tone leading of vowels” as part of your procedure as a poet.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I can’t write a line without feeling the music of it or the music that grows out of it. By now in my life, after 84 years, [it’s] the automatic play of vowels and consonants. I learned long ago from Olson was it? “the tone leading of vowels” [the phrase is from Robert Duncan, ed.] and how they hit the consonants. It doesn’t mean you always have the same vowel emphasized throughout the poem, as in this one. But you’re aware of what’s happening. Those sounds are the ones which echo.
JACK FOLEY: “Hymn to Big Joy” is a delightful little poem, reminiscent of William Blake’s “Laughing Song.” Your “Hymn” is full of e’s, and so that “E Major” is very important, but the “He He Oh He”—that’s laughter (“hee hee”) but it’s also “he,” a person, and the person (“hymn,” “him”) is in fact “Big Joy,” “the completest jolly of a he.” There’s a lot that’s going on here. We hear the sound of “Big Joy,” which is this he/e sound, all the way through the poem: “verity,” “apogee,” “glee,” “free,” “reeking,” etc. Once you hear that “e”— once you hear that sound of joy—it echoes throughout.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes. It’s like hearing a certain sound—a percussion sound—in a piece of music. Every time the player hits a delightful note, you refer to that, you bounce along on it. Like a xylophone. But Big Joy to me is also a serious matter too.
JACK FOLEY: Yes. In E Major.
JAMES BROUGHTON: People always say to me: “What do you mean by ‘Big Joy’?” “Who is Big Joy?” What a dumb question!
JACK FOLEY: Absolutely. It’s very clear who Big Joy is.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Joy is the secret of the universe. It comes from love, which rules the universe. And Big Joy is what runs the whole machine.
JACK FOLEY: It’s a turn-around, too. J, B: James Broughton. B, J: Big Joy.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Jonathan Williams named me Big Joy.
JACK FOLEY: With good reason. In a century which has been full of murder, pollution, every other terrible thing, you have persistently written poetry about joy. You are the most positive poet of my acquaintance!
JAMES BROUGHTON: I can’t help it! (Laughter) I’m often accused of being too cheerful. But that’s just the way life is for me. I love to smile at adversity.
JACK FOLEY: One of the traditional things that poetry has been able to do is to help people in adversity. If you feel bad, you go to a poem and you feel comforted. And you give your readers that feeling.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I do that. I can tell from my fan mail that comes from strangers, all the time.
JACK FOLEY: That’s a very odd thing for a “Modern” poet to be doing. It’s a wonderful thing for a poet to be doing.
JAMES BROUGHTON: That’s more important to me than “being a poet”—that is, functioning in the business of poetry. That career poetry has never interested me. But what it can do for other people, what it can say, what it can transform in their lives—to me, that’s essential. Nothing is gained, nothing is lost, everything transforms.
JACK FOLEY: Like water.
JAMES BROUGHTON: And people are stuck in the past and in the future. But if you’re right here now, you’re transforming. That’s a simple thing, but it seems to meet so much resistance.
JACK FOLEY: It does. It’s a simple thing to say but it’s a difficult thing to grasp fully. Your poetry has always been able to do that, to grasp it fully. You have written in more styles than any ten or twelve people one knows. The poetry is an embodiment of transformation. Harder to hit a moving target!
JAMES BROUGHTON: If I believe in anything, it’s that: transformation.
JACK FOLEY: That includes the “transformation” of death. You have a section of the new book, Packing Up for Paradise, which is not called “Joie de Vivre” (Joy of Living) but “Joie de Mourire” (Joy of Dying).
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, yes. I’d like to read you a poem in which Big Joy is seen in a different light. This is called “What Big Joy Knows” (Big Joy):
I arise from the source of that sea
formed by the tears of the world
I swim with the dance of dolphins
I float on the song of whales
I hear what waves say to the shore
and what breezes sing to a leaf
I share the agonies of a beetle
and the anxieties of a planet
I know how to hurdle the road blocks
And what begins at the dead end
I keep the addresses of angels
and the unlisted number for God
JACK FOLEY: Again, water: “I arise from the source of that sea / formed by the tears of the world.” That figure of the savior of one kind or another, always divine but always physical as well, has been in your poetry almost from the beginning.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, saviors.
JACK FOLEY: A fire figure often, because you’re a water sign, a Scorpio. That figure transforms too. It’s so interesting to see it coming back in so many manifestations.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I remember a lyric I wrote several years ago, “What is Burning in the Deep?”
What is burning in the deep
far below the floating sail?
What is burning in the waters
down down within the whale?
What is burning in the deep
far below the rolling wave?
What is smoldering in the ashes
of Poseidon’s blackened grave?
What is burning in the deep
from Atlantis’s farewell?
What is flaming to be harrowed
from the ocean’s salty hell?
What is burning in the deep
that churns the breakers with desire?
What new creature, what new city,
what new godhead is afire?
JACK FOLEY: Yes! It was beautifully set and sung by the late Chilean singer, Ludar in his CD of your poems, The Broughton Songs. One of the things that will be very clear from Packing Up for Paradise is that there is a recognition of suffering and of pain in your poetry at the same time that there is this wonderful thrust towards joy. But the thrust towards joy comes with the recognition of what pain is. How do we know what suffering is unless we suffer? This is represented in your poetry too. “Songs for Anxious Children” is one of your titles. You’re wonderful on this. You never sentimentalize childhood. What you do instead is to present childhood with all its anxieties. You know about fears in childhood.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Well, suffering can’t be avoided in life. Nobody ever said life was easy. The idea is to take it and, well, treat it like a football or something, bounce it in the air or make love to it. The only way you transform anything is by loving it.
JACK FOLEY: And by admitting that it’s there, which is a problem for a lot of people.
JAMES BROUGHTON: You have to admit it’s there, of course: acknowledge it.
JACK FOLEY: I remember one of the things you said in an interview on the World Wide Web. Many people say, “If I increase my consciousness, if I increase my self-awareness, I’m going to really mess up my poetry because I don’t want to know what’s happening.” You say the opposite of that—that consciousness is a marvelous thing.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Absolutely. Because I think the way to happiness is to go into the darkness of yourself. That’s the place the seed is nourished, takes its roots and grows up, and becomes ultimately the plant and the flower. You can only go upward by first going downward. I’ve never been afraid of losing my beautiful neurosis as a source of my poetry. (Laughter)
JACK FOLEY: Matthew Fox remarks that we’ve had enough “enlightenment.” We now need some “endarkenment.” In connection with that, I want to quote a little poem that’s in that interview as well as in Packing Up for Paradise:
but it doesn’t
Some of the time
Much of the time
In the long run
matter a lot
What matters matters, but it doesn’t.
JAMES BROUGHTON: That’s so important.
JACK FOLEY (To the radio audience): These are the words of a man who, just about a year ago, suffered a severe stroke. It was not an easy thing to go through. You still have pain.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Oh, yes. All the time.
JACK FOLEY (To the radio audience): I walked into James’s house yesterday and he was just sitting there in the light. I’ve known James for a number of years and I’ve loved James for a number of years, as does everybody who knows him. James lights up a room! But as I walked in, I wasn’t sure whether that light were going to be dimmed. I knew he had had a serious stroke and I knew he still had trouble walking and trouble writing—just the physical act of writing. I wasn’t sure what I would find and I walked in, and there he was, radiating James! It was a wonderful moment for me, though when I mentioned it he waved his hand and said, “Well, you know this is just a masquerade.” James, lots of painful things have happened to you recently. Yet one can feel the spirit still coming through. You are a living example of what you’re talking about. You are “Joy” in the sense you talk about it: being able to transform adversity.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I think you have to let Joy grow inside you. You have to allow it. I don’t believe in renunciations of any kind. I don’t think that’s the way to Enlightment; I don’t think that’s the way to God. Not renunciation: acceptance, surrender, participation in everything in the glories of life. God is in everything. Embrace the fact that the mystery is everything we see and everything we don’t see. And dance in that joy! Often my poems end by urging the reader to dance. Dance to your death, dance now.
JACK FOLEY: “Joie de Mourir.” You say this about film as well. Some people think of film as being like painting. No, no, no, you say. It’s not like painting. It’s like dancing.
JAMES BROUGHTON: It is. I like to watch films like ballets— just watching them move. That’s one of the great pleasures of cinema to me. Not what they’re thinking or saying or their characterizations or the brilliant dialogue. I love the movement.
JACK FOLEY: Often in your films there will be a moment in which everything is still. There’s a moment in Mother’s Day in which nothing is moving except that the breeze is moving a person’s hair just a little bit. And you have “living statues” in your films as well. That goes back to your experience of vaudeville.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Vaudeville, and the circus as well. I think it was called “The Sells-Floto Circus.” A tent. In Modesto. My grandfather took me to the circus. Two rings, probably. Horses ran around and dogs and things. In the center there would be this velvet circular canopy. It would go up, and here there would be these ladies in body stockings looking like they were nude, posed in Classical poses. “The Three Graces” and all that kind of thing. It would go up and they’d hold it, and then it would come down again and then they’d do another one. I thought that was amazing. I wasn’t paying any attention to the clowns at that point. I was seeing Greek art—living, “living statues.” Something about that: the beauty of the human body is the greatest statue there is, and it’s a living statue. It moves and dances and sings and speaks brilliantly sometimes. But that’s not the important thing. The beautiful thing is the body as the temple of the soul.
JACK FOLEY: And “body” has been an absolutely central interest of yours throughout your career.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Maybe that’s why I’m still in my body at eighty-four!
JACK FOLEY: Someone suggested that it was your lover Joel Singer’s cooking that kept you on the earth. The idea was that you certainly wouldn’t want to “transform” yourself and miss that.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes. I think about my dear colleagues who are gone, like Duncan and Spicer and so on, and I remember how much vitriol they had in them, and I wonder whether that didn’t hasten their early deaths.
JACK FOLEY: If you live long enough, you have reason for great bitterness. Everybody does. A lot of things go wrong in a life. That’s simply not the case for you, one detects no bitterness—which is quite a wonderful thing.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, you find out it doesn’t matter.
JACK FOLEY: As you’ve said, you fed your bitterness some gumdrops.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes! You have to recognize the demons or else they’ll annoy you like mosquitoes. But if you acknowledge their existence, if you say, “All right, here’s a cookie, go sit in the corner,” then you can go about your work and you don’t have to go into deep depression because of it.
JACK FOLEY: Both your parents died young, so it must have been quite an amazement for you to be living— longer.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I should say so!
JACK FOLEY: Packing Up for Paradise is certainly a bit of candy for your bitterness. (To the radio audience) James once, in a very un-James-like moment, mentioned some things which were going wrong; even James had been gotten down by these things, and he complained a little bit. I said, “Well, I know something you should read.” He said, “What?” I said, “The works of James Broughton would be a wonderful antidote to the way you’re feeling just now.” (Returning to James) I don’t know whether you went and read some of your own works.
JAMES BROUGHTON (Laughing): You know what can cheer me up? This is not narcissistic, but it’s a true thing. When I want to read something that will cheer me up, I re-read my memoir, Coming Unbuttoned. I think it’s amazingly well-written, for prose. I wrote the prose as carefully as I write poetry. And it certainly works that way. The attitude towards life expressed in that book always cheers me up. I feel a little like that character in The Importance of Being Ernest—Gwendolyn, was it? She said, “I always take my journal on the trains so I’ll have something interesting to read.” I always take my memoir. It bears re-reading—even by the author! (Laughter)
JACK FOLEY: Especially by the author. And especially when the author is feeling a little low. It will bring you high again. It reminds you of your life.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, of course.
JACK FOLEY: Part of it too is your description in that book of your wonderful encounter with your angel, your genius.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, that reminds me, too. Then I think, “Where are you?” And I can call him. Things like that out of the book.
JACK FOLEY: Are you still in contact with the angel?
JAMES BROUGHTON: Oh, yes, of course! He’s my familiar.
JACK FOLEY: I recently did an interview with James Hillman, and he sees such figures, angels, as very important. In his book The Soul’s Code, he talks about the Daimon, in the Neoplatonic sense—not demon but daimon. This can be the Guardian Angel or any number of other things. Quite clearly, what you’ve done in your books is an expression of that angelic encounter. And you did it very early on.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I was encouraged in this very early on by a librarian, who was quite an interesting woman. She told me she had a little angel, which was for her like a little imp, who sat on her left shoulder and talked into her ear. I thought, “That’s wonderful.” Then I thought, “Oh, I have one, but he doesn’t come that way.”
JACK FOLEY (referring to Coming Unbuttoned): He makes you “wet your jammies”!
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes. He gives me wonderful shivers and tickles me. He knows where I giggle. Besides which, he’s always just a few years older than I.
JACK FOLEY: At this point that’s harder to do!
JAMES BROUGHTON: Oh, I know, but he’s still beautiful, he still can fly around! This is interesting: At night, I sometimes feel him blowing on the back of my head. My hair goes— And I think, “There’s no wind in this bedroom, how weird!” And then I realize who it was.
JACK FOLEY: I just mentioned that scene in Mother’s Day where only a person’s hair is blowing. I didn’t know the angel was doing it! Another thing that’s so fascinating in your work—we’re talking about almost fairy creatures: I was speaking to a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey, a writer who knows your work and loves it. We were saying that Broughton has never had much success on the East coast. Partly it was that you’re from California, partly it was homophobia. But the friend of mine was gay and certainly there have been successful gay writers on the East coast. We realized that it wasn’t just homophobia. It was that you were (to use a word that you use) deliberately and actively and in-your-face “sissy.”
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, I wanted to be a wonderful fairy! They always tickled children, they danced among the flowers and sparkled. They embodied light. And that’s why I always felt close to them.
JACK FOLEY: You told radio interviewer Robin White that, after the “final” transformation, you’d probably go zooming through the cosmos.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Oh, I don’t know. Never ask the end, that’s very much my approach to the Beyond.
JACK FOLEY: One of your mottoes is “Adventure, not Predicament.”
JAMES BROUGHTON: I think the mystery shouldn’t be explained. You can’t explain it, it’s a mistake.
JACK FOLEY: You’ve pointed out that you have been writing farewell poems for many years now. It’s a mystery you have explored.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Oh, yes. Will the last gasp be the great breathtaking event? I’m always asking those questions, I guess. I look forward to it. But I have no fixed idea about it at all. I read these popular books about people who had near-death experiences and they saw this wonderful light and their whole lives went by. I don’t want to know that. I want to have my own wonder going around that corner.
JACK FOLEY: Perhaps one of the ways of dividing people is to see them either as people who wish to know or people who wish to stay in a state of what Keats called “Negative Capability”—not to know and to allow the mystery to manifest; to lose themselves in the mystery.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I think people are absolutely wrong to want to know why. That’s not the approach to the mysteries of the universe, “why.” The approach is to celebrate them. Everything I’ve done has been a celebration.
JACK FOLEY: Your work is so distinctive, so different from anything else that’s going around, the parallels one thinks of are really stretches. One might say you’re like Cole Porter or Dorothy Parker. But you’re not much like them. There’s always something that goes beyond. There’s always something in even the simplest Broughton poems that moves you a little beyond the poem, nudges you a little, pushes you in a direction which is no longer quite what that kind of poem was. Transforms you. There’s a great line in Rilke’s poem, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”): “Du mußt dein Leben ändern” (“You must change your life”). Even the simplest and lightest-hearted of your poems are telling us exactly that.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Well, that’s my message. What I say in a poem is becoming more and more important to me. I don’t write poems as objects, as a project. I’m only interested in how it can awaken or delight or transform. Therefore when I say I want it to be clear, I’m not trying to sound more profound than anybody else. I’m trying to get closer to the mystery and let the mystery be. That’s an e again—beee.
JACK FOLEY: Why don’t we hear a little bit more of the poetry. These are new poems by a man well into his eighties. It’s wonderful to have these poems. One can scarcely find any examples of poets at such an age producing work. You came up with one good example, Thomas Hardy. But there aren’t many. We need the testimony of old age. What does it mean to be “older”?
JAMES BROUGHTON: This is called “Vehicles.” It’s appropriate perhaps to what you say.
Bleeding in the emergency room
I remembered Grandmother
stricken in the Buick
as she watched us splash
in the irrigation ditch.
Then Grandfather’s easy chair
sat for a year un-sat-in
after he was taxied home
from the Rotary Club
without his shoes on.
When our widowed neighbor
in the mobile home park
could no longer play tennis
he went to bed and fasted
till the hearse came for him.
After the curb tripped my toe
and banged me to the pavement
I woke to a mouth full of blood
and the ambulance driver’s bark:
Are you drunk? Dying? On drugs?
I had been on my way to a church
to hear Mozart’s Requiem.
When they take me for a final ride
can there be just alleluias
and no questions asked?
JACK FOLEY: That’s a wonderful poem. All the things the word “vehicles” can mean.
JAMES BROUGHTON: This is called “Testimonies.”
JACK FOLEY: The word “testimony” is etymologically connected to “testes”!
JAMES BROUGHTON: Is it!
Said the fortune teller from Reno,
If you hope for high-flying stakes
in the touch-and-go tossup of life
don’t count on the sky’s limit.
Instead of silver in a cloud
gamble on gold in the mud.
Said the astrophysicist from Boston,
The day your calcium and iron
collided in a cosmic bang
your stardust began to beget.
Now in your cortex the gods
play pingpong with your life.
Said the window-washer from Dallas,
For years I tried to clarify
the purpose of smudge and blur.
When a glass wall split apart
and sent me flying through it
my vision of life cleared up.
Said the neophyte from Boulder,
Your life is unredeemable
until you have sat in worship
at the feet of a holy master
had your ego burned to a crisp
and been zapped by mystic radiance.
Said the one-armed logger from Portland,
Most of the time of your life
as you chip away the days
you think it is all monotony.
Then at the severance payoff
you realize it has all been magic.
JACK FOLEY: There’s a tendency in your work towards Buddhism. But there’s also a tendency away from it.
JAMES BROUGHTON: I have a tendency towards all religions. I mean, I love them all. But I don’t take them all straight. I never believed any theology, really. It was always just a jumping off spot.
JACK FOLEY: Religion might be considered fossilized poetry. You can see the poetry in it, but you better not fossilize it, otherwise you’ll be stuck. And stuck is one of the things you least want to be.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Well, I was raised an Anglican and I loved the ritual, the music, and the sound of the wonderful King James English. (They don’t use it any more, alas.) But all these things about “Oh, you miserable sinner”—I just looked the other way or else I closed my ears. I hate the whole idea of sin. It seems to me the most absurd idea ever turned loose in the world. Who said we were born sinners? What a ridiculous notion! Have they ever looked at a babe? When my son was born, the nurse said, “He looks like a little Buddha.” Sin, indeed!
JACK FOLEY: You have a marvelous film in which you recite your poem, “This Is It.” It’s your son just walking down the street in Mill Valley. It’s marvelous to watch that body move, to watch him bouncing along with his red cowboy hat.
JAMES BROUGHTON: That’s why I made the film. He had this wonderful sense of being astonished by the world.
JACK FOLEY: Long after you’d been writing in this way, people began to talk about “the inner child.” You’ve had an “inner child” going for you for many years!
JAMES BROUGHTON: You must take care of your inner child all your life. That’s the one to raise, never mind your own children. They’ll have to fend for themselves anyway. This is a recent poem, “Momento of an Amorist”:
When the young interviewer wanted to know
how he occupied his time in retirement
the ailing novelist sat up on his couch
to enjoy a guffaw before he spoke.
I haven’t a retiring bone in my body.
I still slip out to pay my respects
to the beauties passing across the world.
Bless all mothers of shapely offspring.
I’ve never met a cock I didn’t like.
Oh, said the reporter, may I quote that?
Say that I give compassionate attention
to mankind’s need for a taste of bliss.
Don’t you appreciate a friendly fondle?
To expect some love in return? Oh no.
I never look for a lover. I am one.
But sir, isn’t such behavior risky?
Don’t flinch, dear fellow. Learn to adore.
Adoration is life’s healthiest behavior.
Wherever you go be a passionate lover
of whatever happens or whoever it is.
You’ll grin all the way to your grave.
When he was later assigned the obituary
the journalist read in the suicide note:
I never learned to distinguish between
illusion and miracle. I didn’t need to.
I trusted in love’s confusing joy.
Isn’t that marvelous. “Learn to adore. / Adoration is life’s healthiest behavior.”
JACK FOLEY: There was a remark Ezra Pound made when Harry Crosby committed suicide. Pound called it “suicide as a vote of confidence in the cosmos.”
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes!
JACK FOLEY: One of the problems for someone my age—late fifties—trying to write poetry. So many people die. How do you stop writing elegies?
JAMES BROUGHTON: You can’t. I just wish my friends Godspeed. This was written for my dear friend James Leo Herlihy: “Elegy with Bird.” This is the same point:
Under an October drizzle
and a flurry of windy leaves
I walked around the lagoon
where the sanitation plant hums
and transient flocks pause for a float
en route to faraway nestings.
I walked at a funeral pace
lamenting the loss of my godfellow:
the fond crony of luminous wit
who had shared each intricate wish
in my heart’s quixotic history
and never missed a nuance.
Amid the debris of autumn
beneath the windy and wet
I took refuge on a rough stone
to help my sorrow subside.
It wanted to petrify into
a sepulcher of tears.
But a startle of wings slapped the air
as a heron sailed over my head
in easygoing takeoff and flight
that set its unwavering course
for the tideland of the farther shore.
I leapt up to wave it Godspeed.
JACK FOLEY: “Packing up for Paradise”! That’s a beautiful elegy for your friend.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Of course we miss people. You can indulge your grief. But if you care about them you want to wish them Godspeed. Into the arms of God.
JACK FOLEY: There’s a beautiful image on the cover of Packing up for Paradise. It was done by Joel Singer. There’s a golden train and there’s a bird. Birds are of course so often associated with souls, as they are in your “Elegy.” This bird isn’t going to fly, he’s going to take the train!
JAMES BROUGHTON: I also have a poem called “The Partner.”
Sundays he watches me eat breakfast.
More often he turns up at bedtime.
On the street when I least expect it
he puts his arm around my shoulder
and breathes down my neck. I think
death is getting too intimate.
He volunteers to be my trust officer,
suggests I liquidate my holdings
and deposit the remains in his account.
Am I ready to cash in my worldly goods?
Does my life investment in lyric song
amount to anything redeemable?
If I go along with being his partner
and we set up business in his hometown,
how does he plan to get me there?
JACK FOLEY: So many of your poems are questions—very interesting questions.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, of course. There are no final answers to anything.
JACK FOLEY: One of the things to know about questions is that they don’t have to have answers. Just the fact of asking a question sometimes is an indication of spiritual growth.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Exactly. I agree with you.
Once my totem was a unicorn.
Now at a decelerating age
I settle for a tortoise.
He shuns push and shove,
snubs sidetrack and pit-stop,
has no traffic with hellbent,
prefers one plod at a time.
His backside discourages backslap
and claw, stinger and tooth.
Says the motto on his tattoo:
If I nod off in my dawdle
he can persist to the finish
and leave footprints in the sand.
(Quoting Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” with its once-famous quatrain, “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time”) “Lives of great men all remind us….” I don’t have to leave my footprints. We all leave footprints somewhere.
JACK FOLEY: You grew up in a tradition of poetry which was very different from “Modernism.”
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes, my grandmother’s house was full of volumes of poems.
JACK FOLEY: You mentioned The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám to me earlier. Dangerous poetry for a little boy to be reading!
JAMES BROUGHTON: Tennyson. Longfellow. Whittier. And Elbert Hubbard, the author of A Message to Garcia. That’s where I got my fascination for homely homilies. He was a very popular cheer-up man of his age. (Like Broughton’s “My Tortoise,” Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia extols the virtue of perseverance—ed.)
JACK FOLEY: You harken back to a mode of poetry and a mode of understanding poetry that is not something that is current at all. People like Dana Gioia would like to get some of that back.
JAMES BROUGHTON: It’s so strange when you read a poem of Byron’s or of Wordsworth’s—they were so popular. They sold hundreds of thousands of copies right away. The appetite for good writing and for vocabulary (to say nothing of “the tone leading of vowels”) is a dying art.
JACK FOLEY: When Ken Burns did a very nice series on the Civil War, people heard letters being read aloud and they said, “Isn’t it wonderful, the 19th century had such a marvelous sense of literature.” “Eloquence” was the word people used. But the funny thing was that the people were saying that because they were watching a TV show. It wasn’t that they had read a book. It took the TV program to remind them of the virtues of literature!
JAMES BROUGHTON: If you read the newspapers of the middle of the 19th century, they’re extremely literate. They have a marvelous sense of adverbs. And they know where the verb should be. Clinton can’t speak like Lincoln. “Fourscore and seven years ago…”
JACK FOLEY: And Lincoln wrote it himself. Clinton isn’t even able to speak like Kennedy, who didn’t write his speeches himself. But at least Kennedy’s speeches were fairly literate.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Literacy is a dying art. Isn’t that sad.
JACK FOLEY: Distinctions that are part of language have begun to fall apart.
JAMES BROUGHTON: That’s what I meant. My friend James Leo Herlihy could understand every nuance, every reference—how delightful, that’s such a great joy. I used to be sad that my students would miss my most subtle, beautiful phrasing in a lecture. I’d wait. They’d still be chewing or asleep.
JACK FOLEY: Part of the joy of your work is the joy of reading somebody who loves to write and who loves words. You gave me a gift once of a book of rare words. You have great delight in words, great delight in thinking about words and where they might go. It’s the source, really, of your literature. It’s the source of yourself. You mentioned adverbs a moment ago.
JAMES BROUGHTON: Yes. When you add them to a verb you get a subtle kind of movement the simple verb doesn’t have. It’s quite different from an adjective, which decorates, gives you a different feeling. This is a nuance in the texture that I like. When I started to write prose, I always found it very difficult because I always really thought in poetry. I like the succinct, the terse. I had to get around the fact that most sentences are just journalistic reports on an event, even in novels. I had to learn how to play with the sentence and really enjoy the sounds. To take a sentence in your hand and rock the words around until you’ve heard the sounds in the verbs and the consonants, so it was pleasing to the ear. It was Ezra Pound who said, “Poetry must be as well written as prose” (The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941, # 60, Harcourt, Brace, 1950). Most people who use prose don’t know how to write it. “Is that what I’ve been speaking all my life?,” as the man said in Molière’s play (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme). They’re so unconscious of the language. You have to have an ear and to enjoy speaking. But practice! It’s like playing any instrument.
I just thought of something. The title, Packing Up for Paradise. It was the choice of my editor Jim Cory because he liked the poem, which is in this book. It isn’t talking about what I expect after death. I don’t intend to behave in my old way. I’ll be transformed. I’ll be more graceful, more fairy-like, more ebullient. Most of the time I’ll just sit around in my universal mind.
I’ll just read the last page of Big Joy:
P.S. FROM BIG JOY
Brillo your soul. Windex your spirit.
Here comes lucidity.
A blithe spirit brings a lark
into any bored room.
and keep nothing.
Pack up everything
but take it to the dump.
Never let go of abandon.
Applaud every flabbergast.
The worst is still to come
and the best is yet to be.
JACK FOLEY: That’s another e sound. The book begins and ends with it. In between is a ride through consciousness.
JAMES BROUGHTON: The soul is consciousness. What we hope for or what this idea of Enlightenment means is consciousness in bliss, consciousness in bliss. That would be my recipe.
JACK FOLEY: For many, those two things, consciousness and bliss, would be opposites. Not for James.
JAMES BROUGHTON: No!
JACK FOLEY: Thank you, James.
FORGET-ME-NOTS FOR ALAN WATTS
On his Fiftieth Birthday
Does anyone know the true wherefores and whats
of this singular person called Alan Watts?
Does he get his ideas for his seminar talks
by going on long cross-country walks, or trots.
Mr. Alan Watts?
When he writes out a chapter to confound the wise
does he cross all his T’s and finish his I’s with dots,
does Alan Watts?
Does he do his thinking in pontifical hats?
Does he sleep on a bed or on Japanese mats, or on cots,
this Alan Watts?
Can he write his calligraphy concisely clear
without any smudge, any speck or smear, or blots,
can Alan Watts?
Does he get his kicks by the clear blue waves
or by prowling about in dark green caves, or in grots,
the Alan of Watts?
When he grows inspired with brilliant notions
does he dance about in primitive motions, or gavottes,
Dr. Alan Watts?
Does he practice sex magic in sacred rivers?
Do beautiful women give him the shivers, or the hots?
O Alan Watts!
Is it true that at birth he gave a great shout
and said, I’ve already figure life out in my thoughts,
said Baby Watts?
Did he also remark to his parents from the crib,
Your concept of truth is a childish fib, you clots,
said Little Watts?
And when he had made all his family skittish
did he then upset the rest of the British, including the Scots,
did Alan Watts?
Was it in America, and do you know when
that he put down Jesus and took up Zen, and other whatnots,
the Reverend Watts?
Is he now quite content with his own dominion?
Does he care not a fig for public opinion, or lots,
does Alan Watts?
Is it true that he thrives on exotic drugs
which he keeps in barrels, trunks and jugs, and in pots,
this Alan Watts?
Though it’s said that he breakfasts on LSD,
does he swallow the stuff in his morning tea, or in shots?
Why, Alan Watts!
When he gives a lecture for all to hear
does he leave his audience perfectly clear, or in knots,
Though much we’ll never know of this remarkable man,
let us toast him tonight for his fifty-year span, like sots!
Hail, Alan Watts!
6 January 1965