Obituary: James Broughton

IN THE sensibilities of a discerning few, James Broughton for decades occupied a special place comparable to that of Jean Cocteau, Buster Keaton, Erik Satie and Edith Sitwell. As poet, film-maker, and playwright, he graced the San Francisco scene through its various and countless renaissances since 1946, earning him such labels in its press as "San Francisco's own man for all seasons," its "leprechaun poet laureate", etc. Yet he never was fashionable, nor identified with any school: always the odd bird in the orphic aviary, he remained uniquely true to his own visionary music.

Broughton wrote:

I am a third generation Californian.

My great-grandfather was a scout with Fremont,

my grandmother was born in the Mother Lode,

my aunt served in the State Legislature.

When the sun was in Scorpio, the moon in Aries,

and the cusp of Virgo and Libra rising in 1913,

I was born in the San Joaquin town of Modesto,

on the Tuolomne River of Stanislaus County

in the state of California.

My grandfathers were bankers, and so was my


But my mother wanted me to become a surgeon.

However, one night when I was 3 years old

I was awakened by a glittering stranger

who told me I was a poet and always would be

and never to fear being alone or being laughed at.

That was my first meeting with my Angel

who is the most interesting poet I have ever met.

My childhood passions were dancing and swimming,

circuses, amusement parks, movies, vaudeville,

the Book of Knowledge and the Land of Oz.

Pet playthings: my toy theater, my magic lantern.

When I was 10 I was sent away to military school.

There my Angel came to my rescue:

I fell madly in love with the English language.

(And also the captain of the baseball team.)

My favorite book is still Webster's Unabridged, 2nd ed.

At 12 I imitated all of the Oxford Book of English Verse

and most of the Louis Untermeyer anthologies.

But ultimately I have learned more about poetry

from music and magic than from literature.

The clearest poetic memory of my years at Stanford:

the day Yvor Winters ordered me out of his class.

Poetry is a living adventure, not a literary problem.

(Other favorite books: Roget's Thesaurus, Tao Te Ching,

Mother Goose, Candide, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)

Ever since that visit from the Angel, Sunny Jim was singing those goatsongs and getting to the True Bottom of Things. Every poem a hymn to St Priapus in his exceedingly comfortable logaoedic meter (a catalectic glyconic and a Pherecratean).

Almost as noble as James Broughton's willingness to stand there as naked as a jaybird is his willingness to use babytalk, prattle, doo-doo, goo- goo and loony-camp lingo when called upon to do so. A lot of it works outrageously well. He reminds me of Jacques Tati playing tennis in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. One imagines this bizarre figure coming on to the centre court at Wimbledon to contest the formidable Boris "Boom Boom" Becker. He wears ancient tweeds, a floppy hat, smokes a pipe, carries a stone-age racket made of petrified bat guano. Herr Becker serves and a fierce backhand drive to the baseline by Hulot leaves Boris standing there bug-eyed and flat-footed.


In Broughton's early poems the domain is often that of childhood. The forms are similar to nursery rhymes and the polished nonsense of Lear and Carroll. An example:

I don't like his looks and he don't like me,

but I'm a cowboy now and so is he.

So I'm gonna get my gun and go shoot Jesus,

I'm gonna shoot Jesus before he shoots me.

Middle-period Broughton fills us with the realisation that into every life a little zen must fall. He spent a lot of time in Sausalito, across the San Francisco Bay, on Alan Watts's houseboat, where there was always some very antic company: Piro Caro, Zev, Jean Varda, Kermit Sheets, Daddy Waxwrath (a.k.a. Kenneth Rexroth), Robert Duncan.

I don't know what the Left is doing,

said the Right Hand,

but it looks fascinating.

He became, he said, "a hometown swami who can't keep his mouth shut".

Watts remarked:

G.K. Chesterton once observed that when a typesetter substitutes "comic" for "cosmic" he is not really too much in error. After all, Dante entitled his description of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, The Divine Comedy. In the contemplation of lofty themes most people are serious, though not always sincere. Broughton, however, is always sincere but hardly ever serious. Indeed, seriousness is a questionable virtue: it is gravity rather than levity, and it was, again, that devout Catholic, Chesterton, who maintained that the angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And, in company with the angels, Broughton laughs with God rather than at Him.

James Broughton always had a string of sobriquets throughout his life: Sunny Jim as a child; Jimmy as a boy and young man; The Unbuttoned One; Sister Sermoneta of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I liked to call him The Modesto Catbird, and I believe it was I who deemed him Big Joy, from the time (at the age of 61) that the cinematographer and artist Joel Singer came into his life. O frabjous day!

Many readers of his poems do not know about the 23 films Broughton created. The magazine Film Culture referred to him as "the grand classic master of Independent Cinema". The American Film Institute presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Some of the films are Mother's Day, Adventures of Jimmy, Loony Tom, The Pleasure Garden, The Bed, The Golden Positions, and Song of the Godbody (with Joel Singer).

British readers will be interested, particularly, in The Pleasure Garden (1953). James had been living in Barbara Jones's wonderful house on Well Walk in Hampstead. Jones took him to see the ruins of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Broughton met Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert, who said they would help him make a film there. Hattie Jacques volunteered to play a fairy godmother. Jill Bennett was in it. And John Le Mesurier. The finished product delighted Broughton's supporters, though Stephen Spender said to him, "Don't you think your film is rather too pleasant?"

Big Joy and Joel Singer retired from the San Francisco Scene and lived in the midst of a forest near Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Broughton, much reinvigorated by the relationship, was very productive into his early eighties, until slowed by a stroke.

One of his late poems begins:

How often do you think of Death?

Death thinks about you all the time

Death is fatally in love with you and me

and his lust is known to be relentless . . .

Jonathan Williams

James Richard Broughton, poet, film-maker and playwright: born Modesto, California 10 November 1913; married Suzanna Hart (one son, one daughter); died Port Townsend, Washington 17 May 1999.

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