Nisha Rathode (Editor)

James Broughton

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Nationality  American
Name  James Broughton
Role  Poet

James Broughton Big Joy The Documentary CoDirector Reflects on Beat

Born  November 10, 1913 Modesto, California (1913-11-10)
Occupation  Poet, Memoirist, Playwright, Film maker
Died  May 17, 1999, Port Townsend, Washington, United States
Spouse  Suzanna Hart (m. 1962–1978)
Movies  The Pleasure Garden, Dreamwood, The Bed
Books  Coming Unbuttoned, Packing Up for Paradise, Making Light of it, All: A James Broughto, A Moment of Forever
Similar People  Pauline Kael, Kermit Sheets, Fred Saberhagen, Walt Whitman, Jonas Mekas

The Poetic Death of the Visionary James Broughton

James Broughton (November 10, 1913 – May 17, 1999) was an American poet and poetic filmmaker. He was part of the San Francisco Renaissance, a precursor to the Beat poets. He was an early bard of the Radical Faeries as well as a member of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, serving the community as Sister Sermonetta.


James Broughton Discovering Big Joy James Broughton polarimagazinecom

James broughton joel andrews all about it a zen hymnal for alan watts

Life and career

Born to wealthy parents in Modesto, California, Broughton lost his father early to the 1918 influenza epidemic and spent the rest of his life getting over his high-strung, overbearing mother. He spent his childhood in San Francisco and attended Stanford University until just before his class graduated in 1935. In 1945, he won the Alden Award given by the Stanford Dramatists' Alliance for his original screenplay "Summer Fury."

Before he was three, "Sunny Jim" experienced a transformational visit from his muse, Hermy, which he describes in his autobiography, Coming Unbuttoned (1993):

I remember waking in the dark and hearing my parents arguing in the next room. But a more persistent sound, a kind of whirring whistle, spun a light across the ceiling. I stood up in my crib and looked into the backyard. Over a neighbor’s palm tree a pulsing headlamp came whistling directly toward me. When it had whirled right up to my window, out of its radiance stepped a naked boy. He was at least three years older than I but he looked all ages at once. He had no wings, but I knew he was angel-sent: his laughing beauty illuminated the night and his melodious voice enraptured my ears….

He insisted I would always be a poet even if I tried not to be….Despite what I might hear to the contrary the world was not a miserable prison, it was a playground for a nonstop tournament between stupidity and imagination. If I followed the game sharply enough, I could be a useful spokesman for Big Joy.

In the book, Broughton remarks on his love affairs with both men and women. Among his male lovers was gay activist Harry Hay.

He briefly lived with the film critic Pauline Kael and they had a daughter, Gina, who was born in 1948.

Broughton is the subject of the 2012 award-winning documentary film, Big Joy: the adventures of James Broughton from Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, Dawn Logson and cinematographer Ian Hinkle.


That meeting with "Hermy" prefigured the cavalcade of mystery, imagination, sexuality, danger, humor, and transformation that would mark the 23 books and 23 films Broughton produced in a life laced with travel, teaching, self-analysis, and rich and prickly friendships.

His work is quintessentially Californian – exploring and engaging the polar frontiers of wildness and civility, male and female, body and spirit—with the crash of Pacific Ocean waves echoing throughout. "Ultimately I have learned more about poetry / from music and magic than from literature," he wrote.

Broughton was kicked out of military school for having an affair with a classmate, dropped out of Stanford before graduating, and spent time in Europe during the 1950s, where he received an award in Cannes from Jean Cocteau for the "poetic fantasy" of his film The Pleasure Garden, made in England with partner Kermit Sheets.

"Cinema saved me from suicide when I was 32 by revealing to me a wondrous reality: the love between fellow artists," Broughton wrote. This theme carried him through his 85 years. "It was as important to live poetically as to write poems."

Despite many creative love affairs during the San Francisco Beat Scene, Broughton put off marriage until age 49, when, steeped in his explorations of Jungian psychology, he married Suzanna Hart in a three-day ceremony on the Pacific coast documented by his friend, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Suzanna’s theatrical background and personality made for a great playmate; they had two children. And they built a great community among the creative spirits of Alan Watts, Michael McClure, Anna Halprin, and Imogen Cunningham.

In 1967’s "summer of love," Broughton made a film, The Bed, a celebration of the dance of life which broke taboos against frontal nudity and won prizes at many film festivals. It rekindled Broughton’s filmmaking and led to more tributes to the human body (The Golden Positions), the eternal child (This Is It), the eternal return (The Water Circle), the eternal moment (High Kukus), and the eternal feminine (Dreamwood). "These eternalities praised the beauty of humans, the surprises of soul, and the necessity of merriment," Broughton wrote.

Indeed, Broughton repeatedly explored the temple of the human body – the "Godbody" – as a taproot for healing and peace, both for the individual and society.

He developed a great following, especially among students at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught film (and wrote Seeing the Light, a book about filmmaking) and artistic ritual.

Despite his poetic and cinematic explorations throughout his career, Broughton was drowning in his own unresolved mother-issues, which translated into impotence:

As poet Jack Foley puts it in All: A James Broughton Reader, "In Broughton’s moment of need, Hermy appeared again in the person of a twenty-five-year-old Canadian film student named Joel Singer:

Broughton’s meeting with Singer was a life-changing, life-determining moment that animated his consciousness with a power that lasted until his death." In 2004, Singer wrote of their long relationship and collaboration in White Crane.

Life with Joel Singer

With Singer, Broughton traveled and made more films – Hermes Bird (1979), a slow-motion look at an erection shot with the camera developed to photograph atomic bomb explosions, The Gardener of Eden (1981), filmed when they lived in Sri Lanka, Devotions (1983), which takes delight in friendly things men can do together from the odd to the rapturous, and Scattered Remains (1988), a cheerfully death-obsessed tribute to Broughton’s poetry and filmmaking.

In fact, Broughton explored death deeply throughout his life. He died in May 1999 with champagne on his lips, in the house in Port Townsend, Washington, where he and Joel lived for 10 years. Before he died, he said, "My creeping decrepitude has crept me all the way to the crypt." His gravestone in a Port Townsend cemetery reads, "Adventure – not predicament."


The Films of James Broughton, a DVD compilation of seventeen films on three discs, was released in 2006 by Facets Multimedia.

A selected collection of his work, All: A James Broughton Reader, edited by Jack Foley, was released in 2007 by White Crane Books.


James Broughton Wikipedia