“Finding new readers can be a full-time occupation, and like cold calling, is not for the faint-hearted. Whatever you do, don’t drink.”
- Chris Hamilton Emery, 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell
“I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s a record.”
- Dylan Thomas (plinyism)
Poetry and alcoholism. They’ve always been connected, haven’t they? Along with the poverty, promiscuity and paleolatry, we want that image of the male poet as a sad lonely booze-hound, crying into his tumbler whilst scribbling away at a profound, immaculate first draft.
Willmott had his wine, Thomas had his whiskey, Berryman had his gin and Bukowski had his beer.
The reasons for this correlation between poetry and alcoholism are an interesting point for speculation. There is the depressive element obviously, not that all poets are depressed but the cathartic benefits of creativity do tend to attract those poor folks with all the demons and baggage and black dogs and such don’t they?
And then there’s the poverty to consider. As the graph below shows, poets living under impoverished circumstances are far more susceptible to alcoholism than any other demographic:
Oh so you want to argue with Science now, do you?
This is caused partly through the self-perpetuating image of the steaming poet, and partly because alcohol is commonly perceived as a shortcut to warmth, sleep, self-esteem, sophistication and sexual prowess in lieu of the luxury amenities that we capitalists usually use to hike our way up Maslow’s pyramid.
My main association of booze with poetry, however, is that being drunk seems to be one of the only socially acceptable paths to automatic writing, and anyone who has ever suffered the feeling of being a dried up, muse-less poet will tell you that sometimes automatic writing is your only weapon against a blank page.
Sure, some people do this with marijuana, but it stinks, bums people out for hours afterwards, leads to obnoxiously pseudo-profound conversations and is, well, um, illegal. And then there’s the old fashioned method of simply counting backwards from one hundred whilst writing as ferociously as your subconscious will move your hand across the page. Which works, don’t get me wrong, but you look a bit weird doing it in polite company.
But a beer. Alone in a pub. With nothing but a thoughtful grimace and a notebook. Now that’s the poetry we know and love. By this point you’ve got the uninhibited frankness of thought and the necessary arrogance to kick aside all thoughts of futility and write some real world-changing stuff. Or at least you may find that, amongst your pages of drunken idiocy you might be able to salvage an aesthetically pleasing phrase or two. Before getting the night bus home and being sickened by everyone around you for doing all that fakery like having friends and being happy and stuff.
I might add that none of these is in any way a valid substitute for just, you know, reading lots of poetry and doing writing exercises and forming lucid, sober friendships with other creative types who are happy to swap bits of writing with you. But when you do follow this method and hit the big time, make sure you have enough well-rehearsed anecdotes of how you wrote your Forward Prize Winning collection after waking up in the alleyway outside Spearmint Rhinos. That'll show all those phoneys.
Anyway, in writing this article, I have been wrestling with the fact that I will never have anywhere near as much to say on the topic of poetry and alcoholism as the very poster-child for this relationship, one Mr. Charles Bukowski.
Because it is one of the finest documentaries on a poet that I have ever watched, I have embedded here, the entire 2 hours of the fantastic documentary ‘Born Into This’, charting the rise, fall and horrific personality of the poet who turned drunkenly line-breaking sparse prose into a movement.
Please excuse however, the presence of Bono in this documentary. Seriously. Bono. He smugly refers to Bukowski as ‘Hank’ as if to connote some sort of deep friendship and mutual respect between them.
He poncily postulates through his pretentious glasses:
“I started to discover a new kind of writing which had a kind of directness, aside from the beats which is what I grew up with… He’s got no time for metaphor, let’s just get right down to the bone, to the marrow of the bone.”
I’m sorry Bono, but last time I checked, 'getting right down to the bone' is a god damned metaphor.
Ignore Bono though, enjoy the documentary, for there ain’t many like it.
Born Into This