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Under The Influence

On writing and intoxication

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Ah, that sudden shift in perception, that moment of lucidity and unbidden clarity after a few glasses of wine. The cosy, half-inebriated sense of having discovered, finally, the knowledge that has hitherto been just out of reach; that missing line, that elusive image. This is what happens after a good session beside the fire, in a cosy pub, with a few friends — I find myself mage on my own barstool. Touched by the muse. Or just a little touched, perhaps!

The pub has been part of the literary landscape for me since my early days as a poet, whether as a lonely, solitary drinker propping up the bar, gazing through dirty windows at the world beyond, or engaging with fellow poets in a workshop, in a room above a bar. It’s where I first heard poetry, and where I still love hearing it performed. For some, including me, it seems inconceivable that a writing life could exist without this hallowed space.

I’m romanticising, of course, as there’s a slim line between the bottle as facilitator, and that of nemesis. Many have fallen. Many I loved and respected. Perspective is everything. A drink or two can loosen the nuts and bolts; it’s good for digging up ideas, an odd line or two, and often gives you a fearlessness that lets you be more expansive than normal, more audacious; to go to places you wouldn’t normally go with your writing. But one too many and you can find yourself slipping into incoherence. You open your notebook the following morning to read your masterpiece, composed in a haze the night before, and are crestfallen to discover that it is worse than automatic writing. Damn! You can’t write when you’re drunk, just as you can’t drive, or do that other thing they always mention. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you do indeed discover the way into, or out of, a writing conundrum, and you make a breakthrough, but most of the time it’s garbled nonsense. The drink is a sly, mercurial companion to the writer, and the relationship with it can be precarious and long lasting.

There has long been an association between writers and alcohol, especially poets. I know very few teetotal poets and a great many prodigious drinkers among them. It often comes with the territory and with it, the famous literary hangover that’s been written about from Dylan Thomas to Ernest Hemingway. Some writers have a good relationship with their hangovers, they understand them and have come to terms with their ministrations. I remember the poet Matthew Sweeney telling me, when I was a young poet, that a hangover was a good time for writing; that working through it puts you in touch with the unconscious. It’s a time when the literary guard is down and sleeping off the night’s excesses. He’s not wrong, but in my experience it’s not easy to write when you’re hungover. It depends on how bad yours are and how you like to work. I’ve never written a decent thing while hungover. It hurts too much. There is no muse of my hangover.

The idea that a writer’s life is somehow inextricably linked with substances of an intoxicating nature became entrenched in the public mind during Romantic times, primarily through Thomas De Quincey and his book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and through poets such as Byron, Shelley and Keats, those great rock ’n’ rollers of the eighteenth century. It was around this time that the use of laudanum became de rigueur for poets, novelists and painters. It was often taken as a cure for bona fide pain and certain medical conditions, such as Coleridge’s rheumatics, but soon became a recreational drug. Aside from De Quincey’s famous book the most fascinating example of laudanum at work creatively, is possibly Coleridge’s poem: ‘Kubla Khan’:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 
A stately pleasure-dome decree: 
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
Down to a sunless sea…

The poem is a perfect example of verse composed under the influence. It was written in a reverie, as Coleridge himself admitted. It has the dreamlike flow of a ‘trip’ with its exotic imagery, its hypnotic rhyme and rhythm. It seems to emanate directly from the subconscious. It lasts for fifty-four blissful, inspired lines, then ends abruptly when the now famous person from Porlock knocked on Coleridge’s door and broke the spell. It’s quite something that ending. I can imagine Coleridge wandering about for days, trying to get back to where he was, searching for that elusive thread. That path that he knew he would never find again. The poem remained unfinished. It was not of his own making.

There are many other examples of the buzz, or ferment of writing under the influence, and a roll call of writers too long to mention. Ginsberg wrote part II of Howl under the influence of Peyote mushrooms. Rimbaud implored writers to undergo a ‘derangement of the senses’ in order to find the heart of creativity. Philip K. Dick, on an epic binge of amphetamines, produced forty-one novels between 1953 and 1970. However, it’s often difficult to separate the mythmaking from the reality: it is said that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks, on a similar diet of drug-induced ferment; however, it took him six further years to edit the book and get it published. If that’s not a sobering thought, I don’t know what is. But drunks often like to perpetuate the myth of the good muse at the bottom of a bottle. It seeks to validate their way of living, of writing. When Charles Bukowski, one of literature’s great drinkers, was asked if he wrote when he was intoxicated, he gave this frightening, but beautiful reply: ‘I don’t think I have written a poem when I was completely sober. But I have written a few good ones, or a few bad ones under the hammer of a black hangover when I didn’t know whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing.’

He was addressing a point in his poem ‘Who Needs It?’ where he attempts to persuade the reader, (rather tongue in cheek), that he can write poetry while sober: ‘I don’t need drink’, he says, ‘I can write without drinking.’ But the poem is just doggerel, and he ends, rather apologetically, with the lines: ‘who needs a drink?/ probably the reader’.

Maybe this shortfall, this bland and tedious ‘stuff’ is what Rimbaud was alluding to when he desired a more quixotic state of mind? Is this what sobriety brings? The banality and monotony of the everyday. As Ginsberg said: ‘The myth put forward by the police that no creative work can be done under drugs is folly […] the myth that anybody who takes drugs [will] produce something interesting is equal folly’.

Go figure!

It all comes back to Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and ecstasy. For a writer like D. H. Lawrence he was the embodiment of the instinctual force of human nature, in contradistinction to that of Apollo with his order and sensibility. These are the two elemental forces that do battle in the unconscious mind of the writer or artist. It is not a modern phenomenon, and a much older one than even the Romantics.

Personally, I can’t see my writing life without a bottle on the table. It wouldn’t make sense to me. Is that a sad admission? Perhaps, but we’re all intoxicated by something, and whether that’s a glass of cold Chardonnay, or the way the light falls through a window; or maybe the ineffable notion of grace that comes from walking through a landscape, moved we are; beyond ourselves into a rarefied space. A space difficult to access and sometimes scary to find ourselves in. The writer is enchanted, drunk, their head full of nonsense. It’s a giddy place. A dangerous space. It’s why we put pen to paper. One wonders whether what we’re talking about is intoxication or enchantment, and what the differences are — if any? Etymologically, enchantment means to be bewitched or charmed, while intoxication is to be poisoned. Not vastly different. Whatever it is, it is outside the normal realm of being. A different state, an elevated state. It’s where you go to see things from a different angle. Probably from under the table. But sometimes, that’s the best view.

For many hundreds of years, the British had a real, and meaningful relationship to the folk figure of John Barleycorn: the pagan god of barley; of booze essentially — of harvest. A mythic man, a metaphorical figure who grew, with vigour and vitality though spring and summer, ripe in his heyday, full to his cups, and then mown down, reaped in his prime, harvested, baked and finally brewed. This completed the endless cycle, so that John Barleycorn could rise again the next year, on and on, but sacrificed perpetually on the altar of fertility, or let’s say, also, creativity — a sad, self-fulfilling prophesy in so many ways for those boozy writers who came and went, and come and go still, forever, but never really come back.

Neil Rollinson has published four collections of poetry with Jonathan Cape. He is a winner of the National Poetry Competition and is a recipient of a Cholmondeley award from the Society of Authors. His last collection Talking Dead was shortlisted for the Costa Book awards.

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