ALCOHOL & POETRY

AA has found that the following may lead a sober alcoholic back to drinking: resentment, self-pity, anger, fear, self-will, self-centeredness, managing, trying to do everything yourself, and keeping secret the things that hurt you. There are two categories in this list. An alcoholic will drink again (1) if he sets himself up as self-sufficient and (2) if he gets stuck in the mechanisms that defend this autonomy. Individualism and its defences support the disease of alcoholism. Just one more example: in this civilization we take personal credit for change and accomplishment. But it is AA’s experience that if an alcoholic begins to feel personally responsible for his sobriety, or if he tries to take control of the group, or if he breaks his anonymity, he will probably drink.

Getting sober goes against the grain of our civilization. This grain consists of money and technology. For more than a century these have been our dominant models for security and liveliness. I want to show quickly how these models feed ‘individualism’ and its false sense of human and higher powers. To begin with we have misperceived the nature of machines. First, we have assumed that they run by themselves, that they can be isolated and self-sustaining. Second, we have thought they were our slaves. But it has turned out that the model of life that includes slavery diminishes humans, regardless of whether those slaves are people or machines. And finally, we have forgotten that mechanical power is only one form of power. It is authentic and important, but limited. In the last 50 years it has become so inflated as to impoverish other forms of power. (These points can also be made about money.  We have assumed that money could be left alone to ‘work’ for us and out of this assumption it has become an autonomous and inflated power).  But neither money nor machines can create. They shuttle tokens of energy, but they do not transform. A civilization based on them puts people out of touch with their creative powers. There is very little a poet can learn from them. Poems are gifts. The poet works them, but they are not his, either in their source or in their destination. The differences between mechanical & monetary power and creative power are not of themselves a problem, but when the former become inflated and dominant, as they have in this century, they are lethal to poetry.

The link between alcoholism and technical civilization and the reason they are both antithetical to poetry is their shared misunderstandings about power and powerlessness. It is a misunderstanding which rises out of the inflation of mechanical power and results in the impoverishment of personal power, the isolation of creative energy, the blindness to higher powers, the limitation of desire to material objects and a perversion of the will.

In a technological civilization one is deprived of authentic expressions of creative energy because contact with the outer world does not lead to real change (transformation). When this happens it becomes impossible to make judgments on the limits and nature of your personal power. You become stupefied, unable to perceive either higher powers or your own. You have a vague longing to feel creative energy, but no wisdom to guide you. Such a person is a sitting duck for alcoholism.

Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage. This is why it is so tiresome. People who have found a route to power based on their misery – who don’t want to give it up though it would free them – they become ironic. This sustained complaint is the tone of active alcoholism.

Lewis Hyde, Alcohol & Poetry: John Berryman and The Booze Talking.

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