Do poets drink for inspiration and not for other reasons that critics are hell-bent on discovering? This rhetorical question has been as thoroughly discussed as has the belief that poets and other artists are more “sensitive” than the general population. Quick assumptions about art and where it comes from and what fuels it need to be reexamined and if not laid to rest, at least seen in a more enlightened and forgiving light.
The mistaken place to begin is with definitions of “art” and “sensitivity.” We have the Oxford English Dictionary to rely upon for root origins and multiple meanings, but how far will they take us in clarity of knowing something as wide-sweeping as art and depth-defying as sensitivity? To define “alcohol” is much easier, an irony that will not pass by either poet or non-poet without a grin.
Some poets come early to their calling. Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist and surrealist, wrote all he wanted to by the age of 19 and then abandoned literature entirely. Some come late; Amy Clampitt published her first book of poems at 63. In stark contrast, Dylan Thomas and Anne Sexton also died young (39 and 45) because of heavy drinking; Sexton was also a suicide, another entire realm of poetic discussion.
If age is not a factor in artistic achievement, what is? It certainly isn’t geographic location, since poets are writing and publishing in remote corners under the most dire of conditions; nor can it be years of worldly experience, for Emily Dickinson, who described her eyes as “the color of sherry in the glass that the guest leaves,” spent most of her life alone in her upstairs room.
Likewise, being sensitive is a shaky condition in no literal sense; people who use their pencils to solve complex problems that will transform our lives may sigh as deeply at a burst of Peter Pan crocus in the last thrusts of winter as the people who use their pencils solely to make weekly grocery lists. Poets who write eloquently about the forces of the abstract nature of life may bypass the most brilliant purple crocus on their paths. An alcoholic poet may give us poems of more beauty, depth, and power than ones by a poet who does not imbibe. Whose work will last into the next century? The judgments of time are exceedingly cruel to art, and no poets live long enough to discover their work either immortal or forgotten.
What conclusions can we draw about human behavior, habits, and creativity? Our first source should be the individual brain and heart of each of us instead of the OED–and the courage to admit that the richness of life, as expressed in poems, photographs, notes from a flute, blooms from a garden, jewels in a necklace, is a gift as mysterious as midnight moonlight. The moon is there for all of us, drinkers or non-imbibers, and though the moon has been an enchanting metaphor for poets since the dawn of language, the moon also hangs for anyone curious enough to sing its praises.
No matter what conclusions are drawn about the mix of poetry and booze, the word “booze” itself is very poetical with its long, drawn out sound and even boasts an “approximate rhyme” with “moon.”
R. S. Stewart is a volunteer consultant in the Writing Center at Chemeketa Community College.