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Literature is intoxicating, poetry in particular

Writing is an addiction; the process leaks endorphins and writer’s block can cause terrible withdrawal symptoms.

When writers date writers it is like dating your dealer, you are always in close proximity to your next fix. Communication becomes transportation, we go on ‘a trip’ lining up words for inhalation: the climaxes and comedowns, mania and illusion, hunger and the chase. Writers are hooked on unleashing for the thrill of writing, for its pure uncut quality – spending many years of their lives devoted to repeating the process. Correspondences between word smiths and stimulants offer a colourful self-realization, and a path to sensationalize their steady outbursts of emotion.

The act of writing itself produces a natural high in the writer: the moment an idea spirals onto the page, temporal lobes go into temporary sleep modes, and you become oblivious to the immediacy of the world around you, you transcend. You shift into a vessel for language, totally transported and driven by the enhancement of the senses.

The flush of scribing a good poem can also be completely euphoric. The reading of poetry is much the same, if it is good poetry it will immediately impact you; the beauty of words, a poet’s perspective and the reassurance of meaning more profound can be so rousing that it will make you feel like you are ‘coming up’ on a recreational street drug – depending on the quality of both, of course.

So what happens when you start mixing your substances to understand the working of the mind more, when you use marijuana (the post-modern poet’s temporal drug of choice perhaps) or in Coleridge’s case opium, to accentuate the already instinctive high of writing?

Coleridge wrote his legendary poem ‘Kubla Khan’ in what he claims to call a ‘waking dream’, and poets have often seen themselves as prophets or visionaries striving to be in tune with their physic sensibilities. Even Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater was written superbly – perhaps partly because of his early influences – despite his harrowing subject of heavy addiction to laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) which he co-managed with writing. His confessions then became a book that served as a scientific record, at a time when there was no systematic study of narcotics on the market.

Some critics say that Robert Louis Stevenson’s irrevocable idea of duplicity in man could only be obtained through his substance abuse; that cocaine allowed him to access alternate sides of his brain and concoct the lesson of Jekyll & Hyde – now a catchphrase idiom that exposes the inherent light/dark dichotomy of the human psyche.

Gertrude Stein couldn’t write without coffee; Lord Byron was addicted to sex, Burroughs to heroine, Browning to opium, Verlaine to absinthe, Ginsberg was a pot head that went to acid parties so he could reach an elevated state of mind before he wrote, and then there is the century of alcoholics that double fisted pen and bottle. One of my favourites being Dorothy Parker who said ‘one more drink and I’ll be under the host’ as she took the glass before giving a reading.

But it is not about the choice of drug (narcotics, stimulants or hallucinogens) – clearly some are more harmful than others, some writers are more dependent than others and some substances inspire subject, but make the act of physically writing impossible. According to Derrida, writing, like drugs, is a question of truth or intimation, and like the pharmaco, writing and drugs are both toxin and anecdote.

Henry Miller believed the real trick was getting high without drugs, to get drunk on a glass of water, good writing can do this to you- whether you toke, snort or shoot up to absorb the effects. Keroauc was affirmed that Buddism was the ‘true morphine’.  The evidence is in the transportation it summons, and the likeliness of ritual amongst writers. Writing on drugs exposes the neuro-chemistry of the brain (especially Freud’s experiments with cocaine), and I believe that writing itself produces a similar psychoactive compound and result in mapping the human condition.

What writer do you know that isn’t addicted to the signification of language, the idea of love and some kind of self-medicating substance as aid or therapy? Addiction creates a wall of self-reliance which soothes the pre-occupations of the writer, and offers a moment of bliss for the narcissists. The explosion of drugs amongst writers was an artificial means of exploring inner voyages, what Anais Nin calls the ‘embracing of our shadowy twin’ that she herself wanted to befriend to escape the deadening culture.


Is there any doubt that drug addiction is an escape from an unbearable inner state, from a reality one cannot deal with, from an atrophying mind one can never fully destroy?”

–  Ayn Rand (who was hooked on amphetamines)


However poetry can not be abused, real addictions destroy lives, undeniable and intrinsic drug intemperances are a compulsive behaviour that comes from a need to void stress, and often races into selfish oblivion, mostly with a landslide of disregard for how it effects those in close proximity to its spiralling. Poetry can help cure this cycle, it offers a distraction, something else to fixate on, to get wrapped up in, simply because the intoxicating act of writing and reading can steer the mind and body into a trance-like comfort akin to the rising high of a substance fix.

Poetry itself predetermines an addictive behaviour because it can open gates to inner worlds, and there is something about that affair of transcendence that keeps us hooked, sated by habit, always returning for more. Shamans have long developed techniques for inducing rapture and lucid dreaming, these approaches and artistries could then be used – as opium has been: to induce a state of mind conductive to poetic creativity. Many poets have been known (Hughes in particular) to experiment with and evolve this craft of summoning for their own shifting gears of consciousness, using it cannily to get to the own source of their inspiration.

So yes, you can write on drugs, stir concoctions to open portals of the cerebral and try to trace out the unknown, or you can use the act of writing itself to elevate the mind, purge yourself of toxin-heavy thought and embrace the rawness of higher clarity. The relationship between drugs and writing will always be an unsteady one, despite it’s history of compatibility, because a sense of the self is dampened, sometimes even muted entirely, and even though it all seems rather colourful and exciting at the time, it is in truth chemically induced, and the natural, sober state of mind holds larger capacity for greater epiphany.

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