Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The spirits behind the writers

It all started with a little email to the Talers of Dove:

Hello Dove Talers! A tip for tipplers:,0,6073273.story?track=ntothtml
From the Los Angeles Times

Here's the article that link goes to:

The spirits behind the writers

Understanding the great scribes' fondness for alcohol.
By Joseph Tartakovsky

February 27, 2008

Horace reports that the 5th century Athenian poet Cratinus, in a light-hearted defense of his famed intemperance, declared, "No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by water drinkers." Cratinus wasn't entirely kidding: Legend says he died of grief upon seeing a full cask of wine break into pieces. And writers of subsequent ages have taken his sentiment to heart. Wherever you find the pen-and-ink set, drink is an emblem of vivacity and wit, at times regarded with semireligious reverence.

Why do scribblers make drinking their second art? For one thing, it primes them for their task. In 1714, a young Alexander Pope, in an affectionate letter to a lady, began, "Most Divine! -- 'Tis some proof of my sincerity towards you that I write when I am prepared by drinking to speak truth." Keats, in an 1819 letter, described how "ethereal" claret "mounts into the brain" and makes one "a Hermes," god of, among other things, eloquence. "A good sherris-sack," said Falstaff (speaking, no doubt, for Shakespeare himself) "... ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery and delectable shapes which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit." Well, perhaps.

Drink rarely causes a writer to underestimate his talents. And tippling is a handy excuse: Inspired writing produced under the influence is still inspired. But you wrote a tissue of nonsense? Well, one overindulges.

Hart Crane wrote many of his curious poems while comprehensively lathered. You'd never guess. In the early 1980s, Norman Mailer was asked by director Sergio Leone to write a screenplay. Mailer showed his enthusiasm by locking himself in a hotel room for three weeks with a case of whiskey. Leone, says a biographer, recalled hearing Mailer in his room "singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes." He did not use the script.

Prudent writers learn to take more out of drink than it takes out of them. Kingsley Amis, in a 1975 interview, prescribed a glass of Scotch as an "artistic icebreaker." John Mortimer told the New York Times that an early morning flute of Champagne "sets my brain racing." A roommate of Tennessee Williams reported that the playwright rose early and set his typewriter clacking, after fortifying himself with a martini, a bottle of red wine and a somewhat incongruous pot of coffee.

Some writers have found even deeper use for alcohol. Tennyson, according to his friend James Knowles' 1893 reminiscence, would "look upon his bottle of port as a sort of counsellor." When the poet received the letter offering him the poet laureateship of Britain, he brooded inconclusively until finally composing two letters -- one accepting and one declining -- placing them on his table and resolving to decide which to send after finishing his bottle of port. He accepted.

The writer's life is solitary, but not the drinking writer's. In his 1975 memoir, "Here at the New Yorker," Brendan Gill portrays the magazine (where he worked for 40 years) as a society of first-class bingers. One colleague believed that vomiting was, like shaving and showering, a natural part of any morning routine. Edmund Wilson drank at lunch until he couldn't stand; A.J. Liebling once fled a burning restaurant but not without securing his bottle of brandy; Wolcott Gibbs lugged buckets of premixed martinis to the beach and stored them in the sand.

But there can be a dark side. Booze was the downfall of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, after it “pickled their brains,” in the words of John Irving. Ditto for William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill and Dylan Thomas, drinkers with writing problems all. "I'm Catholic, and I can't commit suicide," said Jack Kerouac, "but I plan to drink myself to death." Which he did, checking out from liver cirrhosis at the age of 47.

Is there really a muse in the bottle? Christopher Hitchens, an empirical student of the matter, says the connection is "oblique," but he observes that the "word 'spirit' preserves the initial intuition of the 'inspired' that was detected by the Greeks."

Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.

The trick is to find the golden mean between exhilarating and dulling the intellect. Cratinus' belief that only bad verses were written without wine seems too appealing to be untrue. But the best verses no doubt arise when, the wine low in the bottle, Dionysus is still steady enough to dance to the tune of Apollo's lyre.

Joseph Tartakovsky is associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times (Larry sez: please note © !)


Followed further emails:

From Wild Thing:
Mmmmmmmmm, does that mean that I should dip deeper into alcoholic beverages to make it to the poet's hall of fame?

From Xena:
Very funny, Larry! (Believe it or not) for me, wine and writing don't mix - kinda like driving. Too many accidents! But of the literary kind. However, editing circle's another thing.... *smile*.

I have discovered that I can set up my yahoo page to bring me five news articles a day related to poetry (yeah, POETRY NEWS) and another five for writing news. It's been fun and even enlightening to read the articles. Here's one news-related issue that I found fascinating. Copyright nuts have been so squeamish about letting anybody read/have any of their words for free. Online postings posed a problem from this perspective. Lock down sites? Make people pay to access your writing online? The problem is all of that is so restrictive - why would "surfing" readers do that? I heard a blogger speak once (can't remember his name - but a very popular blogger) who said he found when he posted his articles in his blog straight from his newspaper column - no extra pay for him or the newspaper - people tended to search him out in print too. It increased print sales. The same is being proven with online books. People download the writing for free, but then tend to search out book copies, and/or buy the books for friends. In other words, online free downloading increases books sales. Publisher now are putting some books online - the whole thing - for free. Here's the news article link to read more:

Again from Wild Thing:
Well now you say so, alcoholic spirits make me feel tired and a bit dizzy. Never felt inspired to write, like when I am between sleeping and waking, and words and sentences just float in. You think it is a man thing? Do they need the courage, more so than a woman, to let go of their inner self? I knew a good guitarist and lyric writer, who I often invited to parties. He would not perform untill he downed a good amount of beer. Remembering writers/poets get togethers, it was mainly the men who were sauced already right from the start. I am open to be proven wrong about that.
When I get an AHA out of what someone has written, book, poetry, I am so pleased about it. I like learning. I like to see my own feelings confirmed, expressed the way I could not. When I write I always hope that it is worth sharing. That it may help someone else who reads it, in his/her thought processes, and that they in turn pass it on, by sharing in converstion, in writing or vocally. That to me is pay. I agree, Marianne, that opening your work up for free sharing, may help rather than harm you. I always seek out writers that have touched me. I want to read more of their material. those are the books I buy for gifts.

And Larry:
POETRY NEWS? What exactly does that consist of? Of what, exactly, does that consist?

Seriously, Xena if you click on edit in the module on your Yahoo page, it should bring down a box that says "Email Module". Send me the link for those two modules, please. I missed them somehow in all the options for News, Sports, Politics, Useless Diversions...

Re: drinking & writing. Yes, it loosens the tongue, but tends to disorganize the thinking, no?

Re: online novels. I've downloaded gigabytes worth of online literature, plus other stuff, pages & pages, and it collects on my computer because I have difficulty doing sustained reading on the computer. Lots of reading, yes, but working thru a novel? Tough to do.

As for the other part, all my writing is free. So far. I've seen sites where people surround their material with copyright signs, dated, little messages saying, "This is my poem. I wrote it and it belongs to me. It's thin at the beginning, becomes much thicker in the middle, then thins out at the end. That is my poem, and it is mine." On the internet? Good luck! If you post it, someone will copy it, even if they have to type it out by hand.

And Xena:
Hey Wild Thing, you've thrown down the gauntlet to the men writers out there! LOL!

Larry responds:
Larry will respond for the men. Is it an aspect of the artistic temperament? (What is the artistic temperament?) This phenomenon is not just confined to writing, of course. See my blog posts about Amy Winehouse. (And then there was Janis Joplin...) And you can see that it is not confined to men, although those two examples were musicians...

The artist struggles with two great difficulties...first, the battle to express accurately what one wishes to express...the personal struggle for self-fulfillment, let's say. And then second, the wish to share it with others...and have it accepted and appreciated. Failure in either one of these may drive you to drink. And success might as well, because success is the prelude to imagined failure to live up to both one's own and others' expectations in the next project...

Larry has a second thought: (his first second thought in decades)...
This is a discussion that should be going on on the much-neglected Dove Tale Blog! You writers, you!

Xena agrees:
I agree. Larry, do you want to translate it over? Post your email as a blog, and I'll translate Wild Things and my comments to the blog after? And everyone else, come join us!

And one final from Xena:
Go to the part at the top menu where it says personalise this page. Go to content. Then search poetry and writing (separately). Lots of feeds (that's the right word?) come up. Kinda nuts... Anyway, for my yahoo page...

Here's the link for poetry:

Here's the writer one I have:

(Larry decides to do the whole thing himself, cuz he likes to be in, his Gmail gives him automatic easy-to-follow threads...)


What's all this for? Well, mainly because there are several interesting possible conversations going on here!

  1. The question of drinkers who write, with all of the subtexts involved in that, including gender differences, and how useful is it to write while drinking...
  2. The question of online publication, giving it away for free...
  3. Why do writers write anyway? Is it just for the exposure? What constitutes pay?
  4. A "technical" Internet conversation about RSS feeds and Personal Home Pages and how do you get your news.
All of which deserve some attention and consideration.

You may now comment or post your own post.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes a glass of wine is just a glass of wine.

I guess the question is... does the writing flow from the wine or the poet????

Kinda like the chicken and egg question... which came first?

The poem or the alcohol?

But then again, if a poem has a stand-alone existence outside the poet, then the quality of the poem is all that matters.... regardless of whether it is alcohol-drenched or not. Or imbued with other consciousness-shifting substances...

Anonymous said...

There are some writer organisations (that, like Larry's alter ego, shall remain nameless) that spout the theory that the writer should always only "sell" their work - in this case, primarily cash for words.

I have never gone by that philosophy, and have made quite a bit of money from writing over the years. There are so many of us out there just trying to keep written words alive and to express the world from our own personal viewpoints and outlooks. I'm thinking small publishers, small literary groups... I'm quite happy to speak to a writer's group without pay or for a very small honorarium, or not getting paid (or very little) for a short story, or posting my work online at my website or Dove Tale.... Frankly, it's a delight to be read!

Small literary publishers make so little money from their efforts - if any. Writers often think there is someone out there making a huge profit off them... hey, I'm not talking about the BIG fish in the literary sea... like HOLLYWOOD production companies, etc... I'm talking about the little guys.

That's not to say I can't use the money. I do indeed take it when it is offered. I judge each opportunity by its own merits, and make a decision accordingly.

Larry Keiler said...

Larry sez: Perhaps the question is not so much the effect of stimulants on the writing, but on the writer.

The writing may be alternately brilliant or disastrous. Larry thinks maybe he's experienced both under the influence.

The rub comes when the writer begins to think he/she ought to be that way because that's what makes her/him work.

Look at what Kerouac said in the article: "I'm Catholic so I can't commit suicide. But I plan on drinking myself to death." Of course, there's more behind that statement than just an approach to writing...

Anonymous said...

Larry, can you make this a link here? I don't know how to do that....

This link is to "Poetry News" *smile*. It is an interesting addition to our alcohol-poet conversation. I am going to look this poet up... The comments by his wife struck me in particular - the idea of having a "memorial" to him that was a house... and then the comments by readers in response....

In case my link is wrong, the poet's name is Boskowski...

Mr. Earrational said...

Not Bukowski?

Larry will attempt to make link. He has done it before, but does not remember the code. He has to search for an example to copy.

Larry Keiler said...

Here is the link: Poetry News

Larry Keiler said...

However, it doesn't seem to go anywhere near any poetry news.

Not working for Larry. The link goes to something called SF Gate which has something to do with San Francisco, he thinks. No poetry news. X, is this link correct?

Larry Keiler said...

The search for "Boskowski" does not yield anything useful. Sure it's not Charles Bukowski?

Larry Keiler said...

Ah! Here is the updated link: Poet Bukowski's Home Now a Landmark

Larry Keiler said...

If you want to hear Bukowski reading go here

Larry Keiler said...

Just so you know, even tho Larry wrote the tutorial explaining how to make a link, he still made mistakes in the creation of both the above links and had to correct them before they became working links. But really, it's simple enough to do, and gets easier with repetition.

Anonymous said...

Woof! Woof!

Little Bukowskis running around!

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