Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, drinking poetry. Liquor, spirits, booze, hooch, firewater, moonshine; we drink it, we quaff it, we toss back a few. We get tipsy, loaded, sauced, blasted, plastered, ripped, sizzled, three sheets to the wind, stinking, stone drunk. The language is rich in words for ethanol alcohol and it’s effects. Poetry is rich in the same subject. Several years ago, about this time of year, we got to thinking about poems involving humanities favorite drug of choice. I asked two poetry loving journalists who’ve tossed back a few in their own day to meet me in a bar and read a few of their favorite booze infused poems. For many years, Rosie Schapp was the drinks columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and she’s the author of the memoir Drinking with Men. Jeff Gordinier is currently the food and drinks editor for Esquire Magazine. Rosie and Jeff are friends who have both written articles for our website. We met at the Timble Bar in lower Manhattan. When our drinks arrived, Jeff and Rosie started out by talking about the kinds of drinking poems they were drawn to.
Jeff Gordinier: It’s funny, when I was looking for poems for this I found myself turning to the New York school poets, like Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Cope, that crowd. They describe a kind of happy-sad delirium with drinking that I thought was very New York.
Rosie Schapp: It’s hard to find an unambiguously happy drinking poem. I think most good poets are too smart for that. Another thing I found is there are far fewer drinking poems by women, because it’s impolite I think. For women to talk about bar culture and drinking culture, even in New York. To be a woman who loves bars, and is always part of bar culture, and is a regular, even here it’s a little bit of an anomaly, even here it’s a little bit inappropriate. It’s still a male world, bar culture.
Curtis Fox: When it came time to choose poems, you guys didn’t have any problems finding drinking poems to talk about. Do you have any Rosie that are written by women?
Rosie Schapp: I do. I found a wonderful poem that I had first read a few years ago called “Beer” by Alicia O’Striker.
Curtis Fox: Alicia O’Striker who is I think in her 70s right now. I think she lives in New York, I recorded her once or twice. Tell us about this poem, and then read it for us.
Rosie Schapp: I think it kind of hits that sweet and sour place where bar culture is often written about. That there’s something wonderful and comforting and ultimately wonderful about it, but at the same time there’s an under culture of menace, there’s something a little sad about the regulars. At it’s best when we’re really deep in bar culture, we love the regulars for their sadness in someways. I think one of the great things about regular-hood is you can be completely yourself. You show up at your bar for a beer or for a daiquiri or for a manhattan, and you don’t have to put on your best cheeriest face. If you’re in a crap mood, your friends at the bar will accept you in your bad mood. There’s kind of a space for everyone in a good bar.
Curtis Fox: Let’s drink to that. Cheers. Okay Jeff, so we just heard “Beer” by Alicia O’Striker, it’s your turn. What drinking poem do you have for us?
Jeff Gordinier: Well, I’m a big fan of this Korean poet named Ko Un, who is a fascinating poet and a fascinating person. He’s got this zen buddhist streak but he’s also kind of a punk. He seems to live hard and wild and then write about it in a really captivating, honest way. I stumbled, so to speak, across this poem called “Jongno Street”. I hope I’m pronouncing it right, we’ll just have to wing it. It goes like this:
As I went strolling down Jongno Street in Daegu
I bought and drank a bottle of schnapps.
That’s the whole poem. I love that feeling, it’s a whole bottle in the street.
Curtis Fox: The implication there is a big time hangover.
Jeff Gordinier: There’s some agony involved, I can feel that. But I can feel the ecstasy as well. I can feel the delirium of walking down the street with that bottle of schnapps. I kind of like the idea of him being alone, just looking at the stars. There’s that kind of euphoria of drunkenness that can be strangely solitary sometimes. I just want to read one more that’s similar to the Ko Un poem. This is by Kenneth Cope so it’s got that New York jubilant casual quality which I love. When he nailed that, he would really nail that. This one’s called “To High Spirits”. He had a series of poems that he would address to various components of his life.
Curtis Fox: That was called New Addresses, I think.
Jeff Gordinier: Exactly. So this one is called “To High Spirits”, and it’s obviously a bit of a wink to the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the ice box.
[Reads “To High Spirits”]
You have taken the vodka that I was probably saving for tomorrow. Go on and take it, for there’s more enterprise in waking naked.
That’s the whole poem. Short is good with drinking poems. I feel the hangover in that one too, I’ve got to tell you.
Curtis Fox: But it’s such a funny word, there’s more enterprise in being naked?
Jeff Gordinier: Waking naked. That’s crucial. I see the bed, I see the ceiling, I see him perhaps moaning and groaning. It was a night to savor (LAUGHING).
Rosie Schapp: Of course it’s riffing on Williams, but it’s also riffing on Yeats.
Jeff Gordinier: It is?
Curtis Fox: Yes. The final lines of “A Coat”, “for there’s more enterprise in walking naked”. So it’s kind of a perfect Yeats segue.
Jeff Gordinier: Oh my god, oh my god! Rosie! This is why Rosie Schapp is brilliant. I didn’t know this. See how this works? It’s like cross pollination.
Curtis Fox: So let’s hear the Yeats poem.
Rosie Schapp: “A Coat” or the drinking poem?
Curtis Fox: Let’s do “A Coat”.
Rosie Schapp: This is a fantastic poem, it’s from Responsibilities.
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
Jeff Gordinier: I had no idea until this moment. People have told me in some ways poetry is all about other poetry and it’s all about —
Curtis Fox: Harold Blume would certainly tell you that.
Jeff Gordinier: I was like, no it’s not! But that’s actually because I don’t get the references all the time. I’m reading them in a sort of disembodied form.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear the Yeats drinking song that you wanted to read.
Rosie Schapp: It’s a tiny thing, but a very pretty little tiny thing.
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
Curtis Fox: That’s like a toast. In fact, let’s toast.
Rosie Schapp: To a woman who’d never marry him.
Curtis Fox: To Maud Gonne, probably.
Rosie Schapp: Probably.
Curtis Fox: The famous beauty Maud Gonne.
Rosie Schapp: The famous beauty Maud Gonne.
Jeff Gordinier: Stop, stop! It’s too much.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) So moving right along after Yeats.
Jeff Gordinier: We’ve got to hear some Frank O’Hara, we’re in New York.
Curtis Fox: We just heard from Kenneth Cope, let’s hear from his friend Frank O’Hara.
Jeff Gordinier: I’m on a huge Manhattan kick in terms of my drinking, and a huge Frank O’Hara kick in terms of my reading. I derive more and more pleasure from his work as years go by, and I get it more and more. At first I didn’t get what he was doing. It seemed too casual, too tossed off and conversational. But as I inhabit New York City for a longer amount of time and inhabit the world of poetry for a longer amount of time, I get it more deeply. It’s just pleasure, it gives me delight.
Rosie Schapp: I had the same feelings about O’Hara. That it was too colloquial, too breezy, maybe a little too easy in some way. But years ago when I taught poetry I remember teaching “The Day Lady Died”. It’s just like he’s going about his ordinary life and picking up a newspaper, dropping a few names and walking around town. Then the ending just hits you so hard and brings the whole poem together. It’s really affecting.
Jeff Gordinier: I’m not reading that poem by the way, (LAUGHING) of course. But I’m reading “As Planned”. Do you know this poem?
Rosie Schapp: I don’t think I do.
Jeff Gordinier: It’s one of Frank O’Hara’s minor works I’d say —
Rosie Schapp: (LAUGHING) He did write a lot before his own timely demise
Jeff Gordinier: He wrote a lot. It’s not “The Day Lady Died” but it sort of a delightful little meringue about drunkenness and drinking. Do you want me to read it Curtis?
Curtis Fox: Yeah, please.
Jeff Gordinier: Okay.
After the first glass of vodka
you can accept just about anything
of life even your own mysteriousness
you think it is nice that a box
of matches is purple and brown and is called
La Petite and comes from Sweden
for they are words that you know and that
is all you know words not their feelings
or what they mean and you write because
you know them not because you understand them
because you don't you are stupid and lazy
and will never be great but you do
what you know because what else is there?
Rosie Schapp: I liked how you really hit the word “nice”. I feel like nice is one of those words that only Frank O’Hara could get away with using. And it’s really the right world.
Jeff Gordinier: There’s the kind of delirium that hits you maybe a drink and a half in, where the world starts shimmering and wavering, there’s a kind of strange pleasurable destabilization that takes hold. I think that’s what he captures here. When you start looking at the match box and thinking about your whole life, and maybe I won’t achieve greatness but oh well, I’m here.
Rosie Schapp: The poem in some ways and especially at the ending, that kind of not exactly defeat but well, what are we going to do with all this anyway? It made me think of Pavese, and it made me recall also what I should have brought tonight.
Jeff Gordinier: “Grappa in September”, that’s a great poem. Why did we not bring that?
Rosie Schapp: Because we’re complete idiots.
Curtis Fox: So here’s a question for both of you. What do you think the relationship between drinking and poetry is? Not from the point of view of a writer, but almost from the point of view of a reader. How do they connect in your mind?
Rosie Schapp: I don’t know. I think that’s an interesting question, I never thought of it at all before. But I will say that recently when I’ve had people over for dinner and we’ve eaten a lot or drunk a lot, I notice that … I like to think most people I know and love love poetry as much as I do, but it’s not true. But I find with a few drinks everyone’s quite patient with poetry.
Curtis Fox: But drinking opens up veins of feeling that normally you wouldn’t give access to in our normal guarded self.
Jeff Gordinier: Here’s the thing, there’s another world. We can access it. There’s different ways we can access it.
Rosie Schapp: Very hieratic there for a moment Jeff, I like that.
Jeff Gordinier: Doors of perception! It’s doors of perception I’m talking about Curtis, Rosie you know what I mean.
Curtis Fox: So the bar is very slowly filling up with couples and nice crowds, I think it’s your turn Jeff to come up with another drinking poem. What do you have for us?
Jeff Gordinier: Well I had Andrew Hudgens “Praying Drunk”, which I just want to mention. I think everyone should seek it out. I believe it’s on The Poetry Foundation’s site, it’s sublime. It’s a little long for our purposes, so I don’t think it’s necessarily right for this but seek it out.
Curtis Fox: What about a poem that succeeds in having fun?
Jeff Gordinier: That succeeds in having fun, okay. Tony Hoagland is a poet that’s skilled in delivery pleasure I think, and entertaining the reader. He’s very funny, and yet I would argue that he’s probably one of the angriest American poets alive. There’s actually this undercurrent of rage and frustration in a lot of his work. He and the great Dean Young are friends —
Curtis Fox: Very good friends, close friends.
Jeff Gordinier: Yeah, in fact they write poems about each other and reference each other. So there’s a Tony Hoagland poem about Dean Young, and Dean Young’s narrative affection for wine. It seems so fun, it’s fun to read, it’s fun to come across. But it’s actually not about fun. When you get to the last lines, if you’ll indulge me, you’ll see what I mean. It’s actually about how this affection for wine is rooted in pain.
Curtis Fox: So this is called “When Dean Young Talks About Wine” by Tony Hoagland.
Jeff Gordinier: The worm thrashes when it enters the tequila.
The grape cries out in the wine vat crusher.
But when Dean Young talks about wine, his voice is strangely calm.
Yet it seems that wine is rarely mentioned.
He says, Great first chapter but no plot.
He says, Long runway, short flight.
He says, This one never had a secret.
He says, You can’t wear stripes with that.
He squints as if recalling his childhood in France.
He purses his lips and shakes his head at the glass.
Eight-four was a naughty year, he says,
and for a second I worry that California has turned him
into a sushi-eater in a cravat.
Then he says,
This one makes clear the difference
between a thoughtless remark
and an unwarranted intrusion.
Then he says, In this one the pacific last light of afternoon
stains the wings of the seagull pink
at the very edge of the postcard.
But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon?
His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.
When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
as if he were forming an opinion.
Curtis Fox: Wow. That poem took a turn —
Rosie Schapp: I was going to say, that’s fun?
Jeff Gordinier: I said it started fun! A lot of my poems chosen seem to start fun and end sad! I’m worried about this Curtis, can you talk to me about it?
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) So we have time for one more poem, and I want to ask you Rosie, do you have one more?
Rosie Schapp: Well I have this Ciaran Carson.
Curtis Fox: Cairan Carson is a poet I know nothing about, and you have very high praise for him. So I want to hear a little bit about him and then the poem.
Rosie Schapp: Cairan Carson is a Belfast born and bread poet with a fascinating history. Growing up in Belfast when he did, he’s just over 60 now, in a Catholic family in an Irish speaking home; his parents had learned Irish and spoke it. There were a lot of statements being made in that kind of household. Music was also very important, and he is by many people as highly regarded as a flautist as he is as a poet. This one is called “Hippocrene”
Curtis Fox: My god, it sounds like he’s in a bar drinking a bloody Mary.
Jeff Gordinier: As a wasp I can tell you that’s about a bloody Mary.
Curtis Fox: But watching a Tarkovsky movie. Is it Tarkovsky? I don’t know.
Jeff Gordinier: He’s all about themes, there’s always something woven in.
Rosie Schapp: Or something. Like this book, there’s a lot about war, a lot that’s very hallucinogenic.
Jeff Gordinier: But he really takes the idea of bloody Mary and takes it to an extreme. As with many of the poems we’ve encountered tonight, it takes a dark turn, but in this case a very epic one.
Curtis Fox: We’re about to have our third drink, and we don’t want to inflict that on listeners.
Jeff Gordinier: That’s where we draw the line.
Curtis Fox: Yeah. I want to thank you both for coming onto the program. Look for Jeff Gordinier’s articles on poetryfoundation.org, and in the New York Times dining section. And what month should we expect your book?
Rosie Schapp: I don’t know.
Curtis Fox: That’s good enough. And sometime in the next year or two, Rosie Schapps new book Drinking With Men will come out. Thanks to both of you.
Jeff Gordinier: Thank you Curtis.
Rosie Schapp: Thanks so much.
Curtis Fox: Let us know what you think of this program, where our motto is
You can’t wear stripes with that.
Curtis Fox: Email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for bearing with us.