Addiction Poetry

November 1, 2016

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Addiction Poetry. As far as I know, there has never been a study of whether poets are more inclined to substance abuse than the rest of the population. Probably not. But it’s hard not to notice how many of our most celebrated poets had drinking problems. Just off the top of my head: Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about the dangers of exploring uncharted aesthetic and emotional territory, which is what poets try to do. Probably it says nothing. But here’s another way to think about it: What do poets themselves have to say to people who are struggling with alcoholism and other addictions? Quite a bit, it turns out. Neil Steinberg writes a column for The Chicago Sun Times about politics mostly. He’s also written eight books including Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life about his own struggling with alcoholism and sobriety. His latest, co-written with Sara Bader is Out Of The Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery. He joins me from our studio at The Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Hi Neil.


Neil Steinberg: Hi Curtis.


Curtis Fox: So we asked you to choose a few poems from our website that might speak to us about alcoholism and addiction, so we’re going to get to that in a few minutes. But first I want to ask you, do you think that there’s just something about contemporary life that makes so many of us prone to substance abuse?

Neil Steinberg: Yes. We’re under a variety of stresses. Getting a release can be difficult. I think substances are increasingly there. Drugs are becoming more legal, more available. Some of the Puritanical scorn that came along with consuming that kind of things are going away; it used to be a sin, and now it’s just a bad choice. So yes.


Curtis Fox: It’s a health problem now.

Neil Steinberg: It’s a health problem, right.

Curtis Fox: And I wonder if you can tell us just a little bit about your own experience with addiction.


Neil Steinberg: Well, I’m a newspaper man. We’re sort of hard drinking, and after a long day at the morgue watching autopsies, nothing feels better than to put your foot on a rail. It was sort of something I was supposed to do. I enjoyed it, I really loved it. Addiction is really an obsession, it’s a mental illness. I don’t think people understand it. One of the purposes of the book is to use poetry to help people understand what’s going on, because even as you’re in the midst of it, you don’t really know. You just think this is what you do, it’s who you are. I knew I had a problem, I knew I drank a lot, but that’s just what I signed up for. I was going to drink and drink and drink and then die, and I was content with that. Really only because of my wife — she was the only person who thought this was a bad idea.


Curtis Fox: How bad did it get?



Neil Steinberg: Well, what do you mean? I was one of those guys who would drink every single day, and if I didn’t drink it was sort of a stressful day. I wasn’t quite at the wake up and crack open a beer phase, but I was getting there.


Curtis Fox: So how did reading and literature in particular help you come to terms with that?

Neil Steinberg: I’ve always viewed reading as medicinal, especially poetry. It’s something that would soothe you. Walt Whitman was a nurse in the Civil War. When you read Leaves of Grass, he’s really tending to the reader. The part that we quote in the book, it says “O despairer, here is my neck, By God, you will not go down! Hang your full weight upon me. I buoy you up, I dilate you with tremendous breath”. When you’re low, you think of that, and that’s the image of Old Walt, putting your arms around his neck and having him fill your house with his armed force. There was something that did buoy you up. I’m someone who always reads, and I read very widely. I think that’s where this book came from. I was reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and if you read that… Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, dictionary writer, didn’t drink. He was a terrible alcoholic even before there was the word alcoholism. So he’s always having these in depth conversations with Boswell and Joshua Reynolds, Adam Smith. I kept marking my book with Post-It notes. When you look at my copy of Life of Johnson, it’s just filled with Post-It notes because I found these phrases powerful. They were almost Talisman. There’s a line of Virgil’s Aeneid, “Yield not to evils”. And when you’re trying not to drink, that’s like a coin in your pocket that you can spend. It’s something I found very helpful to me, and I began to suspect that this could also be helpful to other people, because recovery in rehab is a very difficult thing. It’s the opening line in the book, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It’s this difficult, arduous thing and I thought I could use … as you said in the beginning of the program, all these poets have coped with this, and they’ve left behind these instructions in a very clear way. There’s a line about Homer where someone says, “You can tell he was a drinker by how lovingly he describes wine”. When you read Raymond Carver, and Raymond Carver has these beautiful poems, heartbreaking poems. The problem was like, Raymond Carver control, which ones should we use? The book has two purposes; it’s supposed to help addicts get through recovery, and it’s supposed to help their loved ones understand what the problem is. People who aren’t alcoholics, they just think it’s something you do because you’re stupid. It’s a stupid thing that stupid people do stupidly over and over and over again, and that’s not the case. The book isn’t entirely poems, it’s also quotes from novels and songs and movies.


Curtis Fox: And tweets!

Neil Steinberg: A tweet by Ricky Gervais. I kept trying to contact Ricky Gervais. I called his manager, because you want the person to — you want them to tweet it! They basically said, Ricky’s doing three movies, he doesn’t have time for this. I somehow stupidly thought that people would care that they were in The Literary Companion to Recovery; I did not find that to be the case.


Curtis Fox: The book is made up of quotations from poems, from prose, from diaries, all sorts of stuff. You know what’s astonishing for me is that no one has done this before!

Neil Steinberg: When you write a book and that’s the case, that either shows that you’re onto something or that it’s a really bad idea. I worked on this for four and a half years with Sara, and at times I would mist over and think, maybe this is going to be popular and people are going to like it, and my wife who can be very cutting looked at me and kind of narrowed her eyes and said, “Oh, you mean your book of poetry for alcoholics”. Poetry can be very off putting. We did try not to — I originally started the book with this fairly hefty paragraph by Samuel Johnson about when you go to the tavern, what it’s like. Basically, Sara who is wonderful at spooling back, said “No, you can’t do that, you can’t start in this way because no one’s going to get past it”. So we start with a line by Jack London, I think it’s “all roads lead to the tavern”. Jack London who you think of as an adventure outdoors writer wrote a book called John Barleycorn which is this frank, horrible confession of his alcoholism. So we sort of used that. People like him are almost characters in it. There is this big literature of alcoholism that people have sort of forgotten about. I make a point of quoting from Hunter S. Thompson’s biography, the oral history that Jann Wenner put together. Because we think of Thompson as this Gonzo journalist, living this wild life and everything, and the quote in the book is from Jann Wenner saying he was an alcoholic, it destroyed his talent. I don’t want to slur him, but that was true. We tend to buy this romantic myth. One reason Sara and I wrote this book was saying, why don’t we give recovery a romantic myth? Maybe that will help people not ruin their lives so much. No one wants to live a dreary life of denial. You go back to drinking because you have to — Theres a chapter on time in the book. We start each chapter with a quote, so the chapter on time has a quote from Galway Kinnel’s “Wait”.


Curtis Fox: Which is a wonderful poem.


Neil Steinberg: Beautiful poem. Again, we repurpose it. He wrote it for a student who had a broken love affair who was considering suicide. It basically says wait a little, things will get better if you wait, if you give it a chance to. That’s an essential skill in recovery. If I really really want to have a drink now, I can either run out and have a drink and begin some sort of slide, or I can realize that all I have to do is wait and the desire will pass and I’ll be okay. That doesn’t sound the most profound thing, but it’s something people forget.


Curtis Fox: Well it is profound the way he says it.


Neil Steinberg: Exactly, it’s profound the way he says it. It’s funny, the oddest moment — Sometimes when I mention the book to people and they don’t know any better they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s your poetry then”. And I just sort of startle and say, “No, I would never write poetry! Poetry’s the hardest thing in the world!”. It really is. One poem in the book by Langston Hughs, “Wave of sorrow, / do not drown me now: / I see the island / still ahead somehow. / I see the island / And its sands are fair: / Wave of sorrow, / take me there”. That’s 30 words!


Curtis Fox: It’s a lovely simple poem, it’s really striking even among all the very good poems in your book.


Neil Steinberg: And that was one of the joys of writing this book. Now that it’s come out and it’s not setting the world on fire as my books tend to do, I keep reminding myself how much I really loved writing this. I read books that I never would have read. I read Louise Glück, fifty years worth of poetry of hers. I never heard of her, but everything shows up at the newspaper. I work at the Sun Times and I picked up her book — I’m not ashamed to say it — because it was orange and it had Saturn on the cover. I thought, pretty book! Louise Glück, she’s like an angry Mary Oliver. She’s angry, shaking her fist. Like with Boswell, I had to do Louise Glück suppression where I could have only one poem per chapter. I got a chance to call her. I spent two years getting permission, because you can’t just take a bunch of Louise Glück poems and put them in your book. When you go to the Farrar, Straus, Giroux website to begin the getting permission process, it says, “Don’t ask us to cut up our poems. We’re not going to let you. You have to use the full poems and the title. Thank you”. Part of the book is you want to use the parts that you need to convey these thoughts to mortise these poems together. So I tracked her down at Stanford, I’m a journalist, I can do that. I got her on the phone and I said “Look, Mrs. Glück, we want to use eight of your pomes in this book of ours, we want to cut most of them up, and obviously we need your permission so if you say no we can’t. But I’m going to FedEx you what we’re doing and where you appear in it, and if you say yes we’ll pay you whatever you want”.

Curtis Fox: How’d that go over?


Neil Steinberg: She loved that, she zipped that up. She gave us permission except for one poem. It’s a chapter on family, and it’s a really emotional, disturbing chapter. She has this wonderful poem where she’s talking to someone who’s in a wheelchair, and the line is like — she’s bidding this person to walk to her, and she’s saying you couldn’t do it anymore than I could realize you couldn’t. It’s just beautiful. So even though we didn’t want to cut it, she wouldn’t let us. I actually had so much moxie, I circled back to her and said, “Why? Why won’t you let us?”. She said she doesn’t like it anymore, she wrote it in 1964 and just doesn’t like it. I actually called her back and said, “This isn’t really about you. This is about the people that are going to be helped by your poem”. It didn’t work.


Curtis Fox: (LAUGHING) Nice try!

Neil Steinberg: It was a great honor just to learn about her poems which I adore. There’s one at the end where she’s basically talking about her ordinary life and saying, “Who am I to try to toss this back for something more exciting?”. I’ll just quote the ending line so she doesn’t sue us; “I was brave, I resisted, I set myself on fire”. I don’t know if that’s anything to do with recovery, but to me, you sort of set yourself on fire. You take your old life where you’re this hail fellow wearing fezes drinking martinis, all that sort of thing, and you burn that and you become this different person. It can be very unsettling in some ways because you’re not the person you were, you’re someone else. So anyways, the poetry really helps that. All of these poems are there for a purpose, they all sort of fill in holes.


Curtis Fox: Let’s go now to the poems you chose for our website. These poems are also in your book, or excerpts of them at least are in your book, just to get a taste of what you’re up to. The first is “Frying Trout while Drunk” by Lynn Emanuel. It was originally published in Poetry Magazine in the May 1983 issue. Just a bit about Lynn Emanuel, she’s published about five books of poems. Her latest from 2010 is called Noose and Hook. Can you read “Frying Trout while Drunk”? 


Neil Steinberg: I will try.


Curtis Fox: Okay.


Neil Steinberg: Mother is drinking to forget a man

who could fill the woods with invitations:   

come with me he whispered and she went   

in his Nash Rambler, its dash

where her knees turned green

in the radium dials of the 50's.

When I drink it is always 1953,

bacon wilting in the pan on Cook Street   

and mother, wrist deep in red water,   

laying a trail from the sink

to a glass of gin and back.

She is a beautiful, unlucky woman

in love with a man of lechery so solid   

you could build a table on it

and when you did the blues would come to visit.   

I remember all of us awkwardly at dinner,   

the dark slung across the porch,

and then mother’s dress falling to the floor,   

buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.   

When I drink I am too much like her—   

the knife in one hand and the trout  

with a belly white as my wrist.   

I have loved you all my life

she told him and it was true

in the same way that all her life

she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   

she stood at this stove

and with the care of the very drunk   

handed him the plate.


Curtis Fox: That was “Frying Trout while Drunk” by Lynn Emanuel which is also collected in her book, Hotel Fiesta. So Neil, what do the details, the very vivid details in this poem, reveal to you about the speaker?

Neil Steinberg: This is sort of a memory journey. Alcoholism is hereditary, partially genetic, so you get it and you know where it came from. So she’s remembering her mother and this terrible man that she was in love with. There’s this imagery of the suicide of the trout and the knife and the blood. She doesn’t have to say it, you just know it.


Curtis Fox: It’s hinted at, yeah.


Neil Steinberg: In some ways, the language is very ordinary. None of this is poetic except maybe the seeds spitting, the buttons ticking like speeds sit on a plate. You can just see the dress pulled apart by the lout while everyone’s trying to have dinner. It’s just this echo of a horrible thing you can’t look at it, it’s one of those notes of a horror that stick with you; not the horror itself but the detail, the seeds. There’s different stages in the book, and this is sort of the problem stage. You know what’s going on — the famous denial they talk about in AA — you know there’s a problem but you’re not going to do anything about it.


Curtis Fox: The way the poem ends is with a wonderful image. Describing her mother she says “She stood at this stove”, maybe the same stove the speaker is currently at, “She stood at this stove, / and with the care of the very drunk / handed him the plate”. I love that, “With the care of the very drunk”, because we’ve all seen that, when people are very drunk and they’re trying to be careful. At that point, the man, this lecherous lover referred to earlier in the poem, and the alcohol sort of merge into an image.

Neil Steinberg: It’s a very quotidian act, the handing of the plate. That sort of to me drives home the horror of this, because they’re living their lives like this, it’s a condition of life. She’s doing this very ordinary act, maybe her dress is ripped open, maybe that’s about to happen. Time is fluid in this poem I believe, like it is in memory. But it’s a beautiful way to end this poem, because it’s so open ended. It’s not a definitive end, it’s just the ordinary life that she carries in her memory continuing.


Curtis Fox: Let’s go to the second poem we’re going to listen to. This one’s by Jack Spicer who was a big part of the poetry scene in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s. It’s title is also the first line, “Any fool can get into an ocean”. Now Neil, an excerpt of this poem is also in your book, but it’s not really about addiction necessarily, in the clear way that Lynn Emanuel’s poem was. Can you give it a read? Go ahead.


Neil Steinberg: I will. It does several things in the book. It comes after these lines of the Aeneid, and I want to read those first to put it in context.


Curtis Fox: So you put a quote from the Aeneid before the Jack Spicer poem in your book?

Neil Steinberg: Directly before.

Curtis Fox: Okay, let’s hear it.


Neil Steinberg: “The gates of hell are open, night and day. Smooth the descent and easy the way. But to retrace your steps, to climb back to the upper air, there the struggle. There the labor lies”.


Curtis Fox: Okay, now read the Spicer.


Neil Steinberg: Any fool can get into an ocean   

But it takes a Goddess   

To get out of one.

What’s true of oceans is true, of course,

Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming   

Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed

You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess

To get back out of them

Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly

Out in the middle of the poem

They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the

    water hardly moves

You might get out through all the waves and rocks

Into the middle of the poem to touch them

But when you’ve tried the blessed water long

Enough to want to start backward

That’s when the fun starts

Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural

You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown

Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth

But it takes a hero to get out of one

What’s true of labyrinths is true of course

Of love and memory. When you start remembering.


Curtis Fox: So that was “Any fool can get into an ocean” by Jack Spicer. So Neil, what does this poem say to you directly as someone in recovery.


Neil Steinberg: Well there’s the literal meaning. Anyone can blunder unto your depths, but to get back is tough. One purpose of the book, when you enter recovery you feel your life is over. It’s the dreariest thing in the world. You’re going from being in the bar at the Ritz Carleton having your martini, to in some cinder block church basement with a bunch of guys in flannel shirts talking about how screwed up they are. It’s a real come down. I tried to use, especially classical literature, to argue that recovery is heroic. That it’s the path of the hero, is the phrase I use. If climbing a mountain can be heroic, if doing some b.s. physical challenge, you’ll hear something which is giving up the thing that you love most in the world and want to do most every waking day of your life to try to live amore disciplined, better life. I think that’s heroic. You’re in peril. You’re in a perilous situation and you’ve got to extract yourself. That’s what this poem is.


Curtis Fox: You got in easy, but now it’s really hard to get out, right?

Neil Steinberg: Right. He’s also talking about understanding poems. I’ve given this book to friends and they can’t finish it; the poems throw them, and they don’t understand what’s happening. We tried to avoid that, but certain poems… Like in Relapse, there’s a wonderful poem by Robert Lax called “Giant Returns”. It’s one of those design poems that’s just two or three words down the centre of the page. To me, it talks about the urge to drink. It’s: “The giant returns, the giant retreats. The giant returns, the giant retreats. The giant walks. The giant sleeps. The giant returns. The giant retreats”. That’s the poem. I suppose you could read that and go, what are they talking about? Where’s the giant? But to me it’s very clear what we’re talking about.


Curtis Fox: Well this poem, getting back to the Jack Spicer, it is about heroism, but it’s also about the heroism of every day life. At the very top they talk about swimming into the ocean and equating that with writing poetry and with labyrinths. At the end of the poem there’s quite a trick he pulls off. “What’s true of labyrinths is true of course / Of love and memory. When you start remembering”. Love and memory, nobody’s going to avoid love and memory in their life, so this is really a poem about the dangers and harrows required for everyday life, I think.

Neil Steinberg: That’s absolutely true. There’s a nice echo in this, the “When you start remembering”. There’s a poem, “For John Berryman”. And there’s the line, “Like waiting for a girl, had you waited”. It’s almost chiding in the same way, where they’re saying "When you finally turn and face this”. At least to me.

Curtis Fox: It’s a terrific pome and it’s a nice way into Jack Spicer actually.


Neil Steinberg: That’s one thing I’m hoping this book does, and I didn’t really think about it until I finished. The purpose of it was to use poetry to help people in rehab, or help people with addictions. But when I was done I was kind of hoping it would use addictions to lure people into poetry as well. Because I do think poetry really embroiders your world. It’s true for alcoholics and drug addicts, but it’s true for everybody; we want to lead a significant life. Poetry, as much as it’s ignored and reviled by the general public, is a tremendous way to give your life depth and richness and significance that it would not otherwise have, at least for me. So I’m hoping that this will cause people to realize that all this stuff is there, and all you have to do is pull it down and start to read it.


Curtis Fox: That is the best argument I’ve ever heard for poetry being useful for people.


Neil Steinberg: Good, I’m happy to help! (LAUGHING). It takes a lot of sifting. Even poets you like. God bless Mary Oliver, I bought the book about dogs, Sight Unseen, and there was one line I liked in it: “How many summers does a little dog have”, and the rest of it I was like, “I paid $28 for this!”. It’s like sports, if you have season tickets you don’t go, “I went to a game and it wasn’t any good!”. You expect that. I’m an opera fan. I tell people, “Hating opera’s is part of loving them”. As a poetry fan, you can’t use the fact that there are a lot of poems that are either no good or you just don’t like. It’s like saying I met some people I don’t like so I’m done meeting people, it doesn’t work like that.


Curtis Fox: (LAUGHING) That’s so well put. Neil Steinberg, thank you so much.


Neil Steinberg: Thank you Curtis, it was a lot of fun. It was good talking with you.


Curtis Fox: Neil Steinberg is the co-author of Out Of The Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. You can link to the podcast on social media from Soundcloud and you can also subscribe to it on iTunes. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

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