Why a column about the great drug-induced poems? I wish I could say I got the idea while camping out with some of the more "colorful" protestors over at Occupy Wall Street, but the truth is more pedestrian: the idea came to me while trying to write a poem with vast quantities of NyQuil coursing through my system (I'm fighting off a nasty little cold).
There's actually quite a rich legacy of drug-induced poetry in Western literature. I've written before about the classic example from Romantic poetry: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn," which he wrote while under the influence of opium. The trippy poem begins,
In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Coleridge didn't think much of the work, writing, "The following fragment is here published as far as the author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits." But the poem is highly regarded (and anthologized) nonetheless, and it's perhaps best known for its lack of an ending. Coleridge never finished the poem. A person from the town of Porlock, who dragged the drug-addled poet out to handle some business, interrupted him. The episode has become something of a running joke in the literary world. Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Orhan Pamuk, Douglas Adams, and Arthur Conan Doyle have all referenced Coleridge's "person from Porlock" in their work.
Coleridge wasn't the only great poet to struggle with opium addiction. Fellow Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley is known to have battled a laudanum (a form of liquid opium) addiction. And the great French poet Charles Baudelaire (who once wrote, "You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it.") struggled with the drug as well. It's also widely believed that Arthur Rimbaud's long poem "A Season in Hell" was influenced by opium. Some critics suggest that Rimbaud's poem reflects the process of detoxification, which seems plausible based on this excerpt from the section "Night in Hell":
My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry.
Then, of course, there was the Beat Generation, which made no secret of its use of recreational drugs to aid in composition. The Poetry Foundation notes that Allen Ginsberg claimed "that some of his best poetry was written under the influence of drugs: the second part of Howl with peyote, Kaddish with amphetamines, and Wales--A Visitation with LSD. While I wouldn't recommend his methods, it's hard to argue with Ginsberg's results: his "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" are a part of the American literary canon.
Not all of the Beats' efforts earned such acclaim, or even tried to do so. Michael McClure wrote in his own peyote-induced poem, "Peyote Poem": "I hear/the music of myself and write it down/for no one to read."
After enough Nyquil, I feel the same way.