Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoughts On Writers, Chemicals and Creativity

Ernest Hemingway blew away a substantial portion of his cranium on a lovely Idaho morning in 1961. The stories of his drinking are legion. To this day, the cult of alcohol that surrounds the Hemingway myth is celebrated and openly embraced despite the fact that alcoholism worked in concert with familial mental illness to rob us of one of the most distinctive individual voices in literary history. A massive heart attack claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald in the living room of a Hollywood bungalow. He hadn’t yet reached the age of fifty years old. The boyish flame of his gin-soaked youth is still the stuff of legend in American letters, and even the end he faced as he attempted to break into Hollywood only to sabotage his best efforts with embarrassing binges has acquired a sense of tragic, profound gravitas that it does not deserve. It wasn’t some sort of epic grandeur in the end surrounding a writer who offered prose ringing with the same sensitivity that Keats brought to his poetry. It was the stench of a tawdry and homicidal murder of the human spirit via 80 proof-fueled self-pity.

Then there’s the example of Hart Crane. The stories that biographers such as Paul Mariani relate in The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane suggest that alcohol was the primary destructive force in Crane’s life and did more to bring him to his eventual suicide than any other single factor in his life. He was thirty-two years old when he drunkenly leapt to his death from a ship in the Caribbean. One of Hart Crane’s most fervent devotees, Tennessee Williams, is another tragic case. Arguably, the greatest playwright that this country has ever produced, Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers offers a brutally frank portrayal of a genius who was a categorical drug addict by 1950 and burned out by his excesses by 1966. His endurance was remarkable in the annals of self-destructive artists. He continued for thirteen years following a complete mental and physical collapse in 1969 running on some aberrant synthesis of chemicals, monumental discipline, and a steely constitution. He wrote with reckless and crazed intensity, but little of it pleased him, and it pleased the public and the critics even less. His life ended in February of 1983 in a New York City hotel room when he swallowed the lid of a pill bottle he was likely using to spoon pills into his mouth.

Here’s a particular favorite. The one time prodigy of a particularly extraordinary generation of American poets, Delmore Schwartz ended his promising career in a New York City flophouse corridor dead from a heart attack in 1966. It was two days before anyone claimed the body. An accomplished poet, an incisive critic, and an unique prose stylist, Schwartz was also unique in his facility amongst a generation that included such luminaries as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke. It seemed like he could do anything and that he would be one of the leading lights of American letters for decades to come. His world was full of epic combat, great leaps of ambition, and a truly prodigious sense of competitiveness. Liquor and pills were a constant through it all and by 1940, he was unraveling. The liquor made him increasingly undependable both professionally and personally. His behavior grew erratic. A famous Robert Lowell sonnet memorably depicts Schwartz in those final years “casing the bars with the eye of a Mongol horseman”. Long after his death, Saul Bellow wrote a novel that, in part, memorialized Schwartz and his dismal descent into insanity and chronic addiction entitled Humboldt’s Gift. Coming off his recent Nobel win and debatably the King of the American novel at the time, the critics took note of Bellow’s interest and the laurels for Schwartz were appropriately elegiac and suffused with praise. However, such praise was scarce when 20+ years of alcohol and Dexedrine abuse left Delmore Schwartz tearing his clothes from his body in desperate, but ultimately vain, attempt to breathe.

Let’s discuss Truman Capote. Hailed by Norman Mailer in his work Advertisements for Myself as “the most perfect writer of my generation”, Capote was a truly prodigious and unique talent who thrust himself into the American consciousness with intemperate zeal typical of those who need approval the most. His appearance coupled with his offbeat physical affectations did more to set him apart in the American iconography of his time than what his skills with the written word ever did. His need for love was uninhibited and craven. It was likewise insatiable and that ferocious void would prove his undoing. He quit writing and assumed the role of raconteur and full-time libertine. His appearances on “The Tonight Show” are the stuff of legend. He embraced distraction and distraction manifested itself in the form of vast repositories of vodka, gin, and wine that he poured down his throat with unwavering devotion. By 1984, CAT scans revealed that his brain had actually undergone a verifiable loss of mass and he was subject to frequent and often terrifying hallucinations. He died that year at the age of 59.

How about William Faulkner? The deleterious effects that corn whiskey had on Faulkner are readily apparent when you read a book like Absalom, Absalom! and compare it to a later work such as The Reivers. To read the former is an experience akin to earning a vast, panoramic glimpse into the deepest vistas of human history. Its charged, turbulent language sweeps you along with tidal force and every wrinkle in the plot possesses a sense of inevitability that only truly magisterial works of art can claim. By the time you have delved deeply into A Fable, you cannot help but note that the writer you once knew has been scattered, his once mighty powers dissipated and henceforth unrecoverable. Like Tennessee Williams, Faulkner demonstrated tremendous endurance in the face of his addiction, but in the end, he was another writer dying in the aftermath of one final, destructive binge.

There are more. There’s Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac. There’s John Berryman. Author of The Dream Songs, one of the finest poetic works written by an American and one of the major poetic works of the 20th century, Berryman struggled with a monstrous addiction to alcohol throughout his entire adult life. Unable to maintain sobriety after numerous attempts, Berryman, in despair, leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Berryman, a child of suicide, left a six-month-old daughter behind.

With exceptions, it is an uniquely American phenomenon. There is a swaggering bravado to American writers that seems absent from other writers. Their ambitions are often crass and crippling, their sense of primacy is inflated and unjustified, and their solipsism is prodigious and demanding. The American writer does not look to write meditative works of fiction seeking to investigate the secret needs, wants, and fears of the human heart. Instead, writers like Faulkner sought impossible summits such as “putting all of mankind’s history into one sentence”. Writers like Hemingway steeped their discussions of craft in heavy-handed, frequently labored, sports metaphors. Many American writers have needed to play the big shot for some reason. They have measured their self worth by the wayward estimations of artistic achievement. It is not coincidental that alcoholics among these writers are legion. Who wouldn’t crack under the idea that you need to produce a masterpiece every time you write?

Lastly, it has nothing to do with a celebration of life. Instead of being a zesty affirmation of living for the moment, it is a negation of life itself. It diminishes our God given gifts to such an extent that it borders on contempt. I believe that it is contempt for the price that one must pay if they desire to do serious work. Writers spend a lot of time alone. While the rest of the world is out enjoying a sparkling summer day, a novelist is apt to be found in some small room, alone and wrestling with his words. To the layperson, this may seem sad, even a little pathetic. Why would anyone want to be alone writing in a stuffy room while the summer is in full swing? However, to a serious writer, an artist, it’s all in a day’s work and par for the course. As well, stop to consider the fundamental paradox at the heart of a novelist’s life. The novelist, in essence, is an artful liar, an individual who sets down a series of events and conversations that have no factual basis in reality. The definitions of truth and reality which society commonly shares mean little to the writer. The writer is someone who lives with their own private truth, as well as personal mythology that is often a wellspring for their work.

It is a personal mythology that can compel the writer to see him or herself as being a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the sole conduit between the mind of the universe and mankind. The writer, especially the alcoholic variety, can see themselves as beset on all sides by barbarism that dismisses him and does not attempt to understand the writer’s clandestine agonies. Such a frame of mind is a breeding ground for ego and self-pity. Convinced that he is terminally unique and therefore entitled to special considerations, this writer has lost all perspective and, most importantly, his humility. More disastrously, his alcoholic bluster is a serious obstacle in the way of the writer completing any meaningful work. Instead of writing about the important things in life and serving his muse, he explores his own personal mythology even further, elaborates on it, and, ultimately, learns to rely on trivia and memory when invention fails.

Let us declare an end to the murder of the creative spirit. There must be an end to the tragedies and the suicides that have silenced voices that challenged life and embraced its rich bounty. Those among us who have struggled with both King Alcohol and the written word know that we are fortunate to have the facility for categorizing our perceptions, experiences and emotions in artistic or psychologically pleasing constructs. At our best, we are much more on the page than what we ever are in our daily lives and the best among us have the ability to instruct and enrich the entire fabric of human experience. Furthermore, we know that our struggles are not the price we pay for these gifts. Instead, those struggles are self-indulgence and exhibitionism in the worst degree. As well, they are lazy. So instead of wasting our days in some dismal attempt to lose ourselves, let us take up our pens, let us confront that blank page, and as long as we can feel the spirit, let us serve the spirit of life with a joy that is real and resolute.

To The Fabricator of Fiascos

The fabricator of fiascos,
Like the bird that breaks the window
With its insistent, suicidal streak.
Like the sudden sweep into traffic
Or over the cliff
With monumental eyes
And wide disregard.
Like all of these things, you are feckless
And the bounty of life is lost on you.

The providence of navigators,
Has no power over your compass.
The inky fury of your forays
Is the story of a burdened vessel
That forfeits the privilege of passage
To a shrill, shirking death.

I am the spirit of calamity
And I come in red bursts of pity
That clot the eyes
And pierce my swollen tongue.
I live in your glittering fictions,
In your vivid proximity,
And will take you when you are young.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Late Night Musings

Growing older has brought me unexpected blessings. Despite our inevitable end, aging doesn't have to be an experience filled with fear and desperation.

One of the things I have learned is that when it comes to politics, religion, and so on, I am likely fated to have an assortment of views that fails to conform with any one "side". When I turn on the news, I don't see some political party striving for loftier goals and fighting the proverbial good fight against The Forces of Darkness. What I see and hear is cultural and racial intolerance, rage, and arrogance on both sides, manifested in different forms. Both sides belittle each other, pull dirty tricks on each other, manipulate the public en masse, and fleece the existing social structure while trumpeting themselves as agents of change restoring hope to the nation. I will choose my own side in these endless conflicts and work on a personal level to improve my connections with the world. The personal is political and when we work at qualities like tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness, our efforts influence others and when we leave this life, we perhaps accomplish much more than a single vote, tallied among millions, leaves upon the body politic.

If someone says to you that they've got the right answers to the important issues of the day, beware that person. I fear those who, by the power of their convictions alone, believe that insight and intellect have ordained them as being justified to bend the will of men and nations to their direction. I have my personal beliefs and I will stand for them, but I certainly do not assume that those beliefs and opinions provide an infallible blueprint for life and justice.

I believe that every man and woman, regardless of circumstance, deserve the same opportunities at personal happiness and professional success to do with as they see fit. I believe that every man and woman are entitled to pursue any belief system that they wish provided that they do not attempt to impose their beliefs on my life. I believe in the right of opposition, the struggle against the darker elements of human experience. However, I will never give myself over to a struggle which, in its singular arrogance, is every bit as rigid and dogmatic as the oppression it seeks to derail. If someone says to you that they know what's right for all of us, run away. Fast.

I am a liberal who values tradition while scorning the prejudices long institutionalized in our culture. I am a natural skeptic with tremendous, inchoate religious feeling stirring inside of me. I will no longer identify myself with any one political party. I do not believe that poverty can be eradicated from our society and feel that too many confuse unattainable, but noble, goals with benchmarks that humanity can actually reach. There is no Utopia. There is no end to racial, economic and cultural prejudice. So long as there are three people on earth, there will be a pecking order. What matters is the struggle to make our world better, not some sentimental, unreachable idea of a perfect day. I find that struggle immensely rewarding and not at all demoralizing.

I don't want to be part of the same obsessiveness, vehemence and outright rage that burdens every attempt to discuss politics, religion, and other social issues. Our national dialogue is wrecked and we verbally assault each other from opposite sides of vast oceans of misunderstanding. We nurse our ancient pains as fuel for diatribes against institutions that failed us in our childhood. We scream and cry out that the cruel world should change, we elect demagogue father-figures in the hope that they will fix it all, and we refuse to change the most basic of things - our hearts and minds.

I hope mankind, in all its guises, one day rises above the crass.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Stars Did Not Notice Me

The stars did not notice me;
My desires had blown out the sky
And no light could satisfy me.

The rain did not avenge me;
The clouds rained down
But they did not scar the earth.

The world will not forgive me;
The terrible fire of its mercy
Turns my confessions to cinder.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ian, Can I Have A Drink?

Ian, can I have a drink
So I can choose not to think?
I don't care if it's wine, whiskey, or beer,
I'm not promoting a positive message here.
To this darkness I preen and attest
That to die is to die is to die suits me best.
I'll ignore the bells ringing in my head
And memories of nights I was nearly dead.
Rely on what my liquored brain reports,
Drink cheaply until what is clear distorts.
You see, I'm too broke for my favorite bar,
But it's just as well, I couldn't make it that far.
It all comes out as either doom or rhyme,
So pass me the bottle, Ian, there's not much time.

Sometimes it takes just a touch,
A blasphemous hunger, a destructive crutch.
You went from blues clubs to life on the road,
I ended up in the gutter; we both went alone.
You left both friends and lovers far behind,
I left it all when the vodka made me blind.
But it little profits an idle drunk
To look into the bottles where his fortune sunk
And, wet for wear, he cry a river of tears
That wash across his wasted years.
My god, Ian, this is such stupid stuff,
I've chased this voice for long enough.
It seems there's little left to do
Except drink and drink until it's through.

I remember when I was young
This poison was bitter on my tongue.
It ate at my throat, robbed color from my skin,
I had little idea who I was or where I'd been.
We went too far and spun out of control.
We were under assault, all too rarely whole.
We blamed it on the women, but that was no good.
We blamed it on friends who did all they could.
We blamed it on the police and found reason there,
And talked about it when we were too drunk to care.
We looked to ourselves and saw what we could not stand,
So let's forgive and forget, let's get a bottle in our hand.
But even if it’s the strongest stuff
It'll never be strong enough.

Ian, can I have a drink?
I've left my liver in your bathroom sink.
My body's aching, I can't get out of bed.
I'm half mad with sickness and unmentionable dread.
What was once strong and steady now won't stay still,
Just one more drink though and I'll have had my fill.
I don't have the time or patience to talk of last night
Because I don't remember things right.
And at ten in the morning, you'll know where to find me.
I'll be looking for something to beat and blind me.
But if that bottle should go empty, my drunken brother,
Don't worry - where one bottle came from, there's always another.

What You Regain

*A response, of a sort, to an older poem I wrote entitled, "What You Leave Behind".

What you regain comes piecemeal if at all.
It is buckling knees at breakfast
When you can hold the coffee cup
With the smirking deftness of youth.
It is the sky as never before, a blue empire,
A vault of limpid velor that stirs
The nascent spirits of gratitude.
What you regain comes piecemeal if at all.

It has arrived on the swath of sunlight raising
The sober eye of a coherent Saturday.
It lives in the hopeful lapse of my consent,
The unguarded fatigue
That reproaches the self and opens the human heart.
It stands in the totem of touch,
The unruly memory of the body
Kinetic and reborn
And breathes in the tactile embrace
That harbors the strength
To share another's burden.
What you regain comes piecemeal if at all.

I know there will be more poems
But I need something different now.
Mere oratory alone will not rebuke my compass
And recant the articles of faith
That steered me away
From what I truly deserved.

Even if it might only be for a moment,
I have reclaimed all I ever deserved.

What You Leave Behind

I think of children I never had and a love
I desperately wanted to share and give.
I think of resentments I did not rise above
Ultimately hindering my efforts to live.

I think of family I disappointed so often
I finally failed to please them at all.
I think of the hackneyed attempts to soften
The many failures I recall.

I think of my nights of terrible struggle
When my health was in extremes.
I think of a boy who tried to juggle
Many different lives and dreams.

I think of what you leave behind
To live in the affections of the few
Locked in an irreversible decline
With a fatal point of view.