Friday, June 1, 2012

What I'm Reading-Alcohol and Poetry

I read for the first time Lewis Hyde's excellent Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking  and loved it for several reasons.

First, I like it as a piece of criticism. I wonder why this sort of plain-talk assessment has fallen out of favor, tumbled into the venue of comical literary columnists, instead of entrenching itself in academia. Its voice is smart and strong without being over the top and elusive. It isn't afraid to make statements (even if I don't love all the statements it makes. The leaking of drunken psychology into poems doesn't always convince me) and it isn't afraid to make big statements. Hyde makes statements about his understanding of alcoholism (don't buy all of those either)- that therapy can't cure it, that AA is the best way, that there is a spiritual component to recovery- and moves from them. I even enjoy that he's willing to identify and use an author to understand Berryman's work. There's some truth to what he says about who Berryman is and what it does to his writing that acknowledges that a real, flawed human being sat down and hashed out those poems in a place and time. Brave. His talk about "spirit-helpers" and the pull to stay with them as a guide instead of forge your own path is as insightful as it may be inaccurate.

Second, I like its voice. As I noted above, Hyde says things. he doesn't equivocate or apologize or hand it off to someone else. And he does it responsibly, unlike talk radio shows, about the only place you hear people put forth explicit world views and statements any more. Talk radio though makes statements to entertain, to amuse, to infuriate. Hyde makes statements to explain and elucidate. I can disagree and read on, momentarily step into the world he builds, even if I know I plan to step out later. Hyde doesn't yell or try to move eyeballs to his blog. He simply states what he understands- jump on and you know you can still jump off at the end, at least having witnessed the scenery. "A good spirit does not just change you, it is an agent of growth."

Third, I like that it takes poetry seriously. Poetry was Berryman's work to do and he didn't do it-  he chose the drink instead. That matters to Hyde- something real was lost, never created, or created askew because Berryman drank and kept on drinking. Even though Hyde begins with the generic link between literature and drinking, it's apparent that it isn't inevitable. No matter what those folks told themselves, they didn't have to get drunk to get to the place where they could write. In fact, getting drunk to get to that place meant they couldn't really come back at least not with everything they could have sober. It is both sad and infuriating that we buy this connection and while not explicit about it, Hyde argues that literature has lost, we have lost because of the decisions these authors made. "An anaesthetic is a poet-killer."

Strangely, it made me want to read both Recovery and The Dream Songs. The first bit of  Recovery  was infuriating and sloppy but I do want to finish the rest. It's refreshing though to see a smart piece of criticism that makes a real argument that is respectful of poetry's power. We need to demand this attitude from media and culture, as well as write poems that deserve the public's attention.

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