Special Essay: Haiku Poetry and the Darker Side of Drinking

Robert Epstein, psychologist and well-known haiku author/editor, has written an important essay on alcoholism as portrayed in haiku. It is worth your while to read it, and to check out his haiku books and anthologies on Amazon.

Far more uplifting than any beer or bottle of wine . . .

 a daylong walk in the woods.

 ~ Anonymous

Like many, I subscribe to the ethos, “live and let live.” If people want to consume alcohol, they can consume alcohol (so long as doing so doesn’t cause harm to others). As Kristen Lindquist observes in her recent essay, “Embracing the Moon: Haiku about Drinking,” (Modern Haiku, 51:3, 2020), countless numbers have done so since ancient times. Rome may have ultimately succumbed, at least in part, due to the intoxicating effects of alcohol in combination with other over-indulgences, but I am certainly no expert on the demise of that empire.

Presently, the amount of alcohol consumption has increased significantly in the U.S. (and probably abroad) due to the stresses and strains of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As ABC News reported (9/29/20), based on a RAND study done well into the pandemic:

 Now, new data shows that during the COVID-19 crisis, American adults have sharply increased their consumption of alcohol, drinking more days per month, and in greater excess. Heavy drinking among women has especially soared.

 The study, released Tuesday by the RAND corporation and supported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), compared adults’ drinking habits from 2019 to now. Surveying 1,540 adults across a nationally representative panel, participants were asked about their shift in consumption between spring 2019 and spring 2020, during the virus’  first peak.

“The magnitude of these increases is striking,” Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a sociologist at RAND, told ABC. “People’s depression increases, anxiety increases, [and] alcohol use is often a way to cope with these feelings. But depression and anxiety are also the outcome of drinking; it’s this feedback loop where it just exacerbates the problem it is trying to address.” (1)

While increased drinking (and drug use) may be understandable under the kind of duress induced by the pandemic (or other life stressors), I believe there are healthier and more adaptive ways of coping than slipping into an alcohol haze, but that is a discussion beyond the scope of this essay.

While some people acknowledge the risks and ravages of alcohol, too many present a view of drinking which I would characterize as rose-colored. Based on death-certificate reporting, the number of deaths due to alcohol has doubled in the United States alone from 32,000 in 1999 to more than 72,000 in 2017. (2) According to the Center for Disease Control in a report released in October, 2020, “excessive alcohol is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, or 261 deaths per day.” (3)

I have personally witnessed the darker side of drinking as a psychotherapist who has worked for more than forty years with males and females of all ages that have suffered tremendously from alcohol/drug abuse and dependency. What I have seen in several chemical dependency treatment programs, as well as private practice, has been anything but a pretty picture. On the contrary, the picture has been all too often catastrophic: filled with depression, devastation, guilt, remorse, numbness, hopelessness, despair, and tragedy that includes job loss, family breakups, murder and suicide. Ask anyone who has lived through the ravages of alcoholism and found their way into recovery, not a single one would glamorize or glorify their alcoholic past.

Proponents of drinking carefully edit the Hollywood movie and use only the softest lighting to depict poets’ drinking in glowing, moonlit terms. This reflects poetic license, but amounts to an alluring fiction that does not accord with a terrible shadow reality that mental health professionals refer to as alcohol abuse and dependency.

Perhaps those who have descended into the hell realm of dependency have not left much of a poetic record of that descent. Or, they may feel too humiliated or guilt-ridden to do so. How many poets have had the courage to write about crashing their car while drunk, killing an entire family of five? How many alcoholics have recorded waking up in a jail cell in a pool of their own urine and/or vomit? Where in the haiku journals can one read poetry detailing the agony of divorce due to alcoholism or the crippling pain of advanced liver disease, alcohol-induced cancer (and other organ failures)? Has any spouse or adult child of an alcoholic who took his or her life in despair published haiku conveying the anguish and sorrow of mourning that lasts a lifetime? How often has one heard the cries of a grief-stricken parent in the pages of Modern Haiku or Frogpond whose son or daughter was murdered by a crazed and drunken lover?

I have no quarrel with poets who use haiku to portray fictional worlds with just a few exceptions. Airbrushing alcoholism and its tragic effects or omitting the horrors of this all together, mirrors denial in the culture I cannot abide as a longtime mental health professional. Whether in poetry or in therapy, my bias cleaves toward the truth.

Haiku must be rooted in the truth or it is not haiku. The truth may appear as an illusion, but we must be able to see through the illusion to the truth. Here, then, are some haiku I wrote that serve as a counterweight to the gauzy poems about the so-called harmless pleasures of drinking. They reflect but a small sampling of the truth.

 

 

daddy tucks her in

his hot breath so close

slurring his words

 

 

 

I danced naked

on the bar counter last night??

Blackout

 

 

 

calling in “sick” again

this time the boss tells his wife

he’s fired

 

 

  

empty now

the barstool where the drunk sat

before taking his life

 

 

 

their joy ride

just 3 times the legal limit

a mangled mess

 

 

 

her drinking, he says,

has nothing to do with it

date rape

 

 

 

public fountain ––

lying facedown

AA’s Big Book

 

 

 

Some more poems below come from an anthology I edited a number of years ago called, The Breath of Surrender: A Collection of Recovery-Oriented Haiku. These, too, which appear in the opening section of the book, provide a counterbalance to the so-called glam of drinking:

 

 

 

all her promises

gone

by the 2nd drink

 

   ~ Roberta Beary

 

 

 

 

drunken confessions

he can’t erase

my apprehensions

 

   ~ Allison Lingren

 

 

 

 

the morning after:

empty bottles

full of regret

 

   ~ Guy Jefferson

 

 

 

 

drunk again my reflection fills the toilet bowl

                                               the toilet bowl

~ Ed Markowski

 

 

 

 

hitting bottom

deciding not to jump

for my children’s sake

~ Anonymous

 

 

Basho and Issa wrote haiku about drinking and, as Buddhist practitioners, they would almost certainly have been familiar with the Buddha’s teachings of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path discusses the use of intoxicants in moderation. As Jack Kornfield, co-founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA notes, in Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight

Meditation:

To refrain from the heedless use of intoxicants is the fifth precept. It means to avoid taking intoxicants to the point of making the mind cloudy [or worse] . . . . We have just one mind, so we must take care of it. In our country there are millions of alcoholics and others who have abused drugs. Their unconscious-ness and fearful use of intoxicants has caused great pain to themselves, their families, and all those they touch. To live consciously is not easy––it means we often must face fears and pains that challenge our heart. Abuse of toxicants is clearly not the way. p. 10

Taneda Santōka, a noted Japanese haijin and practicing Buddhist, was also a self-acknowledged alcoholic. He wrote many haiku drenched in saké, but I do not believe he romanticized his drunkenness. On the contrary, he inclined, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, to ruthless honesty. His haiku trace the long and tortuous descent into alcoholism which unsurprisingly culminated in a lonely death like that of so many other alcoholic writers. Here are a few of his starker poems from Burton Watson’s collection, For All My Walking:

 

 

on the road

a tooth

about to come loose

 

 

 

get drunk

you hear all sorts of voices

winter rain

 

 

 

in the wind

walking alone

blaming myself

 

 

 

no desire to die

no desire to live

the wind blows over me

 

 

 

Yes, the winds of alcohol can be balmy in the hands of casual and social drinkers. All too often, both here and abroad, now and in the ancient past, alcohol has been fetishized as a means of demonstrating status, uniqueness, and sophistication. For millions of people, the brutal, howling winds of alcohol reach hurricane strength, destroying everything in their wake. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Writing in the chapter on “Economy” in Walden, Transcendentalist Henry D. Thoreau declares: “I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness.” Having witnessed up close so much of the darker side of drinking, I stand with Thoreau.

 

Notes

  1. Accessed 10/28/20. https://abcnews.go.com/US/alcohol-consumption-rising-sharply-pandemic-women/story?id=73302479
  1. Accessed 11/18/20. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/significant-impact/202001/alcohol-related-deaths-are-the-rise
  1. Accessed 11/18/20. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html

About Charlotte Digregorio

I publish books. I have marketed and/or published 55 titles. These books are sold in 46 countries to bookstores, libraries, universities, professional organizations, government agencies, and book clubs. In 2018, I was honored by the Governor of Illinois for my thirty-eight years of accomplishments in the literary arts, and my work to promote and advance the field by educating adults and students alike. I am the author of seven books including: Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All; Everything You Need to Know About Nursing Homes; You Can Be A Columnist; Beginners' Guide to Writing & Selling Quality Features; Your Original Personal Ad; and my latest, Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing. The first four books have been adopted as supplemental texts at universities throughout the U.S., Canada, India, Pakistan, and Catalonia. They are sold in 43 countries, and are displayed in major metropolitan cultural centers. These books have been reviewed, recommended, and praised by hundreds of critics, librarians, and professors worldwide. I am also the author of a poetry collection: "Shadows of Seasons: Selected Haiku and Senryu by Charlotte Digregorio." Two of my books have been Featured Selections of Writer's Digest Book Club. I am regularly interviewed by major print, radio, and television organizations throughout the U.S. I regularly sign books at libraries, chain bookstores, and university bookstores, and do poetry readings at art centers, cafes, tea houses, and galleries. I was recently nominated for two Pushcart Prizes in poetry. I have won fifty-nine poetry awards, writing fourteen poetic forms. My poetry has been translated into eight languages. I do illustrated solo poetry exhibits 365 days a year in libraries, galleries, corporate buildings, hospitals, convention centers, and other venues. My individual poems have been displayed at supermarkets, apparel and wine shops, banks, botanic gardens, restaurants, and on public transit. I have been nominated and listed in "The International Authors and Writers Who's Who" in Cambridge, England and in the "Who's Who In Writers, Editors & Poets U.S./Canada." I hosted my own radio program, "Poetry Beat," on public broadcasting. My poetry has been featured on several library web sites including those of Shreve Memorial Library in Louisiana and Cornell University's Mann Library. My background includes positions as a feature editor and columnist at daily newspapers and as a magazine editor. I have been a public relations director for a non-profit organization. I am self-employed as a public relations/marketing consultant, having served a total of 118 clients in 23 states for the past several decades . In other professional areas, I have been on university faculties, teaching French, Italian, and Writing. I regularly give lectures and workshops on publishing, journalism, publicity, poetry, and creativity to business and professional groups, and at writer's conferences, universities, literary festivals, non-profit organizations, and libraries. I have been a writer-in-residence at universities. There have been about 400 articles written about me in the media. I have served on the Boards of writers and publishers organizations. My positions have included Board Secretary of the Northwest Association of Book Publishers. I served for five years as Midwest Regional Coordinator of The Haiku Society of America, and for two years as its Second Vice President.
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9 Responses to Special Essay: Haiku Poetry and the Darker Side of Drinking

  1. I found this essay really interesting. One thing I’m a bit confused about: is this post mostly Robert Epsein’s essay? Am I right in assuming the first paragraph is your comment on his essay?

  2. Wonderful to read this, Robert.

    Your words speak a necessary truth:

    Here, then, are some haiku I wrote that serve as a counterweight to the gauzy poems about the so-called harmless pleasures of drinking. They reflect but a small sampling of the truth.

    daddy tucks her in

    his hot breath so close

    slurring his words

    Thanks for including this one of mine:

    all her promises

    gone

    by the 2nd drink

    ~ Roberta Beary

  3. How about…
    too drunk to remember
    the accident that killed him
    she can never forget

    Someone dear to me lives with this “after the binge” half-memory.

  4. Kristen Lindquist says:

    Thank you, Robert, for referencing my recent essay in Modern Haiku on haiku about drinking. I was inspired to write that essay because alcoholism has closely touched my life, which made me particularly notice haiku that feature alcohol. In the course of my research, I found your anthology THE BREATH OF SURRENDER, especially the Markowski senryu you share as an example above, to offer a powerful counterpoint to haiku that seem to romanticize drinking. Thank you for that. What became clear to me in writing my essay was that the wide spectrum of haiku about drinking mirrors the broad diversity of attitudes toward alcohol itself. And also, that something about the shared commonality of our experiences with alcohol, rosy *or* horrific, seems to lend itself well to haiku and senryu. It is fascinating to me how the raw stuff of life—all our pleasures and our pains—continues to inspire endless permutations of human creativity.

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