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.
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??
calling in “sick” again
this time the boss tells his wife
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
public fountain ––
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
by the 2nd drink
~ Roberta Beary
he can’t erase
~ Allison Lingren
the morning after:
full of regret
~ Guy Jefferson
drunk again my reflection fills the toilet bowl
the toilet bowl
~ Ed Markowski
deciding not to jump
for my children’s sake
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
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
about to come loose
you hear all sorts of voices
in the wind
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.
- Accessed 10/28/20. https://abcnews.go.com/US/alcohol-consumption-rising-sharply-pandemic-women/story?id=73302479
- Accessed 11/18/20. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/significant-impact/202001/alcohol-related-deaths-are-the-rise
- Accessed 11/18/20. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html