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This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

In the 1980s, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned excessive use of caffeine (anything over eight Americanos a day), putting coffee up there with methylenedioxymethamphetamine and tuaminoheptane (not to mention cocaine and strychnine) as a performance enhancer. In 2004 caffeine was removed from the list and, as it were, re-legalised. Earl Gray tea was never proscribed, though space tea was.

As poetry becomes more of a competitive art, with substantial purses, National Days and even Olympiads – totting up the prizes over a four month period I reckon as much as £400,000 was in play in English-language poetry sweepstakes alone – it is time to consider regulation. The age of unfair advantages, of ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’, should be put behind us. Regular blood and urine tests and larder inspections of those poets who declare themselves and regularly enter the competitive field (we all know who they are) can be organised. The Poetry Society will be tasked with setting up an Agency on the WADA model with extra funding from the Sports Council. It can devise a list of banned substances to include, if it is to be properly rigorous, beyond the WADA list, alcohol in its concentrated forms (from cider and beer up), coffee, chocolate biscuits and other stimulants.

Attention to the moral character of the art at its most public is long over-due. Quite apart from the always-rumoured fixing of awards, there is an ugly history of substance abuse that needs to be acknowledged and put behind us. Coleridge’s use of laudanum resulted in ‘Kubla Khan’ and acute constipation. As a teenager Elizabeth Barrett Browning was prescribed palliative opiates for her back aches, with dreadful long-term consequences including Aurora Leigh. Keats, if we are to credit ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, evokes his heartache and numbness as though he had ‘emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…’ after which he longs for alcohol, and to ‘Fade far away’ from the grim realities of the contingent world. George Crabbe used opiates and managed several poetic triathlons. So did Byron and Shelley and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. And Robert Louis Stevenson, not only in Jekyll and Hyde. Beyond Britain, Baudelaire joined the hazy Club de Hachichins with other writers and artists, and Rimbaud’s Season in Hell is in part an effect of stimulants. Poe had his addictions: one wonders if the tragacanth paste he used for his post-it notes might also have given him a mild high.

Allen Ginsberg started abusing substances in the late 1940s – nitrous oxide, marijuana, as well as alcohol and others; peyote and amphetamines contributed to Howl and Kaddish. These examples do no more than scratch the surface of a problem that could undermine public confidence in the art at the very time when it is going mainstream. Why should poetry, through selective exposure, not have its monitory Darryl Strawberry, Nate Newton, Todd Marinovich, or the edifying reformative example of a poetic Jennifer Capriati? It’s only fair, given the money that has flowed into the art in the last few decades. Furthermore, any poem from any period produced under the influence of laudanum, cannabis, LSD or alcohol should be struck from the books, especially school anthologies. Strict rules should also govern the activities of editors, publishers, selectors and other functionaries on Parnassus.

How much is at stake? A recent press release from the Academy of American Poets brings the numbers into focus. Joy Harjo, ‘known for wedding social consciousness to her Muskogee Creek heritage and the south-west American landscape’ in her poetry, received the $100,000 Wallace Stevens award for lifetime achievement. The academy praised her ‘visionary justice-seeking art’ which transformed ‘bitterness to beauty’ and ‘trauma to healing’. The academy awarded Kevin Young’s Book of Hours the $25,000 Lenore Marshall poetry prize, for ‘the year’s best collection’, and a $25,000 fellowship to Marie Howe. There was a drizzle of smaller awards and a big translation award to Todd Portnowitz ($25,000 and a five-week residency at the American Academy in Rome) for his work on Italian poet Pierluigi Cappello’s Go Tell It to the Emperor.

Taken with the Griffin, Forward, T. S. Eliot, Troubador, National Poetry Competition, Resurgence, Hippocrates, Montreal, Lilly, etc, the challenge is clear. The poets celebrated in recent months are in no danger from the proposed Poetry Police, but how much more authority their awards would have were they accompanied by a certificate of clean life and unenhanced composition.


To more than 100 issues, since PNR 109 (1996), the poet, critic, novelist and editor Sam Adams has contributed his ‘Letter from Wales’, a lively index of things past, present and to come from a nation which one might expect, given its linguistic and poetic vitality, to be a key player in the Scottish-Irish cultural nexus which has such impact in and beyond the academy, and which tends to condescend to the Welsh if it notices them at all.

Adams’s first Letter was a memoir of four key Welsh writers who had died the year before: Harri Webb, Glyn Jones, Lynette Roberts and Gwyn A. Williams. He celebrated the fact that Anglophone poetry was ‘no longer on the defensive in Wales. It is now academically respectable to teach and research Anglo Welsh writing. The goal that Roland Mathias and Raymond Garlick fought so long and hard for has been achieved.’ His own Letters from Wales have honoured both traditions with good-natured even-handedness, and he has remained alert to the relations of Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the world. He has been an excellent companion. Cymru am byth!

This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

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