Reading Robert Hayden's Collected Poems recently, I came across a particularly striking poem titled "Soledad." Hayden cautioned that by the title he meant the Spanish word for "solitude" or "loneliness", and not the prison (or the political drama for which it's known).
The poem is about drug use and offers a portrait of an addict Hayden knew. (You can hear him read it here).
The piece reminded me of something I read by Alain Badiou about Plato. It is said that the philosopher insisted that rigorous logical and discursive thought, as opposed to poetry, was the only way to approach truth.
Yet, when Plato himself tried to describe his version of "the absolute", he resorted to images, metaphors and myths -- the very types of language he found problematic in poetry. (p. 19)
Reading Hayden's poem, I was struck by how it too became dense with metaphor, almost opaque in fact, as it approached what I took as its own "absolute" moment: an attempt to describe the inner experience of addiction itself.
"Soledad" opens with a fairly straight forward, if poetically embellished description of a scene (the epigraph is from a teenage drug addict's poem Hayden saw in a magazine):
(And I, I am no longer of that world)
Naked, he lies in the blinded room
chainsmoking, cradled by drugs, by jazz
as never by any lover's cradling flesh.
Miles Davis coolly blows for him:
O pena negra, sensual Famenco blues,
the red clay foxfire voice of Lady Day
(lady of the pure black magnolias)
sobsings her sorrow and loss and fare you well,
dryweeps the pain his treacherous jailers
have released him from for a while.
His fears and his unfinished self
await him in the anywhere streets.
The womb-like solitude of these opening stanzas then morphs into another sort of seclusion:
He hides on the dark side of the moon,
takes refuge in a stained-glass cell,
flies to a clockless country of crystal.
Only the ghost of Lady Day knows where
he is. Only the music. And he swings
oh swings: beyond complete immortal now.
What struck me about this sublime "clockless country of crystal" is that, though the language is full of images, such a locale is hard to envision with the mind's eye.
Adding to its mystery is the fact that the poem admits that its extravagant language is only an approximation of the experience. Only otherworldly fellow initiates, such as Lady Day, know "where/he is."
But this idea brings to mind what is, for me, the biggest mystery of all about this poem. Why, I ask myself, if this strange portrait of an "inner world" is only an approximation of the thing (of addiction) itself, does it seem so much more interesting, and in fact intoxicating, than what I remember of my own experiences as a member of the users club many years ago?
Words vs. Drugs: What's the More Intense High?
It turns out that there's a name for finding the play of words, ideas, images and meanings a more pleasurable high than actually using drugs: "profane illumination." The inventor of this concept, the great cultural critic Walter Benjamin, described it this way:
"... the most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) , as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug -- ourselves -- which we take in solitude."
According to Benjamin, the reason I find Hayden's poem about addiction more fascinating than addiction itself, then, is because it is.
And such a pleasure, because it substitutes the worldly (profane) for the otherworldly ("dark side of the moon"), would logically have the potential to enhance, rather than down play, one's abilities -- especially in an economy increasingly favoring communicative and intellectual labor skills. Which is to say that words and ideas are the most reliable smart drugs.
Moreover, if this true, does it not also explain why that other dangerous drug much loved by U.S. culture -- the drug of anti-intellectualism -- carries such scary side effects? If people deny themselves the intoxication of ideas, they may be inclined to pursue their highs through more problematic avenues.
And in this light, being anti-intellectual could be hazardous to your health.