Thursday, February 22, 2018

`He Did Not Join Groups'

The best-known depiction of alcoholism in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poetry is probably “Mr. Flood’s Party.” The solitary old man has walked into town to buy a jug. He pauses in the dark, sets his liquor on the ground, “With trembling care, knowing that most things break,” and talks to himself:      

“`Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’”

Experienced drinkers will recognize Eben Flood’s self-dialogue and his habit of personifying alcohol. We woo it and seduce it, and the booze returns the favor. Even the happiest drunk knows he has done something wrong. For male drinkers, alcohol is often female, making it doubly attractive and double-crossing. We’re left feeling betrayed when it no longer works. What made us sociable turns us anti-social:    

“There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.”

In Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007), Scott Donaldson documents the poet’s self-destructive drinking through early middle age. By the time he turned fifty, on Dec. 22, 1919, Robinson had mostly stopped. That year happened to coincide with the Volstead Act and ratification of the Eighteen Amendment. Prohibition went into effect twenty-six days after his fiftieth birthday, and inspired Robinson’s only known political act. Donaldson writes: “Distrustful of government and most of its practitioners, Robinson customarily stayed on the political sidelines. He did not join groups, resisted signing petitions, and deplored the use of poetry as propaganda.” He was, in short, a grownup who, unlike so many writers, understood that he had no understanding of politics. Nor should we confuse his newfound sobriety with a self-centered fear of breaking the law. True to his Yankee contrariness, Robinson purposely fell off the wagon just weeks after Prohibition became law. He knew alcohol no longer worked for him, that he was unable to write while under the influence and he would pay the price the following morning. Robinson got drunk as a principled act of civil disobedience. Donaldson writes:

“Like many others, Robinson opposed Prohibition because it didn’t—and couldn’t—work. Making liquor illegal led to rampant violations of the law. A generation grew up observing the liquor laws flouted with impunity.”

His biographer tells us one of Robinson’s fundamental principles was that “no collective body had the right to invade the personal liberty of the individual.” Boy, could we use a man and poet like Robinson today.

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