Poets have explored the psychedelic experience through language even before LSD trips were a thing.
The decade of the 1960s was a fascinating period. It was filled with political turmoil and protests, social change, and free-thinking. But mostly, the sixties are known for the popularization of recreational drugs, specially LSD. The drug inspired many books and literary movements, but the psychedelic experience wasn’t invented or discovered in the sixties. Hundreds of years ago, such experiences were described and explored through literary works by all sorts of mystical and creative people. If there’s an ideal medium to achieve that, it’s poetry. While the styles in this genre are varied, there are pieces that are as psychedelic as an LSD trip for the way they play with language and time or event for their distortion aof traditional concepts and associate them with an altered mental state. The following poets do exactly that, showing that the psychedelic was experienced way back before the sixties, and sometimes without any drug at all.
André Breton was born in Normandy, France, in 1896. When we consider his intellectual formation, his studies on psychiatry, and interest in mental illness, we understand his tendency to play with abnormal mental states that allow free association through his poetry. He believed that kind of free writing was able to pierce through our normal state of mind to access the unconscious. The images and ideas that surge from that will make you think of a psychedelic trip where bizarre thoughts branch out into previously unexplored territories with incredible quickness.
Freedom of Love
My wife with the hair of a wood fire
With the thoughts of heat lightning
With the waist of an hourglass
With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger
My wife with the lips of a cockade and of a bunch of stars of the last magnitude
With the teeth of tracks of white mice on the white earth
With the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife with the tongue of a stabbed host
With the tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes
With the tongue of an unbelievable stone
Gertrude Stein (1874) was an American writer who lived most of her life in France and became an iconic figure of this country's artistic scene. Her work and her profound influence on other famous writers and artists focused on the construction of innovative styles that allow literature to break free from traditional restrictions. Her risky experiments are most evident in her poetry, resembling a drug-induced, rhythmically visionary mantra.
If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso (excerpt)
Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.
Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.
Now actively repeat at all, now actively repeat at all, now actively repeat at all.
Have hold and hear, actively repeat at all.
Rumi is probably the most famous poet on this list. He was born in Persia in 1207, and as a Sufi master he will show you that there’s an intricate relationship between the psychedelic experience and spirituality. His poems, which he recited as he danced and chanted, focus on spiritual ecstasy. What makes his poems so profound is probably the fact that he created most of them after he lost his life partner, the wandering mystic Shams of Tabriz, who was the person who showed him the value of poetry.
From these depths depart towards heaven;
may your soul be happy, journey joyfully.
You have escaped from the city full of fear and trembling;
happily become a resident of the Abode of Security
If the body’s image has gone, await the image-maker; if the
body is utterly ruined, become all soul.
If your face has become saffron pale through death, become a
dweller among tulip beds and Judas trees.
If the doors of repose have been barred to you, come, depart
by way of the roof and the ladder.
If you are alone from Friends and companions, by the help of
God become a saheb-qeran [lord of happy circumstance].
If you have been secluded from water and bread, like bread
become the food of the souls, and so become!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in England in 1772, wrote this poem in an opium-induced state of mind. He did so after reading about Kubla Khan, the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. As the anecdote goes, he woke up and immediately started writing, as if in a trance, the lines that came to him in a dream. Sadly, an unfortunate interruption made him forget the rest of the lines and he couldn’t complete the poem. As many writers did in the sixties and after, Coleridge’s drug use inspired his work, filling it with symbolism and a sharp appreciation for nature.
Kubla Khan (excerpt)
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
“There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” Those are the words that William Wordsworth used to describe William Blake (1757), the English poet that, throughout his life, told several anecdotes about the hallucinations he experienced since childhood. Without drugs, the famous mystic saw visions of God and Satan. Those visions influenced his work and his ideas about morality and religion, which are evident in his "Proverbs of Hell" that are part of his work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Proverbs of Hell (excerpt)
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number weight and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
You don’t need drugs to experience an ecstatic state of mind. As these poets and their works show, these alternative mental states are accessible to all of us through other means, like meditation or poetry.
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Images by Larry Carlson.