In March, 1963, when I was 15, my interest in mind-altering substances was stimulated by an article Life magazine carried about LSD. The article--"The Chemical Mind-Changers," by Robert Coughlan--was presented below the photograph of a Massachusetts housewife resting her head on a table, one arm supporting her cheek, the other crooked over her head, a cigarette held absent-mindedly between her fingers. The woman was transfixed--spellbound--by a lemon seed. The caption below read: "Under influence of drug LSD, Barbara Dunlop, a Cambridge, Mass. housewife, sees visions in a lemon seed." The article (a long, thoroughly researched monograph) described such phenomena as "intensification of visual perception." A Dr. Cohen was quoted as saying the effect is "as though a translucent membrane had been peeled from one's eyes for the first time." The article went on to discuss a whole host of other drugs: amphetamines, tranquilizers, and antidepressants such as iproniazid, through which test subjects had "felt a sharpening of their mental faculties, an intellectual keeness and ability to concentrate, and at the same time they needed far less than their usual amount of sleep."
By 1966, I had a raging desire to experiment with some of the pharmaceuticals I'd been reading about. I loved the effect of amphetamines while I was high, but the come-down was dreadful. I felt leaden--inconsolably depressed--for as long as three days afterward. My interest in amphetamines ceased abruptly. I also experimented with marijuana, but I never did care for it much. It gave me acute feelings of anxiety and a murky, oppressive disorientation: Everything was so freighted with meaning, everything was so multilayered with cryptic significance that I could do nothing but sit listlessly while my comrades continued to revel and disport themselves. To this day, I am positively aghast when I see people like the lead in The Tao of Steve inhale lungfuls of pot and then trundle off to work. How, in God's name, do they do it?
The marijuana should have been warning enough, but that same year, between August and December, 1966, I took LSD eight times. That I managed to survive the first seven is amazing to me now in retrospect, but it was the eighth trip (which I took hesitantly, and mainly to appease the eagerness of a friend to pay me back money he owed with some "monster acid" he'd managed to score) that got me into trouble. At some point in the evening I suddenly fell under the illusion that I had no body, no corporeal substance. I was a ghost; my "body," that is to say the entirety of my sense of identity, was nothing more than a consortium of atoms whirling about. Which, in reality, it probably is, but the actual experience was horrifying. With the aid of sober friends, I attempted all sorts of strategies to reintroduce a healthy sense of corporeality, including eating an entire bar of soap. Nothing worked. I was brought to a hospital where they shot me full of Thorazine and put me to rest in a padded cell. It was not an experience I cared to repeat. That was the last time I put anything stronger than alcohol into my body. Alcohol is another story, but I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that by 1990, I had stopped using alcohol, and by 1992, wonder of wonders, I had stopped smoking cigarettes. I was down to coffee, and I'm not letting that one go.
Ironically--paradoxically--my interest in mind-altering substances not only increased when I let go of them, but my capacity for altering my perception increased, tenfold. I owe this phenomenon to the most powerful mind-altering substance known on earth: poetry. Wittgenstein said that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world." We organize our experience of the world through the structure of our grammar and the range of our vocabulary. "Language controls our thinking," remarked John Cage, "and if we change our language, it is conceivable that our thinking would change."
Our country's drug laws have never made any sense to me; a relatively innocuous drug--marijuana--is illegal, whereas a devastatingly destructive drug--alcohol--is legal. I sometimes wonder why poetry isn't illegal. Plato wanted it banned from the cities for good reason. It is powerful stuff. Perhaps our legislators don't worry about it because it doesn't sell, though why the most powerful mind-altering substance known to humanity doesn't sell is an equal mystery to me. Why would anyone resort to anything as pedestrian as crack when they can absorb some far more stimulating lines by Amiri Baraka, or Aimé Césaire, or Gertrude Stein? Perhaps it's just as well; poetry is more addictive than crack, and can lead to far worse consequences, such as chronic social maladjustment.
Poetry does precisely what, as the poet Charles Baudelaire described in his masterpiece Les Paradis Artificiels, hashish and opium do: Les yeux visent l'infini. Our eyes see the infinite in all things. Our senses are endowed with a superior acuity: odor, seeing, hearing, touching all participate and sometimes mingle. We see what we hear, hear what we see. Sounds go dressed in colors, and colors contain music. Objects and people acquire a powerful singularity. We feel fully, acutely alive. The worker who has come home dulled and stupefied by the routine of her/his work is suddenly, magically restored to freshness and vigor again. All this can come of a pipeload of hashish, or a few lines of poetry attentively read. The hashish, however, leads to torpor and loss of will. Poetry exalts. Poetry invigorates the mind like a wad of coca leaf. It is lightning on paper.
John Olson's latest work is a full collection of poetry titled Echo Regime from Black Square Editions. He is also the author of Eggs & Mirrors.