The Quaalude

This poem was composed in early 1979, while I was engaged in graduate studies in English literature. Among the courses I was taking was a readings course covering Romantic literature, in which we were reading, among other things, Wordsworth’s Prelude (in all its various editions). Someone in the class (possibly me, but it was a long time ago) remarked that the poem was so boring it should have been called “The Quaalude” (a prescription drug popular at that time, the effects of which were to make the [ab]user silly and droolingly stupid). At the same time as I was studying Wordsworth’s biographical poem, I was also taking a course in computers and literary research, where we used COBOL on punch-cards to do some very rudimentary stylistic analyses. One program we were working on would scan a text against a small dictionary of words and print out a stylistic “map” showing where words from the dictionary clustered in the text. I thought it would be interesting to modify the program to use two dictionaries, so that one could see two sets of word clusters and their possible interdependencies.

So, by day I keypunched COBOL code onto IBM punchcards while by night I read Wordsworth. Late one evening, drowsing somewhere in the middle of Book Sixth: Cambridge and The Alps, I remembered the “quaalude” remark and, hypnotized by W.W.’s monotonous iambs, began to parodize the lines I was reading, substituting pop drug references for Wordsworth’s sonorous reminiscences. Within a few lines I was giddy. I turned back to the poem’s opening book and began to scribble out the earliest versions of the poem you see presented below. It didn’t take me very long to finish the first (and, as it turned out, only) “book” of the poem, and it was time to go public.

The parody captured the imagination of some of my student colleagues, one of whom decided to type up a ditto master of it so we could distribute copies. His version differed from my original slightly (mostly typographical variations). Meanwhile, I decided to test the COBOL program I was writing by using the parody as a test text. I keyboarded the entire poem onto punch cards and built two dictionaries: one of personal pronouns, the other of drug-related terms. My conceit was that Romantic poets wrote about themselves a lot; by comparing the clusters of personal pronouns to clusters of drug terms, I could demonstrate the relation between the poet and his drugs. I got the program to work, and it produced a fifteen-foot long printout, which contained the poem, the stylistic graphs, and lots of detailed statistics. (That program, by the way, was the genesis of Homer, a style analysis program I wrote that was eventually published by Scribners).

I posted the “Quaalude” printout outside of the office I shared with three other teaching assistants, along with an envelope containing copies of the variant ditto version that my friend had produced. This led to a small pseudo-research project that flourished for a few weeks: the attempt by some of the more stressed graduate students among us to produce a “variorum Quaalude” that would reconcile the manuscript with the ditto and the printout, along with a complete “scholarly” apparatus. The following is a slightly emended version of the poem, incorporating the few notes from the variorum project that I preserved.

One final note: “The Quaalude” is based on the 1805 Prelude, which, to my mind, is the most amusing of Wordsworth’s editions. The 1850 version, by comparison, is stiff as a carp.

The Quaalude

Childish in School,

O there is something in this gentle breeze
That blows from rooms where students betimes dwell
And party long: it smells of burning leaves
And seems half-conscious of the high it gives.
O welcome medicine! O welcome drug!
A stoner greets thee, coming from a house
Of straightniks, from his parent’s house set free,
A prison where he hath been sober long.
Now I am high, enfranchised and at large
May take my fix, my habit, where I will.
What druggist will supply me? And what quack
Will be my doctor? Underneath what grove
Shall I light up my bhong? And what sweet green
Shall with its vapors lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me. With a stash
Joyous, nor scared by insufficiency
I take a toke; and should the high I choose
Be granted me by sucking in sweet smoke
I will not touch the ground. I toke again!
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me: I have taken off,
As by miraculous gift, I’m taking off,
That bummer of my own unloaded self,
That heavy dude with nothing much to say
Not me, at least he would not pass for me.
Large toots of coke (and such bold drug affords
Me all the promises of the high life),
Long months of ease and undisturbed by thought
Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn
To joint or hookah, or take twenty whites
And find a twig and many unripe seeds
Within my stash, I’ll clean them out, of course.
     And yet, being not unwilling now to give
A respite to this madness, I smoke on
Gently, with gentle breaths; and come, ere long,
To a green lady’s place, where downs I downed
Upon my knees, slackening my thoughts by choice,
And fading into numbing happiness:
     ’Twas autumn, and a calm and placid day,
With drugs, as much as needed, from her friend,
A man inclined towards bedrest; a day
Of sugar cubes, orange sunshine, lots of grass,
And in her spaced-out house where I was crouched
A lovely madness. On her rug I lay
Passing through many thoughts, yet mainly such
As to my drugs pertained. I made a trade
For one sweet Valium – my eyes did burn
And saw, methought, my parents’ house and yard
Pop up before my eyes: I was bummed out.
And yet, meanwhile, I unpacked all my works
And thought of all the drugs my folks proscribed
That I, while there, performed. Thus long I lay
Cheered by the genial pillow of warm thighs
Beneath my head, soothed by a teasing touch
From her warm hands, that caressed me, then left
Entirely, feeling nought, nought seeing, save
When by her bed, that seemed a grove of oaks
Inside my head, a zipper on my pants
Slid audibly, and with a startling sound.
     And now it would content me to forget
These lusty thoughts awhile, for present gifts
Of humbler industry. But, O dear Friend,
The drug-freak, gentle creature as he is,
Hath, on a bummer, his unruly times;
His fits when he is neither sick nor well
Though no distress be near him but his own
Unmanageable thoughts: the mind itself,
The drug besotted mind, relieved, perhaps,
When it, reliving countless other trips,
Takes solace, freaks not always to the edge
But hath more quiet instants, lucid times
That drive her as in troubles to more drugs;
With me is now such passion, which I blame
No otherwise than as I dropped my bhong!
Sometimes, mistaking vainly as I fear,
Brief flashes for a much more sober sight,
I settle on some British weed, some old
Romantic drug by Milton left unsmoked;
More often resting at some gentle place
Within the groves of Cannabis, my pipe
Stuffed full to bursting, with resinous buds,
Sit by a fountain-side, or just pass out.
     Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would partake
Of hits of Methadrine1, and then I’d speed
And, twitching like a cloud of gnats, become
Steve Austin; robot on T.V. by whom
Flourished the Silverberg Empire2: become
An athlete from Phillie, a hockey great,
A Flyer, goalie for a Fortunate Team.
Sometimes it suits me better to flake out
And do some reds and slow my heart-beat down
To a sane rhythm, slow enough to count,
And then have intercourse with gentle things.
But deadening mystic visions will appear
And the whole surreal nonsense will portray
Tom Pynchon, who, of course, appears throughout
Shadowy and insubstantial. Then, last flash,
My last beloved hallucination, then
I yearn towards some psychedelic Drug
Of Truth that might illumine channel Five;
With explications of The Dating Game,
Re-reruns of Star Trek, immortal show,
Thoughtfully programmed for weekend trippers;
Enough of this.
                            Was it for this
That one, that blossom of Hawaiian, burned
To grey-white ash within my well-blacked pipe?
Fair drug time had my Soul, and I grew up
Doing alike my uppers and my downs:
Much favored psychedelics, and no less
That lovely snowy powder for my nose.
     One evening (surely I was snorting coke)
I went alone unto a wild bash
That someone threw aboard an agent’s boat,
A yacht that to a varnished dock was tied
Within a ritzy slip, its usual home.
’Twas in Marina del Rey, by the sea
I was almost a stranger, thither come
A quondam screenwriter with little luck,
Forth rambled out of El Torito stoned.
No sooner had I sight of this white ship,
Discovered thus by unexpected chance,
Than I relit my reefer and embarked.
The moon was up, the host had fallen down
Among a group of hoary revellers.
Inside the door, a man sold nickel bags,
And mushrooms, buttons, reds, whites, cocaine, hash.
So like a man, I walked with stately step,
Quite bent on speed. It was bad for my health
But good for pleasure, left me with no voice
And waking dreams: A shrouded narc strode forth,
Upreared his head. I struck a match, I toked,
But growing still in stature the huge narc
Rose up between me and the bar, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me. I almost messed my shorts
As I with giddy laughter ran away,
Back to the parking lot where sat my car;
I got into it, shifted it from “park,” —
And on the freeway homeward sped, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Would sizzle, seem to fry, and dimly sense
A world of lima beans3; in my thoughts
There was darkness, veined with vegetable
Themes and motifs. Not one familiar shape
Could I perceive. No shows on my T.V.
But swirling, buzzing static, and that taped,
Reruns of static rumbled through my mind
By day, and were the substance of my dreams.
     Chemist, Pharmacist of the Universe,
Thou Soul that art the alterer of thought,
Thou conjur’st up forms and stuffs them in my mind
With pixillated motion, not in vain
By pure angel-dust messing up the heads
Of Children just as thou hast done for me:
A burn-out that blanked out my very soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar junkie’s works,
But with High Science, new technologies,
Lying to Nature, purifying drugs,
New condiments for rearranging thoughts.
And stultifying by such discipline
Both pain and fear, until I could not feel
A rhythm to the beatings of my heart.
     Ye loathsome colleges in which we dwelt,
A medication hazardous was yours,
Insanity, a darksome brain decay!
Can I forgive you, maddening as ye were
Yet beautiful among the pleasant fields,
Your cunning mask? How can I here forgive
The plain and seemly countenance with which
You dealt out your cruel comforts? Yea, had ye
The breath of madness wafting through your halls.
Morbid and ever weary we perused
Sick, swollen syllabi by the weak fire
At midnight, planning to stay up more late,
Our every minute parcelled out and all
On time-charts and with cyphers scribbled o-er,
And read mad critics, school opposed to school
In strife too dismal to be named in verse.
Blackmur and Barthes, sate in close array,
And to the conflict Bloom and Frye led on
A thick-skulled army, not meant for this world,
Obsessive and possessive of their fields
E’en for the damage they themselves had wrought
Upon Art in their mindless long campaign.
     One end hereby at least hath been attained:
My mind hath been decayed by wholesome drugs
And not with critics’ murmurs tumbled down
To haunt me through my later years of life.
The road lies plain before me; – ’tis my scheme
To see if I can tell you what I’ve learned
By chemicals both natural and manmade
And amplify my drug creed’s argument.4


1Archaic spelling of “methedrine.”

2As in manuscript and 1979 edition, but historical evidence suggests this should read “Silverman.”

3 This reference has troubled scholars since the first published edition; one school seems to think that it may refer to Lima, Peru, from whence the Author could obtain cocaine, but that meaning is seemingly contradicted by the “vegetable/Themes and motifs” ff. as well as the word “beans”: cocaine does not come from beans (note, however, that cocaine is derived from vegetation).

4 The final lines imply a subsequent book, but none was ever published, and may never have been written.