The poem is incredibly creative. It’s filled with images that many readers are likely going to relate to and some that are specific to one person’s situation. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it’s clear after the first couple of lines that the speaker is alcohol. The poet does a great job personifying addiction in ‘Alcohol.’
‘Alcohol’ by Franz Wright is a powerful poem about addiction, told from the perspective of alcohol.
The speaker, alcohol itself, begins the poem by addressing the listener, someone who is addicted to the substance. The listener has walked away from their addiction, but it’s actively trying to bring them back. Something negative has recently happened in their life, and the drink is attempting to use that as a reason to return. The speaker tells the listener that they’re the only “one” who has been there for them through everything, the only dependable part of their life. They hope to soothe the listener into believing that the only thing they can do is drink again.
You can read the full poem here.
You do look a little ill.
But we can do something about that, now.
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .
In the first lines of ‘Alcohol,’ the speaker begins with the speaker talking directly to one intended listener. It soon becomes clear that there is a strange and strained relationship between the two. Wright makes the very creative choice of using a personified version of alcohol as the speaker in this poem. Alcohol, as a controlling and malign narrator, addresses an alcoholic. It spends the lines of the poem trying to convince the listener to return to it.
“You aren’t all alone,” the drink tells the drinker. All you have to do is turn to alcohol and take “some help today.” You can go back to a life you use to live where you were “grinning with terror” and enjoying being intoxicated.
I was always waiting, always here.
Know anyone else who can say that.
we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,
think of it.
I don’t have to be anywhere.
The following lines feel quite dark and disturbing, with alcohol telling the listener that it’s always been there, “waiting.” This is an interesting way of depicting addiction. No matter how long someone has gone without a drink, an alcoholic is an alcoholic. The temptation is always going to be there. Alcohol depicts itself as the only dependable thing in the listener’s life. It’s always there, the only “one” who can say that.
Rather than trying to deal with their problems on a high level, the drink tries to convince the listener to think of “her” negatively and let their anger brew. This is an allusion to a conflict that’s outside the boundaries of the poem. Something happened with the speaker and a woman they care about that turned their thoughts back towards alcohol.
The speaker gets somewhat impatient towards the end of the poem as they try to convince the listener to leave with them. Or to at least engage in their old addiction once more and leave any progress behind that they made.
Structure and Form
‘Alcohol’ by Franz Wright is a twenty-three-line poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first few lines (lines 1-6) are individually spaced. These lines are followed by a set of four lines, known as a quatrain, and two more single-line stanzas. The poet continues, bringing in two couplets, three more individual lines, another couplet, and two more lines ending the poem.
The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this and the seemingly random arrangement of lines and stanzas, there are elements that provide this poem with unity.
Throughout ‘Alcohol,’ Wright makes use of several literary devices that help to give this poem a unified feeling. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines seven and eight as well as lines fifteen and sixteen.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially vibrant descriptions. These should appeal to the reader’s senses, inspiring them to envision what’s being described and perhaps feel it as well. For example, “grinning with terror flowing over your legs through / your fingers and hair” and “one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “ look” and “little” in line one and “we” and “watch” in line twenty.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line, created either through the use of meter or punctuation. For example, “We like bus trips, remember. Together” and “I was always waiting, always here.”
The meaning is that alcohol addiction is always there, no matter how much progress an alcoholic might’ve made. In this poem, alcohol talks to the listener, trying to lure them back into their addiction after something negative happens in their life.
The tone is impatient and, at times, seemingly sympathetic. The speaker is manipulative, using the latter to try to make the listener return to their drinking habit. Throughout much of the poem, though, the speaker is impatient and eager for the listener to drink again.
Wright penned this poem in order to share the internal battle that many addicts deal with. The voice the listener’s alcohol addiction takes is one that many readers are likely going to be familiar with.
The speaker is alcohol itself. Or, some might suggest it’s the speaker’s addiction. It is never described as such, but from context clues, one can infer that this is the case.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Alcohol’ by Franz Wright should also consider reading some related for. For example:
- ‘My Brother at 3 AM’ by Natalie Diaz – describes a terrifying night in which a mother discovers her son on the front porch and witnesses his transformation.
- ‘The Prodigal’ by Elizabeth Bishop – the story of a troubled alcoholic man who has imposed a period of exile upon himself.
- ‘my father moved through dooms of love’ by E.E. Cummings – a complex, beautiful poem in which the poet depicts his father’s life.