Top 10 YOLO Poets and Their Poems
Ancient Greeks playing a drinking game, Kottabos, that is eerily similar to beer pong.
From the very beginnings of song, poets have had an obsession with an instrumental motif that seems to cross peoples, places and times: "the thing in the cup." Whether it's Ancient Greek lyricists performing at symposia, or Indian, Vedic poets singing the glories of Soma, musical artists have been living fast and dying young for as long as song has been around. This list ranks poets who perfected both the art of going hard and of writing excellent, boozy verse.
10. Charles Bukowski
Say what you will about his writing, but Bukowski was indisputably a great drinker. He spent most of his life working odd jobs and haunting bars, until around age 50, when he finally made it big in the lit world. (Not that he slowed down on his drinking when writing, either.) Most of Bukowski’s poetry involves anecdotes of him waking up at noon with a hangover, drinking more, and then either sleeping with a random woman or getting the shit kicked out of him in a bar fight. He's poetry's ultimate dirty old man.
Bukowski famously said of drinking:
“That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” (from Women)
Other boozy gems include a parody of Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:
Bukowski’s old, Bukowski’s old
He wears the bottoms of his beercans
And a response to his critics:
a book reviewer has just called me a “second-rate Saroyan
with a hangover.” this is not so bad when you consider what some of my women
have called me. I
have received many bad book reviews in my time and I
expect to receive
…but enough of that, tonight this second-rate Saroyan is
way toward a first-rate hangover.
Not because of a crappy review but because it’s just what
I like to do
while writing little stories and poems and sometimes
(from "How did they get their Job?")
9. Hart Crane
Although Crane didn't often write about booze or raging eis ipsis, he makes the list for his brilliant (or insane) writing on other subjects and hard lifestyle. He drank much and often through most of his life; he also had a strong penchant for getting it on with sailors. Moreover, he died as he lived: a drunken legend. One night in a bout of depression and inebriation, he threw himself off of a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, reportedly waving and saying “Goodbye everybody!” before jumping overboard. Despite his dearth of alcohol-themed verse, Crane does have a pretty excellent early poem on the subject:
Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.
Then glozening decanters that reflect the street
Wear me in crescents on their bellies. Slow
Applause flows into liquid cynosures:
--I am conscripted to their shadows' glow…
..New thresholds, new anatomies! Wine talons
Build freedom up about me and distill
This competence--to travel in a tear
Sparkling alone, within another's will.
(from The Wine Menagerie)
8. Archilochus and Anacreon
Since few fragments remain of these two poets and little is known about their lives, they have been combined and placed relatively low on the list. Still, the fragments and anecdotes show that these two definitely balled out and wrote dank poetry.
For instance, aside from partying, Archilochus is also known for being master of the diss poem. Apparently, when his bride to be’s father called off the marriage, he wrote such harsh poems about the pair that they eventually killed themselves. Archilochus then went on to seduce his bride’s younger sister.. He might be called a total scumbag. Anacreon also often writes about courting young boys and girls alike and drinking at symposia. He went so hard that our national anthem takes its melody from a British drinking song about him - To Anacreon in Heaven – with lyrics like:
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.
Some choice Archilochus fragments are:
Come, go with a cup about the benches of the swift ship
And draw a drink from the hollow urns,
Draining the red wine to the dregs: for we cannot
Endure this watch sober.
I know how to write a beautiful dithyramb for Lord Dionysus,
My wits struck with the thunderbolt of wine.
Come, boy, bring us a large bowl
So that I may drink
Without stopping for breath,
Pour in ladles, ten parts water,
Five parts wine, and I may once again
Sensibly revel in Bacchic madness.
Bring water, boy, bring wine, bring, flowery
crowns, so that I may box with Eros.
Another Greek poet whom we've short listed because of how fragmentary his surviving corpus is. Nevertheless, what little we know about Alcaeus’ life and poetry ensures one thing: he definitely partied hard and wrote harder. Athenaeus, a 3rd century rhetorician says of the him, “Alcaeus drinks at all times and in all circumstances.” Aside from raging often, Alcaeus was also a contemporary of Sappho and is rumored to have been her lover.
One need not look far into his surviving poems to see where Athenaeus got this notion. Some of Alcaeus' many poems on drinking include:
Now we must get drunk, and with force!
Since Myrsilos is dead
Wet your lungs with wine, for Sirius is coming round -
The season is harsh and everything
Thirsts in such heat.
(from fr. 347)
Do not turn your heart to troubles -
We get nowhere worrying.
Io Bacchus! The best of all medicines
Is to get drunk on wine.
No list of alcoholic poets would be complete without the man who gave us the phrase, nunc est bibendum or “Now is for drinking.” It's from a poem that begins:
Now is for drinking, now
Is for shaking the ground
With a light step...
Horace is also famous for his “carpe diem” poem, which urges its listener to not fret over what the future may hold, but rather, to enjoy the present by being content and of course, drinking heavily. Although Horace seems to have been a more proper, mild mannered epicurean than some of our other poets, he nevertheless wrote some of the finest odes to booze ever, and probably got down a fair amount as well.
His most complete homage to the drink was written in address to his Patron, Maecenas:
If you believe old Cratinus, learned Maecenas,
No poetry could ever live long or delight us
That water-drinkers pen. Since Bacchus enlisted
Poets, the barely sane, among his Fauns and Satyrs,
The sweet Muses usually have a dawn scent of wine.
Homer’s praise of it shows he was fond of the grape:
Ennius never leapt to his tales of arms, unless
He was drunk. ‘I’ll trust the Forum and Libo’s Well
To the sober, I’ll prevent the austere from singing’:
Since I made that edict, poets have never left off
Wine-drinking contests at night, reeking by day.
(from Epistles 1. 19)
5. Lord Byron
Unlike our last poet, who showed some restraint, Byron was a full-out libertine who binged on everything—drinking, dieting, eating, and making love. Byron led a rather brilliant life: at he partied hard in England until too many rumors about his illicit behavior got around and he had to flee to Italy, where he had an even more awesome time, seeing ruins, seducing women and drinking heavily. Eventually Byron ended up in Greece and was about to lead a national army in rebellion against the Ottoman Empire when he contracted illness and died at age 36. He wrote many poems about drinking and love as well as one of the most beautiful odes to hedonism in our language:
Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach
Who please,—the more because they preach in vain,—
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
(From Don Juan, Canto II)
4. Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire achieved YOLO excellence in both his sordid life and wickedly brilliant poetry. Although he had little money, Charles was a heavy spender, often depleting his parents’ income on booze, whores and fly-ass clothes. In addition to drinking, Baudelaire also smoked hash and opium and was quite fond of rolling the dice with prostitutes: most think he had syphilis and gonorrhea. Despite the STI's and debts, Baudelaire kept partying until he finally died at 46 from being too much of a king. His poetry often deals with sex, love, death, depression, evil, psychology and insanity in a disturbing, suave and fiercely intelligent manner.
His most famous poem on inebriation goes:
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it--it's the
only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks
your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of
a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again,
drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave,
the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything
that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is
singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and
wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be
drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be
continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."
3. Tao Yuan Ming (Tao Ch’ien)
Was born in the 4th century C.E. under the Jin Dynasty in China. For the first half of his adult life, Tao was a government official; however, he retired at age 40 to spend his next twenty-two years living in remote mountain retreats, admiring chrysanthemums, drinking heavily (often by himself) and writing some of the world’s most refined, intelligent and boss poems.
For the sake of space, we can’t include nearly as many or much of his drink-soaked verses as would be desired, but a few choice ones read:
I float within wine to forget my sorrow,
To leave far behind thoughts of the world.
Alone, I pour myself a goblet of wine;
When the cup is empty, the pot pours for itself.
(from Wine Drinking no. 7)
Another poem ends:
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever.
And a poem imagining his own death ends:
I only regret that while I was in the world
I never got to drink enough wine!
2. Catullus and Propertius
Since Catullus and Propertius are similar in both poetic content and lifestyle, they have been placed together for the ultimate YOLO super-group. Both ostensibly rejected the norms of their time and chose a life of self indulgent pleasure over politics. They often write of drinking parties, writing and most of all, their troubled romantic relationships. Catullus’ lover’s pseudonym was Lesbia, and he writes about her with schizoid but beautiful mixture of love and loathing; he was pretty much the Conor Oberst of the Ancient World. Propertius, although less neurotic, also writes much about his lover, Cynthia, either cheating on him or yelling at him for staying out all night drinking. Both poets went super hard, died incredibly young (Catullus at 30, Propertius in his early 30’s) and wrote of some of the smoothest, cleverest and most beautiful poetry of the Western World.
Although Propertius’ mellifluous, but sometimes tortuous style makes him not-so-quotable, part of 2.15, the original, “make love not war” poem, provides a decent enough excerpt:
If [Cynthia] gives me many [nights of making love], I’ll be immortalized:
Even one night might make a man a god.
If all men longed to pass their lives like this,
And lay here, bodies held by draughts of wine,
There’d be no vicious swords, nor ships of war,
Nor would our bones be tossed in Actium’s deep,
Nor would Rome, so often worn and attacked
By self-defeating triumph, grieve with loosened hair.
This, at least, those who come after us should rightly praise:
our cups of wine offended none of the gods.
And of course, the poet drinks to assuage his problems:
Now, Bacchus, I bow, humbly before your alters.
Father, give me peace - favorable winds -
You, who can restrain the contempt of wild Venus,
Whose wine is a medicine for cares,
Through you lovers are joined, lovers are set free –
O Bacchus – cleanse my soul of trouble.
Catullus has a wide variety of party poems and never shrinks from vulgarity. A response to his critics, begins:
I shall ram you in the ass and fuck your face,
Cocksucker Furius and Queer Aurelius…
(From C. 16)
Another poem on his girlfriend’s infidelity reads:
Caelius, that Lesbia, our Lesbia
Whom I loved more than myself
And all others...
Now in back alleys makes her home-
Blowing all noble sons of Rome.
His main drinking poem goes:
Pour another biting drink,
Of our wine - old Falernian -
As our wine queen - drunker than a plastered grape -
Say “All water drinkers be damned!
Go mope amongst your stricter kind,
Leave us with our pernicious wine, for here
Plays unmixed Bacchus. “
1. Li Bai (Li Po) (8th century C.E.)
When it comes to combining booze and poetry, the Chinese undoubtedly take the gold. Li Bai was not only one of the world’s most accomplished poets; he was also one of its hardest drinkers and most badass individuals. At 15 he was already a master martial artist and swordsman. Throughout his life, he wandered from region to region and engaging in duels and killing not a few challengers. Li Bai was imperial court poet for a while and spent most of his time getting drunk and regaling the emperor with his songs before political turmoil sent him into exile. With all the sufferings he faced abroad, Li took solace in the cup, nature, women and philosophy. There is a legend surrounding his death that Ezra Pound commemorated in a poem:
And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow river.
Li Bai was The King.
His poetry on drinking is far too expansive to even begin to quote in full, but we’ve placed a few excerpts here, so you can get a sense of what an incredible poet, person, and alcoholic he was.
…Why say, my host, that your money is gone?
Go and buy wine and we'll drink it together!
My flower-dappled horse,
My furs worth a thousand,
Hand them to the boy to exchange for good wine,
And we'll drown away the woes of ten thousand generation!
(from Bringing in the Wine)
To wash and rinse our souls of their age-old sorrows,
We drained a hundred jugs of wine.
A splendid night it was . . . .
In the clear moonlight we were loath to go to bed,
But at last drunkenness overtook us;
And we laid ourselves down on the empty mountain,
The earth for pillow, and the great heaven for coverlet…
(from A Mountain Revelry)
I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.
I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.
But the moon doesn't drink,
and my shadow silently follows...
(from Drinking Alone)
Waking from Drunken Sleep on a Spring Day
Life in the world is but a big dream;
I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
So saying, I was drunk all the day,
Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
When I awoke, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
A lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.
Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
And, as wine was there, I filled my own cup.
Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
When my song was over, all my senses had gone.
That, mon semblable, is all.
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