Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Digest noted that on this day in 2004, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to completely ban cigarette smoking from the workplace. But what followed, in Garrison Keillor’s writerly way, was a few observations about smoking and literature.
There are smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers reading this, and in those groups there are certainly some people who connect smoking and writers. As an undergraduate English major, I definitely connected smoking and writers. Most of the writers I read, studied and admired were pictured at some point smoking. In a Romantic way, I made the connection and began smoking cigarettes as part of my writing routine. That routine also included coffee or alcohol depending on the time of day.
Lighting new cigarettes,
It has been a beautiful
― Charles Bukowski
This was stupid. Of course, smoking does not aid writing. Or does it?
Author and columnist A.N. Wilson said after the ban went into effect:
“Sitting with my drink in such now-empty bars, my mind has turned to the great smokers of the past — to C.S. Lewis, who smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes with his friends Charles Williams (cigarette smoker) and Tolkien (pipe-smoker); to Thomas Carlyle, whose wife made him smoke in the kitchen of their house in Cheyne Row, but who is unimaginable without tobacco, to Robert Browning, who quickly adapted to the new cigarette craze, to the great John Cowper Powys, who continued to smoke cigarettes, and to produce fascinating novels, into his nineties … This attack on basic liberty, which was allowed through without any significant protest, might mark the end not merely of smoking, but of literature.”
Well, the ban, which spread worldwide, didn’t end literature. It may have helped literature by prolonging the lives of writers who quit.
In my formative years, smoking was all around me. My father smoked. Everyone’s father and even some mothers seemed to smoke. People on television smoked and in movies were both Romantic and romantic.
Poets especially seemed to love smoking.
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”
― Frank O’Hara
In his poem “The Best Cigarette,” Billy Collins writes nostalgically about the smoking occasions he misses the most, including ones connected to his writing.
… the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
Oscar Wilde wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?”
“Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.” – Vladimir Nabokov
I gave up smoking when I was dating the woman who became my wife because she hated it and still has never even tried smoking. My writing is more prolific, and I’d like to think better, than it was when I was a college student. Do I miss those cigarettes? I definitely don’t miss the smell of a cigarette. Like many ex-smokers, I find the smell nauseating sometimes, though I still find the aroma in a tobacco shop of the unsmoked leaves pleasant. In my bar-smoking days, I know that having a cigarette slowed down my drinking.
The best cigarette for me? Never in the morning. For me, it was either the one after dinner with my coffee, or the less common smoke beside a campfire. The former certainly was connected to writers. The latter probably was more connected with watching too many western films. But that’s a different essay.