In the essay “Opium Made Easy,” Michael Pollan, notable food and gardening writer, explores his relationship with cultivating the poppy flower and delves into how he discovers, through his connection to another writer who has been arrested for possessing opium plants, that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has recently become concerned about the use of poppy plants to create opium in the United States. Pollan’s essay is full of rich, descriptive language as he narrates his journey from ignorance to a state of fear and anger and, by the end of the essay, it is clear that the purpose of the essay is to critique the United States government’s war on drugs. The text’s implicit thesis is that the United States government’s efforts to curtail the cultivation and distribution of the poppy seed and plant is part of a larger, misguided effort to regulate drugs within the United States, that this war on drugs is illogical, influenced by biases, and should be rethought. In supporting his thesis, Pollan employs narration as his dominant rhetorical mode and extensively uses irony and a specific structure to support his thesis. Pollan uses narration, irony, and imagery to artfully support his argument.
Pollan structures the essay using narration as his dominant rhetorical mode. He orders “Opium Made Easy” in a very deliberate way, starting with a description of the poppy flower, which he says is breathtaking, and then describes how he came to understand that cultivating the poppy flower is an illegal act. As part of the narrative, Pollan weaves in the story of Jim Hogshire, a writer and amateur chemist, and the saga of how he was arrested for possessing dried poppy flowers. The flow of the essay can be divided into four categories: Pollan’s personal gardening experience and his curiosity about the poppy plant, his relationship with and knowledge of Hogshire, his personal fears and anxieties about growing poppies and, finally, his commentary that reveals his criticism of the United States government’s war on drugs. The narrative rhetorical mode draws the reader in and keeps the essay from becoming stale. The reader stays engaged as Pollan switches from talking about his personal curiosity about creating opium from a homegrown poppy plant to Hogshire’s anger and resentment, to the strange dreams Pollan begins to have due to anxiety over growing the poppy plant.
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While narration is the dominant rhetorical mode that Pollan uses to draw the reader into the various facets of his experience with the poppy plant and DEA’s action against poppy growers and distributors, irony is the literary technique that Pollan utilizes to persuasively support his arguments. Towards the end of the essay, Pollan contemplates the fact that, on land very close to his own, a man named Joe Matyas cultivated apples for the sole purpose of making hard cider during the Prohibition Era. Pollan points out that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s symbol was an ax, symbolizing the destruction of the apple trees that were being used to make hard cider. Pollan compares the apple tree, which most Americans now regard as innocuous, to the poppy plant – pointing out the irony that, like the poppy plant, the apple tree was once seen as dangerous and illicit by certain individuals. He also highlights how ironic it is that most Americans now regard the government-endorsed effort to ban alcohol as highly misguided and ineffective, but that a similar effort against drugs is now taking place. Through his use of irony, Pollan provides a historical context from which to view the DEA’s efforts to curtail drug use in the United States, and plants a thought within the reader’s mind that the war on drugs will someday be viewed in the same way that today’s Americans view Prohibition.
Just as his use of irony provides a historical context from which to view the current war on drugs, Pollan uses imagery to capture the reader’s imagination and also reveal how he views the DEA’s policies regarding the poppy plant as absurd. Pollan uses extensive imagery of the poppy plant throughout the essay to show how ridiculous it is that the United States government is arresting individuals like Hogshire for possessing a plant that is revered by gardeners across the U.S. for its beauty – and one that is so common that it can even be found in the gardens of the mothers of law enforcement agents. Here, Pollan uses vividly descriptive language to convey the beauty of the poppy:
The bud’s outer covering, or calyx, had split open, and I could see the scarlet petals folded inside, packed as tightly as a parachute. By the following morning the stem had drawn itself up to its full four-foot height and the petals—five deltas of rich red silk freaked with black—had completely unfurled, casting off their calyx and fuming to face the sun. That solitary exquisite bloom was followed the next day by three more equally formidable dabs of pigment, then six, then a dozen, until my poppy patch was a terrific, traffic-stopping blur of color, of a red so red as to be platonic.
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This descriptive language helps the reader, who may be unfamiliar with the poppy plant, understand the allure of the poppy and Pollan’s fascination with it on an aesthetic level.
In conclusion, Pollan uses a variety of rhetorical and literary techniques in his essay, “Opium Made Easy,” in order to further his argument that the United States government’s war on drugs is misguided and illogical. Pollan’s dominant rhetorical mode, the narrative, is what keeps the reader engaged, ties together the various facets of Pollan’s experience with the poppy plant and, ultimately, leads the reader to Pollan’s thesis towards the end of the essay. Within the narrative rhetorical mode, Pollan uses irony to deftly reveal that the United States government’s attitude towards drugs is similar to its attitude towards alcohol in the Prohibition era – a period in history that is now widely regarded as misguided. Finally, Pollan’s use of imagery to bring to life the beauty of the poppy plant underscores the absurdity of DEA’s attempt to regulate a common garden plant and the vague laws that govern whether a poppy plant is legal or illegal. Pollan leaves the reader wondering whether 100 years from now, society will regard the government’s fixation with regulating the poppy plant as ridiculous, as ridiculous as the United States government’s efforts to ban alcohol during Prohibition.