In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.
Like most of the 102 poems appearing in “Memorial to Isla Negra, “Poetry” is reflective in content. It starts with the conjunction “And” as if it were a part of an ongoing discussion that the poet has been having with his readers. Again, he assumes that we know what “that age” was when he first began to write poetry – Neruda started writing poetry in the early 1920s as a teenager).
What is amazing is Neruda’s deliberate inversion (this is a poetic talent or inspiration (described here in the form of a person – who comes looking for someone that will compose verses, rather than vice versa) in the very first line when he tells us that poetic’s inspiration came looking for him and impelling him to compose verse, rather than the poet looking for and pursuing her.
He isn’t very sure whether the poetic inspiration came to him through the elements of nature or such vital images in his mind. He is unable to understand whether it was an inaudible call or its absence or the solitude surrounding him. The meaning of “from winter or a river” refers to the elements of nature which inspire poetry and such vital images in a poet’s works. On the other hand, the meaning of “violent fires” is unrest, quarrels or emotional upheavals.
Thus, the very first stanza of the poem, which you can read in full here, tells us that the poetic instinct can come any time; it is not a matter of time. As we know some are born poets, while some become poets with the passage of time. It is only the time and tide that brings the poetry out of a person.
In this second long stanza of the poem, the poet talks about the way he wrote his first line, and what made him to compose his “first faint line”—which means his initial, hesitant verses though the poet lacks in confidence when writing them. He says that there was something that started in his soul, it was either the “forgotten wings”—which means hidden or nameless emotions that could take flight or fever/fire that helped him make his own way and led him to write the first line. Through line 27: someone who knows nothing – the poet means a novice. The poet here acknowledges his ignorance before his muse, whereas through the line 30, he means the outpouring of inspiration which is described as though it were a miracle.
The inaudible voice of the poetic muse might have come from the pathways or avenues of the silent night that appeared to him like a tree spreading out its branches in various directions. However, the very “first faint line”, the poet wrote was the result of poetic inspiration searching him out as the favored one. Poetry appeared, almost literally, at his doorsteps like a long-lost friend or a sudden guest. The line 22: deciphering/that fire –refers to understanding that burning passion, while line 26: nonsense/pure wisdom – means the opposition between immaturity that conceals the maturity and seriousness that is about to come in his poetic endeavors.
Was she the poet’s mistress with whom he was destined to have a long and stimulating love affair?
Neruda’s poem reads like a flashback from a movie, filmed during his days at Temuco. His technique of repetition is more pronounced here, and it is a repetitive negation, such as, “No, they were not voices, they were not/words, nor silence. “There is something threatening about this visitor in his life, for the poet was “summoned” and he stood in his naked silence, divested of any identity: “there I was without a face/and it touched me.”
The poetic inspiration invested an identity on the poet – a moment when he felt knighted or honored in some very significant way.
In the same stanza we find those aspects of Neruda’s style that we are familiar with. There is love of the word play and the alternative phrase –“fever or forgotten wings” – to denote the turmoil created in him. Again, there is the play of opposites in “pure/nonsense/pure wisdom” when he wrote his “first faint line”. A little later, there are: “palpitating plantations/shadow perforated/riddled/with arrows, fire and flowers. /the winding night, the universe.” The verse: “palpitating plantations” – means cultivated fields which has so far been barren, but are now reverberating with life. The poet has used alliteration in this 33 line.
In this third stanza, the poet says considers himself an infinitesimal being- which means minute or insignificant (as compared to the universe). He says that he is intoxicated (drunk) with the great starry void—meaning—great expanse of endless empty sky filled only with the constellations—likeness—meaning similarity –image of poetry –meaning representations of the unknown and abyss – which means bottomless chasm or deep gorge.
There is wonder as the poet perceives a new world opening up before him, and it is significant that he should use words that are, once again, a reminder of the American colonies, and thereby the master-slave relationship. In a sense, the poet is also a slave to his muse and he must suffer the pain of arrows before he can find the pleasure of flowers, i.e., poetic recognition.
The fire implies that a poet’s talents are truly tested before he gains popularity and, as Neruda writes these lines retrospect, he can portray such modesty and humanity. The poem, which is relatively calm in the beginning, suddenly gathers momentum and there is, once again, drunken revelry and surrealism in—“I wheeled with the stars/my heart broke loose on the wind.”
Thus, when the poet started writing poetry, he reached other world that was full of mystery and imagery, he wheeled with starts and his emotions started flying with every word of poetry that he wrote. His heart in fact started flying without bridle and his feelings had no bounds, and whatever he felt or experienced he poured it out in the verse of poetry.
About Pablo Neruda and His Poetry
Pablo Neruda belonged to a group of Spanish poets, called the Generation of 1927. Some Spanish critics have found it hard to believe that Neruda became a much greater poet than Vallejo who deserved recognition more. Other critics think that Neruda lacked the ability to be critical and discerning although he was sometimes quite perceptive about his country and its poets. Yet others have found him generous but derided him for his loyalty to Commission. But he remains an all-time favourite of his readers.
Pablo Neruda published some of his early poems in the 1920s in the student magazine Claridad at the Santiago University. However, it was Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair that made him the much-quoted Latin American poet. His popularity far surpassed any of his contemporaries in his own or even in other countries. Neruda’s poetry has been translated into several languages, and in India alone he has been translated into Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and other regional languages.