Absinthe & The Great South American Poets

Pablo Neruda

Hemingway was Cuba’s most famous absinthe drinker. But Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous poet (and a Nobel Prize winner), was also an absinthe enthusiast. Hemingway and Neruda followed similar paths. In the 1920s, the poet spent some years in France, and in the late ‘30s lived in Spain, where he supported the Republican cause against Franco’s Fascists. One can assume that Neruda, like Hemingway, acquired his taste for absinthe in one or both of these countries. Neruda’s house – now a museum – in Valparaiso, has a display of his collection of goblets and glasses, including half dozen antique cordon glasses.

The following translation is taken from the transcript of a speech made in Cuba by Ángel Augier, a poet and friend of Pablo Neruda.
On March 13, 1942, Neruda, then Chile’s General Consul to Mexico, paid his first visit to Havana. Soon after arriving, the poet, accompanied by his wife and some Cuban friends, took a stroll down the Paseo del Prado and invited the group for drinks in a bar on the way. All but one ordered absinthe; Ángel Augier, a light drinker, opted for a beer. Neruda, in a mock-stentorian voice, declared:

“Ángel – now and again, it’s absinthe that gets the job done!”
After everyone’s laughter had subsided, he continued:
“Back in Mexico, when I had to finish writing my ‘Song for Bolívar’ only hours before having to read it aloud on stage, I just couldn’t seem to end the thing. So I went for a glass of absinthe and finished the poem in a really great mood …”More laughter. Augier replied: “Now I know what to take the next time I find myself in a similar predicament.”

Rubén Darío

Latin America – Nicaragua, to be exact – had its own absinthe-soaked poetic genius. His name was Rubén Darío, and though he died nearly 90 years ago, his fame is such that nearly every educated Latin American knows of his work. A lesser, but still considerable, number have heard of Darío’s fondness for absinthe.

Rubén Darío was born on January 18, 1867 in Metapa, Nicaragua (later renamed Ciudad Dario). Dubbed El Nino Poeta (the poet child), Darío began reading at the age of 3 and at 12 he was already publishing poems. At 14, Darío was received by President Zaldivar of El Salvador and awarded an attractive 500-peso grant to support his talents. The young poet squandered the money in one night of champagne revelry at a San Salvador hotel with newly-found friends. As a result, President Zaldivar sentenced the intemperate young poet to nine months at a strict boarding school. Here Darío not only studied French, but also met the well-respected poet, Francisco Gavidia. Gavidia introduced Darío to the rhythmic structure of French poetry, which later became the cornerstone of Dario’s revolutionary verses. At the age of 19, Darío moved to Chile and dabbled in journalism. Though his poetry received praise in Chilean competitions, Darío was confronted with prejudice and racism due to the dark complexion of his skin, compared to that of the European-influenced Chileans. Despite his disillusionment and despondency, Darío continued to be prolific in his writing and published some of his more popular works such as “Azul”, “Otonales”, and “Primeras Notas”. Throughout his life, Darío indulged in alcohol and women and was notorious for his immoderate lifestyle. One of Nicaragua’s most notorious drunks, he developed a taste for high living, absinthe, and exquisite dining. While still working as a poet and journalist, Darío was named Ambassador of Nicaragua in Paris in 1903. He gained recognition throughout Latin American and Spain with the 1905 publication of “Azul”, a full-length collection of his work. “Azul” introduced Darío as the spokesman of a new Latin American modernism. The collection incited a literary revolution because Darío replaced the complex Spanish verse with a simple, direct structure, adding a musical, rhythmic quality and an unparalleled sensitivity and cognizance to his verse. In 1914, while in New York, Darío fell ill to pneumonia and recovered only to find himself financially bankrupt. Colombian poet and friend Juan Arana had to beg in the streets of New York to support Darío; he also managed to collect money from friends in Buenos Aires and from the Nicaraguan government. The following year, Darío returned to Nicaragua and died there in 1916 at the age of 49. Darío wrote: “Poetry will exist as long as there is a problem of life and death. … There are no schools; there are poets.”

Letter from the Blue Country (Carta del país azul), addressed to the Chilean sculptor, Nicanor Plaza, c. 1888.

I do not lie in telling you I fell in love at that instant; and when the cool breath of midnight blew upon me, I felt a desire to write you this letter, from the divine blue country where I wander to – a letter that seems saturated with the scent of illusion; mad and naïve, joyful and sad, aching and mist-covered, and with the taste of absinthe, a liquor which holds, in its crystalline greenness, both opals and dreams – as you well know.
No te miento si te digo que estuve en aquel instante enamorado; y que cuando bajó sobre mí el soplo de la media noche, me sentí con deseos de escribirte esta carta, del divino país azul por donde vago, carta que parece estar impregnada de aroma de ilusión; loca e ingenua, alegre y triste, doliente y brumosa; y con sabor a ajenjo, licor que como tú sabes tiene en su verde cristal el ópalo y el sueño.

The Bluebird (El pájaro azul) c. 1888

Paris is theater, amusing and terrible. Among the congregants at the Café Plombier, doughty and determined fellows – painters, sculptors, writers, poets; yes, all striving for the ancient green laurel! – none were more loved than one poor Garcin, perennially sad, a dedicated drinker of absinthe, a dreamer who never got drunk and, like any irreproachable bohemian, an excellent improviser. … His verses were for us. We read them and applauded. All sang praises to Garcin. He was a genius who would undoubtedly shine. Time would tell. Oh, the Bluebird would soar! Bravo! Outstanding! Hey, waiter, more absinthe! When the Bluebird wants to fly and spread his wings and is hemmed in by the walls of his own skull, he turns his eyes to the sky, furrows his brow and drinks absinthe without much water, while smoking a scrounged paper cigarette.
París es teatro divertido y terrible. Entre los concurrentes al café Plombier, buenos y decididos muchachos — pintores, escultores, escritores, poetas; si, ¡todos buscando el viejo laurel verde!, ninguno más querido que aquel pobre Garcín, triste casi siempre, buen bebedor de ajenjo, soñador que nunca se emborrachaba, y, como bohemio intachable, bravo improvisador. … Los versos eran para nosotros. Nosotros los leíamos y los aplaudíamos. Todos teníamos una alabanza para Garcín. Era un ingenio que debía brillar. El tiempo vendría. ¡Oh, el pájaro azul volaría muy alto! ¡Bravo! ¡Bien! ¡Eh, mozo, más ajenjo! … Cuando el pájaro quiere volar y abre las alas y se da contra las paredes del cráneo, se alzan los ojos al cielo, se arruga la frente y se bebe ajenjo con poca agua, fumando además, por remate, un cigarrillo de papel.

Edgar Poe and Dreams (Edgar Poe y los Suenos) c. 1911

To revel, with opium, in Poe’s exotic dreams – to contemplate with eager eyes the magical panoramas of a “dream land” in order to shiver with poetic terror before the apparition of a Ligeia – to hear the “nevermore” of the Raven – one has to have, before all else, the genius of a Poe. And this alone should give pause to the conceited, who beg the hypocritical and bewitching drug for an inspiration they know they won’t find in themselves. Wise words, to be heeded by the young – fooled by their own misguided ambitions – who think that with Verlainean absinthe they will dream up the same “fetes galantes” as Verlaine, or that with Poe’s gin or laudanum they will have the key to the mysterious hells and heavens Poe knew, guided by fatality – that exceptional spirit.
Para gustar con el opio los exóticos sueños de Poe, para contemplar con un ojo ávido los mágicos panoramas de un ‘País de sueño’, para estremecerse de un poético terror ante la aparición de una Ligeia, para oír el ‘never more’ del ‘Cuervo’, hay, ante todo, que tener el genio de un Poe, y eso sólo debía dar a reflexionar a los presuntuosos que van a mendigar a la hipócrita y maleficiosa droga una inspiración que saben no encontrarán en ellos mismos”. Cuerdas palabras para que sean bien entendidas por los jóvenes engañados por sus propias equivocadas ambiciones, que creen que con el ajenjo verlainiano soñarán las mismas fiestas galantes que Verlaine, o con el gin o el láudano de Poe, tendrán la llave de los misteriosos infiernos y paraísos que visitó señalado por la fatalidad, aquel espíritu excepcional.

Sister Philomene (Sor Filomena) c.1911

“It’s done, by all the devils!”, roared the obese businessman heading toward the little marble table, where a poor boulevardier was drowning his bitterness in the opaline waves of a glass of absinthe. The businessman – that famous Krau fellow; haven’t you heard of his magnificent nose, a genuine pink jewel adorned with alcoholic rubies? – the businessman ordered his own [absinthe] without much water. Soon the sweat dried from his brow and, with a bang of the fist that shook the tray and the glasses, he proceeded to loosen his tongue.
“¡Ya está hecho, por todos los diablos!” rugió el obeso empresario, dirigiéndose a la mesita de mármol en que el pobre tenorio ahogaba su amargura en la onda de ópalo de un vaso de ajenjo. El empresario — ese famoso Krau, ¿no conocéis la celebridad de su soberbia nariz, un verdadero dije de coral ornado de rubios alcohólicos?-, el empresario pidió el suyo con poco agua. Luego secó el sudor de su frente, y dando un puñetazo que hizo temblar la bandeja y los vasos, soltó la lengua.