World Literature

Nicanor Parra

 

BORN: 1914, Chillan, Chile

NATIONALITY: Chilean

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Poems and Antipoems (1954)

Manifesto (1963)

Emergency Poems (1972)

Artifacts (1972)

Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui (1977)

 

 

Nicanor Parra. © Bassouls Sophie / CORBIS SYGMA

 

Overview

Chilean writer Nicanor Parra is known for humorous, satirical verse that has been labeled “antipoetry,’’ a poetic form that is irreverent and nonsymbolic in reflecting the fragmented state of modern society. In Parra’s opinion, the appropriate subject matter of poetry is not truth and beauty, but the vulgar surprises of life that, more often than not, amount to a bad joke. Through antipoetry, Parra relates the ironies of life in ordinary speech, making colorful, witty insights into the unpretentious characters he presents. In doing so, Parra aims to show that poetry belongs to everyone, not to an elite group of intellectuals.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Birth of an Antipoet. Parra was born in southern Chile near the small town of Chillan on September 15, 1914, to Nicanor P. Parra, a teacher, and Clara S. Navarette Parra. Throughout his youth and early education Parra considered himself both a poet and a student of science. In 1932 Parra went to Santiago, where he completed his final year of high school at the Internado Barros Arana (Barros Arana Boarding School). There he became acquainted with the school’s leading intellectuals—Jorge Millas, Luis Oyarztin, and Carlos Pedraza—and resumed writing poetry. Parra’s school friends, who later formed the nucleus of the group of prominent writers and artists of his generation, introduced him to current trends in Chilean, European, and North American culture and literature, including surrealism. The following year, Parra enrolled in the Instituto Pedagdgico (Pedagogical Institute) at the University of Chile in Santiago, where he majored in mathematics and physics while training to become a teacher.

Following in His Father’s Footsteps. As a university student Parra continued to associate with his boarding- school friends, and together, in 1935, they began publishing a literary magazine with a limited circulation, Revista Nueva (New Review). Parra contributed a short story, ‘‘Gato en el camino’’ (Cat in the Road), to the first issue and two years later published his first collection of poems, Cancionero sin nombre (1937, Untitled Song- book), a work that brought him national attention. Although the book was awarded the Premio Municipal de PoesUa (Municipal Poetry Prize) for 1938, it received, like much of Parra’s work, mixed critical reviews. In 1938, Parra graduated from college with a degree in mathematics and physics and spent the following six years teaching high school in Chilian.

Higher Education Brings Exposure to Western Literature. During the 1940s, Parra continued his education in both science and literature while living abroad in the developed world. After six years of high-school teaching, he decided to pursue graduate study in physics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1943 to 1945. Later, from 1949 to 1951, he studied cosmology at Oxford University. While in the United States and England, Parra became an admirer of North American and British writers who incorporated everyday language and colloquial expressions in their poetic commentary on politics, manners, religion, and society.

Antipoetry Attracts National Attention. When Parra returned to Chile in 1945, he joined the faculty at the University of Chile. In 1948, he was appointed the director of the school of engineering at the university, and four years later he was named professor of theoretical physics. In 1954, the work that brought him wide critical acclaim, Poems and Antipoems was published. Basically viewed as pessimistic, Poems and Antipoems satirizes political systems and social structures that, in Parra’s view, prevent humankind from transcending their own tragic history. Appearing in 1962, Parra’s Versos de salon (Salon Verses) retained a pessimistic view of life, with an added element of hope, expressed in his admonition, ‘‘try to be happy.’’ Sermones y predicas del Cristo de Elqui (Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui) followed in 1977. In it Parra utilizes folk-legends to demythologize Chilean prophets and other religious figures, permitting the reader to recognize that people or objects traditionally considered sacred are not, and that both often mask the realities of life.

Writing in Defense of the Environment. During the 1980s and 1990s, Parra published no fewer than ten books of poetry in which he continues to blend a prophetic tone with sociopolitical examination. Rather than rest on his laurels, Parra has persevered with his goal of poetic renovation through ongoing experimentation with new forms, and during the 1980s began writing in defense of the environment and treating ecological themes in his Ecopoemas (Ecopoems; 1982). In these poems Parra shows his solidarity with nature and the universe. For example, in an untitled poem from this collection, he chides humanity for contaminating the earth. In Hojas de Parra (1985; Leaves [Pages] of Parra), Parra humorously addresses the subject of death—both literally, as in physical death, and metaphorically, as in political death—as he reflects on Chile’s dictatorship. From 1974 until 1990, Chile was ruled by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte; his rule was marked by violent suppressions of political opposition and human rights violations, for which he was ultimately arrested and tried.

Hojas de Parra is the only work of Parra’s that has been staged as a theater piece. His more recent works include, Poemas para combatir la calvicie (1993; Poems to Fight Baldness), Paginas en blanco (2001; Blank Pages), Lear Rey & Mendigo (2004; Lear, King & Beggar), Obras completas I & algo + (2006; Complete Works & Something +), and Discursos de Sobremesa (2006; After-Dinner Discourses).

Accolades in Spite of Controversy In spite of the controversial nature of his poetry, and the few translations made available to English-speaking readers, Parra has been widely honored for his work. The list of awards he has received includes the Writers Union Prize in 1954 for Poems and Antipoems, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972 for Emergency Poems (1972), the American Translators Association and University of Missouri Press award in 1984 for Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui, and the Juan Rulfo Prize in 1990. Parra has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times but has not yet received the award.

In addition to teaching science and engineering, Parra’s accomplishments in writing have earned him invitations to serve as visiting professor of Spanish American literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (1966-1967), and at New York University, Columbia University, and Yale University (1971). Parra has given poetry readings and lectures in many countries and conducts poetry workshops at his home institution. He is also a member of the Academia Chilena de la Lengua (Chilean Academy of Language). He has been married twice—to Ana Troncoso and Inga Palmen—and has seven children. He presently resides in La Reina, a suburb of Santiago.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Parra's famous contemporaries include:

Italo Calvino (1923-1985): Italian postmodernist writer who works, such as the short story collection Cosmicomics (1965), reveal a fascination with science and mathematics.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964): An American marine biologist and early environmental activist famous for her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Renowned Chilean poet and diplomat, and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Nelson Mandela (1918-): An antiapartheid activist in his early career, Mandela served as the South African president from 1994 until 1999.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

In many of his antipoems, Parra engages in iconoclasm, or the deliberate destruction of sacred ideas and figures and, for Parra, the beliefs surrounding these figures. For example, in Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui, Parra represents a popular Chilean "prophet" as a regular, perhaps vulgar person, suggesting that there is nothing about the man that is holier than anyone else. Other artists have engaged in similar kinds of iconoclasm. Here are a few examples:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), a philosophical work of nonfiction by Friedrich Nietzsche. In this text, as in many other writings of Nietzsche's, the philosopher claims that ''God is dead," undermining many popular beliefs about God, particularly his infiniteness.

The Life of Brian (1979), a film directed and performed by the Monty Python comedy team. In this comedy, a young Jew named Brian Cohen, born in the same time and place as Jesus, is mistaken for the Messiah.

A People’s History of the United States (1980), a history book by Howard Zinn. In this controversial work, Professor Zinn provides a shocking challenge to the conventionally taught narrative of American history.

 

Works in Literary Context

While in the United States and England, Parra became an admirer of North American and British writers who incorporated prosaic language and colloquial expressions in their poetic commentary on politics, manners, religion, and society. He was most influenced by his readings of British poets W. H. Auden, William Blake, C. Day-Lewis, John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Louis McNeice, Ezra Pound, and Stephen Spender. In addition, Parra read Walt Whitman in Spanish translation and, under his influence in 1943, wrote a series of twenty poems, ‘‘Ejercicios retoricos’’ (Rhetorical Exercises), which were published eleven years later in the Chilean magazine Extremo Sur (Extreme South). The factor that perhaps shaped his personal aesthetic the most, however, was writing in the shadow of his friend and fellow poet, the Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda.

Having inherited a poetic tradition of lofty themes in grandiose language, Parra adopted a radically divergent form and style of his own. Often compared with Neruda, Parra writes poems that differ in both style and scope. According to Emir Rodriguez Monegal in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature (1977), Parra became an antipoet ‘‘in order to negate the exalted conception of the poet that Neruda represented so grandly. The fact that he finally succeeded in creating a viable alternative confirms his unique gifts.’’ Through common language, bizarre images, and strong political themes, Parra ultimately refined the art of writing antipoetry until he developed a kind of poem—‘artifact’—that is just as irreverent as antipoetry but marked by extreme minimalism.’’

Antipoetry. Parra made his feelings about poetry and its proper forms known in the text Manifesto (1963). In this work, the title of which alludes to past literary pronouncements as well as to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848), Parra issues a public declaration of literary and sociopolitical beliefs. Juxtaposing past and present, this work declares what poetry should not be and proclaims the proposition of poetic renovation: ‘‘For our elders / Poetry was a luxury / But for us / It is an absolute necessity: / We cannot live without poetry.’’ Parra insists on the ordinariness and indispensability of poetry and compares the poet, who shapes commonplace language into accessible form, to a bricklayer: ‘‘We maintain / That the poet is not an alchemist / The poet is a man like everyone else / A bricklayer who builds his wall: / A builder of doors and windows. / We speak / In everyday language / We don’t believe in cabalistic signs.’’ Quite simply, in contrast to Romantic and avant-garde notions of a poet’s superiority, the antipoet is an average human being.

Artifacts. Throughout the years, Parra’s antipoetry became more truncated and austere, until it assumed new form in Artifacts (1972). Parra had begun to experiment with this poetic structure as early as 1967, and from that time the artifact has been variously compared to slogan, haiku, and graffiti for its verbal compression, minimalism, and fragmentation. For Parra, artifacts are simplified linguistics that plainly state weighty ideas. Published as a set of picture postcards with illustrations by artist Guillermo Teieda, Artifacts is both a literary and visual text, in the style of French avant-garde writer Guillaume Apollinaire’s visual poetry, or calligrams. Generally fewer than ten lines, Parra’s artifacts are characterized by detachment from poetic context, maximum verbal concentration, and incorporation of disparate styles of discourse, such as advertisements, popular sayings, newspaper headlines, and political slogans.

The term ‘‘artifact’’ suggests an anthropological document or record of human social and cultural development. Appropriately, Parra’s critical eye is once again trained on societal defects in Artifacts. From a nonideological stance, he condemns all forms of large government equally. In ‘‘U.S.A.,’’ for instance, Parra criticizes the weaknesses of democracy in a country ‘‘where liberty / is a statue.’’ Likewise, he takes a dim view of Cuban socialism: ‘‘If Fidel were fair about it / he’d believe in me / just as I believe in him: / History will absolve me.’’

Parra has influenced his own and subsequent generations of Spanish American writers, and his work has been translated into all major languages, including English, notably by North American beatnik poets-such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—with whose work his has been compared.

 

Works in Critical Context

Parra’s iconoclastic approach to traditional poetry techniques, his biting satire, as well as his peculiar brand of humor, have encouraged various critical viewpoints. Many commentators point to what they term postmodern elements in Parra’s poems as a key to understanding his antipoetry, arguing that his unorthodox style successfully addresses the realities of a fragmented universe and the chaotic pace of contemporary life. Conservative scholars, however, reject Parra’s irreverent, disjointed imagery, which they assert conveys an overly pessimistic and anarchistic impression of life.

Antipoetry Sparks Controversy: Versos de salon. Owing to its provocative nature, antipoetry often sparked fierce reactions. Versos de salon was one such work. Capuchin priest Father Prudencio Salvatierra condemned this collection in a November 15, 1964, review in the conservative newspaper The Illustrated Daily: ‘‘Can a work like this, with neither head nor tail, that exudes poison and rottenness, madness and Satanism, be released to the public?... I cannot provide examples of antipoetry here: it is too cynical and demented.... They have asked me if this book is immoral. I would say not; it is too dirty to be immoral. A garbage can is not immoral, no matter how many times we walk around it trying to figure out what’s inside.’’ Equally as passionate in response, was Neruda; however, his response was one of excitement and approval.

The poetry in Versos de salon, Neruda said, ‘‘is as delightful as the gilded tint of early morning or fruit ripened to perfection in the shadows.’’ Clearly, Parra managed to evoke visions of both heaven and hell in the same work.

Certainly Neruda is not the only reader to praise Parra’s work. In his New York Times Book Review piece about Poems and Antipoems, Mark Strand comments, ‘‘Parra’s poems are hallucinatory and violent, and at the same time factual. The well-timed disclosure of events—personal or political—gives his poems a cumulative, mounting energy and power that we have come to expect from only the best fiction.’’ In a Poetry review, Hayden Carruth adds: ‘‘Free, witty, satirical, intelligent, often unexpected (without quite being surrealistic), mordant and comic by turns, always rebellious, always irreverent—it is all these and an ingratiating poetry too.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Versos de salon while considering Father Prudencio Salvatierra’s evaluation of the text—that it is, essentially, the literary equivalent of a garbage can. Do you agree with Salvatierra’s assessment that the text ‘‘exudes poison and rottenness, madness and Satanism’’?

2. In Artifacts, Parra criticizes the democracy of the United States, ‘‘where liberty / is a statue.’’ What do you think Parra means by this statement? Evaluate this claim. Do you agree with it? Do you disagree? Why?

3. After reading Parra’s Artifacts, choose a subject—a person, place, or object—that you have strong feelings about and attempt to write a few ‘‘artifacts’’ about your subject.

4. Compare Parra’s version of iconoclasm with the iconoclasm presented in the ‘‘Lisa the Iconoclast’’ episode of The Simpsons. Who is the target of each of these iconoclastic texts? Do you think that there are larger implications for each of these instances of iconoclasm? What might they be?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Grossman, Edith. The Antipoetry ofNicanor Parra. New York: New York University Press, 1975.

Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, ed. The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature. Vol. 2: The Twentieth Century: From Borges and Paz to Guimaraes Rosa and Donoso. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Periodicals

Agosin, Marjorie. ‘‘Contemporary Poetry of Chile.’’ Concerning Poetry (Fall 1984).

________. ‘‘Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra: A Study of Similarities.’’ Poesis: A Journal of Criticism (1984-1987).