The irreverence of an anti-poet

Nicanor Parra

Chile’s nonagenarian poet brought poetry down from Mount Olympus and took it to the streets, coining the term “anti-poetry” in his anti-poems.

Monday, December 05, 2011  
Nicanor Parra (Photo:Dibam)

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The prodigal son of Chile’s iconic Parra family, Nicanor Parra Sandoval was born in the small southern village of San Fabián de Alico, near Chillán, on September 5, 1914. Now in his late nineties, the famous Chilean poet is best known for his iconoclastic style and coining the poetry movement “anti-poetry.”

Nicanor Parra was raised in a family that was well-endowed with artistic talent, even if their material welfare often teetered on the brink of poverty. Three of Nicanor’s siblings - Roberto, Eduardo and Violeta Parra - gained fame in their own right for their contributions to theater, literature, art and music.

Before entering university, Nicanor Parra studied in Lautaro, Chillán, Ancud and Santiago. He entered the Universidad de Chile in 1933, studying mathematics and physics and later becoming a professor at the same university. In the 1940s, he studied and taught at Brown University, in the United States, and Oxford University, in England.

His first works were published in 1937, in the collection of 29 poems titled “Cancionero sin nombre” (Songbook Without a Name). But it was the 1954 publication of his book “Poemas y antipoemas” (Poems and Anti-poems) that revolutionized Chilean poetry and reverberated throughout the world.

Nicanor Parra’s style and attitude in Poemas y antipoemas formed a new poetic movement that was subversive, but not militaristic. Instead of taking an ideological stance, Parra’s poetry roundly denounced the very concept of ideology. His language is marked by a rejection of flowery verse and a pronounced return to “the language of the tribe,” and the situations described in his poetry are characterized by a wry sense of humor and sarcastic irony.

With the success of “Poemas y antipoemas,” Parra began to travel extensively and enjoy international success abroad. His other works include "Versos de salón" (Parlor Verses), "Obra gruesa" (Rough Draft), “Artefactos" (Artifacts), "Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui" (Sermons and Preachings of the Christ of Elqui), “Hojas de Parra" (Vine Leaves, or Leaves of Parra), "Poemas para combatir la calvicie" (Poems to Fight Baldness), and “Discursos de sobremesa” (After Dinner Declarations).

His many awards include Chile’s National Literature Award, a Guggenheim scholarship, the Juan Rulfo Award, and - most recently - the Cervantes Prize for Spanish-language literature. 

Nicanor Parra lives in the seaside town of Las Cruces in central Chile, part of the so-called “Coast of Poets”.

May they decorate me in Las Cruces
Where I enjoy full democratic impunity:
Things got complicated
Someone requested my extradition to Santiago
For anti-poems I had committed....

Excerpt: “Claro que yo hubiera preferido” (Of course I would have preferred) from No me explico Sr. Rector (Foul Papers).

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