Poet and translator Soledad Marambio remembers Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, who passed away on January 23, 2018. Parra was born in the south of Chile 103 years ago and became one of the most vital voices in Spanish-language literature. He was the creator of what is known as antipoetry, a way of writing against consecrated literary models and reinventing poetry by using real life, orality, and pop culture. Parra was also a mathematician and a physicist.
He let the flies in. But that was later. Nicanor Parra’s first book, Cancionero sin nombre (1937), was heavily influenced by Federico García Lorca’s style. The sounds and rhythms of the Spanish poet were present in Parra’s initial poems; so was the countryside and its imagery. But Parra’s countryside was different from the one that the poet from Granada sang to. It was deeply Chilean, and so even though Lorca’s music was present in Parra’s writing, the words flowing in that music were different, only possible if you had Parra’s ears, if you had walked his roads, in his shoes. Soon, Parra dropped that Lorcaesque music, feeling constrained by it. He continued a process of experimentation: some surrealism, some Whitmanian metric freedom, some Kafkaesque insights. Everything seemed to collide in the writing of Poemas y Antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems,1954), the book that let the flies in.
Four years before the appearance of Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas, Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, an epic rendition of the history of the Americas, was, for Chilean and Latin American readers, a major publishing event. Neruda, at that point, was the sacred father figure of Spanish letters. A heavyweight. In Canto General, he was trying to break with traditional poetic metrics and getting closer to prose. At the same time, he wanted to write using a simpler language. If I’m talking about Neruda right now it is because it’s easier—and perhaps essential—to understand Parra’s legacy if one considers Neruda. It’s not a matter of personal rivalry because Neruda was an early, enthusiastic supporter of Parra’s antipoesía. Rather, it’s a matter of what we understand poetry to be, what we think of as its materials. In this, Neruda and Parra walked on opposite sides. One could say that Parra strolled on the sunny one.
Even though Neruda tried to write in a simpler key, his Canto was bombastic. It recounted five hundred years of American (as in “all the Americas”) history and it did so through the voice of a seer: “Yo estoy aquí para contar la historia” (I am here to tell the story), he wrote. The prophet/poet’s voice. His voice, everybody’s voice. Parra just wanted to be Parra and talk to the guys (los muchachos). Neruda’s Canto was full of epic scenes, the great sorrows of the continent and its people; Parra wrote about his boxer’s nose, his thinning hair, doves that, before him, soared in the skies of highbrow poetry and that now, in his writing, were seen eating flies. Parra brought ugliness, the dust and the shoes, to poetry. He didn’t want to be the voice of the poor, the expression of the multitude, he wanted to be one of them. So his words were ordinary ones; and his scenarios, his subjects, were the ones you find on street corners, in parks, among dirty sheets, in the small coves of everyday life.
In Poemas y antipoemas there is a poem called “Advertencia al lector”/“Warning to the Reader” that is useful for understanding the totality of his work. In it, Parra warns the reader and says that he would not answer for the discomfort caused by his writing. He also notifies the reader that he won’t find the word “rainbow” or the word “pain” in his poetry. Even though the word may be absent—I did not do a fact-check—pain is present throughout his work. It hovers in between the jokes, the street talk, the countryside conversation. It’s the common pain of everyday life—the exhaustion, poverty, jealousy, unrequited love, plain love, death, and absurdity of it all. And the discomfort as well. Especially for those who think that poetry is just for big themes, big words. Parra got bored with all that grandiosity. “Ha llegado la hora de modernizar esta ceremonia,” he wrote, and he did so—he modernized Spanish-language poetry, getting rid of its solemnity, broadening its definition. He was in favor of a lettered revolution and always against what he called “fat poetry,” that produced by the “sacred cows” of the canon. The irony is that Parra has become a sacred cow as well, but we can always think of him as the cow that ran away from its farm to live with the wild bison in the Polish forest. The cow walking the wild side. He went far down that road, and many followed him.
At his wake, in Santiago’s cathedral, the priests didn’t want to honor one of his last wishes: to be bid farewell with the songs of his sister Violeta, the tremendous Chilean folk singer. They felt that that her music was not fit for a sacred place. One of Parra’s daughters grabbed a microphone and told everyone gathered what was happening. Without Violeta’s songs, she explained, the family was going to take away Parra’s body. Very soon, “Gracias a la vida” was pouring out of the church speakers. Then came the cuecas, the dancing, the poetry, the street. Nicanor Parra let the flies in. And that’s a lot to be thankful for.