Two weeks ago the Cervantes prize, Spain’s loftiest literary honour, was bestowed on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.
Parra, at ninety-seven years of age, is without doubt the most influential of living South American poets. His career as an eminent physicist (he has been a visiting professor at Oxford and Yale) provided him with a livelihood and immunised him to some extent from the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime. A near-contemporary of Neruda, he considered his more famous compatriot’s poetry to be too flowery, too close for comfort to romantic egotism, and his own ‘antipoetry’ – a term that requires some unpacking – presents a “bleaker vision, prosier rhythms, and starker, surrealist deadpan humor”. By the 1930s Parra was already asserting that what was needed was a vernacular poetry that related to ordinary life and which was accessible to the general public. These ideas, as manifested in Poesia y antipoesia (1954) had a huge impact on poets of a younger generation, especially those who were caught up in the politics of resistance. Parra began writing ‘antipoetry’ because, in his words “poetry wasn’t really working”; there was “a distance between poetry and life”. In a gracious twist, Neruda himself confessed to Parra’s influence on his own later work. It has been claimed, not unreasonably, that Parra’s method derived from his mathematical, relativist background, where he used minimal language and avoided metaphors and tropes in order to address his readers directly. However such assertions almost always sound reductive or cockeyed to me.
Parra’s later work is often a mesh of word association games, intentional cliché and spectacularly straightforward rants about the environment, inequality and corporate corruption. He is a ludic poet, while remaining a poet of intense seriousness. It may well be that his influence will be more lasting than either Neruda or his fellow Nobel laureate, the Mexican Octavio Paz.
Here are a few translations of his work:
Our father who art in heaven
Laden with problems of every kind
Your brow knotted
Like any common ordinary man
Don’t worry about us any more.
We understand that you suffer
Because you cannot set your house in order.
We know the Evil One doesn’t leave you in peace
Unmaking everything you make.
He laughs at you
But we weep with you:
Don’t be troubled by his diabolical laughter.
Our father who art where thou art
Surrounded by treacherous angels
Truly: do not suffer any more on our account
You must recognize
That the gods are not infallible.
And that we forgive everything.
(From ‘Bío Bío’)
CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM
Years before the Principle of Finitude
Neither capitalist nor socialist
But quite the contrary Mr Director:
We understand by ecology
A socioeconomic movement
Based on the idea of harmony
Of the human species with its environment
Which fights for a ludic life
free of exploitation
And based on communication
Between the big guys & the little guys
MEMORIES OF YOUTH
What’s certain is that I kept going to and fro,
Sometimes bumping into trees,
Bumping into beggars,
I found my way through a forest of chairs and tables,
With my soul on a thread I watched big leaves fall.
But it was all in vain,
I gradually sank deeper into a kind of jelly;
People laughed at my rages,
They started in their armchairs like seaweed carried by the waves
And women looked at me with loathing
Dragging me up, dragging me down,
Making me cry and laugh against my will.
All this provoked in me a feeling of disgust,
Provoked a tempest of incoherent sentences,
Threats, insults, inconsequential curses,
Provoked some exhausting hip movements,
Those funereal dances
That left me breathless
And unable to raise my head for days
I was going to and fro, it’s true,
My soul drifted through the streets
Begging for help, begging for a little tenderness;
With a sheet of paper and a pencil I went into cemeteries
Determined not to be tricked.
I kept on at the same matter, around and around
I observed everything close up
Or in an attack of fury I tore out my hair.
In this fashion I began my career as a teacher.
Like a man with a bullet wound I dragged myself around literary events.
I crossed the threshold of private houses,
With my razor tongue I tried to communicate with the audience;
They went on reading their newspapers
Or disappeared behind a taxi.
Where was I to go?
At that hour the shops were shut;
I thought of a slice of onion I had seen during dinner
And of the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.
THE CHRIST OF ELQUI RANTS AT SHAMELESS BOSSES
The bosses don’t have a clue
they want us all to work for nothing
they never put themselves in the shoes of a worker
chop me some wood kiddo
when are you going to kill those rats?
last night I couldn’t sleep again
make water gush from that rock for me
the wife has to go to the gala dance
go find me a handful of pearls
from the bottom of the sea
if you please
then there are others who are
even bigger wankers
iron me this shirt shitface
go find me a tree from the forest fuckwit
on your knees asshole
. . . go check those fuses
and what if I get electrocuted?
and what if a stone lands on my head?
and what if I meet a lion in the forest?
that is of no concern to us
that doesn’t matter in the least
the really important thing
is that the gentleman can read his newspaper in peace
can yawn just when he pleases
can listen to his classical music to his heart’s content
who gives a shit if the worker cracks his skull
if he takes a tumble
while soldering a steel girder
nothing to get worked up about
these half-breeds are a waste of space
let him go fuck himself
and afterwards it’s
I don’t know what happened
you can’t imagine how bad I feel Señora
give her a couple of pats on the back
and the life of a widow and her seven chicks ruined
FROM ‘NEW SERMONS AND TEACHINGS OF THE CHRIST OF ELQUI’
Those who are my friends
those who don’t have a place to lie down and die
the single mothers
– the students, not because they are troublemakers –
the peasants because they are humble
because they remind me
of the holy apostles of Christ
those who did not know their father
those who, like me, lost their mother
those condemned to a perpetual queue
in so-called public offices
those humiliated by their own children
those abused by their own spouses
the Araucanian Indians
those who have been overlooked at some time or other
those who can’t even sign their names
my friends are
the dreamers, the idealists who
surrendered their lives
to the holocaust
for a better world
For half a century
Poetry was the paradise
Of the solemn fool.
Until I came along
And set up my roller coaster.
Go on up, if you want.
It’s not my fault if you come down
Bleeding from your mouth and nose.
Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 46, No 3 Winter 2010-11.
Thanks for finally talking about >Nicanor Parra at
ninety-seven | Ricardo Blanco’s Blog <Loved it!