Nicanor Parra can’t hear shit. The long white hairs growing out of his ears don’t help the situation. At 103 years old, he is gaunt, deaf, and permanently hunched. He spends most of his days wrapped in blankets, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He’s physically withering away, but the Chilean poet retains the same sharp intellect that destroyed, lampooned, and then reenvisioned South American poetry during his 60-plus year career.
When I sat with him in his living room, we ate toast and talked long enough for our coffee to get cold. It was surreal to share Parra’s daily coffee after spending months thinking it would be impossible to ever meet him. Nicanor Parra is revered in Chile. In 2011, he won the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor, and he may very well be in line for a posthumous Nobel Prize in Literature. Everyone I talked to—my host brother; Parra’s old wine dealer; his Chilean contemporary, Raul Zurita—knew that Parra was close to death and unlikely to waste his time with a random kid from “Estados Unidos.” But here I was, shuffling my feet on his wooden floor.
Four months before that, on the second day of my study abroad program, I had been a ten-minute bus ride south, at Pablo Neruda’s home-turned-museum, Isla Negra. The final room we walked through on the tour was adorned with immaculate, glowing shelves full of buffed seashells. Parra’s house was vastly different. While sitting in Parra’s living room I looked at the walls. They were lit up by sun and covered in pencil marks. Stray notes, drawings, and phone numbers covered cracked white paint.
Parra rarely takes visitors. The two homes are polar opposites and physical manifestations of the differences between two of Chile’s most important poets. Neruda is the face of South American poetry, the Nobel Prize winner. Parra is the counterpoint to Neruda’s unrelenting socialism (and lavish lifestyle). Over the course of Neruda’s life, Isla Negra became a destination for foreign diplomats and celebrities. Community members on the coast told me that Neruda lost touch with the people of Chile. A restaurant owner I talked to followed this with the claim that Parra is “el poeta del pueblo.” The poet of the people.
Parra is celebrated by Chileans and, to a lesser extent, the poetry world at large, but he doesn’t consider himself a poet. Parra is an antipoet. Antipoetry is a boiled-down form of poetry that is self-aware and thrives by critiquing the latest fashions in traditional verse. The antipoet rejects the mythical status that restrains poets to transcendent proclamations, and is then able to write whatever he pleases. Parra’s antipoems are colloquial and of this world. They make fun of political dogma with a veiled and biting sense of humor. The elements of antipoetry have been employed in poetry before, but Parra collected the formerly disperse elements of dark humor, brevity, and social commentary and took them to their breaking point.
Metaphor may be helpful in explaining (or it may be bullshit). If poetry is a delicately cut paper snowflake, antipoetry is a bunch of scraps of paper strewn across the ground. For a time I tried to piece together the scraps. I obsessed over his poems and was drawn into his world before ever knowing that I would eventually sit in his living room and stare at his ear hairs.
I am still answering the question, “Who is Nicanor Parra?” I still don’t have a grasp on his poems—much less on the man himself. And although antipoetry has shown me the crevasses that traditional poetry can’t explore, it does not give up its secrets easily. Like Parra himself, antipoetry is understated but explosive. When either one speaks, it’s best to listen.
At first, Parra’s poems taught me about the Chilean society that I was attempting to understand during my four-month study abroad program. They provided an account of unspeakable atrocity and uniquely Chilean pain. There was no external mystical life to the poems. They were artifacts. In “Moscas en La Mierda” he writes:
Al señor—al turista—al revolucionario
me gustaría hacerles una sola pregunta:
¿alguna vez vieron una flotilla de moscas
revolotear en torno a una plasta de mierda
aterrizar y trabajar en la mierda?
¿han visto moscas alguna vez en la mierda?
porque yo nací y me crié con las moscas
en una casa rodeada de mierda.
To the businessman—the tourist—the revolutionary
I would like to ask one single question:
Have you ever seen a squadron of flies
circling a pile of shit
coming in and working on the shit?
Have you seen flies on shit before?
Because I was born and raised with flies
in a house surrounded by shit
The poem works with a brutal way of perceiving reality. It’s even more brutal in English, though I’m sure there are layers within the Spanish that I can’t access. But if I stomp on the poem’s surface for long enough, I think I often find a discernible message, however bastardized. In this poem, I see Parra saying that abject poverty and misery in Chile is real and present. There are no dreams in the haunting world Parra suggests, just flies on shit, picking at the waste of farm animals or humans. We don’t exactly know which.
Businessmen, tourists, and revolutionaries were all central characters in the narrative of Chilean history that I was learning. The “businessman” came in with the foreign companies stripping minerals from the Atacama Desert. The tourists crowded into small Northern enclaves of Santiago and ate pizza while listening to Italian music. The revolutionary I studied was Salvador Allende, a socialist who was elected President of Chile in 1970. Allende died while bunkered inside the Chilean capitol building during the 1973 military coup. His dreams of equality and resource distribution died with him as bombs rained down on La Moneda.
As I read more I found that Parra wasn’t interested in clean, pre-packaged conclusions about the festering political landscape of his country. Anyone and everyone was put under the microscope, not just the pillaging estadounidenses. Parra is not a poet to use as a tool to prop up your political beliefs. Every time he claims to believe in something, he contradicts himself and leaves readers one step behind. Parra has never been classifiable other than as El Antipoeta.
I assumed Parra was dead until I read an article by Raul Zurita in BOMB Magazine. The article quotes Parra in its introduction:
“Estados Unidos: el país donde
la libertad es una estatua.”
– Nicanor Parra, Artefactos
“United States: the country where
liberty is a statue.”
In the space of two lines Parra warped my view of an iconic North American image. The Statue of Liberty had always seemed so regal to me, but the poem made me question exactly why we worship a bronze monument to our non-specific but much-professed belief in “liberty.” Parra’s poems provided the simple comfort of acute, everyday observation. I kept “Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair” in my notebook for four months. Not because it was profound, just because it made me laugh. Nothing is that serious. We all go home and fight about the dishes.
Letras de un poeta que duerme en una silla
el transcurso del tiempo
claro que sí
pero primero quién lava los platos
él que quiera lavarlos que los lave
y tan enemigos como antes
Letters from a poet who sleeps in a chair
the passage of time
but first, who washes the dishes
he who wants to wash them
see ya later, alligator
and we’re right back to being enemies
As I read more, I began to lose control of the antipoems. I bought a copy of Afterdinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant, and was thoroughly confused by the collection. The poems were full of Chilean literary references and obscure Latin American history. They skittered away from the dustpan of my classifying mind like marbles soaked in vegetable oil on a concrete floor. They opted to strangle soppy metaphor and unceremoniously hang the carcass from the clothesline, just as I’ve just done in these past few sentences. Still, they were funny, in exactly the way that I’m trying to be right now.
Parra unquestionably has “the sauce,” and is able to display said sauce without resorting to high diction. He consistently uses a colloquial, straightforward voice. I started reading poems to my host brother, Jaime, to see if I was losing my mind, or if Parra was actually a genius. One afternoon I was reading to Jaime while thumbing through Liz Werner’s translation of Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great. I came to a poem titled “Nota sobre la lección de la antipoesía.”
Nota sobre la lección de la antipoesía
1. En la antipoesía se busca la poesía, no la elocuencia.
2. Los antipoemas deben leerse en el mismo orden en que fueron escritos.
3. Hemos de leer con el mismo gusto los poemas que los antipoemas
4. La poesía pasa - la antipoesía también
5. El poeta nos habla a todos sin hacer diferencia de nada
6. Nuestra curiosidad nos impide muchas veces gozar plenamente la antipoesía por tratar de entender y discutir aquello que no se debe
7. Si quieres aprovechar, lee de buena fe y no te complazcas jamás el nombre de literato
8. Pregunta con buena voluntad y oye sin replicar la palabra de los poetas; no te disgusten las sentencias de los viejos pues no las profieren al acaso
9. Saludos a todos
Note on the lesson of antipoetry
1. In antipoetry, it is poetry that is sought, not eloquence.
2. Antipoems should be read in the same order in which they were written.
3. We must read poems with the same hunger we bring to antipoems.
4. Poetry happens - so does antipoetry.
5. The poet speaks to all of us, without discrimination
6. Often our pleasure in antipoetry is impaired by our curiosity: we attempt to understand and dispute when we shouldn’t do either.
7. Read in good faith if you want to partake, and don’t ever find your satisfaction in the author’s name.
8. Ask your questions openly and listen without argument to the poets’ words; don’t be impatient with the pronouncements of the elders - they don’t make them by accident.
9. Hi to everyone
Jaime started crying when I read the poem. In between tears he told me to read number eight again. I read it and he asked to hold the book. I tried not to look at him as he cried. Later in the evening, we sat in the kitchen and he explained that he had always wanted children, but never had them. Life got in the way. “Nos duele mucho, nos duele mucho,” or “It is painful for us,” he told me, speaking for his wife, Angie. Years had slid past and Jaime was passing his pain to me. Listen to your elders, they do not make these declarations lightly. Jaime became the elder that afternoon. Do not waste your youth, I remember thinking to myself.
This is how I learned about the simplicity and power of antipoetry. “Nota sobre la lección de la antipoesía” escapes poetry’s need to speak in metaphor. It appears on its surface as something so simple that anyone could write it. But this is what sets Parra apart. Other poets come off as hokey, or preachy, or inane, when trying to make the sort of powerful declarations that Parra makes. But Parra just comes off as honest.
Parra’s own life story adds yet another dimension to the antipoems. It’s common to hear about poets holding odd jobs before finding fame in the poetry world, but Parra’s path toward poetry meandered more than any poet I had studied before. Parra was born poor in Chillán, a small town in southern Chile. After receiving a scholarship to attend Universidad de Chile, he moved from his hometown to Santiago to study math and physics as an undergraduate. He left Chile in 1938 to study advanced mechanics at Brown University. After graduating from Brown, he studied cosmology at Oxford University. From the mid-1950s until 1991, in addition to beginning to write antipoetry, he worked as a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Chile. In an interview with Miller Williams, a prominent poet and translator of Parra’s work, Parra said that he studied math out of “an honest desire to be everywhere at once. It wasn’t intellectual pride. It was an instinct for integration.”
Parra’s antipoems contain elements of mathematical integration with the world, but in a larger sense, they channel math through their implicit claim to speak to an objective truth. The six apples that Jane bought in the third grade math problem became two when Mike ate four of them. End of discussion. I think this is the exacting truth that burrowed inside of Jaime’s mind when we read “nota sobre la lección de antipoesía.” Time passes, and you’ll be sad when you make mistakes. Simple. Jaime did not cry because a poet showed him how beautiful it is when the leaves turn different colors in fall. Parra doesn’t taste, hear, feel, or see anything extraordinary. He does, however, confront brutal, factual reality.
At this point, I didn’t understand exactly the type of beast that I was dealing with in antipoetry. I knew it was different from the poetry I had been exposed to at school. The poem I read with Jaime seemed simple enough, but the way that Parra wrote was impossible to channel into my own writing. This out-of-reach quality only added to Parra’s mystique.
The article I read by Raul Zurita in BOMB Magazine kept coming back to me. If Parra was alive, I thought, and Zurita was writing articles about him and interviewing him, maybe I could find Parra through Zurita. Most days there was a moment where I acknowledged to myself that I was in Santiago, on the other side of the globe, hanging off of South America’s face like a rogue gringo neck hair. If it was possible to be standing here, why not just try and meet Nicanor Parra?
Zurita was a professor at the nearby Universidad Diego Portales. A doubtful literature department assistant gave me his email. I emailed him with some bizarre hope that he would respond to a clumsy email from an American Parra enthusiast. Zurita responded within two days:
“Tiene casi 103 años, por favor no te hagas muchas ilusiones de que puedan conversar o que te responda, me es muy doloroso decírtelo pero es así.”
“He is almost 103 years old, please don’t have fantasies of what you will be able to discuss, or even that he will be able to respond, it’s painful to say it, but that’s the way it is.”
Deaf, blind, or merely a spirit—I was happy to spend five minutes with Don Nicanor in any state. I had finished my study-abroad program, so I left for the coast.
The AirBnB that I rented in El Tabo—clearly the most important part of this story, and worth telling you—was a one-room guest house across the garden from a larger series of guest houses and the owner’s house. Most of the time I was exceptionally cold in the guest house. It was creeping towards winter in Chile.
I knew that I would be able to find Parra’s house if I looked for a gray Volkswagen on Calle Lincoln. A local paper had published a story online after his 100th birthday, and the author mentioned the gray Volkswagen as an important staple on his block, almost a monument at this point. I bussed to Las Cruces my first morning in the area and quickly found the rusted car.
I pulled at my shirt and fanned myself off. I felt underdressed. The black sneakers I was wearing were visibly falling apart. I hoped that he wouldn’t look at my feet. I stumbled through a Spanish explanation with his caretaker, and within two minutes I was sitting in his living room. She explained that I should yell or write my questions down, and she left the room. The first thing I wanted was to show him a poem and see how he reacted to his work from fifty years ago. I handed him a book with a dog-eared page. The cover of the book, Liz Werner’s How To Look Better and Feel Great, features a portrait of Parra in his early 90s. He pointed his finger and said “chistoso viejo.” Funny old man. I laughed nervously and gestured toward the poem.
To me, the poem seemed out of sync with Parra’s other work. What I took from it was that the beautiful, resilient nature of life was growling in the pit of Parra’s stomach. I saw the poem exalting poetry and life through a common pigeon. When I showed it to Parra I imagined I would get a stern nod in return, an affirmation of the weight of the poem. Instead he started laughing and said something along the lines of “It’s a joke. I am very funny.”
Una vez en un parque de Nueva York
Una paloma vino a morir a mis pies
Agonizó durante algunos segundos
Pero lo + insólito
Fue que resucitó de inmediato
Sin darme tiempo para reaccionar
Y emprendío el vuelo
Como si nunca hubiera estado muerta
A lo lejos sonaron una campanas
Y yo me quedé mirandola zigzaguear
Entre las estatuas de mármol
& me crujieron estrepitosamente las tripast
& me puse a escupir este poema
One day in a park in New York City
A pigeon fell at my feet
She thrashed 4 a few seconds
And then died
But the most unexpected thing of all
Was that she revived on the spot
Without giving me time to react
And took off flying
As though she had never been dead at all
Bells were ringing somewhere far away
And I just stood there watching her zigzag and zigzag
Between the marble statues
& there was a noisy growling in my guts
& I got started spitting out this poem
I am a stupid child, I thought to myself. Seven minutes later, I left his house in a stupor. I had met Nicanor Parra, and the world was still spinning in its dumb circles. The buses were still running, people were still watching TV, and flies still flew around the butcher shop looking for blood. But I had met the great antipoet. I felt high.
Some will say the details of a story are important. Some will say they aren’t. The point is, later in the week I met a local hotel owner who used to sell red wines to Don Nicanor. He gave me a bottle, and with my host family’s insistence that if I met Nicanor Parra, I absolutely must get photos and a signature, I set for his house once again. Somehow, I had forgotten a pen the first time. I had met Derek Jeter and forgotten a Sharpie. (Derek Jeter is the baseball equivalent of David Foster Wallace.)
As I sat with Don Nicanor again, I pointed at a book on the coffee table. A picture of a middle-aged Nicanor was on the cover. I flipped through some pages until I got to a picture of a rosy-cheeked Nicanor and Jackie Kennedy in the White House. I looked at him in measured bewilderment. (You don’t want to seem too bewildered.) He laughed and explained that after visiting the White House, the Cubans wanted to kill him.
What was I supposed to say to that? “I AM HAPPY YOU ARE ALIVE,” I screamed at Nicanor Parra. He leered, “Gracias.”
He let me stew in the silence. “Thank you,” he said, now speaking in an accentless English, “You are very nice.” His eyes creased, and his grey knit hat bobbed, suggesting a laugh. I laughed sheepishly as it dawned on me that there was something not at all funny about Don Nicanor. He had spent a lifetime and a half confronting the cold, daily facts of life in his poetry. And now, it was clear, he was ready to die.
I left his house for the last time and started jogging down his sandy street. I was late for my bus back to Santiago, and I was scared. Not about missing my bus—I was scared of Don Nicanor. Seeing his unwavering eyes and the realness of his body made me fear his unwavering poetry. It made me feel childish for having cuddled up with the poetry of image and narrative emotion for so long. Parra’s antipoems are a fun-house mirror image of poetry. His poems changed me enough that I’m still struggling to see traditional poetry outside of the warped image that Parra showed me. I haven’t pieced together the whole story yet, nor do I think I ever will. When Parra is not tapping at the base of my poetic Parthenon with a rock-hammer, he mostly gives me hope.
Escriban lo que quieran
En el estilo que les parezca mejor
Ha pasado demasiado sangre bajo los puentes
Para seguir creyendo -- creo yo
Que soló se puede seguir un camino:
En poesía se permite todo.
Write how you want to
In the style that seems best
Too much blood has passed under the bridge
To go on believing - I believe
That there is only one path
In poetry everything is permitted.
Or maybe he’s just being sarcastic.
''Note on the Lessons of Antipoetry'' By Nicanor Parra, translated by Liz Werner, from ANTIPOEMS: HOW TO LOOK BETTER AND FEEL GREAT, copyright ©2004 by Nicanor Parra, translation © 2004 by Liz Werner. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
''Resurrection'' By Nicanor Parra, translation by Liz Werner, from ANTIPOEMS: How to Look Better & Feel Great, copyright ©1985 by Nicanor Parra. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
''Something Like That'' By Nicanor Parra, translated by Liz Werner, from ANTIPOEMS: HOW TO LOOK BETTER AND FEEL GREAT, copyright ©1985 by Nicanor Parra, translation copyright © 2004 by Liz Werner. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Part of the Four Letter Word issue