BUENOS AIRES — Chilean "anti-poet" Nicanor Parra was one of Latin America's preeminent writers of the past century, destined to be remembered for creating a genre of poetry that precisely eschews "poetic" language.
Parra died in Santiago died on Jan. 23 at the ripe age of 103. Back in 2014 during celebrations for his 100th birthday, he decided to stay at home in Las Cruces. But across Chile they were reading "The Imaginary Man," the poem he had written some 30 years before to surmount a failed love affair.
Chile's president-elect Sebastián Piñera reacted to his death saying it gave Parra "the last thing" he needed to become immortal, namely "leaving this earthly world." But admiration for Parra cut across Chilean society.
He spent much of his time on the streets.
Nicanor Segundo Parra Sandoval was born in San Fabián de Alico, a tiny village near Chillán, southwest of the capital, a month after World War I began. He was the first of nine children who became musicians and writers, stimulated by the folk culture their mother spread about the house. Their father, a teacher, was also a singer. A sister, Violeta Parra, became one of Chile's most popular folk singers and author of the songs "Gracias a la vida" and "Volver a los 17". Both have become part of Latin America's musical heritage, familiar to millions as sung by Argentina's Mercedes Sosa.
Nicanor was the only one of the children to later finish university (becoming a physicist and mathematician), and was teaching past the age of 80. But he was a man who "spent a lot of time on the street," listening to the city's "daily conversation" as our correspondent Julieta Roffo has written. That is where he found "humor, irony and impudence ... the raw material for his anti-poetry." His years in the United States and the United Kingdom were influential, as he began reading Walt Whitman, John Donne, Shakespeare, William Blake and T.S. Eliot.
The poet's remains veiled in the Cathedral of Santiago Capital of Chile — Photo: Luis Vargas/ZUMA
In time his reputation grew, but he avoided labels and his anti-poetic style sought to oppose the canon. His first poem, "Cancionero sin nombre" ("Unnamed Songbook", 1937), showed the influence of the contemporary Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. His second book (Poems and Antipoems, 1954), was decisive in forging his literary self. He wanted poetry to be "accessible to all" and wrote at the time that "antipoetry is simply the ying and yang, the masculine and feminine principle, light and shadow, the cold and the heat." His antipoems, he wrote, had a "narrative focus, often around an antihero, using colloquial language marked in particular by humor and irony."
He said he did not want to write poetry like his contemporaries Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha, nor even the world-famous Pablo Neruda. Asked once if he wanted to be Chile's greatest poet, he said "I do not want to be Chile's greatest poet. I shall make do with being the greatest on Isla Negra," the town near Las Cruces where Neruda lived. Did that not amount to the same thing, given Neruda's stature?
Neruda wrote the prologue to Parra's Poems and Antipoems, which would turn out to be revolutionary.
In addition to antipoems, Parra created "artefacts" (short, sharp texts and images some might see as precursors of "memes"). One was Artefacto USA with the caption, "Where liberty is a statue." The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia observed these were to Hispanic literature what Marcel Duchamp's cheeky installations were to modern art.
Nicanor Parra wanted poetry to be "accessible to all" — Photo: Ceci Flores
During the military regime (1973-1988), he took his distance from politics and stayed in Chile, which would later earn him reproach. He did publish texts like Chistes parra desorientar a la policía (Jokes to Confuse the Police), with allusions to the disappearance of opponents and civilians in Chile.
Laugh, cry, do as you please
In 1991 he received the University of Guadalajara's Juan Rulfo prize, in 2001 the Queen Sophia Hispano-American Poetry Prize and in 2011, the Cervantes Prize, the highest honor in the Spanish-speaking world. He was also long cited as a possible Nobel candidate.
Reviewing once a compendium of his own works, Parra said, "I am surprised with Obras completas. I read those poems and do not feel I am their author. I feel I was not the author of anything because I always fished things wondering through the air."
Parra, who married three times and had six children, left instructions of sorts for his funeral in "Últimas instrucciones:"
A pair of football shoes
A florid potty
My black driving glasses
A copy of the Holy Bible
After the service
Keep Your Freedom of Action
Laugh, cry, do as you please
But remember, should you come across a blackboard
Do not slouch
For that black cavity is where I live.