RIP Nicanor Parra, Chile’s anti-poet

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Nicanor Parra always had the last laugh. By living to 103 and winning the Cervantes Prize – the highest award for a writer working in Spanish – he became “eminent” when all his life he’d been a contrarian.

Parra dragged Latin American poetry into the streets. Rejecting all Romantic and flowery sentiments, he fashioned a poetics for the common man. Neither his language nor his subjects were exalted – he wrote about office workers and thugs – and called himself an “anti-poet.” At the end of performances, he’d comically announce, “Me retracto de todo lo dicho!” – “I take back everything I said!”

Humor was vital to him and his work. He once explained, “Remember: it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”

Parra’s political stance fluctuated. Unlike most Latin American writers of the era, he wasn’t consistently on the left. He satirized Allende as well as Pinochet, probably because he was skeptical of anyone in power, although this didn’t stop him taking tea at the White House with Pat Nixon while the Vietnam War was raging. (The latter act saw him dis-invited by Fidel Castro to serve as a judge for a literary prize in Cuba.)

Growing up in a poor but artistic family, Parra won scholarships which eventually led him to Brown University and then graduate work at Oxford. He was married twice, fathered a son with his housekeeper, and had two more children with an artist – Nury Tuca – who was 33 years younger than him.

A renowned theoretical physicist who taught for four decades at Universidad de Chile, he once said, “I teach physics to make a living, but I write poetry to stay alive.” And it’s the poetry that will live on. He was prolific. After Pablo Neruda had helped him to find a publisher for Poems and Anti-Poems in 1948, he produced dozens more books and was a major influence on the Beat writers, particularly Allen Ginsberg. When he won the Cervantes Prize, the citation described him as “a poetic sniper who revitalizes everything.”

Rest in peace, Nicanor Parra. And try not to disturb the angels.

 

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