Sunday, November 9, 2014

But no: life doesn’t make sense - Nicanor Parra's greatest antipoem

Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos wanted people to read the poems and antipoems of Chilean physicist and antipoet Nicanor Parra.  We both read Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas (1954).  Ricardo read a shiny new edition with an introduction and notes.  I read a battered old PDF of the first edition.  For some reason Parra has moved into English in selected poem editions – Rise of In Lieu of a Field Guide read a couple of those, including the one I read a couple years ago.  But I wanted the original book this time.

The Individual’s Soliloquy

I am the Individual.
First I lived by a rock.
(There I recorded some figures).

This is the beginning of the last of the Antipoemas.  The (anti)poem is a history of mankind.  Man’s first act worth noting is the creation of art.

The mindless translation is mine.  Allen Ginsberg loved this poem and performed it frequently.  He and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have an outstanding translation.  Their parenthetical line is “(I scratched some figures on it)” which is better, less formal, more evocative of the scene.  El diccionario also has, for the verb “grabar”, “engrave” (too technical), “incise,” “cut”- awfully close to “scratched.”  Although there is something to be said for “recorded.”  The Paleolithic art, the soliloquy, the antipoems – what are they but a record that he is the Individual.  The Spanish reader gets all the meanings at once.

The verb “grabar” is used throughout the poem, so the translator’s choice is going to do a lot of work.

The first line (“Yo soy el Individuo”) is repeated, too, eighteen more times, 15% of the entire poem.  Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti drop the capital “I” which again is more normal, less strident.  It is amusing that the Beats softened Parra a bit.  Maybe the capital was too authoritarian.

I then took a stone I found in the river
And began working on it,
Polishing it up,
I made it a part of my life.
But it's a long story.
I chopped some trees to sail on
Looking for fish,
Looking for lots of things,
(I'm the individual.)
Till I began getting bored again.  (tr. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti)

The Individual is restless.  He invents or discovers things – fire and religion at this point, watches and sewing machines later.  His boredom at this point leads to philosophy and monotheism, I think.

Storms get boring,
Thunder, lightning,
I'm the individual.
I began thinking a little bit,
Stupid questions came into my head,
Doubletalk.  (tr. G. & F.)

Parra’s line is “Falsas problemas,” but “Doubletalk” is perfect.  Books, cities, languages are created.  I began to wonder, by the end of the poem, if the Individual was not just man but also God.  After all this progress, a mystical glimpse “behind the curtains (Detrás de unas cortinas)” leads the Individual to wonder:

Better maybe that I return to that valley,
To that rock that served as my home,
And start recording anew,
To record backwards
The world upside down.
But no: life doesn’t make sense.  (tr. Amateur Reader)

Now that is the definition of an antipoem.

Nicanor Parra turned 100 in September.


  1. Thanks for reading along with me and Rise, Tom, and for having been the first person in English to have written about & introduced Parra to me (i.e. that I'm aware of) a few years back. Also, props to you for giving this title a go via that "battered old PDF." (I think your translation is "de alta calidad," by the way!) One of the things I like about "The Individual's Soliloquy" is the tension between the proud "yo/I" of the individual and the fact that this figure is almost always in contact with the collective other--as if the individual may need solitude to create art, but he needs a public to enjoy it.

  2. It's a shame your translation
    is so good
    otherwise I could
    have called it

  3. Whew, thank God you avoided the capital crime of Parracide!

    The last line alone is a contender for the Nobel Prize for Translation. Seriously, that punchline is Individual. Why did the Beats render it weakly, dropping the 'no' and the colon?

    No: it doesn't make sense.

  4. I am,slow, so I wrestle with the term "antipoem." I will have to find a definition and explanation somewhere. As I said, I am slow.

  5. Antipoems are written in antipoetic diction. Antipoets make fun of the elevated tone of previous poetry. The fact that their antipoems look just like normal poetry to us today bears witness to their victory. Their antipoems look like poems that could be titled So, There!, or In Your Face!. Their craft was first named in the words of Huidobro:

    Here he lies,
    antipoet and wizard.

    Antipoets write both versions of the famous poem from Gombrowicz' Ferdydurke:

    The Original:
    The horizon bursts like a bottle
    The green stain mounts towards the sky
    I return to the shade of the pines
    And there I drink the last unassuaging cup
    Of my daily Spring.

    And the translation:

    Thighs, Thighs, Thighs
    Thighs, Thighs, Thighs, Buttocks,
    Thighs, Buttocks, A$$.

    We know their names: Nicanor Parra, Nichita Stanescu, Vasko Popa, Charles Simic, Miroslav Holub, Carlos Drummond, Ferreira Gullar, (some would go as far as to say Arberry sometimes), etc.

    The antipoet most recently introduced to English language readers is Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934–2009), I live, I see: Selected Poems.

    From the excellent review at languagehat let me quote 2 of Nekrasov's antipoems:

    Again again / Snow snow [Опять опять / Метель метель]
    Again again
    Snow snow And now again
    And now again


    And now thaw
    And now snow again

    Night / Tonight is night [Ночь / Нынче ночью ночь]
    Tonight is night
    At night
    Yet Day
    Today it's
    Today's the
    Day today!

    1. Thanks for the very helpful mini-syllabus nested in your wonderful comment, humblehappiness. That should provide a great road map to somewhere should I ever get my reading act together! The one thing I'd add to your antipoem definition for R.T.--at least as it relates to Parra--is that Parra's antipoet persona plays up the trickster element and self-mocking at the expense of the old Rimbaud vision of the poet as voyant. Parra's voice is down to earth but not to be trusted despite the plain "everyman" language. Which makes his famous post-poetry reading exit line--"I take back everything I said tonight" or something along those lines--all the more appealing in my book!

  6. I'm thinking about moving from Parra to A. R. Ammons, since they have some antipoetic similarities. We'll see. You're right, now they're all just poems, mere poems. The mode has been completely absorbed and normalized. Not the individual poems, though. They can still surprise.

    Still, RT, "wrestle," uh huh. It's a joke, the term is a joke. A physics joke, actually - matter and anti-matter, poems and anti-poems.

    As humblehappiness says - and ably demonstrates - Parra was part of a general Modernist move to dynamite the hardened Romanticism that encrusted the arts. Like the Beats in U.S. poetry, or Cage and Partch in music. The fact that these artists were all Romantics themselves - I mean, look how that Parra poem ends - is an irony, but what they were demolishing was received Romantic style, all the devices that had become clichés.

    I really like the G&F translation, but they make the poem their own in some ways that I wanted to undo. The end of the poem made me especially itchy. So I shoved it back towards Parra.

    Richard, that's a great point - sometimes the Individual the artist, seems happy to create on his own, but other times he seeks out other people. And then other times he is clearly trying to escape society, striking west. The cantankerous Individual is both social and a restless loner.

    I don't really know that this is Parra's greatest (anti)poem, but I am convinced it's a great poem.

  7. Nekrasov is great stuff. I just learned about him not long ago, and I have just barely enough Russian to see that he's doing amazing things with the sounds of the words that don't translate easily into English. My favorite Nekrasov antipoem is the one that begins "Осень-осень-осень-сень," which translates as "autumn autumn autumn canopy" or "autumn autumn autumn annoyance" where "сень" means both "canopy of leaves" and "annoyance." You could also translate the line as "fall fall fall umbrage," which has a nice sound to it, too. The poem about night, quoted above, does marvelous things in Russian with similar words like "tonight" and "night" and the shifting forms of the word "today." Really great stuff. I'm not really contributing to this comment thread, but I am quite excited by Nekrasov's poetry and so, tangentially, I might check out the Parra.

    Well-played with "parracide," Seamus and Rise.

  8. I can't resist quoting a little antipoetic treat. Parra's In Santiago de Chile:


    Many eternities elapse in one day.

    We are kept packed in pockets.
    Like salted kelp kept for pecking.
    We yawn. We keep on yawning.

    However... weeks... are... relatively... short.
    Months speed away.

  9. Parracide was much in the spirit of this author. Poetry is a form of play.

    I guess perhaps Parra Part II will come tomorrow, not tonight.