Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Who made this mishmash? - Nicanor Parra says one thing for another

I have to write about some of the Nicanor Parra antipoems that I read, however theoretically in Spanish, just to remind myself that I did it.  Much of Poemas y Antipoemas is available in English translation, but not quite all of it.

The book has three sections, all with good, odd, punchy, quotable poems.  The “Self-portrait (Autorretrato),” just as an example from part II, a schoolteacher’s lament (Parra was a math teacher, and later a physics professor).  He has ruined his health:

Para ganar un pan imperdonable
Duro como la cara del burgués
Y con sabor y con olor a sangre.
To earn an unforgivable bread,
Hard like the face of the bourgeois
And with the taste and smell of blood.  (tr. me)

His nose is ruined “by the lime of the degrading chalk,” his ideals “brutalized by the singsong / of the five hundred hours a week.”

The Nicanor Parra site must have a revised version of the poem.  No ruined nose but rather a line about a pair of shoes; “sabor” and “olor” are reversed.  Heck if I know.  Check the PDF of the first edition if you don’t believe me.  Hey, maybe Parra excluded entire poems in later editions; thus their absence from the website.

The third section takes a turn, though.  These, I thought, were the antipoems.  The first poem in the section is a “Warning to the Reader.”  “The doctors of the law say this book shouldn't see light,” “My poetry may very well lead nowhere.”  Parra promises to “bury my quills in the heads of my readers!”  This is David Unger’s translation.

The next poem is “Rompecabezas,” “Puzzles” or more literally “headbreakers,” although Parra’s anitpoems are antipuzzles:

¿Para qué son estos estómagos?
¿Quién hizo esta mezcolanza?

Yo digo una cosa por otra.
For what are these stomachs?
Who made this mishmash?  (tr. me)

I say one thing for another.

If there is an elaborate word puzzle buried in this poem, I’ll never find it.  But there is no way any puzzle created by Nicanor Parra has a solution.  That would destroy my anti-faith in him.  In “Solo de Piano,” Parra reassures me:

Since we do not even have the consolation of a chaos
In the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that we must solve before our death  (tr. William Carlos Williams!)

The antipoems, for all their jokiness, feel as autobiographical as that self-portrait .  From “Words to Tomás Lago,” a Chilean poet and champion of folk art:

Vinieros también esas conferencias desorganizadas
Ese polvo mortal de la Feria del Libro,
Vinieron, Tomás, esas elecciones angustiosas,
Esas ilusiones y esas alucianaciones.
There come those disorganized conferences
That deathly dust of the Book Fair,
There come, Tomás, those heartbreaking choices,
Those illusions and those hallucinations.  (tr. me)

Even antipoets have to go to book fairs, how sad.  Oh, that’s the next line.

How sad all this was!
How sad! but how happy at the time!

Think back on old times, the poet urges his friend,

Porque es justo pensar
Y porque es útil creer que pensamos.
Because it is right to think
And because it is useful to believe that we think.  (tr. me)

That collection of Alexander Vvedensky I read last summer was titled An Invitation for Me To Think, which would have been a good title for a Parra collection.  The great puzzle is that of existence – who made this mishmash – the solution is to think, to record our poems on rocks, to laugh with the antipoets.


  1. Just think of the possibilities for new spelling and grammatical errors I have introduced in this post! Plus all of the links! I am a fool!

  2. I have the same version of "Autorretrato" as you and your PDF, which is supposed to be the "definitive" one according to my critical edition. In addition to his nose, the poet's poor tongue makes out so much better in the sanitized version! By the way, René de Costa cites a Parra interview in which Parra says he came up with the term antipoemas after finding a book called Apoèmes by the French poet Henri Pichette in a British bookstore. Parra was working on a PhD in cosmology at Oxford at the time, but fortunately for all concerned that didn't work out and he stuck with antipoetry instead!

  3. As soon as you start working with a text, there are problems. I was looking at that online version, saying "Hey - this has whole different lines!"

    The tongue, for example, "gnawed" or "rotted by cancer" - gone, replaced, weird.

    Very funny, "didn't work out." Parra is one of those figures who is a little bit frightening. But I guess poetry lends itself well to a high-level duel career, as with Wallace Stevens and WCW.

  4. What a politically correct laziness of thought Parra so often reveals. Duro como la cara del burgués. Hard as the face of a peasant or a factory worker would have been just as meaningful/meaningless.

    1. Applying the "politically correct" critique to a 60 year old volume of Chilean poetry is quite anachronistically ingenious, Mr./Mrs. Anonymous. Got any pro-Pinochet free verse you'd like to recommend for your poetry encore?

    2. It has to be self-deprecating, right? Parra was pretty bourgeois compared to the rest of his family. I forgot to mention that Nicanor's sister was a hugely famous folk singer.

    3. I don't know much about Parra's personal circumstances beyond what I've read in the introductions to his works, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that as a man of letters he identified as "anti-bourgeois." That wouldn't be all that uncommon after all. In this poem here (as in much of Parra's poetry), though, I think the posture is clearly self-deprecating: he says he has a 500 an hour work week as well! Anonymous, who disingenuously claims a poetical beef with Parra when it's clear from his contempo culture war language that his beef is actually political or rooted in class identification, might better enjoy "Ode to Some Pigeons" where the real life teacher and professor Parra takes the birds in his poem to task for being "more hypocritical than a professor."

  5. As a metaphor it is not good. As a joke it is better, but I do not know that it is a joke.

  6. From an antipoet (read: unreliable poet), Cogito ergo sum is hard to accept. Unreliable because he took back everything he said. The puzzle is destroyed even before the solution is arrived at.

  7. Yes, that's it. He likes the idea of the puzzle.