What is an antipoet? A merchant of coffins and urns? A general who doubts himself? A priest who belives in nothing? A vagrant who laughs at everything’? Even old age and death? A talker with a bad temper’? A ballerina at the edge of an abyss? A Narcissus in love with the whole wide world? A owl practical joker who’s miserable by design? A poet who sleeps in a chair? An alchemist of modern times’? A pocket-sized revolutionary? A petit bourgeois? A charlatan? a god? an innocent? A bumpkin from Santiago, Chile? Underline the phrase you consider correct. What is antipoetry? A tempest in a teapot? A rock stained with snow? A basketful of human excrement? As Father Saves-the-Earth believes it is? A mirror tells the truth? A woman spreads her legs apart? A slap in the face Of the Writers Society president? A peice of advice to young poets? A jet-propelled coffin’? A coffin moves by centrifugal force’? A coffin runs on coal oil? A funeral parlor without a coipse? Mark with a cross The definition you consider correct. Translated by Dave Oliphant. BOOKS AND THE CULTURE The Antipoet of Santiago Chile and Nicanor Parra Revisited BY DAVE OLIPHANT p OLITICS AND POETRY have always gone hand-in-hand in Chile. Just as the changes in its government have been symptomatic and even prophetic of developments in the Latin American political arena, so too has this long, thin land set the pace for poetic trends in the Americas. Chile has produced more Nobel Prize-winning potry, with the exception of Sweden, which has given the prize to more of its own writers than to those of any other nation’. Now another poet’s name is frequently mentioned as a legitimate Nobel contender: Nicanor Parra, who at 77 is considered the greatest living Spanish-language poet and one of the most important poets alive and active in the world today. Throughout his career, Parra, the self-professed “antipoet,” has attempted to clear away the false and noxious in human life, most recently attacking, in what he calls “ecopoems,” the consumerism that has placed the planet in danger of becoming nothing more than a junk heap. Last summer, it was announced that Parra would receive this year’s Juan Rulfo Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, which carries with it a $100,000 stipend. It was in 1965, while preparing for my first trip to Chile with a joint University of Texas U.S. State Department-sponsored student exchange program, that I discovered Parra’s antipoetry, which was translated by Miller Williams and published in the February 1965 issue of Motive, a magazine sponsored by the Methodist Church. I was struck by the humor and impiety of Parra’s short, ironic poems, especially since they were appearing in a church publication. The most famous Chilean poet of that time was, of course, Pablo Neruda, whose work had been translated and read in every part of the world. I was personally more intrigued by Parra’s self-styled antipoetry, which was partly a reaction against Neruda’s more traditional poetry with its celebration of the natural world, its seeming preoccupation with the “serious” Dave Oliphant is a writer who lives in Austin. subjects of poetry: love, death and the cause of the common man. Parra, in contrast, sati rized everything sacred, questioning any and all comers, including fascists and leftists alike, as well as ridiculing the fashionable cures from dietetics and psychoanalysis to science and the theory of relativity. As a professor of physics at the University of Chile and a poet, Parra did not hesitate to poke fun at his own dual professions. I began to ask around about the possibility of meeting the antipoet in person. It turned out that he was in Santiago Neruda was in Paris and welcomed me and a couple of other Texas students to his home on the Andean slopes at the outskirts of the capital. While I remember very little about that visit my Spanish was almost nonexistent, though Parra spoke a bit of English the opportunity of meeting the antipoet made me an even more confirmed fan. By the time of my third trip to Chile, in 1971, the country’s political situation had changed dramatically. The socialist government of Salvador Allende had been elected and the nation was torn by opposing political philosophies determined to eliminate one another. My personal interest was still with the state of Chilean poetry, and I gathered as many examples as I could, including the latest work of Parra. A year earlier, Parra had enraged his country’s leftists by accepting an invitation to 16 NOVEMBER 29, 1991.
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