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Obituary NICANOR PARRA: A polymath who reconfigured the landscape of Latin American poetry

CHILEAN poet Nicanor Parra, who died recently aged 103, repeatedly scared the Nobel Prize for Literature bureaucracy shitless. It invented lame excuses every time somebody had him nominated and his name went forward on four occasions.

But his prestige was never in doubt with his millions of readers throughout Latin America and beyond.

The oldest of eight siblings in a prolific artistic family — a sister was the legendary singer Violeta Parra — he was a true polymath but the only child the family could afford to educate.

In the 1940s, after gaining a postgraduate diploma in advanced mechanics at a US Ivy League university and taking on a high-ranking academic post, he went to Oxford University and gained his doctorate in cosmology.

It was at Oxford, while reading a heady combination of Isaac Newton and Shakespeare, that his volume Poems and Anti-poems was conceived. It would change the essence and direction of Hispano-American poetry forever.

Published in 1954, it astonished the continent. Written in Chilean colloquial Spanish and laced with humour and irony, it elated, outraged and offended in equal measure.

Parra singlehandedly liberated language from its slavery to the pretentious exclusivity of middle-class convention and returned it to ordinary people in a singular act of unprecedented cultural empowerment.

“The ultimate purpose of the anti-poet is to pulverise the moth-eaten foundations of invalid, obsolete institutions,” he once said. “Poetry will die if it isn’t offended ... humiliated in public, we’ll later see what to do with it.”

Parra sneered at poets who wrote about suffering because of the injustice of the world or wrote “in the name” of those who had no voice — a particular beef he had with Pablo Neruda.

Having grown up next to a Chilean cemetery, where his brothers cleaned graves and sang to new arrivals, he once memorably compared cemeteries to tins of sardines and found them, in consequence, disrespectful to the dead.

At one-time professor of theoretical physics in Santiago, Parra was a prolific writer too and published dozens of books. He read his poetry in England, France, Russia, Mexico, Cuba and the US. He appears as a character in Alejandro Jodorowsky's 2016 film Endless Poetry. 

Parra, was an awkward customer in the best sense of the term. "Me retracto de todo lo dicho" ("I take back everything I said") he would state after readings. 

And, when awarded Latin America’s most prestigious Juan Rulfo literary prize in 1991, adverse to all public speech-making, he declared provocatively: “I am incapable of putting two ideas together/that’s is why I am a poet/otherwise I’d be a politician/philosopher or merchant.”  

We are living through dark times
where it’s impossible to speak without committing the crime of contradiction
impossible to stay silent without becoming a Pentagon accomplice. 
It’s common knowledge that there is no possible alternative
all roads lead to Cuba
but the air is polluted
to breathe is an act of failure. 
The enemy says
It’s the country that’s at fault
As if countries were humans. 
Cursed clouds swirl around cursed volcanos
cursed ships embark on cursed expeditions
cursed trees rid themselves of cursed birds: 
all is already contaminated.

Atravesamos unos tiempos calamitosos
imposible hablar sin incurrir en delito de contradicción
imposible callar sin hacerse cómplice del Pentágono.
Se sabe perfectamente que no hay alternativa posible
todos los caminos conducen a Cuba
pero el aire está sucio
y respirar es un acto fallido.
El enemigo dice
es el país el que tiene la culpa
como si los países fueran hombres.
Nubes malditas revolotean en torno a volcanes malditos
embarcaciones malditas emprenden expediciones malditas
árboles malditos se deshacen en pájaros malditos:
todo contaminado de antemano.



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