Study Guide

Nicanor Parra

Nicanor Parra Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Nicanor Parra avoids the appearance of didacticism, claiming that he is not a preacher and that he is suspicious of doctrines, yet his purpose is to goad the reader with his corrosive verses, caustic irony, and black humor until the poet’s response to human existence is shared. Satiric rather than political, antipoetry’s sad, essentially moralizing, verse of hopelessness contains a strange and infinite tenderness toward humanity in its fallen condition. Neither philosophical nor theoretical poetry, it is intended to be an experience that will elicit a reaction and simulate life itself.

Even though he is a mathematician and a physicist, Parra does not consider life to be governed by a logical system of absolutes that, when harnessed, can direct humans toward organization and progress. On the contrary, he believes that the poet’s life is absurd and chaotic, and the world is in the process of destruction and decay. Humans either accept this fact, together with their own powerlessness, or they deceive themselves by inventing philosophical theories, moral standards, and political ideologies to which they cling. Parra views his own role as that of obliging humanity to see the falsity of any system that deceives one into believing in these masks that hide the grotesque collective condition in a chaotic universe. Parra makes fun of love, marriage, religion, psychology, political revolutions, art, and other institutions of society. They are rejected as futile dogmas that attempt to ennoble or exalt humans above the reality of their insignificance.

Poetry too comes under attack by this anarchist who claims he has orders to liquidate the genre. As the antipoet, Parra resists defining his own poetic structure, knowing that in such an event it too must be destroyed. Thus, he searches continually for new paths, his own evolution, a revolution.

The prefix notwithstanding, antipoetry, however unconventional, is poetry, and Parra himself willingly explains his concept of the form. It is, he says, traditional poetry enriched by Surrealism. As the word implies, the “antipoem” belongs to that tradition that rejects the established poetic order. In this case, it rebels against the sentimental idealism of Romanticism, the elegance and the superficiality of the Modernistas, and the irrationality of the vanguard movement. It is not a poetry of heroes, but of antiheroes, because humans have nothing to sing to or celebrate. Everything is a problem, including the language.

Parra eschews what he considers the abuse of earlier poetic language in favor of a direct, prosaic communication using the familiar speech of everyday life. He desires to free poetry from the domination of figures and tropes destined to accommodate a select group of readers who want to enjoy an experience in poetry that is not possible in life itself. He has declared his intent to write poems that are experiences. He is hostile to metaphors, word games, or any evasive power in language that helps to transpose reality. Parra’s task is to speak to everyone and be understood by all. The antipoet re-creates or reproduces slang, jargon, clichés, colloquialisms, words of the street, television commercials, and graffiti. He does not create poetry; he selects and compiles it. The genius of the language is sought in the culture of each country as reflected in the language of life. It is poetry not for literature’s sake, but for humanity’s sake. Its sentiments are the frustrations and hysteria of modern existence, not the anguish and nostalgia of Romanticism. Inasmuch as poetry is life, Parra also utilizes local or national peculiarities in language to underscore a specific social reality.

The destruction of the traditional poetic language is the first step in stimulating readers to be torn from the sacred myths that soothe them. Parra avoids so-called poetic words or uses them in unfamiliar contexts (the moon, for example, is poison). His images astonish readers with their irreverence, lack of modesty, grotesqueness, and ambiguity. They inherit the oneiric and unusual qualities of the Surrealists. Placed in the context of daily life, they equate the sublime with the ridiculous, the serious with the trivial, the poetic with the prosaic. Comic clichés and flat language are used by the protagonists in the antipoems to express their hurt and despair. The irony thus created by these simultaneous prosaic and tragic elements charges the work with humor and pathos. The reader laughs, though the protagonist, or antihero, suffers. The antihero’s ineptitudes, failures, and foolishness are viewed with pity, scorn, and amusement. Parra’s placement of familiar language and everyday failures in the life of the antihero, however, catches up with readers and compounds the irony, reducing the initial distance between readers and the protagonist. Readers become uncomfortable as this distance closes, their laughter not far from sadness.

The antihero in Parra’s poetry is a rebel, disillusioned with all aspects of life, who suffers and is alone. He is a wanderer, distrustful and doubting, obsessed with suicide and death. Too insignificant, too ridiculous and nihilistic to be a tragic hero, he is merely the caricature of a hero. In need of communication, he undermines himself at every turn, belittling all of his efforts at self-expression. The grotesque inhabitants of the antipoetic world, comedians in an absurd play, unfulfilled in love and in their potentialities, suffer the passage of time, the agonizing problems of aging, and the inevitable confrontation with death. They are incapable of heroic gestures in any realm...

(The entire section is 2300 words.)