Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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Together with love, death has been one of the major themes throughout literary history. Its presence in poetry has been a constant from the beginnings of humankind, and death has prompted various poetic forms, from elegies to epitaphs and funeral chanting. Parra believes that poets have lost their capacity for redemption if they are concerned either with the recovery of an original harmony or with access to the absolute. Since Parra’s attitude as a poet is intentionally antiromantic and antisacralizing, his concept of the “antipoem” is a reaction against the metaphysical function of language.

“The Anti-Lazarus” is a perfect example of this stance. In the poem, Parra inverts the semantic values ordinarily associated with the idea of death. He is interested neither in the pain it provokes among the survivors nor in the possibilities of life after death. On the contrary, the poet understands death as a natural phenomenon, deprived of any sacred connotation. Death is simply a state of being that is superior to all others insofar as it frees human beings from suffering while giving them endless permanence. Because of this conceptual shift, death is not completely emptied of meaning but is reconfigured with a new and unusual semantic value.

A second aspect present in the poem, through the characterization of the dead person being addressed as a poet, is the questioning of literature’s effectiveness. Parra chooses the first section of The Divine Comedy as a quintessential example of literary tradition. In the Inferno, Dante descends through nine internal circles of Hell in a purifying journey that will finally lead him to Heaven. There he will meet Beatrice, his true love, in celestial form. Contrary to this idea of the spiritual quest, Parra seems to suggest that the real Inferno is earthly life and that, in spite of all hardships and sufferings, life is not the doorway to a better and more fulfilling state of being. Thus, the poet rejects any metaphysical way out and implies, further, that the many efforts, both religious and poetic, to sacralize death are useless.

Adopting literary historian Harold Bloom’s terminology, it may be said that Parra developed his notion of antipoetry as a reaction to the modern imperative to become a strong poet. In fact, three Chilean poets figure prominently in twentieth century Latin American literature: promoter of the avant-garde Vicente Huidobro and two Nobel Prize winners, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. In an interview with the writer Mario Benedetti, published in the Uruguayan journal Marcha in 1969, Parra defined his poetic project as “an anti-Neruda poetry, also anti-Vallejo, anti-Mistral, a poetry against everything, but at the same timea poetry where all those echoes still resound.” Ultimately, in “The Anti-Lazarus,” Parra states that literary processes and the creative forces behind them are incapable of renovating the meaning of death beyond its natural condition as an everyday phenomenon. Nevertheless, Parra’s negation is only partial: He does not affirm the complete fruitlessness of literary communication. Through his poetry, he expresses his faith in poetic experimentation as a way of permanent renovation.