Nicanor Parra Parra, Nicanor - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Nicanor Parra 1914-

(Born San Fabián de Aliceo) Chilean poet, mathematician, and physicist.

Parra is known as the founder of antipoetry—a term coined by the poet to describe a form of poetry that rejects the notion of the poet as a prophet and rejects the belief that verse holds some sort of mystical power. According to Parra, antipoetry embraces everyday life experience and language. Parra's work has influenced like-minded poets, although of the Chilean poets of his generation, he is the only one to have established a genre.

Biographical Information

Parra was born on September 5, 1914, in Chillán, Chile, to Nincanor P. and Clara S. (Navarette) Parra. His childhood was marked by uncertainty and poverty, but he managed to concentrate on his studies and perform well in school. He received degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Chile in 1938. He then taught secondary school until 1943 when he left to study advanced mechanics at Brown University in the United States. In 1948 he became the director of the School of Engineering at the University of Chile. From 1949 to 1951, he studied cosmology at Oxford University in England. He then worked as a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Chile until his retirement in 1991. In addition to his work as a scientist, Parra has been writing and publishing poetry since 1937. His most significant work was his first collection of antipoems, Poemas y antipoemas (1954). Parra has won numerous literary awards including the City of Santiago prize in 1937 and 1954, the Writers' Union prize in 1954, the National Literature Prize in 1969, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972, and the Juan Rulfo prize in 1991.

Major Works

Parra's earliest works, written during his teenage and young adult years, were heavily surrealist. His first published collection, Cancionero sin nombre (1937), was written before he had developed his idea of what poetry should be. Poemas y antipoemas was Parra's first attempt at antipoetry. In this and subsequent verse, Parra worked to demystify the form of poetry. Parra attempted to change poetry from being purely ornamental to a form of everyday expression. In these poems Parra fights against literary tradition in order to find his own original voice. The reader is typically challenged to question the traditions of poetry. Many of Parra's poems from this collection include a hostile dialogue between the poet and the reader. In Versos de salón (1962) Parra parodies everyday forms of written communication including tests, questionnaires, advertising, and campaign slogans. With Artefactos (1972), he incorporates street language and everyday jargon into his poetry. The poems from this collection mimic the informal rhythm of everyday conversations. Nostalgia is a common theme throughout Parra's poetry, along with disdain for chaos in the world and the human condition. Parra uses his antipoetic works to destroy the utopian images of poetry and replace them with the reality of the world. An outspoken opponent of social and political oppression, Parra has not subscribed to any single ideology. His only consistent response to the cultural world and the human condition has been humor.

Critical Reception

Parra's Poemas y antipoemas brought him his international reputation among literary critics. Many reviewers praise the ease of Parra's language with its almost prose-like quality. Critics have often pointed out that while Parra's antipoetry illuminates the problems of human existence, it offers no solutions. Some critics have found his work limited in this respect, particularly his later poems from Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui (1977). Nevertheless, the critical consensus has been that Parra’s antipoetry—with its humor, irony, and irreverence–has been a definite influence on a significant number of poets, including the American Beats, many of whom admired and translated his works into English.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Cancionero sin nombre 1937

Poemas y antipoemas 1954

La cueca larga 1958

Anti-Poems 1960

Versos de salón 1962

La cueca larga y otros poemas [edited by Margarita Aguirre] 1964

Canciones rusas 1967

Obra gruesa 1969

Los profesores 1971

Artefactos 1972

Emergency Poems [bilingual edition; translated by Miller Williams] 1972

Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui [Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui] 1977

Nuevos sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui 1979

Antipoems: New and Selected [edited by David Unger; translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti et al.] 1985

Hojas de Parra 1985

Nicanor Parra and Miller Williams (interview date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Parra, Nicanor, and Miller Williams. “A Talk with Nicanor Parra.” Shenandoah 18, no. 1 (autumn 1966): 71-78.

[In the following interview, Williams and Parra discuss major influences on Parra's work and his development of the surrealist school of poetry in Chile.]

Nicanor Parra is one of the best known poets writing in Spanish today. Perhaps it would be better to say, the Spanish of today. Because no one has done more to give the language the freedom of the streets, to push the language to its limits, than Parra has. And not even Vicente Huidobro was so much a symbol of decadence to his enemies or a cause celebre to his defenders as Parra was after the publication of Poems and Antipoems in 1954.

Born in 1914 in Chilean, in the south of Chile, Parra grew up there, playing with his brothers and sisters around the school where his father taught, or about the stones of the village cemetery. His studies at the University of Chile were concentrated in mathematics and physics, which he continued to pursue at Brown University in Rhode Island and at Oxford. He is presently Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Instituto Pedagogico of the University of Chile, a position which has not prevented him from reading his poems and giving talks during the past few years in Peking, Moscow, Mexico City, Havana, Paris and San Francisco. During the past year he was Visiting Professor at Louisiana State University.

In addition to Poemas y Antipoemas, his books include Cancionero sin Nombre, his first book, published in 1937, La Cueca Large, in 1958, and Versos de Salon in 1962. City Lights published a selection under the title Antipoems in English and Spanish in 1960. New Directions will publish a larger and more representative group of poems this year. There are also translations in a number of other languages, including Finnish, French and Russian.

Parra is quick-witted and amiable, generous with his time and his stories, and—like his antipoems—seems to have been chiselled out of a stone that shifts when we are not looking. There is this solidity, firmness of intellect about him, and at the same time an incredible chameleon whimsicalness that leaves one, after an evening in his rough-stone house overlooking Santiago, feeling good and exhausted.

This was the house my friends took me to, shortly after Parra had returned from a tour of Russia. I was meeting him for the first time, but it might have been the thousandth. In a very few minutes we were munching hard bread, pouring down the famous Chilean wine, and talking.

[Williams:] You are called a member of the generation of 1938. This would have you writing at least twenty-six years ago, certainly before you became a mathematician. What led you into the fields of mathematics and physics?

[Parra:] An honest desire to be everywhere at once. It wasn't intellectual pride. It was an instinct for integration. But the whim is expensive, of course. The writers consider me a man of science, and my university colleagues look on me as a writer. And then there are reasons of a practical nature. The full-time poet doesn't have any place in our society. To survive in a so-called underdeveloped country, there's no choice but to be a one-man band.

Has your scientific training influenced your poetry? Is it in any way responsible for your particular images, or the hard feeling of your poems, the terseness?

For the imagery, yes. As a student of the fundamentals of classical mechanics, I've formed the habit of taking a step only when I can see the road clearly. The historical-critical method of math, carried over consciously or unconsciously into the area of poetic investigation can't help but end up in a clear, neat and transparent expression. But sometimes the mechanism also works in reverse. I mean that the tool of antipoetry makes a good battering ram for trephining the skull of Newton, to see what went on inside. As a result of that trephination we have anti-mechanics, which explains the mystery of the equation F equals ma, starting with a principle of identity of gravitational mass in terms of inertia.

Fernando Alegría has said that you are the only writer of your generation to form a “school.” Is there in fact a surrealist school of poetry in Chile?

Well, I don't identify myself with either the Chilean or the French surrealists, however much respect I may have for the psychoanalytic principle. I like the superficial psychical processes as much as the Freudian depths. I work with the integral human being. And not only as a psychological entity but also, and very significantly, as an historical entity. To quote—nothing which is human is foreign to me. That's why I'm not to be confused with the poets of beauty, who don't count for much in my book. I prefer to be called an antipoet. Also at one time or another in their development, Enrique Lihn—a great new figure in Chilean poetry—Raul Rivera, Gabriel Carvajal, Mario Ferrero, Armando Uribe and quite a few others have been called antipoets. Even the very Neruda, for his Estravagario. A...

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David H. Rosenthal (review date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, David. “Nicanor Parra's Hard-Edged Poetry.” Nation 215, no. 3 (7 August 1972): 91-92.

[In the following review, Rosenthal finds Emergency Poems somewhat lacking in depth but notes that when Parra avoids being overly literary his poems continue to be brilliant expressions of the common human experience.]

Nicanor Parra can write stark and beautiful poetry. He seems to be performing, on Spanish, somewhat the same operation that was earlier done on the English language by writers like Williams and Hemingway, trimming away the excess accumulations of “literary tradition,” in order to reestablish the intimate connection of sounds and things....

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George Melnykovich (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Melnykovich, George. “Nicanor Parra: Antipoetry, Retraction and Silence.” Latin American Literary Review 3, no. 6 (spring-summer 1975): 65-70.

[In the following essay, Melnykovich considers Parra's perception that his work is a failure given the intentions of antipoetry.]

Since the publication of Poems and Antipoems (1957), Nicanor Parra has become one of the most controversial, if not influential, representatives of Latin American poetry. While some have denounced his antipoetry as non-poetry, recent criticism has been favorable. Edith Grossman's high estimation of Parra is not uncommon:

Nicanor Parra is probably...

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Edith Grossman (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Grossman, Edith. “The Trajectory of Antipoetry.” In The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, pp. 1-43. New York: New York University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Grossman presents an overview of the notion of antipoetry and Parra's use of the concept in his work.]


Nicanor Parra has been a poet for most of his life and a confessed antipoet since 1954, when he rocked the Latin American literary world with Poemas y antipoemas. The book definitively established him as a significant and influential writer, one who had, according to Pablo Neruda, “vanquished the sigh and was quite capable of supervising the decapitation of the...

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Gordon Brotherston (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brotherston, Gordon. “Modern Priorities.” In Latin American Poetry: Origins and Presence, pp. 169-87. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Brotherston discusses Parra's role in the development of modern Chilean poetry.]

Like other Chileans of his generation, Nicanor Parra has faced the large problem of how to write at all and avoid the overwhelming influence of Neruda.1 This explains in part the acrobatic assertiveness of his first major book Poemas y antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems, 1954). The opposition in the title is not fully reflected in the work, which mostly exposes what he calls the vices of...

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Karen S. Van Hooft (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Van Hooft, Karen S. “Vipers, Victims, and Virgins: Women and Their Relationships with Men in the Poetry of Nicanor Parra.” In Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft, pp. 256-78. Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Van Hooft focuses on Parra's poetic persona's excoriation of contemporary institutions, including sexual stereotyping and Freudian analysis, that have led to the decay of male-female relationships.]

One aspect of the work of the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra that has been insufficiently studied is the role played by women and the related themes of love and sex....

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Ricardo Gutiérrez-Mouat (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gutiérrez-Mouat, Ricardo. “The Politics of Contemporary Chilean Poetry.” American Poetry Review 18, no. 5 (September 1989): 15-22.

[In the following excerpted essay, Gutiérrez-Mouat explains the political aspects of Parra's poetry in the context of Chilean literary politics.]

Parra has influenced and been translated into English by poets such as Merton, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti. His reputation as an antipoet was established in the 1950s and in the 1980s it has grown with Sandra Reyes's prize-winning translation of the first two volumes of the Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui (University of Missouri Press, 1984). These two volumes,...

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Nicanor Parra and Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier (interview date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Parra, Nicanor, and Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier. “Nicanor Parra.” In Interviews with Latin American Writers, pp. 173-97. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.

[In the following interview, Gautier and Parra discuss his later work, in particular his commitment to what he calls “eco-poetry.”]

Nicanor Parra was born on September 5, 1914, in Chillán, Chile, the land that has given birth to some of the most outstanding Latin American poets. In 1937, when he was twenty-three, he graduated in mathematics and physics from the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile. That same year, he was awarded Chile's Municipal Prize for his first book of...

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Antonio Skármeta (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Skármeta, Antonio. “Nicanor Parra (1914-).” In Latin American Writers. Vol. 3, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu, pp. 1195-1200. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.

[In the following essay, Skármeta presents an overview of Parra's poetry, particularly his work in the vein of antipoetry.]

Nicanor Parra was born in San Fabián, near Chillán, in southern Chile on 5 September 1914. His father was a schoolteacher; his mother came from a peasant family. Parra's sister, Violeta Parra, is an internationally known poet, composer, and singer, and his nephew and niece, Ángel Parra and Isabel Parra, are composers and authorities in the study of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Agosin, Marjorie. “Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra: A Study of Similarities.” Poesis 6, no. 1 (1984): 51-60.

Examines Parra's influence on Neruda.

Perriam, Chris. Review of by Nicanor Parra. The Modern Language Review 91, no. 3 (July 1996): 771.

Offers a generally positive assessment of Poesia y antipoesia.

Review of Antipoems: New and Selected, by Nicanor Parra. Publishers Weekly 228, (23 August 1985): 70.

Offers a generally positive assessment of Antipoems: New and Selected.

Tammaro, Thom. Review of Antipoems: New and...

(The entire section is 145 words.)