Nicanor Parra Parra, Nicanor (Vol. 102) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nicanor Parra 1914–

[Born San Fabián de Aliceo] Chilean poet and physicist.

The following entry presents an overview of Parra's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 2.

Parra is known as the founder of antipoetry, a term used by the poet himself to overcome the concepts of poet as prophet and poetry as having some mystical power. Antipoetry is the poetry of everyday life experience and language. Parra's work influenced a generation of poets, and of the Chilean poets of his generation, he is the only one to have established a school.

Biographical Information

Parra was born on September 5, 1914, in Chillán, Chile, to Nincanor P. and Clara S. (Navarette) Parra. His childhood was a difficult one filled with uncertainty and poverty, but he managed to concentrate on his studies and perform well in school. He obtained 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 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. He worked as a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Chile until his retirement in 1991. Parra has been married twice: his first marriage to Ana Troncoso was dissolved and his second marriage to Inga Palmen resulted in seven children. In addition to his work as a scientist, Parra has been writing poetry since the late 1930s and began publishing in 1937. Parra's 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, Writers' Union prize in 1954, National Literature Prize in 1969, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972, and the Juan Rulfo prize in 1991.

Major Works

Parra's earlier work, written as a teenager and a young man, was heavily surrealist. His first collection, Cancionero sin nombre (1937), was written before Parra had developed an idea of what poetry should be. Poemas y antipoemas was Parra's first attempt at antipoetry. In this and subsequent works, Parra was trying to demystify the form of poetry. Parra wanted to remake poetry from purely ornamental to an ev-eryday expression. In these poems Parra fights against literary tradition in order to find his own original voice. The reader is typically drawn into this battle as representing tradition. Many of Parra's poems from Poemas y antipoemas include a hostile dialogue between the poet and the reader. In Versos de salón (1962) Parra parodies our everyday forms of communication such as tests, questionnaires, and advertising and campaign slogans. With Artefactos (1972) he added his use of street language and everyday jargon into his poetry. The poems from this collection have the informal rhythm of everyday conversations. Nostalgia is a common theme running throughout Parra's poetry, and he tries to infuse it in his work in waves. Parra's work is also filled with desperation at the chaos in the world and the human condition. Parra uses his antipoetry 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 did not hold to any one ideology. His only consistent response to the chaos of the world and the helplessness of the human condition was humor.

Critical Reception

Parra's Poemas y antipoemas brought him his international reputation. Many reviewers praise the ease of Parra's language with its almost prose-like quality. Critics often point out that while Parra's antipoetry illuminates the problems of human existence, it offers no solutions. Some critics find his work limited in this respect. Some critics find his later poems from Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui (1977) weaker than his original antipoetry. Reviewers often comment on the humor, irony, and irreverance common in Parra's poetry. Critics agree that his version of antipoetry has influenced a generation of poets.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cancionero sin nombre (poetry) 1937
Poemas y antipoemas (poetry) 1954
La cueca larga (poetry) 1958
Anti-Poems (poetry) 1960
Versos de salón (poetry) 1962
La cueca larga y otros poemas [edited by Margarita Aguirre] (poetry) 1964
Poesía soviética rusa [editor] (poetry) 1965
Canciones rusas (poetry) 1967
Fundamentos de la física [translator] (nonfiction) 1967
Poems and Antipoems [edited by Miller Williams] (poetry) 1967
Poesía rusa contemporanea (poetry) 1967
Obra gruesa (poetry) 1969
Poemas (poetry) 1969
Los profesores (poetry) 1971
Antipoemas: antologia 1944–1969 (poetry) 1972
Artefactos (poetry) 1972
Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui (poetry) 1977
Nuevos sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui (poetry) 1979
El anti-Lázaro (poetry) 1982
Poema y antipoema a Eduardo Frei (poetry) 1982
Chistes para desorientar a la poliesía (poetry) 1983
Coplas de navidad (poetry) 1983
Poesí a política (poetry) 1983
Antipoems: New and Selected [edited by David Unger] (poetry) 1985
Hojas de Parra [edited by David Turkeltaub] (poetry) 1985
Fotopoemas sobre textos de Nicanor Parra (poetry) 1986
Nicanor Parra: biografía emotiva [edited by Efrain Szmulewicz] (poetry) 1988

Frank MacShane (essay date 19 November 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Breath of Satire in Chile," in The Nation, Vol. 325, No. 17, November 19, 1977, p. 535.

[In the following essay, MacShane discusses a controversial performance of Parra's Hojas de Parra in Chile.]

For years Nicanor Parra has kept silent. Then, some months ago, his poetry was heard again in Chile. The occasion was a theatrical performance based on his work called Hojas de Parra—or Pages from Parra. It opened on February 24 in a circus tent erected in Providencia, a residential section of Santiago. Subtitled "A Fatal Leap in One Act," it was a collage of circus and theatre, poetry reading and happening, deriving from his poems, some of them never before heard in public.

Two Chilean actors, José Manuel Salcedo and Jaime Vadell, were responsible for the production. Salcedo described it in the newspaper El Cronista as "an experimental work which tries to resolve scenically the metaphysical problem that lies between life and death." But with the actors dressed as clowns, trapeze artists and jugglers, a good deal of humor also made its way into the performance. Parra's satirical skills emerge in scenes such as one devoted to an imaginary political rally in a Presidential campaign. The name of the candidate is Nadie (Nobody), and here are some of the slogans and responses by his supporters as reported in the magazine Ercilla:

Nobody will put an end to inflation
Nobody will fix the balance of payments
Nobody will respect our rights
Who will realize our dreams?
Who really says what he thinks?
Who really thinks what he says?
Who will give us a raise?
Who will lower the rents?
Who will increase production?
Let's every one vote for Nobody
Elect Nobody
Nobody for President

The scene closes with a sardonic echo of the Cuban revolutionary slogan: "Ambiguidad o muerte, ¡Venceremos!"—"Ambiguity...

(The entire section is 971 words.)

Karen S. Van Hooft (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "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 Mara and Karen S. Van Hooft, Bilingual Press, 1982, pp. 256-78.

[In the following essay, Van Hooft analyzes the role of women in Parra's poetry and their relationship to the male protagonists of his poems. She asserts that Parra attacks social institutions and the human condition, not simply the role of women.]

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. This is...

(The entire section is 8583 words.)

Marjorie Agosin (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra: A Study of Similarities," poesis, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 51-60.

[In the following essay, Agosin asserts that Parra's Poems and Anti-poems influenced Pablo Neruda's Extravagaria.]

Contemporary Chilean poetry represents a rich and vital lyric within Spanish American letters. A few names bear witness to this fact: Vicente Huidobro, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra. Furthermore. Neruda as much as Parra has exerted an influence on the Spanish American poets that have come after them. Nonetheless, contemporary criticism has rarely pointed out the marked influence that Nicanor Parra has on Pablo Neruda in his...

(The entire section is 2165 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 August 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Antipoems: New and Selected, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 228, No. 8, August 23, 1985, p. 70.

[In the following review, the critic praises Parra's Antipoems: New and Selected for reading as naturally as prose.]

In any age, poetry, by its solitary and elitist nature, produces few heroes or celebrities, but Parra bids to break the barrier between the poem and the public. Born in Chile in 1914 and educated at Brown and Oxford as a physicist, Parra introduced the idea of the antipoem in 1954, "antipoem" being an ironic contradiction in terms and the signal of an attempt to demystify the form. Initially influenced by such plain-speakers as...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Stephen Corey (review date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 5, Fall, 1985, pp. 673-74.

[In the following review, Corey asserts that Parra's Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui "is far more satisfying as a whole than for its individual parts."]

Sometime in the 1920's, Domingo Zarate Vega left his job as a construction worker and became an itinerant preacher in his homeland of Chile. He claimed to have had visions following the death of his mother, and in response he dedicated the rest of his life—more than twenty years—to her memory and to sharing his radical views with the poor and suppressed. For...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Thorn Tammaro (review date 1 October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Antipoems: New and Selected, in Library Journal, Vol. 110, No. 16, October 1, 1985, p. 103.

[In the following review, Tammaro praises Parra's Antipoems: New and Selected.]

Chilean poet and physicist Parra comes from the great tradition of Latin American writers who are outspoken opponents of social and political oppression. His "antipoems" are full of black humor, irony, irreverence ("Torture doesn't have to be / bloody / Take an intellectual for example—/ just hide his glasses"). They strip the human condition naked and place it before a mirror, exposing arrogance, pomposity, and foibles. Often epigrammatic and aphoristic, they shame us...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Adelaida Lopez Mejia (essay date July-December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nicanor Parra and the Question of Authority," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 36, July-December, 1990, pp. 59-77.

[In the following essay, Lopez Mejia traces Parra's attitude toward authority as expressed in his poetry.]

In the years between 1954 and 1968, Nicanor Parra published various poems that refer to the humorous, aggressive, and deliberately mundane nature of his own "antipoetry". During that same period many European and North American artists were gravitating towards what is currently termed a postmodern aesthetic, in what Fredric Jameson describes as a reaction "against the established forms of high modernism". In Spanish American...

(The entire section is 6920 words.)

W. Nick Hill (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poemas para combatir la calvicie: Muestra de antipoesía, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, p. 107.

[In the following review, Hill asserts that Parra's Poemas para combatir la calvicie "makes painfully clear that the antipoet's latest work does not stand up to antipoetry."]

The occasion of having won a major literary award, the first Juan Rulfo Prize, is an appropriate moment to publish a retrospective collection of a poet's work. The operative premise for Poemas para combatir la calvicie, for this "sampling of antipoetry," would appear to be to provide general readers, who may have a broad appreciation of...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Agosin, Marjorie. "Contemporary Poetry of Chile." Concerning Poetry 17, No. 2 (Fall 1984): 43-53.

Asserts that while there are two streams of contemporary Chilean poetry, both use the language of antipoetry.

Flores, Angel. "Nicanor Parra." Spanish American Authors. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1992, 654-55.

Analyzes Parra's impact on Hispanoamerican poetry.

A review of Antipoems: New and Selected. The Virginia Quarterly Review 62, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 61.

Calls Parra's...

(The entire section is 115 words.)