Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nicanor Parra: Today Nothing is Known in This Regard

Nicanor Parra is praised by poets and critics alike. Neruda calls him “One of the great names in the literature of our language,” and Howard Bloom, calling for Parra to receive the Nobel Prize, says he’s “unquestionably, one of the best poets of the west.” Yet, I’d never heard of Parra until I read a series of articles posted by Tom McCartan to Critical Mass. The series is titled “What Bolaño Read,” and the second installment deals almost entirely with Parra. Intrigued, I ordered a copy of Liz Werner’s recent translation, “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great.” I am now in the uncomfortable position of responding to a slim volume of poetry -one of the twenty-some volumes Parra published - that makes very little sense to me, both in terms of the poetry itself and the reasons why this poet isn't more widely known in the United States.

On the basis of one book, it is impossible to form a compete opinion of the poet Parra. Just as Bolaño slipped past American readers, so too Parra, despite his enormous influence in his native Chile and in the Spanish-speaking world. Cursory internet searches reveal hundreds of editions of his books available for sale, and thousands of articles and biographies about him – and yet, only a few of these books are in English translation, and even fewer in print. The rest are out of print, Spanish-language editions, or individual poems published in journals and anthologies.

What I’ve learned of Parra, then, is not Parra; its Parra filtered. Born in 1914, he studied engineering and physics in Chile and in the Unites States, and cosmology at Oxford. He currently lives in Chile, as he has almost all of his life, teaching mathematics and physics and writing what he calls “antipoems.” His antipoems subvert conventional poetic and cultural norms, though not in a negative sense – his “anti-translator” Werner describes antipoems as complementary to poems, just as antimatter particles are complementary to ordinary particles in physics. Parra was at the vanguard of Chilean poetry in the 1950’s, leading the way with an aesthetic that would revolutionize South American poetry for many years.

While this helps me better understand “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great,” in the absence of the larger context of Parra’s work, my understanding is still quite limited. Yevgeniy Yevtushenko said that “A poet’s work is his biography,” and without being able to read Parra himself, my understanding isn’t just limited, but obscured by the works of others. It is dangerous to form a criticism on such thin material, but then again, the most important aspect of criticism is the work itself, not the context, and knowing one’s limits is a way of focusing attention on what matters.

In “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great,” Parra’s poetry is colloquial in tone, critical of politics and religion, decorated with quotes and allusion, and filled with wordplay built on mathematics and humor. It is a poetic in touch with the times, responding to contemporary events with a sharp eye and graceful wit. Sometimes, these poems feel less like poems than they do slogans or revolutionary verse scribbled on subway walls or boarded-up construction sites. Often, they contain strong images, and just as often, the images don’t add up.

Antipoems don’t add up as a literary movement, either. Literatures grow by breaking convention before developing into the status quo and falling to a new revolution. If the intent of antipoems is to push boundaries, raise questions, expose artifice, and demonstrate potential, then aren’t all challenges to conventional form antipoetic? What happens when everyone is writing antipoems, when antipoems become the convention?

These questions are not value statements. Literature needs to be pushed and prodded, forced to look at itself and change. Parra has been very successful at that, writing not just antipoems but traditional poems as well. He just hasn’t been successful in being translated into English. I believe there are several reasons for this. Americans do not read much in translation, and maintain certain expectations raised by familiarity with more accessible Spanish-language poets such as Pablo Neruda and Frederico Garcia Lorca. Furthermore, Parra’s poetry presents textual and contextual difficulties to the translator and reader alike.

But there is much to gain in Parra, despite the difficulties. Take his short poem “No President’s Statue Escapes:”

“From those infallible pigeons

Clara Sandoval used to tell us:

Those pigeons know exactly what they’re doing”

The title is part of this funny and overtly political poem. I dare say most Americans today only have a peripheral knowledge of Pinochet, but it’s enough to know that directly criticizing a dictator in power is gutsy business. Clara Sandoval, Werner tells us, is Parra’s mother, poeticized. Footnotes, introductions, prefaces, and biographical notes are necessary to make sense of these and many other motifs in Parra’s work, but other aspects are more visible, as in “3 Pre-Columbian Artefactos,” with its echoes of Ginsberg:

“Expelled from Barros Arana Academy
4 going around planting trees on the tennis courts."

Ginsberg wrote in “Howl:” “who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.” That ties Parra quite neatly to the Beats and vice versa, a relationship well worth exploring.

Mathematics are everywhere in Parra’s work, and assume levels of meaning not usually ascribed to numbers. The Parra/Beat relationship above may be nothing more than coincidence, until you learn that Ginsberg was, indeed, influenced by Parra. However, in the poem “Watch Out for the Gospel of the Times,” Parra subverts what we accept as true – including coincidence and conclusions based on evidence – using mathematics:

“2+2 doesn’t make 4:

once it made 4 but

today nothing is known in this regard.”

The last statement is patently untrue; if it is true that “nothing is known in this regard,” yet Parra (or the narrator) knows it, then the statement is contradictory and evidence of an unreliable narrator. Parra pokes fun by making a bold statement against the status quo, then undermining his own attack. Furthermore, Parra the mathematician knows that the 2+2=4 theorem isn’t as simple as most people think, with a proof requiring almost 2,500 sub-theorems. And what does it mean that "nothing is known in this regard?" Which regard - that of mathematics? That of accepted logic, of commonly known formulas, of fact? It is these and other intertextual layers of subversion that make Parra difficult to comprehend. Parra even reused these same lines in “Humungous Mistakes,” a poem that doesn’t stop at math but which also re-imagines well-known lines from Hamlet and the Bible.

It seems as though Parra is playing all sides, adopting the figure of the devil’s advocate in order to illumine the inherent emptiness, randomness, or meaninglessness in the world around him. That he does so with humor makes his poetry something more than a simple record of the times or a reasoned critique of cultural forces – it makes his poetry pleasurable. In “Note on the Lessons of Antipoetry,” Parra writes:

“Often our pleasure in antipoetry is impaired by our curiosity: we attempt to understand and dispute when we shouldn’t do either."

At first, I wasn’t sure if Parra was joking here or not. If he isn’t joking, then in the absence of pleasure there’s no point in reading further. But he is joking – just a few lines down, he writes “Ask your questions openly and listen without argument to the poet’s words…” This is what makes him a pleasure to read, once you learn what to pay attention to.

I can think of no better reason to read poetry than for pleasure, and that’s reason enough for me to seek out more of Parra’s work.

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