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
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:
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.”
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.