05 November 2014


Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, et al. (New Directions, 1985)

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra, antitranslation by Liz Werner (New Directions, 2004)

The antipoet's persona(lity), as relayed in his antipoems, was of one grumpy extraordinaire. He was frank and tactless. He was absolutely cantankerous. He was not sentimental. You wouldn't want to cross paths with him.

I'm Not a Sentimental Old Man

a baby leaves me absolutely cold
I wouldn't take a baby in my arms
even if the world were caving in
every man scratches his own itch
I can't stand family get-togethers
I'd rather be horsewhipped
than play with my nephews
my grandchildren don't move me very much either
what I mean is they set my nerves on edge
the second they see me come back from the coast
they come running at me with open arms
as if I were Santa Claus
little sons of bitches!
who the hell do they think I am

[tr. Miller Williams]

If this is not "antipoetry", then I don't know what is. At 100 years of age, Nicanor Parra is the immortal founder of a decidedly anti-poetry movement. He is the Satan Claus of Chilean/Latin American/world poetry. He was an evil old man. He had a soft spot for chickens.

A little friendly advice:
they have as much right to fly as anyone
certain housewives
indulge in this diabolic practice
it is better to lose a chicken
than commit the unpardonable sin
of believing ourselves capable
of improving on the plan of the Creator:

if He in his infinite wisdom
provided them with wings
he must have had a powerfully good reason
even if it seems ridiculous to us.

[tr. Sandra Reyes, from New Sermons and Preachings of the Christ of Elqui (1979)]

This brand of poetry called antipoetry was more a worldview than a movement. On its surface, it was more like personal stuff than philosophical slash political stance. More myth than legend. If there was a guiding principle to it, then perhaps it was the anti-establishment position. A show of bravery and bravado, it knew not serious pretense nor preternatural seriousness. It was a show of freedom more than anything else.

I don't understate nor exalt anything.
I simply tell what I see.

["Nineteen-Thirty", tr. Miller Williams, from Nebula (1950)]

"I call a spade a spade", the antipoet wrote elsewhere, in "Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair". Words to live by. How not to take oneself seriously. How not to take the poet himself seriously. Tell, don't show.

Generous reader
                         burn this book
It's not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It's not what I wanted to say.


Listen to my last word:
I take back everything I've said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I've said.

["I Take Back Everything I've Said", tr. Miller Williams]

The disclaimer, most definitive, was the order of the day. Say something with conviction, then take it back with conviction. Bite the dust! The antipoems maximized the use of maxims. And since we were in the realm of self-empowerment, the antipoet was preaching to the choir and atheists both. The genre was as much self-help nonfiction as antipoetry.

Young poets
Say whatever you want
Pick your own style
Too much blood has gone under the bridge
To still believe—I believe—
That there's only one way to cross the road:
You can do anything in poetry.

["Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair", tr. David Unger, from Emergency Poems (1972)]

The Christ of Elqui, based on the real life Domingo Zárate Vega, was perfect stand-in for the anti-Christ Parra. The "sermons and preachings" mode of antipoetry was custom-made for the mad, apocalyptic ravings of a peripatetic messiah-like figure wandering the streets of Chile in the 1920s. "Even though I come prepared / I really don't know where to begin", the Christ began rather self-contradictorily. The resemblance of his Christian ideas with those of the antipoet's was uncanny.

you have to call a spade a spade
we're a step away from the Apocalypse

["The Christ of Elqui Defends Himself Like a Cornered Cat", tr. David Unger, from Recent Sermons (1983)]

let's cut the crap
when you stand at a wide open grave
it's time to call a spade a spade:
you can drown your sorrows at the wake
we're stuck at the bottom of the pit.

["Rest in Peace", tr. Edith Grossman]

In "Memories of a Coffin" (1975), the spade in the graveyard made way for the personified coffin whose life in the showroom "took a 180˚ turn" when the coffin was purchased by a widow. Then came the "most glorious day of [its] life", when it was paraded and it believed it was receiving solemn respect from "all the pedestrians [it] met along the way". Until it was buried. Six feet under the ground, the coffin was "under a ton of flowers" and now waits for things to happen to it. Tragic.

To end this anti-post, more words of wisdom from the Christ of Elqui.

POETRY POETRY it's all poetry
we make poetry
even when we're going to the bathroom

Christ of Elqui's own words

to piss is to make poetry
as poetic as strumming a lute
or shitting poeticizing farting,
and so we'll just see what poetry is

Prophet of Elqui's own words

["Apropos of Nothing", antitr. Liz Werner]

To piss is to make poetry. How sublime.

Art happens every time we read a poem, said Borges, paraphrasing the American painter Whistler. What happens when one reads an antipoem? In his "Note on the Lessons of Antipoetry", Parra would only acknowledge that: "Poetry happens—so does antipoetry". Artful or not, Parra cuts the bullshit.

The reading of Parra is made with Richard—Caravana de recuerdos—and Tom—Wuthering Expectations. Richard's post is found here while Tom's are here, here, and here.


  1. I prob. won't get around to my own Parra post until Friday or Saturday, but what a cantankerous delight to read this unexpected write-up here. Interestingly, my copy of Poemas y antipoemas contains ZERO of the antipoems you mention here-- which is cool, publishing house practices aside, because you, Tom & I might end up reviewing entirely separate works. Love your Satan clause line and your pointing out of the anti-establishment nature of Parra's oeuvre.

  2. These look like great fun, worth it for the titles alone. Although too snowed under to take on reading Parra now,, it is a baton I may pick up in the future. This post makes a great starting point.

  3. Richard, the first book I read has poems culled from Parra's 16 books, spanning his 34-year career from 1950-84. It has 10 poems from Poems and Antipoems, which I haven't quoted here. Let Parra live another hundred years churning out more antipoetic poetry.

  4. Séamus, it is lots of fun and will make for a good, clean break from work.

  5. Parra is so outstandingly quotable. Like Whitman, but funnier. "You can do anything in poetry." - yes, yes.

  6. Perennially quotable. Even taken out of context the lines are comic, absurd.