Got Parra?

By: Claudia F. Pérez

Nicanor Parra, the man known as the anti-poet and one of the most influential Latin American poets of the 20th century, turns 100 years old today. Whether you’ve ever heard of him or not, he wouldn’t care all that much.

One of the wittiest men alive, he is certainly more than just a poet. He’s a literary rabble-rouser with the soul of a rock star, a kickin’ artist and musician. The man is one cool dog—he could be your aloof teacher, grouchy grandfather and drinking buddy all in one. These are five things you need to know about him:

ONE: NO ORDINARY FAMILY. The son of a schoolteacher, Parra was born in southern Chile on September 5, 1914. His awesome family consisted of artistic geniuses, starting with sister Violeta Parra (“Gracias a la Vida,” anyone?). But he studied mathematics and physics and was a professor before turning his hand to poetry. He’s an expert on Newtonian physics—our kind of guy.

TWO: ANTI-POETRY, YOU SAY? Parra claimed that poetry had no mystical power and belonged to everyone, not solely to intellectuals. After a conventional book of poems published in 1935, Parra started his “anti-poetic” revolution with Poems and Antipoems (1954), shredding all the snobbery of traditional romantic poetry and injecting his works with colloquial language and black humor. It turned the Latin American literary establishment on its head. Imagine overweight, pasty men in suits (Pablo Neruda) huffing and hawing at his work. He brought poetry to the streets; he made it accessible. Some of his admirers? Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith.

THREE: POLITICS SHMOLITICS. Although he once showed an affinity toward socialism (he outspokenly supported the Cuban revolution), he’s the most apolitical dude around. He pissed off the entire country of Cuba in 1970 when he sat down to have a nice cup of tea at the White House with none other than Nixon’s wife, and the Chilean left-wing press called him “a son of a bitch.” He later penned his true feelings about politics: “The left and the right united, shall never be defeated.”

FOUR: THE INFINITE LAUGHTER. Parra is renowned for his sense of humor in his poetry and artwork (he placed a sign under an empty Christian cross that said “BACK IN A FEW”), and in general doesn’t take himself or his work too seriously. At the end of a reading of his poems, he always says, “I take back everything I said.” And in 2005 he starred in a commercial promoting milk consumption.

FIVE: LADIES MAN. His love life reads like a telenovela. He discarded his first wife for a young Swedish blonde, whom he later dumped for the maid. The maid would later be abandoned for a woman some 35 years younger than Parra, who would in turn dump him, triggering some intense writing to get over the heartache. Ay, Nicanor.

LOGISTICS: Nicanor Parra’s Antipoems: New and Selected, available here

Claudia F. Pérez is Manero's correspondent in Los Angeles.