Nicanor Parra: “Solid-ground” poetry that is for everyone

“Estados Unidos: el país donde
la libertad es una estatua.”
(“United States: the country where
liberty is a statue”)
–Nicanor Parra

Nicanor Parra, often described as an “anti-poet”, died on Tuesday aged 103.  Parra was a Chilean artist and poet who rejected the formalisms of poetry and abstract, inaccessible, wankiness.  He was direct, blunt, unafraid, and ironic. His sister Violeta Parra was a well-known singer-song writer, and a pioneer of the revolutionary and political folk music movement nueva cancion. In the 30s in Latin America (and still today), a floral, romantic type of poetry dominated, and Parra broke with that.

I’ve translated one of this poems which gets to the heart of what he stood for, below (see the original Spanish here):


Señoras y señores
This is our last word.
– Our first and last word –
Poets have come down from Olympus.

For our elderly
Poetry was a luxury item
But for us
It’s an item of basic necessity:
We can’t live without poetry.

Unlike our elderly
– And I say this with all due respect –
We maintain
That a poet isn’t an alchemist
A poet is a man (sic) like any other
A bricklayer who builds walls:
A builder of doors and windows

We talk
In the language of everyday
We don’t believe in cabbalistic signs

Further, one thing:
A poet exists
So the tree doesn’t grow crookedly.

This is our message.
We denounce the demiurge poet
The cheap poet
The rat in the library poet.
All these señores
– And I say this with all due respect –
Should be accused and judged
For building castles in the air
For squandering space and time
For grouping words together at random
According to the latest Paris fashion.
Not for us:
Thought isn’t born in the mouth
It’s born in the heart of the heart

We condemn
Sunglasses poetry
Sword and cape poetry
Shadow of a big wing poetry
Instead, we favour
Poetry for the naked eye
Poetry for the uncovered chest
Poetry for the naked head

We don’t believe in nymphs or tritons.
Poetry has to be this:
A young woman surrounded by sprigs
Or not be absolutely anything.

Now then, in the area of politics
Them, our grandparents,
Our good grandparents!
Refracted and scattered
As they passed through the glass crystal
A few of them became communists.
I don’t know if they really were.
Lets imagine they were communists
I know one thing:
They weren’t grassroots poets,
They were revered bourgeois poets.

It’s important to say things as they are:
Just from time to time
They knew how to get to the heart of the people.
Every time that they could
They declared themselves of words and actions
Against guided poetry
Against poetry of the present
Against working class poetry.

Let’s accept that they were communists.
But the poetry was a disaster
Second hand surrealism
Third hand decadentism,
Old planks returned by the sea.
Adjective poetry
Nasal and guttural poetry
Arbitrary poetry
Poetry compiled from books
Poetry based
On the word revolution
Under circumstances that should be based
On the ideas revolution
Vicious cycle poetry
for a half a dozen chosen ones
“Absolute freedom of expression”

Now we cross ourselves asking
What did they write these things for,
To scare the petty bourgeois?
Miserably wasted time!
The petty bourgeois don’t react
Unless it’s about their stomach.

That they would be frightened by poetry!

This is the situation:
While they supported
a twilight poetry
a night time poetry
We advocated for
a dawn poetry.
This is our message,
Poetry’s brightness
should arrive to everyone, equally
Poetry is enough for everyone.

Nothing further, compañeros
We condemn
– And I say this with all due respect –
Little god poetry
Sacred cow poetry
Furious bull poetry

We oppose
poetry in the clouds
Solid ground poetry
– Cold head, warm heart –
We are decidedly solid-groundists
Against coffee poetry – nature’s poetry
Against loungeroom poetry – public square poetry
Social protest poetry.

The poets have come down from Olympus.

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