Literature and Revolution

-by Fernando Alegria-

translated by D. Ohmans
(c) copyright 1997

Text imprint - Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Economica, (c1970)

                           Table of Contents

       I.    Literature and Revolution
       II.   Portrait and Self portrait:
             The Hispano-american Novel Confronted with Society
       III.  "Der Zauberberg" in the Literature of Latin America
       IV.   Miguel Angel Asturias, Novelist of the Old and the
             New Worlds
       V.    Alejo Carpentier:  Magic Realism
       VI.   Rayuela:  or, Order out of Chaos
       VII.  Cesar Vallejo:  The Mestizo Masks
       VIII. Parra anti Parra
       IX.   Anti-literature
       X.    Antipoetry

Chapter 8 - Parra anti Parra

     Nicanor Parra is the Chilean poet of greatest influence of the so-called
Generation of 1938. He lives in the hills of the Andean mountain range, in a
place neighboring Santiago called La Reina. There, he has placed a
prefabricated house, full of a number of lamps of dubious functioning. There
are pictures on the walls of rustic scenes, and also a wind-up horn phonograph,
and a guitar or two. For reasons a little inexplicable, the house still had
neither water nor electric light when I visited him. For water, the neighbors
provided it; as for light, he made it himself burning, not far from the door,
huge branches of bramble bush, whose signals could be clearly seen from
Santiago. His nearest neighbor, Arturo Edwards, had insured the house for him
against fires.
     Very relaxed, carefully dressed, with curly hair, balding, the eyes
deep-set and face creased with thick wrinkles, Nicanor Parra travels daily from
La Reina to the University of Chile, where he gives mathematics classes.
Occasionally he calls conferences about interplanetary travel and celestial
phenomena. In general, however, he writes poems on all types of paper, which
later he meticulously copies; in moments of leisure he dances the "Cueca" or
discourses with his numerous friends. When he is not in Chile he travels
through Switzerland, China, England or the United States. He reads and speaks
English; on the other hand, he neither smokes nor drinks. That is to say, he
might partake one or two bottles of wine so as not to lose the thread of a
conversation, just as he may also imbibe regular glasses of fermented
"aguardiente" so as to survive any earthquake. But in reality he does not
drink. He only accompanies those who drink.
     Among the Chilean writers of the Generation of '38, Parra is the only one
who has formed a school. Those who imitate him are young poets of clear
statement, of eccentric imagery within their regional tone, sarcastic and
bitter, acid critics of the daily routine in which they evolve wittily yet
always over-crowded. Beneath the humorous bitterness they hide powerful
weapons with which they break the facade of the bourgeois institutions'
condemnation and arrive at the creation of a poetic atmosphere of lucidity and
dynamic disorder. Nicanor receives them like a rooster with his chicks. He
serves them spice in hand, so to speak; animates them, defends them, to release
them, later, with the newest anti-poem upon their lips. This personal
ascendancy is so much the more unexpected given that Nicanor seems more like an
individual retiring and sparse in his publications. To his name he had only:
"Cancionero sin Nombre" (1937); "Poemas y Antipoemas" (1954), "La Cueca Larga"
(1957), "Versos de Salon" (1962) and "Canciones Rusas" (1966).(1)
Nevertheless, his books provoke movement, his pronouncements raise dust and his
very presence awakens curious reactions of sympathy and even of passionate
devotion. Numerous are the poetesses, schoolgirls and schoolmarms who follow
and pursue him with suicidal fervor. He has married with several of them, of
distinct nationalities.
     Describing his literary beginnings and the evolution of his aesthetic
ideology, Parra says this:

     "Politically we were in general apolitical, more exactly, non-militant
leftists. In religious matters we were not Catholics; theology had us
casually, although not much. I inclined towards oriental philosophy, which
made me suspicious before my most intimate companions: Oyarzun and Millas.
For his part, Oyarzun believed in the cyclops, as in dreams, and Millas,
despite his solid academic formation, allowed himself to be dazzled by a
passing philosophy of the Fifth Column, which affirmed that man should take
inspiration from the domestic animals in matters of personal manners: from the
rooster he should learn pride, and from the horse, chivalry...
     "Five years after the anthology of the creationist, free-verse, hermetic,
ironic, priestly poets, we represented a type of spontaneous, natural poet,
within reach of the ordinary public... Of course we brought nothing new to
Chilean poetry. We signified, in general, a step backwards, with the
exceptions of Millas and of Oyarzun, who, according to my way of seeing, were
already totally vertebrate poets.
     "But our initial weakness, as I really think of it, was a legitimate point
of departure for our final evolution. In it resided that strength that later
has given us the right to live. Fundamentally, I think we were right to
declare ourselves tacitly, at least, exponents of clarity and naturalness in
the expressive media. At the least, in this direction the body of Chilean
aesthetic ideas has subsequently moved. Tomas Lago...becomes in 1942 the
representative of the new doctrine, whose content he synthesized with the
phrase, Light in Poetry, title of the preface to his "Tres Poetas Chilenos."...
This title of that preface was not arbitrary: in those same days, the writer
had announced a book called La Luz del Dia. That book never saw the light of
day, but, augmented and diminished, it later came to form a part of "Poemas y
     "There is to say further that we constituted the reverse of the surrealist
     "Events have served to show that at least 50 percent of our principles had
not been badly taken. The other 50 percent...were with the surrealists, who in
that epoch represented, rigorously, the next step from creationism and
Nerudism: the immersion in the profundities of the collective subconscious.
     "The anti-poem which, finally, is nothing other than the traditional poem
enriched with the surrealist sap-- native surrealism or whatever you wish--
should still be the result from a psychological and social point of view of the
country and continent to which we belong, in order to be considered as a true
poetic ideal. It ought to be shown that the child of the marriage of day and
night, celebrated in the ambit of the anti-poem, is no new form of twilight,
but instead a new type of poetic dawning."(2)

     In the beginnings of his literary career and, later, in moments of
diversion, Nicanor Parra cultivated certain forms of popular poetry. He was
attracted to a wide zone of Chile and to Chileans: a zone of Romantic
dedication to the epic values of the guitar and of wine. In "La Cueca
Larga" the improvising grace of the old procurer and the thick sensuality of
singers and dancers are appreciated. There are the native names where
nationality is sanctified in consonants and vowels of solid prestige, the
casual jests of the country and the ambiguous, urbane and acid humor of the
Chilean city. Parra says:

     I am not from Coihueco
     I'm from Niblinto
     where the oxen squeeze
     the red wine.
     I was born in Portezuelo
     was raised in Nanco
     where the ducks swim
     in white wine.
     I'll fail in the meadows
     of San Vicente
     where the monks float
     on aguardiente...

     Above the commotion or, better said, off apart in a fresh corner of
willows and eucalyptus, the poet devoted himself also to the holy office of
transmuting the human to the divine. "I toast to the celestial/ and I toast to
the profane," exclaims Nicanor while he works with a potter from Quinchamali so
as to remove from surrealism its European decadence. He puts wings where the
poncho goes. The liquor expenditures are furnished by angels. Taps with heel
and toe and, in his counterpoint, crowns the Romance meter with spurs of modern

     With my mausoleum face
     and my old butterflies
     I too make my presence
     at this solemn festival...

     In this poem, composed to be sung and danced (3), the minstrel tradition
is kept living. Across plazas, courtyards and countryside, its verse has
gained the mastery of rhythms which impose the epic enthusiasm of the people;
has given a vehicle to hide the flower of evil and certain duplicities of
sensuality; it arms itself with hard shapes, with virile accents, with
aggressive lyricism. The popular poetry of Nicanor Parra is red and
palpitating like a fighting cock crowing in the ring. I have had occasion to
hear this poetry in Donihue and Quilicura, surrounded by shouts, laughter and
bottles; I have seen it gravitate to the head of the table and sustain its
battle of wits against the wisdom of the age upon the rough earth; and I saw it
emerge victorious beneath the weight of the jingles, the images and the toasts
allotted to it.... But let us put light in the corners. What function does
the anti-poet play in "La Cueca Larga"? We shall eliminate the colors of the
poncho and the brilliant silver of the spurs; we shall hear the calling of the
singers and individualize the words; we are left with the turbulence that
maintains the fire of the "Cueca" dancer behind the pallid front, the lock of
black hair and the killing eye. Nicanor Parra, as he himself would say in
"Poemas y Antipoemas," carries together the angel and the beast which are the
characteristics of the Chilean earth. There is some dissimulation behind the
breezy joke and the malicious ingenuity, some fox-like trickiness. The
dominance of the belly. When Nicanor Parra triumphs with "La Cueca Larga" in
the groves, beneath the willows, by the culvert and the train line, it is
because the common people have considered him one of theirs; they have
recognized and appreciated his cynicism, his gastronomic appetite, his
aggressive belittlement of the woman and his ability to keep her subservient,
his noisy bitterness and his bloody parodies of bourgeois institutions, his
indirect manner of exalting the stoicism of those he describes as rotting
amidst the decadence.
     If we judge him, again, upon "Cancionero Sin Nombre" and on the first
compositions of "Poemas y Antipoemas," Nicanor Parra moves us especially when
he writes of the nostalgic sentiment that man discovers in his possession of
things in that secret sense which only their mortality deposits in them:

     My God, yes indeed! no one knows
     how to appreciate a true word,
     when we imagine it most distant
     just when it is closest.
     Oh me, oh me! something tells me
     that living is no more than a chimera;
     an illusion, a dream without boundaries,
     a small passing cloud.
     Let's take it easy, I don't know what I'm saying,
     emotion is rising to my head.
     Since it was already the hour of silence
     when I started my singular assignment,
     one behind the other, in dumb procession
     to the empty stable the sheep returned.
     I greeted each personally
     and when I was near the grove
     which sharpens the traveler's hearing
     with its ineffable secret music,
     I remembered the sea and reviewed the pages
     in homage to my lost sisters.
     Very well. I continued my voyage
     like one who expects nothing from living...
     How much time has passed since then
     I could not say with certainty;
     everything is the same, surely,
     the wine and the nightingale upon the table,
     at this time my younger brothers
     should return home from school;
     Just that time has erased everything
     like a white storm of sand! (4)

     Nostalgia follows him like a dog, sucking at him, biting him, lacerating
the smooth skin of his memories. The sweeter the hour evoked, the more
painful. On a summer afternoon, smelling of oranges and jasmine, thick with
warm country dust, open like a sky without clouds, dying hurts more.... Parra
responds to the nostalgia with a poetry that grows in liturgical waves. He
himself has said that in his poetry he does what God creates ceaselessly from
wave to wave. Only that he does his in ten-syllable verses. I do not say this
facetiously. Parra watches over the exigencies of meter with an airy but
arithmetic eye. As if for a party he seeks pentameter's polished stirrups, as
if for the show he utilizes the resonant, joking, medieval and blasphemous
romance. To be a modernist, that is, when it occurs to him to replace the swan
of Dario and the owl of Gonzalez Martinez with a fruit fly, he reaches into some
syllabic corners cut with a scissors from the garlands and doves of a glossy
magazine. I refer to his poem "San Antonio." On the other hand, for his
self-portrait and for his epitaph he prefers the "silva," which permits him to
revel in the long phrases and the short phrases. In 11 syllables there is
respect and in seven a lack of respect, at free intervals. The nostalgia,
nevertheless, is decasyllabic. Parra presents it like a slow consummation of
the wise, mature man, who knows his place and maintains it without deviations.
     The great work of Nicanor Parra is not, contrary to what might be thought,
in the poems of nostalgia, but instead in "The Vices of the Modern World," "The
Viper," "The Tablets" and "Soliloquy of the Individual," all poems of
desperation. "The modern world is a great sewer," Parra says in one of these
poems. Further we need not take his pronouncement letter for letter. The
world for him is a trap. It is important to note that Parra judges a world in
which he finds neither order nor sense. Without himself bringing a sense of
form--ethical or aesthetic--either, so as to create an order where there is
none, the beings and the objects are charged with violence and seem constantly
capable of leaping onto the neck. In "Rompecabezas" Parra says:

     I give no one the right.
     I worship an old rag.
     Transfer the graves.
     Transfer the graves.
     I give no one the right.
     I am a ridiculous type
     under the sun,
     soda fountain cowboy,
     perishing of insanity.
     I have no choice,
     my very hairs accuse me.
     On the altar of the day
     the machines don't pardon.
     I laugh behind a chair,
     my face covers with flies.
     I am the badly expressed,
     expressed in view of what.
     I the stammerer,
     with my foot I touch dirt.
     What are stomachs for?
     Who made this mess?
     Best is to make an indian.
     I call one thing another.(5)

     His vision of the world comprises a deliberate simplification, a synthesis
specific to an directed at the modern decadence. To dismantle all in order to
attack certain gestures, certain acts, certain ideas, and exhibit them in their
senselessness. His is a world of equivocations. A tragic absurdity that
begins by being a trait of genius. What is clarity? To see clearly how rotten
is the world, how impotent and toothless and timid is man. That is to say,
clarity so as to see the crossroads behind the sombrero. His form of
expression is conventional. The flourishes of conversation attract him and
allow him to affirm himself, as with Cesar Vallejo. The images of Parra are
concrete, but not precisely logical, yet instead absurd and full of
consciousness of sin, of failure, of the emptiness that soon is transformed
into a cold bitterness and, particularly, into a strange wrath, a fury which,
in general, explodes in attitudes and words of self-destruction. Here is his

     Consider, boys,
     this eaten-away tongue:
     I teach in an obscure school,
     I've lost my voice giving classes.
     (After all or nothing
     I put in 40 hours a week.)
     How do you like my ragged face?
     Truly to see me inspires sadness!
     And what do you say of this nose rotting
     from the dust of the flaking chalk.
     On the question of eyes, at three meters
     I don't recognize my own mother.
     What will follow me? Nothing!
     I have ruined myself giving classes:
     The bad light, the sun,
     the miserable poisonous moon.
     To gain some unforgivable bread,
     hard like the face of the bourgeois
     and with the smell and taste of blood.
     Why were we born as men
     if we must perish like animals!
     From overwork, at times
     I see strange shapes in the air,
     I hear crazy voices,
     laughter, criminal conversations.
     Observe these hands
     and these nails white as a ghost,
     these few hairs that remain,
     these infernal black wrinkles!
     Nevertheless I was just like you,
     young, full of beautiful ideals,
     I slept mining the copper
     and polishing the faces of the diamond;
     Today they have me here
     behind this uncomfortable podium,
     brutalized by the monotony
     of the 500 hours per week.(6)

     Disorganized and violent, the world provokes man and induces him to
destroy himself. Suicide adopts circumspect forms until becoming a slow,
progressive and fruitful onanism. The fundamental brutality to which the
anti-poet refers as one of the characteristic traits is also the central theme
of "The Tablets." Man, solitary and infuriated, without hopes of an apocalyptic
ice, heats up burning for God and striking his mother. The woman persists and
there is left the legend of love. The anti-poet does not hesitate to destroy
them in a poem that is a true compendium of his macabre vision of the modern
world. Love is debased to a routine and everyday condition, its problems
deriving from hunger: sexual hunger and nutritional hunger. The obstinate and
tenacious woman seeks the money, the good, the gratification and the abuse of
the man. He, for his part, defends himself to the measure of his strength:
copulates when he may, more than he might in order to save the money from his
beloved. Little by little it is she who exhausts her rival and submits him to a
sexual and economic slavery. She encloses him in a round room through whose
only window enter the rodents from a neighboring cemetery. The man begins to
turn indifferent. She tries to seduce him with the bait of a property she
possesses near the stockyards. He refuses. The enchantment has been broken: old
and weak, the man cannot copulate any more, his children grown, his true wife
perhaps appearing at any time to ruin him. Used up, he says:

     I cannot work any more for you,
     everything has ended between us.(7)

     In this poem, like in "The Vices of the Modern World," Parra confronts a
world that has lost the key to its most essential mechanisms. Perhaps sensing
that in the loss is involved an act of voluntary condemnation, he does not try
to recover that key, but instead insists upon the spiritual deformation that
originates the attitude of renunciation. With cold beauty Parra isolates the
niches in which man hides to perish and disappear without witnesses. These
niches are the symbols and myths of a bourgeois society afflicted with an
incurable illness. His conclusion is unequivocal:

     Nevertheless, the world has always been this way.
     Truth, like beauty, is neither created nor destroyed
     and poetry resides in things or is simply a
     reflection of spirit...
     But what matters all this
     if meanwhile the best ballerina in the world
     dies young and abandoned in a small village in
     southern France
     and Spring returns to man
     some of the disappeared flowers.
     Let us try to be happy, I say, clasping the
     miserable human rib.
     We extract in it the renewing liquid,
     each in accordance with his personal inclinations.
     We affirm this divine swindle!
     Panting and trembling
     we suck those lips that craze us;
     the die is cast.
     We inhale that enervating and destroying perfume
     and follow one more day the path of the chosen;
     From his axles man extracts the necessary grease
     to anoint the face of his idols.
     And from the female sex the straw and the chaff for
     the temples.
     For all of which
     I carry a flea in my tie
     and smile at the imbeciles who lower from the trees.(7)

     The funerary establishments, the arsonist, the phallic cult, the blood of
the virgins, tobacco, movie stars, the anemic capitalists, the grease in man's
axles, the straw and the chaff of the female sex, are symbols of a dying
without metaphysical projection, symbols of the betrayal of art, symbols of
sexual aggression and of the mass murder of the sentimental symbols of the
abuse of sex and subsequent impotence, symbols of an individualism without
     If Parra were to have an ethical form to confer order upon the world that
surrounds him, it be an Anti- Christ and not an anti-poet. The truth is that
from the criminal system he knows no system of defense. The traps approach
him. He allows himself to be imprisoned possessed of a loose but severe
madness, that constricts his body like a black suit. He multiplies the
occasions to sin. Men, objects and places become the traps. Soon we notice
that all form part of a single universal trap: humanity, art, religion,
philosophy. In each trap he discovers blood spots, hairs and finger marks that
retain the odor of the last victim. This odor is the only warning of the
danger. The anti-poet defends himself. He wishes to strike, wound, set
aflame. He imagines and believes victory present. But succumbs before the
unexpected. In combat he uses the tricks that civilization has perfected and
attains modest triumphs whenever the battle requires the use of tricks. In the
final duel, nevertheless, the anti-poet becomes disoriented and confused. He
collected scalps of the enemy which he meticulously nailed with pins to the
walls of his trophy room; he could keep accumulating scalps; but his trophy
room, in the end, would not suffice.
     The poetry of Nicanor Parra, non-decorative, concrete, direct and
turbulently narrative, hides in its most intimate crevices a profound spiritual
convulsion. I know no other antecedent for it in Latin America except the
poetry of Cesar Vallejo. His is, however, a pained expression of an
instinctive and subconscious Christianity; that of Parra is an implacable lash
against a humanity conceived frozen in its decadence. Both work with elements
of everyday reality and hide their dismay behind conversational formulas that
serve as the sign of pathetic humor. Vallejo is more transcendental in his
anguish, Parra, more stylized. Of both we may say that they shake the
intellectualism of Hispano-american poetry with a crude and brutal dissection
of the contradictions characteristic of the contemporary world.
     At 50 and some years Parra is immortalized in his "Canciones Rusas"
(1966), as if his knowledge of the world had bathed him with a timeless dust;
he seems sad, now neither violent nor enraged; nostalgic, yet wounded;
victorious yet, nevertheless, infirm; ill form something that fell little by
little upon his face and from his face went inward and drips, drips, drips to
infinity, that is, until the dawn that will find him seated beneath the stars.
I see him now a little more aged: his eyes have deepened, the wrinkles of his
face contain shadows, he has lost almost all his hair, carries on his lapel a
little Russian astronaut and in his pockets letters of a woman who left him for
another. He goes from one nation to another nation and, in reality, is not like
that. He leaves and enters the rooms of his dark house, seeks some seat in
which to sit and does not find it, goes out to the street, the Chilean people
smile at him with fraternity, goes to the place of his sister Violeta and
there, seated next to the fireplace, and me as well, with the heat burning our
hands, Rosita, Roberto, Catalina, Panchita, Chabela, Angel, The Captain,
Domino, Nicanor Parra toast a day that will never return. The violets have left
us. We all toast. Him at the foot. The penultimate.

1 "Obra Gruesa," 1969, is the edition of his complete works.
2 "Atenea," nos.380-381, Apr.-Sept., 1958, pp.46-48.
3 The music for "La Cueca Larga" was composed by the folklorist Violeta
4 "Poemas y Antipoemas," Santiago, 1954, pp.30-32.
5 Ibid., pp.77-78.
6 Ibid., pp.55-56.
7 Ibid., p.127.
8 Ibid., pp.140-141.