where credit is due.

Nicanor Parra

Chilean “antipoet” (and physicist, and mathematician) Nicanor Parra was awarded the Premio Cervantes yesterday. One of the most prestigious in the Spanish language, the prize recognizes an author’s lifelong contribution to letters; there can be little question that, in the course of his 97 years, Parra has had a profound effect on the way poetry is both conceived and expressed. The antipoem: antiembellishments, antiniceties. Even, to a great extent, antimetaphor. It is the treatment of quotidian themes in a quotidian, and often satirical or even acerbic, register. Though he did not invent the concept, Parra’s insistence on combating the “sacred cows” and other “monsters” of the form (two terms he uses to describe his compatriot, Pablo Neruda) opened a space for a free verse that was, legitimately, free: of social and ideological taboos, of formal constraints, of the insistence on an elevated, authoritative register.

The news of the award has, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, gone largely unreported in the English-language press (ahem, NY Times, that’s directed at you), with a few notable exceptions like the CBC and France24 websites; more extensive coverage is provided by the cultural supplement Ñ and the EPA, both in Spanish. For a fuller picture, don’t miss Raúl Zurita’s excellent 2009 piece for BOMB, which abounds in descriptions like the following:

Parra’s vision was gradual. First he limited himself to the artistic, to the literary—antipoetry in its classical sense—checkmating anything else understood as literarily “superior.” Then, with his series of visual poems Artefactos (Artifacts), he annihilated sacred emblems of culture and suppressed, along the way, any idea of hierarchy by placing everything from pornography, to politics, to lyricism, to jokes, on the same plane. This included the medium of the book, which he literally exploded—the 1972 edition of Artefactos consisted of a box filled with hundreds of postcards destined to be slipped under the front doors of people’s homes, as if shards from a grenade.

Parra, for his part, has remained silent about the honor, refusing to give interviews on the grounds that he considers “every question to be an act of impertinence, of agression.” So we’ll have to let his work speak for him.

I Take Back Everything I’ve Said

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
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.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But 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.

— translated by Miller Williams for New Directions