Obituaries

Nicanor Parra, Chile’s ‘anti-poet’; at 103

Mr. Parra, known for his stripped-down poetry and for rejecting conventional prose, was hailed as “essential.”
ALVARO HOPPE/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2001
Mr. Parra, known for his stripped-down poetry and for rejecting conventional prose, was hailed as “essential.”

WASHINGTON — Nicanor Parra, an eminent Chilean scientist-turned-poet who revolutionized Latin American verse by rejecting its flowery diction and forging a stripped-down, confrontational and darkly comic form that he dubbed ‘‘anti-poetry,’’ died Jan. 23 at his home in the La Reina section of Santiago, Chile. He was 103.

His family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet hailed Mr. Parra as ‘‘one of the biggest authors of our literature, in our history.’’ His blunt, subversive and playful work influenced writers ranging from Thomas Merton to the Beat poets to Pablo Neruda and wowed many literary critics. One of them, Yale University professor Harold Bloom, called Mr. Parra as ‘‘essential’’ as Walt Whitman. In 2011, Mr. Parra was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor.

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Mr. Parra’s poetic gate-crashing was partly inspired by the long shadow of Neruda, a fellow Chilean and a Nobel laureate with a global following. Mr. Parra made it his life’s mission to bring such exalted wordsmiths and poetry itself ‘‘down from Olympus’’ and make them accessible to regular people.

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His work had a liberating effect, especially in Latin America, where since the 1930s poets had favored Wagnerian language, romantic yearnings and heroic gestures. By contrast, Mr. Parra preferred street argot and dwelt on the small frustrations of put-upon office workers, alienated students, bag ladies and hoodlums.

Humor was a key ingredient. Mr. Parra once explained: ‘‘I think that the poet should be a specialist in communication. Humor makes contact [with the reader] easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.’’

A handful of translators in the United States refused to touch his work, which they viewed as vulgar and sacrilegious.

His helter-skelter love life included numerous affairs with much younger women, including his housekeeper, art students, fans and hippies whom he would sometimes entrance with verses made up on the spot.

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His politics were also fickle. An early environmentalist, Mr. Parra in one poem speaks in the voice of God, warning: ‘‘If you destroy the Earth, don’t think I’ll create it again.’’

In 1963 he spent six months in the Soviet Union translating into Spanish the work of several of that country’s poets. But he refused to join Chile’s Communist Party.

In 1970, with the Vietnam War still raging, he was photographed taking tea at the White House with first lady Pat Nixon. That prompted the Cuban government under Fidel Castro to rescind Mr. Parra’s invitation to serve as a judge at a prestigious book fair in Havana.

Leftists were also enraged by his 1972 publication ‘‘Artifacts,’’ a collection of short poems and drawings in which he poked fun at the socialist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende.

After Allende committed suicide during a 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, Mr. Parra refused to join the exodus of artists fleeing the country. Though he mostly avoided politics, some of the poems in his 1977 collection ‘‘The Sermons and Teachings of the Christ of Elqui’’ take aim at the Pinochet regime’s human rights abuses.

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Mr. Parra came to view all government as a form of dictatorship. ‘‘Public Works,’’ his 2006 multimedia exhibition in Santiago, included cutouts of all Chile’s presidents hanging by their necks. It caused an uproar.

Nicanor Segundo Parra Sandoval was born in San Fabian de Alico, a village in southern Chile, on Sept. 5, 1914. His family lived on the edge of poverty, but his schoolteacher father and seamstress mother promoted arts and culture among their eight children. Mr. Parra’s younger sister, Violeta Parra, was one of Chile’s best-known folk singers and penned the classic ‘‘Gracias a la vida’’ before committing suicide in 1967.

Mr. Parra won a scholarship to a prestigious Santiago high school and graduated from the University of Chile in 1938 with degrees in mathematics and physics. He studied advanced mechanics at Brown University in Rhode Island and cosmology at the University of Oxford in England and was a visiting professor at American universities, including Columbia and Yale. He taught theoretical physics at the University of Chile from 1948 until retiring in 1991.

But from the beginning, Mr. Parra felt the literary tug. In 1969, he won Chile’s National Literary Prize and, three years later, was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. He once stated that he taught physics to earn a living but wrote poetry to stay alive.

His marriages to Ana Delia Troncoso, with whom he had three children including the visual artist Catalina Parra, and to a Swedish woman, Inga Palmen, ended in divorce. He had a son with his housekeeper Rosita Muñoz and two more with painter Nury Tuca, who was 33 years his junior. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be determined.

In contemplating death and his controversial legacy, Mr. Parra created a piece of anti-poetry in 1954 called ‘‘Epitaph’’:

‘‘Neither too bright nor totally stupid

I was what I was. A mixture

Of oil and vinegar

A sausage of angel and beast.’’