Feliz cumple, Nicanor Parra

Today is Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s 100th birthday. He is among the most important Latin American poets of the 20th century, up there with César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda. His book Poemas y antipoemas (1954) is as revolutionary today as it was when it was first published fifty years ago.


Nicanor Parra

By serendipity, I share a birthday with Parra, which I could not be more excited about. Here’s one of my favorite of his “anti-poems”:

Solo de piano

Ya que la vida del hombre no es sino una acción a distancia,
Un poco de espuma que brilla en el interior de un vaso;
Ya que los árboles no son sino muebles que se agitan:
No son sino sillas y mesas en movimiento perpetuo;
Ya que nosotros mismos no somos más que seres
(Como el dios mismo no es otra cosa que dios)
Ya que no hablamos para ser escuchados
Sino para que los demás hablen
Y el eco es anterior a las voces que lo producen;
Ya que ni siquiera tenemos el consuelo de un caos
En el jardín que bosteza y que llena de aire,
Un rompecabezas que es preciso resolver antes de morir
Para poder resucitar después tranquilamente
Cuando se ha usado en exceso de la mujer;
Ya que también existe un cielo en el infierno,
Dejad que yo también haga algunas cosas:

Yo quiero hacer un ruido con los pies
Y quiero que mi alma encuentre su cuerpo.

Para los que no lean español, here’s an English translation by the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams:

Piano Solo

Since man’s life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance,
A bit of foam shining inside a glass;
Since trees are nothing but moving trees;
Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion;
Since we ourselves are nothing but beings
(As the godhead itself is nothing but God);
Now that we do not speak solely to be heard
But so that others may speak
And the echo precede the voice that produces it;
Since we do not even have the consolation of a chaos
In the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that we must solve before our death
So that we may nonchalantly resuscitate later on
When we have led woman to excess;
Since there is also a heaven in hell,
Permit me to propose a few things:

I wish to make a noise with my feet
I want my soul to find its proper body.

What Parra proposed to do with his “anti-poems” was to create a mode of poetry that did not have as its ultimate purpose the transparent communication of truth and beauty. He conceived of poems like “Solo de piano” as puzzles for readers to wrestle with, though without a guarantee of producing an ultimate meaning, and the anti-poems often lead intentionally away from beauty, though I think “Solo de piano” is beautiful in its own way.

For me, the first puzzle the poem presents is its title, since the body of the poem does not apparently have anything to do with playing the piano. I think there are two possible connections to make here. The first comes with the first line of the poem, “Since man’s life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance.” This describes to me the sometimes sublime, sometimes bizarrely alienating experience of playing the piano. (I studied classical piano for 10 years and still play.) Playing the piano, I sometimes feel swallowed up in the music, lost to myself. Other times, I feel like the music is entirely separate from me. I can actually stare at my hands moving across the keyboard and feel as if they were not part of my body, as if they belonged to someone else. I think, what a miracle that fingers can do that! Not, what a miracle that my fingers can do that.

(Bonus sidebar: it’s also how I feel watching this youtube video of Martha Argerich performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody.)


The title is also a pun, as piano refers both to an instrument and to a musical dynamic, the Italian word for soft or quiet. So this is also a poem that is a performance of silence in some ways, a single human’s cry into the void. Note that these two different meanings of Solo de piano” resonate through the poem’s final two lines. “I wish to make a noise with my feet,” says the poet, who up to now has been reduced to silence. And, “I want my soul to find its proper body,” an expression of his sense of self-alienation.

Williams’s translation is passable, but not perfect. In particular, I don’t like his choice to translate the line “Ya que los árboles no son sino muebles que se agitan” as “Since trees are nothing but moving trees.” Muebles is the Spanish word for furniture. The line is more like, “Since trees are nothing more than still-moving furniture.” I’m not sure why Williams repeats trees in his translation, particularly since the metaphor is meant to express the idea that our own deaths and transformations are already germinating within us. Along the same lines, I think Williams would have been better served using “resurrect” to translate the word “resucitar.” This line is also about transformation, but in this instance it is about the poet’s conviction that there will be no ultimate transformation that will redeem the world from the chaos it presents to us. In fact, as the poet says, “chaos” is not even the right word, since the world only makes sense if somewhere else in space and time there is something like order.

The entire poem is one sentence, a series of subordinate clauses that lead up the poet’s declaration that he would like to “propose a few things.” The subordinate clauses themselves are statements of existential despair. What I love about the poem is how they all build up to these statements of desire that follow the colon and belong to their own stanza. This is what I mean when I say the poem is beautiful in its own way. It could easily say, “Since trees are nothing more than still-moving furniture, I have decided to lie down on my bed and die.” Instead, the poet says, “I wish to make a noise with my feet. / I want my soul to find its proper body.” I find that defiant yearning beautifully affirmative.

Happy birthday, Nicanor Parra. I’m honored to share it with you.