Santiago: Nicanor Parra, a Chilean physicist, mathematician and self-described “anti-poet” whose eccentric writings won him a leading place in Latin American literature, died Tuesday. He was 103.
His death was confirmed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who expressed her condolences. Her government ordered national flags to be flown at half-staff in public buildings and decreed two days of mourning.
“Chile loses one of the greatest authors in the history of our literature and a singular voice in Western culture,” she said.
Characterized by wit and irreverence, Parra’s works include “Poemas para Combatir la Calvicie” (Poems to Fight Baldness, 1993), and “La Montana Rusa” (The Roller Coaster, 1962), in which he says he wants to disturb the comfortable world of poetry with a ride that people take at their own risk.
While his poetry won him fame, Parra was a respected physicist, earning a degree from the University of Chile and then studying physics at Brown University and cosmology at Oxford University in England. He was a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Chile and taught at Columbia, Yale, New York University and Louisiana State University.
Parra brought the skepticism of science to his literary work, rejecting traditional poetic techniques and experimenting with prose-like styles, everyday images and grotesque humor in what he called “anti-poetry.”
“The popular poetry of Nicanor Parra is red and palpitating like a fighting cock crowing in the ring,” wrote literary critic Fernando Alegria in “Literature and Revolution.”
Parra published his first book, “Cancionero sin Nombre,” (Singer without a Name), in 1937 and then become interested in writing poetry that would reach the general public.
He earned international fame in 1954 with “Poemas y Antipoemas” (Poems and Antipoems) and won Chile’s prestigious National Literature Prize in 1969 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972.
Once, in an art show in Santiago, Parra displayed life-sized cardboard silhouettes of every Chilean president hanging from a noose, in addition to a coffin with a steering wheel inside. A note on the coffin said “just in case…” He gave no explanation of what the display meant.
At one point, he also replaced the sword held by a statue of a Chilean hero in Santiago with an umbrella.
Parra wasn’t the first Latin American poet to buck convention. Cesar Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro and Pablo Neruda had already challenged the status quo as part of the region’s vanguard before him. But Parra found a unique voice as a faulty human aware of his weaknesses and bitter toward the absurdity of civilization.
While Parra was sometimes associated with Latin America’s left, he ran into problems with leftists for his positive attitude of the U.S.
In 1971, he visited Washington to attend a cultural gathering sponsored by the Library of Congress, which included a visit to the White House. Parra, along with other authors and poets, was received by Pat Nixon, the wife of then President Richard Nixon. The visit earned Parra condemnation from leftist groups around the world.
But Parra refused to be classified: “I am neither a rightist nor a leftist,” he wrote, “I just break with everything!”
Born Sept. 15, 1914, Parra grew up in a chaotic but talented family of eight children, several of whom became noted artists, including folk singer Violeta Parra.
Parra spent most of his childhood in the suburbs of Chillan. His father was a music teacher and his mother sang folkloric songs.
Parra spent the last decades of his life secluded in his home near the sea on the central coast of Chile.
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. His blunt style and bleak outlook were influenced by the precise formulas and rational theorems of science as well as by the nightmarish visions of Franz Kafka and T.S. Eliot.