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  • The Poetry and Antipoetry of Luis Pales Matos From Canciones to Tuntunes
  • Julio Marzán (bio)

Starting in 1925, a number of poets, mainly but not exclusively from the Caribbean, published what is broadly called poesía negra. Different from African American poetry in English, poesía negra was called black even when the poet wasn’t, but the same bias prevails among the critics, who stereotype it as a sort of quasi-oral style, requiring an anthropological and social investigation, a justification for treating it as marginal to the evolving poetics of implicitly white, written poetry. This pattern holds true even among supportive critics, those specializing in traditionally overlooked literatures. Those critics customarily study poesía negra 1 in a “Nativist,” ethnological, or political framework that removes poesía negra’s strictly literary significance, effectively segregating that poetry from any conversation on its contribution to contemporary Latin American poetics. Owing to this convention, poesía negra has been woefully misrepresented as has been the genealogy of contemporary Latin American poetry. Thus readers and critics have failed to appreciate that with poesía negra, notably in the work of its most prominent figures, Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, Latin American poetry took its first step toward the ironic, conversational, comic, mordant, quotidian and unpoetic consciousness that decades later encompassed what the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti termed “poesía comunicante” and the Chilean Nicanor Parra called “antipoetry.”

In The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, Edith Grossman details three objectives of “the theoretical course” that Parra “set for himself after the publication of his Cancionero sin Nombre.2 The first objective was to free poetry from the domination of the metaphor, which he terms “the abuse of earlier poetic language” (Grossman 8). His antipoetry, understood as a liberation from what he termed an “abusive” style, would rather avoid such “poetic” language in favor of direct communication with the reader. Second, antipoetry should “depend on the commonplace in all its ramifications, that it decisively reject the rarefied and the exotic, both thematically and linguistically” (Grossman 8). By this, Grossman elucidates, Parra meant that “the language of literature must be no different from the language of the collectivity . . . language reflects the life of the people. . . .” 3 Third, Parra has reaffirmed that his writing was leading directly to a “purely national expression” (Skármeta 39; Grossman 9) because the poet cannot remove himself from the community, the tribe. Thus the poet “should use colloquialisms peculiar to his own country, even if readers from other areas find them difficult to understand.” 4 These objectives, of course, are ideals. Starting with its title, Canciones Rusas contain a good number of exoticisms (from a Chilean viewpoint, of course). And as his [End Page 506] own title Poemas y Antipoemas (1954) well illustrates, Parra himself was aware that antipoets are only at best half-time antipoets. Consequently, while he aspired to liberate the poem entirely from the domination of the metaphor, in practice he often simply turned the speaking persona into a neo-romantic persona-metaphor, as in “El Soliloquoy del Individuo” or “El Peregrino,” who ultimately resorts to the claim of being “Un árbol que pide a gritos se le cubra de hojas,” or the “Autorretrato” in the tradition of Robert Browning. These are a form of Chilean blues. Similarly, the metaphor is still central in the “Montaña Rusa,” whose titular metaphor describes his new poetry. A similar contradiction operates in the poem whose title asks “Que Es la Antipoesía,” and which subsequently responds with a catalogue of metaphors.

As Benedetti has noted, Parra is a hybrid among several other makers of new poetry. What Parra did, Benedetti observes, was to take on the voice of the existentialist tragedian in Neruda’s Residencias and make it say wholly different and novel things:

. . . even though Parra occasionally assumes an anti-Neruda posture, at bottom he is the one who receives from the poet of the Residencias the post of the word, and instead of fracturing or repudiating it, makes it say something else, original and fertile before passing it on to Enrique Lihn, who also rather than break it down enriches it. And of course...

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pp. 506-523
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