Thursday, March 24, 2011


"For years I was doomed to worship a despicable woman,
To sacrifice myself for her, to suffer humiliations and endless abuse,
To work day and night to feed and dress her ...
Rather than face the scorn of her alluring eyes."

This is the beginning of "The Viper" by Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet, from a book called Anti-Poems, published by City Lights Books in 1960.

When I was teaching at LACAS (L.A. Community Adult School, at L.A. High), I could not, for the life of me, convince my students that these lines were not literal truth.

They all thought the poet was in love with a terrible woman, that he had no control over his emotions, and that we were supposed to read this poem as the history of a real relationship. I was never able to convince them that this was an elaborate joke.

Perhaps they were too young to understand this one thing about human nature: No one is "doomed to worship" anything or anyone. The myth is that we don't have control over our own emotions. Teenagers often believe this. It may feel that way to a teenager.

I used to have a friend, Tom, who was a psychologist and school counselor. He would often see a rowdy or disruptive or violent student who had been brought into his office by the principal.

The student would invariably say, "I can't control myself." Tom would point his finger at the student's head and say, "If I put a loaded gun to your head, could you stop?" "Yes, of course," the student would say. In other words, the student did have control. He chose not to use it. Or he didn't see it at the time.

The same is true of the speaker in this poem. People who are insane, who hear the voice of the devil telling them to kill someone, may not have control over their emotions or their behavior.

Maybe a two-year-old, throwing a tantrum, is out of control. But not the speaker in this poem. This an elaborate ruse, a way of saying something else. It's like that old joke: "I shot a bear in my pajamas last night. I don't know how he got into my pajamas."

There was no bear in the pajamas. And no despicable woman. It's like a tall tale, like Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox. But you have recognize that it is a joke to be able to get the joke.

Which leads me to my definition of a poem: a coherent object in words that says something that cannot be said in any other way, that cannot be paraphrased. You can say things about a poem, but you cannot say the same thing in different words.

There is an element of humor in the Parra anti-poem. My students believed in the despicable woman, like believing in the bear in the pajamas. They did not get the joke. I hope someday they will. Otherwise, they may be doomed to worship a despicable woman. Or man.

-- Roger

© Copyright 2011, Roger R. Angle

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