Chilean poet Nicanor Parra wins Cervantes Prize

Nicanor Parra, the Chilean poet and mathematician who seeks to demystify poetry and make it accessible to a wider audience, is the latest winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize.
Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, seen in this undated photo, is the latest winner of the Cervantes Prize, Spanish-language literature's highest honour. (Andres Sanchez/New Directions Books)

Nicanor Parra, the Chilean poet and mathematician who seeks to demystify poetry and make it accessible to a wider audience, has won the 2011 Miguel de Cervantes Prize.

Organizers of the world's highest Spanish-language literary honour announced Parra, 97, as the winner on Thursday in Madrid.

Born into a well-known family of artists, writers and performers (including his famed folk singer sister Violeta), Parra graduated from the University of Chile and became a professor of mathematics and physics in 1938.

A year earlier, he had published his first poetry collection: Cancionero sin nombre (Unnamed Song).

He later developed a style that incorporated colloquial language and subject matter into traditional poetry and dubbed it "antipoetry."

Among his most significant works is 1954's Poemas y antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems). In it and through his later writing, Parra experiments with mixing poetry and prose. He also mixed the speech patterns, jargon and humour of the poorer classes into his writing to show that poetry could be a common form of expression.

He explores topics ranging from everyday happenings to the struggles faced by his countrymen, political oppression and criticism of his country's leaders, with the aim of making his work relevant to average Chileans.

Parra, who also studied physics at Brown University in the United States and cosmology at Oxford University in the U.K., continued teaching physics until he retired from the University of Chile in 1991 — all the while balancing his academic life with his writing.

Twice a winner of the Chilean National Literature Award, Parra has seen his work translated into many languages. His writing reportedly inspired Alan Ginsberg and his fellow Beat poets.

Parras is scheduled to receive the Cervantes Prize in Spain on April 23, 2012 — the anniversary of the Don Quixote author's death.

Worth €125,000 (nearly $171,500 Cdn), the Cervantes Prize honours a Spanish-language writer for his or her body of work and is among the world's most lucrative literary awards. Past recipients have included Spain's Ana Maria Matute, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa and Mexico's Octavio Paz.