McNair to Hall: February 26, 1978


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February 26, 1978

Dear Don –

You asked me to send you some of my translations of N. Parra.
I have by now translated several of his poems. But I am
sending you only the three which I wish to include in my
first volume of poetry. As I may have explained, the
thing will conclude with fifteen or so pages of contemporary
Chilean poetry in translation. I will choose the poems by a
fairly arbitrary set of criteria, insisting that they be
free verse poems and that they further themes in the
“book proper”. For the Parra translations, there’s still another
prerequisite: they must be sufficiently different from the
Williams (or Wright or whomever) versions to stand
on their own. Having seen the Williams translations of
“Stains on the Wall” and “The Beggar”, I am not worried
about publishing my renditions : They are in their way
quite different – and, I am convinced, better – translations.
I have not seen what may have been done earlier with
“The Man”, but will know as soon as a friend in Cambridge
sends me the two NEW DIRECTIONS Parra books –
Poems and Antipoems and Emergency Poems. “The Man”


is a simpler poem in its language, and therefore difficult
to screw up. But Williams, Parra’s principal translator,
has gone so far wrong with other poems, it’s not hard
to imagine that he’s done it again with “The Man”.

I have sent you two versions of “Stains on the Wall” –
mine and Williams’ – so you can see how we differ
and why I think he’s on the wrong track…later, I
may send you Parra’s “Self Portrait”, which I may include
in my book, and which I’ve just finished translating.
I will certainly send you my translations of poems by
Gonzalo Rojas, which I will include, and which
I’m working on now.

Please let me know what you think. Also what you
think of “Memory of North Sutton”. I don’t know
when I’ve had so many poems underway in
my notebooks – but progress is, as usual slow. I have
some I think are ready, but I want to be sure
before you see them. Others sit and sulk on the page.
The good news is that I seem to have most of my
part of the book written. When it’s done, you and
Jane will be the first to see it, a dubious distinction,


perhaps, but the best I can offer right now.

We will be home, to answer your recent question,
at the end of August – a bit late, but I’ve been asked
by the Fulbright Commission to stay on for a month
to lecture at a variety of universities in South America –
this is a result of a week-long all-South American
conference on American civilization for which I did all
the lectures. It went well, better than I had expected,
and various participants invited me to their home
institutions. In April, Diane and I will be traveling
to the South of Chile; sometime later, we’ll go to
the North. Now, I’m on vacation (until March
15) and am using the time to write and put together
a course called “The City and the Town in American
Culture”. It will include lots of 20th Century
literature and art.

Forgot to mention that the most serious
potential obstacle to my home-coming was an
offer from the U. of Concepcion (where Meriam
Diaz is – a wonderful place, whose campus looks
like Berkeley’s) to stay on indefinitely as a full


professor of American civilization. For a variety of reasons,
including job security at home, I turned the offer down,
but that was a difficult decision.

So it’s definite for late August. Perhaps you would
have time for a reunion near that time? Diane and I
would like that.

Please say hello to Jane for me. And please
pass on the enclosed to her. Tell her I got my
Green House and was very pleasantly surprised to find
my name on its cover – a first for me. Also please
convey how pleased I was to hear that Louis Simpson
liked “The Last Peaceable Kingdom”.

Our best to you both,


P.S. I liked “Stone Walls”, and I will enjoy teaching
it. How different it was from the last version! Are
you finished with it? I am strongly in favor of
the revisions you’ve made. It’s a remarkable poem, I think.

About “The Poetic License”; I’ve decided to
keep the last line, at least for now, since I still


like the way it completes the image of a “poetic license”
and I like the way it places the burden of all that
American mythology upon the poet who would write about
America today – this in spite of his apparent distance
from the mythology – his playing with it, joking about
it, etc. –I.e., to have a poetic license, he must
find a way of dealing with the poetic license
to which the poem earlier refers.

But you’ve made me wary of my “justifications”.
I can only hope I’m right.

Muchos Saludos !



It is not possible to live in the city
Without having an official function:
The police enforce this law.

Some are soldiers
Who spill their blood for the country
(This goes between quotation marks)

Others are astute merchants
Who take away a gram
Or two or three from each kilo of plums.

And those further on are priests
Who pass each other with a book in hand.

Each one knows his business.
And what do you think mine is?

To sing
To all the closed windows

Hoping they will open
a coin.

–Nicanor Parra


The mother of a man is gravely ill
He leaves to look for the Doctor
He cries
In the street he sees his wife with another man
They are walking hand in hand
He follows at a short distance
From tree to tree
He cries
Now he meets a friend from his youth
It’s been years since we’ve seen each other!
The go into a bar
They talk, they laugh
The man leaves to urinate on the patio
He sees a young girl
It is night
She is washing dishes
The man approaches the young woman
He takes her by the wrist
They dance waltzes
Together they go into the street
They laugh
There is an accident
The girl has lost consciousness
The man goes to find a telephone
He cries
He reaches a house with lights
He asks for a telephone
Someone recognizes him
Stay to eat, man
Where is the telephone
Eat, man, eat
Afterward you can go
He sits down to eat
He drinks like a condemned man
He laughs
They make him recite
He recites
He falls asleep under a desk

–Nicanor Parra


1 Before the night falls completely on us
2 Let’s study the stains on the wall:
3 Some appear to be plants
4 Others look like mythological animals.

5 Hippogrifos,
6 dragons,
7 salamanders.

8 But the most extraordinary of all
9 Are the ones that seem to be atomic explosions

10 In the cinematography of the wall
11 The soul sees what the body does not:
12 Kneeling men
13 Mothers with creatures in their arms
14 Statues on horseback
15 Priests lifting the host
16 Genitalia coming together

17 But the most mysterious of all
18 Beyond a doubt
19 Are the ones that seem to be atomic explosions.


1&2 : Parra speaks of night in this stanza – but also of the darkness of the holocaust.
That point emerges somehow out of the seriousness and the formality of the speaker’s invitation
to “study”. Williams’ first line has an awkwardness that results from a literal translation.
His second line – “Let’s, etc.” – is informal, almost suggests “fun”. If it establishes any
tone at all, it’s a tone of “flipness” – as if the antipoet is a man who is flip, insouciant.
That sort of tone, by the way, permeates Williams’ book. Actually, Parra’s tones are many,
and it’s vitally important to get them straight, esp. since so much of the poetry comes out of
the tone.

3 “appear to be” : suggests too much of a distance between the stain and its correspondent.

5 “Horses” will do, since the category of “mythological animals” has already been established.
“Hyppogrifos” is too strained a reference.

5 – 7 Doing away with the commas helps the reader to better see the animals on the “field” of
the wall. (I take liberty with the original here.)

8 “extraordinary” should be “mysterious” – translation is careless, esp. since “mysterious”
conveys the strangeness of the investigation which we are invited to make. “Extraordinary”
belongs at the end of the poem – in its last line – where Parra originally put it, the better
to conclude our investigation. Of course Williams places “mysterious” in that line.

9 “seem to be” : Both here and in the last line; this phase makes the likeness more
conditional than it is supposed to be.

10 – 15 This stanza includes roles, activities, images which connote the ongoing processes,
the stability of civilization. Strangely, these things can also suggest the terror
of a civilization coming apart – like some section of Picasso’s Guernica. I sense
in his mechanical, also literal rendering of these lines, Williams’ unawareness
of the above. Note also his inappropriate translation of lines 13 and 14 :
“statues on horseback” belies a carelessness for which there is simply no excuse.

16 In Parra’s poem this line appears on its own, with space above and below itself- It seems
to me that Parra singles it out in this way to give a new connotation to the
“atomic explosions” of the poem’s conclusion. They become an awful inverted
orgasm, one which blows man, woman and the created world to pieces. “Genitalia” ?
Literal. Mechanical.

Since the resonances of this poem are subtle, it requires a painstaking
translation. The wrong word or phrase can ruin the whole thing. Obviously, there’s
more than that wrong with Williams’ rendition. Even punctuation can make a
great difference in a poem like this. And Williams is very sloppy about punctuation.


Before the darkness descends
We will study the stains on the wall.
Some look like plants
Others resemble mythological animals:


But the most mysterious of all
Are the ones which look like atomic explosions.

In the cinematography of the wall
The soul sees what the body does not:
Men on their knees
Mothers with babies in their arms
Equestrian monuments
Priests offering the body of Christ:

Genital organs coming together.

But the most extraordinary of all
Are without a doubt
The ones that look like atomic explosions.

–Nicanor Parra



Five thousand miles from here
North Sutton is sleeping.
Gas pumps doze

by Vernondale’s store.
Old farmhouses lie
tethered to the road.

How quiet they are!
Holding the darkness
still in their windows

resting their great roofs
among the trees.
Slowly, slowly they shift

their white sides
in the moonlight.
In a sound sleep

the church
lifts its stopped clock
into the night sky.

Santiago, 1978