Chilean Poet Raul Zurita Draws, and Stirs, a Crowd

Chilean Poet Raul Zurita Draws, and Stirs, a Crowd

Raul Zurita, one of Latin America's great living poets and one of Chile's most important voices against dictatorship, reads and discusses his poetry on campus.

His one-line poem in the Atacama Desert sand is more than three kilometers long.

One of Latin America's great living poets, Raúl Zurita of Chile, gave a reading and participated in a panel discussion about his work for about 80 people who packed into a small Royce Hall venue on April 23, 2009. Graduate students in literature and Spanish-language learners alike crowded doorway stairs and sat on the floor to hear a poet known since his Purgatorio (1979) as a potent voice raised against the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

For the recently opened UCLA Center for Argentina, Chile and the Southern Cone, directed by law professor Maximo Langer, this was the first major event with a Chilean focus. Zurita was introduced by the consul general of Chile in Los Angeles, José Manuel Lira, and by UCLA Professor of Spanish Verónica Cortínez, the event organizer.

Lira noted that, among other laurels, Zurita in 2000 won Chile's National Prize for Literature, previously awarded to Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and others. Cortínez, also a Chilean, discussed the insistently human poetry of Zurita, whose three-part cycle inspired by Dante has neither an "Inferno" nor a "Paradiso," and his poetic stance or attitude: "simple, modest and, for that very reason, ambitious."

The panel discussion led by Cortínez included UCLA doctoral candidate Paula Thorrington, who will submit a dissertation chapter on Zurita's poetry of the 1980s, and Professors Manfred Engelbert of the University of Göttingen, Germany, and Jacobo Sefamí of UC Irvine.

Zurita read to the audience from works published during the dictatorship and after 1990, including Anteparaíso (1982), Canto a su amor desaparecido (1985), INRI (2004), and Las ciudades de agua (2008).

He concluded with a fragment from the "Canto" or song for a disappeared love, an intensely emotional poem of grief and longing that brought sustained applause from the audience. Like other Chileans, Zurita was imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet and remembers copatriots "disappeared" by secret police.

One of the poetic strengths of Zurita that was pointed out by panelists and an audience member is his ability to work in distinct "layers" of poetry (Zurita's word, capas), for example its visual and auditory aspects. The readings were extraordinarily rhythmic. From a visual angle, Zurita has even been viewed as a "concrete" poet. Famously, he caused verses to be written in Spanish over New York City in skywriting contrails and also—as if for readers lodged in the sky—caused the line "Ni Pena Ni Miedo" to be bulldozed in the sands of the Atacama Desert, facing the Pacific Ocean ("Neither Pity Nor Fear"). The poem in the desert is more than three kilometers long and may be viewed using Google Earth (software installation required).

The visual aspect of poetry and the poetry we hear, Zurita said at the event, "have the same expressive value."

Published: Friday, May 01, 2009