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Leopoldo Maria Panero
(1948 - March 5, 2014) Spain

Leopoldo Maria Panero

Poet

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He was born in Madrid. Peering through a haze of schizophrenia and other turmoil, chain-smoking as he drifted from one asylum to the next, Leopoldo Maria Panero wrote poetry. He has won no literary awards in his deeply troubled life, marred by alcoholism, bouts of depression and two suicide attempts before age 21.

But as he lives in yet another psychiatric ward and spends his days clutching a gym bag filled with books, Panero is often praised as one of Spain's best poets. Even critics who can't stomach his violent, in-your-face brand of writing say he oozes talent. Fans say Panero's work is the stuff of Spanish literary history.

Panero has written some 20 books of poetry, plus numerous essays on everything from politics to mental illness. He is part of a generation that broke with the realism that dominated Spanish poetry in the decades after the 1936-39 Civil War and made verse an event, divorced from reality, with its own intrinsic meaning.

His themes go against the establishment and focus on the individual immersed in a hostile world. His sense of rejection, distance and removal can touch on life itself. Thus, the dead speak - they're on the outside looking in.

Panero pecks away by night on a cranky old Olivetti. Editors get wrinkled drafts punctuated with cigarette burns, coffee stains and scribbled corrections only they can decipher.

But he has limited access to the staff office he uses as a study. After all, he's just another resident, albeit a famous one, and a self-committed one, of the Psychiatric Hospital outside Las Palmas in Spain's Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa.

Panero grew up surrounded by words. His late father Leopoldo was a minor but respected poet with many literary friends; his older brother, Juan Luis, also is a poet. As a youngster, Panero was a prodigy, dazzling his parents by reciting poetry as it came to his head before he knew how to write.

Little Leopoldo's performances in the book-lined study of the Panero apartment on Calle Ibiza in Madrid were so remarkable that family friends would bring tape recorders along. What no one could expect back in those heady days was that as a young man Panero would end up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital two blocks down the street.

It was one of many such facilities he has inhabited since his first suicide attempt in 1968. Over the years, Panero was diagnosed with schizophrenia and has lived in asylums nonstop since 1986. He never married and has no children.

He was at his best when talking about poetry. His verse and discourse were dense with allusions to poetry in any of the languages he speaks or reads: Spanish, French, Italian and English.

Panero only sleeped at the hospital. Just about every morning he got a day pass, taking a bus into town and whiles away the hours, mainly wandering the streets. Sometimes, he gave lectures at the university. With him always was his trusty gym bag, crammed with books of poetry - Poe, John Keats and others. He's fiercely protective of it.

Manuel Desviat, a psychiatrist who once treated Panero, says the poet has been clever about making a sort of cottage industry out of being a poetic enfant terrible who lived for free in state-financed psychiatric hospitals.

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