Toward the end of the 1930's a new generation of Mexican writers emerged from the cultural milieu surrounding the magazine Taller (Workshop). These writers were conspicuous from the start, aggressively demonstrating a new sensibility and a new attitude toward literature and the world. Their principal difference from the preceding generation was their belief that poetic endeavors have a special place in various phases of history, being neither indifferent nor subordinate to it. Members of this generation were the direct inheritors of thirty years of avantgarde artistic production.
Gradually, through numerous books, this new sensibility gave shape to a large part of the Mexican literary culture for the following fifty years, opening a literary epoch that continues to this day. At the same time, the poets of this Mexican generation · together with their counterparts in other Latin American countries and in Spain · initiated the movement toward what eventually became the modern poetry of Hispanic America.
Among these young writers · none of whom had reached the age of thirty when the decade of the 1940's began · was Octavio Paz. He was exceptionally active, belligerent, and productive in his poetic creation and in other cultural endeavors. As time went on, it became increasingly evident that he was the protagonist of the literary epoch that this generation opened.
Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City on 31 March 1914. His father's family was proud of its Creole heritage, having settled in Mexico several generations before; his mother was of Andalusian stock. Paz's grandfather, Ireneo Paz, was a prominent liberal intellectual and a native of the state of Jalisco. He participated in the great historical events of his century. He served in the army that fought against Napoleon III and the French invasion of Mexico, reaching the rank of colonel. He was government secretary in the state of Sinaloa, and then participated in the movement that led Porfirio Díaz to the presidency of the country. He was a councilman in Mexico City and a representative in the Congreso de la Unión (Congress of the Union). And he was a writer, composing a biography of Porfirio Díaz, the historical novels Doña Marina (1883), Amor y suplicio (Love and Torture, 1873) and Leyendas históricas de la Independencia (Historical Legends of the Independence Movement), and the costumbrista novels Amor de viejo (Love in Old Age, 1882), Las dos Antonias (The Two Antonias, 1883), and La piedra del sacrificio (The Sacrificial Stone, 1871). (The costumbrista movement sought to record local culture in literature through the use of realistic detail.) He also wrote plays · La bolsa o la vida (Your Purse or Your Life, 1863), Los héroes del dia siguiente (The Heroes of the Next Day, 1859), La manzana de la discordia (The Apple of Discord, 1871) · memoirs, and even a book of poems, Cardos y violetas (Thistles and Violets, 1892). Thanks to his grandfather's well-stocked library, Paz could read Benito Pérez Galdós and Lucio Apuleyo at a young age; later, he also read Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón, Pedro Alarcón, Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, and other authors. French fiction-writers and poets occupied a prominent place in the great library, as did the works of the Hispanic modernists who wrote at the turn of this century. lreneo Paz was nearly ninety when he died, his eyes fixed on the clock in anticipation of his final hour. His ten-year-old grandson witnessed this event and relived it much later in the poem "Elegía interrumpida" ("Interrupted Elegy"; English translation in Early Poems, p. 72), first published in the section "Puerta condenada" (Condemned Door) in Libertad bajo palabra (Freedom on Parole, 1949). In this poem Paz recounts the deaths in his house, staring death in the face but at the same time examining death within himself.
Paz' father, Octavio Paz Solórzano, was an active political journalist. He worked with the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, writing his biography and serving as his representative in Mexico during Zapata's exile in the United States. Paz Solórzano was also one of the initiators of agrarian reform in Mexico. While his only son was still young, the-elder Paz was run over and killed by a train. Octavio Paz writes of his father's death in the poem "Pasado en claro" (Clean Copy, translated into English as "A Draft of Shadows"), in which he says that "La muerte es madre de las formas," ("death is the mother of forms") and that "los años y los muertos y las sílabas, / [son] cuentos distintos de la misma cuenta" ("years and the dead and the syllables / [are] different accounts from the same account").
The key elements of Paz' background, then, were an impoverished family, a very intense intellectual inheritance, and a house full of cracks, pictures of deceased relatives, and books. The two generations of intellectuals that preceded his were not solely scholars or creators: they were also people of social passion and of action. It is not surprising then that Paz has shown great sensitivity to social problems in Mexico since his youth and that he participated in the student movements of the time. After completing his secondary school studies, he attended the Escuela Preparatoria Nacional (National Preparatory School). The school was on the site of the seventeenth-century Jesuit college San Ildefonso. Some four decades later, he composed his important poem "Nocturno de San Ildefonso" ("San Ildefonso Nocturne," first published in the collection Vuelta, 1976; English translation in CP, p. 410), which invokes the Mexico he knew in the early 1930's. During his years at this school, he became personally acquainted with the most important poets of the preceding generation and immersed himself in the poetry of his time. Carlos Pellicer, José Gorostiza, and Samuel Ramos were his teachers. Jorge Cuesta and Xavier Villaurrutia met him and thought well of him. He was introduced to the world of Spanish poetry through Gerardo Diego's renowned anthology and to that of Mexican poetry through Cuesta's anthology. In collaboration with Salvador Toscano, José Alvarado, Rafael López Malo, and Arnulfo Martínez Lavalle, he founded and edited his first magazine, Barandal (Balustrade). This journal, published during 1931-1932, served as a vehicle for announcing their generation as the new literary avant-garde. In 1933-1934 he edited his second magazine, Cuadernos del Valle de México (Notebooks from the Valley of Mexico), featuring the same group of writers, who used the journal to formulate arguments for progressing beyond "pure poetry."
(* Translated by Eliot Weinberger, in The Collected Poems of Octavia Paz, 1987, p. 455. This work will be further referred to as CP.)
In 1937, when he was twenty-three, Paz decided to leave his home and his law studies and to abandon Mexico City. He spent several months in Yucatán, in the southeast of the country, where he and some of his friends founded a progressive school for workers. This was the era of the populist government of Lázaro Cárdenas, of agrarian reform, and of the great mobilizations of the masses. The miserable lives of the Mayan peasants, who were bound to the cultivation of henequen, made a deep impression on him and led him to write the first version of his poem "Entre la piedra y la flor" (Between Stone and Flower, first published in 1941; completely redone in 1976 and published in Vuelta 1/9:12-14 ). In this poem he contrasts the simple, ritualistic life of the peasants with the abstract international monetary system that suffocated their existence without their even suspecting it. But aside from expressing the author's fundamental sociopolitical observations, this poem · in its first version · is an intense re-creation of life, It contains a profound truth that transcends the political intentions that motivate it. Though the author considered the poem a failure, or at least an unsatisfactory achievement (even after he rewrote it several times), it shows clearly Paz' poetic inclinations during that period. "Entre la piedra y la flor" was not as much of a "social poem" as another that Paz published in 1936. (!) No pasarán! (They Shall Not Pass) was written in response to the Spanish civil war in a rhetorical style that he later rejected completely. Profits from the poem were donated to the Frente Popular Español (Popular Spanish Front) in Mexico.
Both of these poems are in clear contrast. with the poems contained in his first two books, Luna silvestre (Savage Moon, 1933), and Raíz del hombre (The Root of Man, 1937). In Luna silvestre, Paz shows his obvious intent to unite intellectual rigor with lyricism. Love and eroticism · important themes in this and all of his subsequent poetry · occupy primary positions in these two volumes.
While (!) No pasarán! was considered a highly rhetorical work, Raíz del hombre was recognized as being of the quality expected from a young poet of great talent. The critic and poet Jorge Cuesta was the first to comment on Octavio Paz and this book. In the 1 February 1937 issue of the biweekly Letras de México (Mexican Letters) he wrote:
What I noticed about Octavia Paz in his youth was the
decisiveness and willpower with which he was able to
reveal his penetration into the all-consuming essence of
an object. . . . And I was waiting for a book, like Raíz del
hombre,the poetry of which would confirm the influence
of some destiny over him. Now I am certain that
Octavia Paz has a future. He will not be able to liberate
himself from that future nor from what he has made
manifest to us. The voices of López Velarde, Carlos
Pellicer, Xavier Villaurrutia, and Pablo Neruda resonate
unmistakably in Paz's poems . . . [and] the fact that they
are being heard through Octavia Paz assures them of the
richest and most certain future they could possibly have.
During his stay in Yucatán, one of the most important archaealogical zones in Mexico, Paz discovered treasures of the country's prehistoric past and briefly entertained the thought of becoming an archaeologist. His feeling of fascination · love, horror, impassioned curiosity · for the ancient world of Mexico plays a fundamental role in his poetic work and in his essays. His subsequent writing on pre-Columbian Mexico · and especially on its art · is invaluable, even for specialists in the subject.
While in Yucatán he received an invitation to attend the Second International Congress of Anti-fascist Writers in Republican Spain. This invitation was of great importance, for many of the world's most prominent writers would be at the conference. Participants from Mexico were, for the most part, artists who were members of the Communist party and especially of the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists). Paz did not belong to the league, for he did not agree with its aesthetic orthodoxy of socialist realism and proletarian art. He was one of only two poets invited who were Communist sympathizers but not party members; the other was Pellicer. Among the conference organizers were Rafael Alberti and Neruda. Alberti was personally acquainted with Paz; Neruda had already read Raíz del hombre and, as he later recounted in his memoirs, was one of the first readers who enthusiastically appreciated the talent of the young Mexican poet.
First in Paris and then in Spain, the twenty-three-year-old Paz talked with writers he had never imagined meeting. Among these were Neruda himself, Louis Aragón, César Vallejo, André Malraux, Stephen Spender, Jorge Guillén, Julien Benda, Tristán Tzara, Vicente Huidobro, Miguel Hernández, and Luis Cernuda. In Valencia he met the young Spanish poets who edited the magazine Hora de España and who were later exiled to Mexico. This first contact with Europe was of seminal importance in his life for several reasons. First, it led to the publication in Valencia of a new collection of his poems, Bajo tu clara sombra y otros poemas sobre España (In Your Illustrious Shadow and Other Poems About Spain, 1937). The volume contained an introduction by the Spanish poet and editor Manuel Altolaguirre. Secondly, be felt the onset of political doubts that in the long run led him to confront his more "committed" friends and caused him to defend a writer's need to be independent. Finally, he lived for a short time with the reality of a people in the throes of civil war, a reality quite distant from the image of the war presented in his own poems; this too was a very hard lesson. He returned from Spain convinced that there were indeed causes in the world to fight for, contrary to what his friends believed, the poets of the previous generation · the generation of the magazine Contemporáneos(Contemporaries), in particular Villaurrutia. The question that was already troubling him before his trip to Spain became even more pressing after his return: How was he to write poetry that was not alienated from history · poetry that wasn't simply "pure" and detached · but that wasn't limited by the aesthetic dogmas of his time? His poetic and editorial labors of the following years yielded his first answers to this central question of his generation.
From 1938 to 1941 the focal point of this inquiry and of the new sensibility it provoked was the magazine Taller. Paz' editorial role · alongside that of Rafael Solana (the magazine's founder), Efraín Huerta, and Alberto Quintero Alvarez · was significant. Paz' essay "Razón de ser" (Reason for Being), which appeared in the second issue (April 1939) exemplified the ways in which the magazine both differed from and was similar to Contemporáneos. Writers of the earlier magazine espoused the idea of pure poetic rigor, in the manner of Paul Valéry or Juan Ramón Jiménez. In his manifesto Paz acknowledged the artistic merits of his predecessors and their creative assimilation of a new modernity, which Paz and the poets of Taller had inherited, but he lamented the sense of hopelessness in their artistic revolution. The skepticism of the contributors to Contemporáneos is understandable, for they formed the first generation of writers after the Mexican Revolution. They could not believe that violence would produce utopian improvements in the lives of men. The new generation could. "They are the postwar generation," stated Paz. "We live before the next great hecatomb; they lived after one." Several decades later he wrote in his essay "Antevíspera" (Before the Eve):
Although it is impossible for me to summarize in a
sentence what separated us from our predecessors, it
appears that the greatest difference lay in the fact that
our consciousness of the time in which we lived was
more vital and, if not clearer, definitely deeper and more
complete. Time asked us a question we had to respond to
if we didn't want to lose face and our souls as well. Our
place in history filled us with anguish.
In the poetry of this generation, and especially of Paz, the response assumed a shape that became more and more definite but no less rich and variable: the modern city, with its ruins and promises, was the motivation behind the efflorescence of a poetry that both faced history head-on and stood within it. A new space had been introduced into the poetic landscape of Mexico and Latin America, and with time this space only grew larger.
Several years later, Paz became aware that poets in other countries had already found answers to the question about the felicitous marriage of poetry and history. On one hand there was surrealism, with its combined powers of rebellion and expression. On the other was the peculiar solution of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, which introduced prosaic and historic elements into poetry, making them poetic. Both answers served as experiences through which Paz enriched the vitality of his own work. What is evident in Paz' work of that era is the desire · which in his case is almost the same as saying the project · simultaneously to situate himself in the poetic tradition of the Spanish language and to break with that tradition. He was eager to discover how · in what new costume or metamorphosis · the profound and varied destiny of man manifested itself, for he did not see this sense of destiny in the poetry of his predecessors. In one of his Conversaciones (Conversations) produced in 1984 for Mexican television Paz said:
For us destiny adopts the shape of history. . . . Never has
the destiny of men · the fact that we are mortal, that we
are going to die, that we are capable of love, that we are
born, work, and make things · been presented in the
form of a historical conflict. And this is what exists in
the city of the twentieth century. And this is what I did
not find in the poetry of my teachers and the poetry I
tried to write.
After the fourth issue of Taller, Paz was named sole editor of the magazine, and several young Spanish exiles whom he had met in Spain were added to the staff. They were Juan Gil-Albert, Ramón Gaya, Antonio Sánchez Barbudo, Lorenzo Varela, and José Herrera Petere. Seven more issues were published before the magazine folded. His arguments with the leftist authors became more intense. Leon Trotsky was assassinated during that era, and the pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin separated Paz even further from his Communist friends. Paz became acquainted with Víctor Serge, Jean Malaquais, and Benjamin Péret, well-known Marxist dissidents of those years, who helped him give new meaning to his concept of political criticism. In 1942 he published another volume of poetry, A la orilla del mundo (At the Edge of the World), which reprints some old poems alongside the new ones. Guided by the epigram of Quevedo · "Nothing disillusions me; the world has enchanted me" · Paz explored the narrow limits between vigil and the kind of sensory dream that is the poetic experience of this book.
He collaborated in 1943 in the founding of the magazine El hijo pródigo (The Prodigal Son); editorial responsibilities for the magazine were assigned to Octavio G. Barreda. In August of that year, Paz' essay "Poesía de soledad y poesía de comunión" (Poetry of Solitude and Poetry of Communion, later included in Las peras del olmo, 1957) was published in the magazine. In this essay, which can be viewed as a kind of manifesto, he writes of the fate of the modern poet, who is obligated to write not outside of society · which does not tolerate him · but within it and against it. The poet's challenge is to achieve a rigorous authenticity, "to unite consciousness and innocence, experience and expression, acts and the words that reveal them." This yearning evokes man radically alone in the multitudes of the city, which question him with their silence. But it is also a yearning that prefigures the experience Paz had a few years hence with surrealism: a vital force that could be described in part as a mysterious union of consciousness and innocence and the word that becomes action.
Toward the end of 1943 Paz left Mexico to begin ten years of life abroad. He spent two years in the United States, the first year supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship; the following year he held various jobs. While in the United States, he became familiar with that country's poetry. He lived for a while in San Francisco, and then in New York, where he studied the work of the Mexican poet José Juan Tablada, recently deceased in that city. At the invitation of Columbia University, he delivered a paper in homage to Tablada. This was the first modern essay on a man who was not much appreciated in Mexico at the time. Both Alfonso Reyes and Villaurrutia, for example, viewed him with disdain, and Paz' essay, "Estela para José Juan Tablada" (In Memory of José' Juan Tablada, published on 1 October 1945 in Letras de México), initiated the reevaluation of his work. On more than one subsequent occasion, Paz similarly upset the established values of Mexican literary history and helped shape the character of Mexico's modern culture. At the same time, Tablada influenced Paz' poetry; Paz became part of his tradition. And it was Tablada's writings that provoked Paz' curiosity about the literatures and cultures of the Orient, a curiosity that later became a passion. In contrast with those who saw Tablada as an author who was affected and too literary, Paz finds him offering an invitation to life, adventure, and travel. Significantly, the poet ends his eulogy in New York with these words:
[Tablada] invites us to open our eyes, to know how to
abandon the city of our birth and the verse that has
become a bad habit; he invites us to look for new skies
and new loves. All is marching toward itself, he tells us.
And now we know: in order to return to ourselves, we
have to sally forth and take risks.
In his paper, Paz describes his own need to find a way out, and what his own path would be.
In 1945 a friend of his father suggested he join Mexico's diplomatic corps. He ended up spending the next twenty-three years of his life in diplomatic service. Thanks to José Gorostiza, who worked in the foreign ministry, Paz was assigned to the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he was given a minor post. Paris proved to be a very stimulating cultural environment for Paz. Among the friends he made was the Greek philosopher and historian Kostas Papaioannou (1925-1951), who was living in exile. There was no better source than he, the clear-thinking and erudite Marxist, for up-to-date information on the realities of the socialist countries and their concentration camps in the postwar years. There was no better guide than he to the art of ancient Greece and Byzantium and to contemporary music and art. Papaioannou became one of the most important historians and critics of totalitarianism as well as one of Paz' best friends during his years in Paris. Paz' El ogro filantrópico (The Philanthropic Ogre, 1979), a book of critical essays on history and politics, was dedicated to this Greek philosopher.
In Paris he also began to see Benjamin Péret again and through him was able to participate in various activities and publications of the surrealists. In time he became friends with André Breton and at long last began his passionate and enduring relationship with surrealism. Many years later, in Corriente alterna (Alternating Current, 1967), he acknowledged: "Many times I write as though I were having a silent conversation with Breton: objections, answers, agreement, disagreement, homage, all these things at once" (Lane trans., p. 53). Paz did not see surrealism as an aesthetic school or an artistic style, but as "a secret focus of poetic passion in our vile times," a subversion of sensibilities, a radical movement to liberate art, eroticism, morality, and politics. It was for him, above all, a vital adventure. While adopting elements of surrealist poetics in his poems, Paz renounced the dogma of automatic writing and abandonment of content. It was precisely content · vital contemporary history personalized with everyday detail · that Paz had learned to incorporate into a poem from his reading of Eliot and Pound.
During the late 1940's Paz' poetic work reached its maturity. In 1949 he published his first major book, Libertad bajo palabra (Freedom on Parole). The following year he wrote the essay on the nature of the Mexican people that quickly became a classic: El laberinto de la soledad (The Lahyrinth of Solitude, 1950). And the next year another important book, written in a prose-poetry that reflected his new aesthetic formulations, (?)Aguila o sol? (Eagle or Sun?), came out. Three books in three years: all important to his work and to the literature of his language.
Libertad bajo palabra is a new vision of an earlier poetry, a rewriting under new exigencies. But above all, it is something radically new. The entire book presents itself as an avant-garde work at a time when the avant-garde is in rapid decline and has become mired in academicism. By contrast, Paz champions a critical avant-garde, an avant-garde that can free itself from stereotype. The poems of this collection express a new and vital attitude that Paz shared, without knowing it, with other Latin American authors of the same period. At the start of the 1950's, José Lezama Lima, Enrique Molina, Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, Nicanor Parra, Alvaro Mutis, Gonzalo Rojas, and Paz were defining the poetry of contemporary Hispanic America. Their poetry shared a characteristic that Paz later described in Los hijos del limo (Children of the Mire, 1974) as a way of living in language:
The issue was not to invent, as in 1920, but to explore.
The territory that attracted these poets was neither
outside nor within. It was that space where interior
meets exterior: the zone of language. Their preoccupation
was not aesthetic; for those young writers language
was a contradiction: it was simultaneously destiny and
choice; something given and something we make; something
that makes us.
In one of the most important poems in Libertad bajo palabra, "Himno entre ruinas" ("Hymn Among the Ruins," English translation published in Early Poems, p. 95), a new artistic form appears, a form that Paz would explore in greater depth in the future: simultaneity. Paz' process of showing two parallel actions at the same time became the new form of the poetics of modernity in the Spanish language. He creatively translated into Spanish what Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars had discovered in French poetry and Pound and Eliot in English poetry. In 1960 and 1968 Libertad bajo palabra saw new editions that each significantly transformed the book, converting it into a revision of Paz' poetic work between 1935 and 1957.
Although Paz had found a way to make poetry into history, there remained a more explicit formulation of his historical preoccupations that would fit only into the essay. The Labyrinth of Solitude is the answer to two basic questions: What does it mean to be Mexican in the twentieth century? What does Mexico mean in this period? The word "solitude" has a predominantly historical meaning in this book: to be alone in time, in history. Further, Paz regards solitude as a state that is the fate of all men and all nations. Written in the prose of a poet, the book is a lucid analysis of the most profound rites of the contemporary Mexican, that is, of the Mexican who lives in different historical periods simultaneously. For the author, the discipline of history is a kind of knowledge that lies midway between science and poetry. In The Labyrinth of Solitude Paz passionately penetrates the fog shrouding the Mexican identity and provides succeeding generations with words for describing this identity.
All of Paz' poetic efforts up to this time are focused in Eagle or Sun?, a series of prose poems. None of his earlier writings exhibits, as this book does, the conception of the poet who is literally made by language. Each poem in the book is an exploration of worlds and underworlds that are external and internal, personal and Mexican, and worldly. "Trabajos del poeta" ("The Poet's Work") and "Arenas movedizas" ("Shifting Sands") are titles of two sections of Eagle or Sun?, a book with all the sensibilities of surrealism. In fact, one of the poems in this book, "Mariposa de obsidiana" ("Obsidian Butterfly"), was Paz' first contribution to a surrealist publication, Breton's Almanach surréaliste du demi-siècle, in 1950.
Paz spent most of 1952 traveling in Japan and India, which made a deep impression on his subsequent work. His visit to Japan intensified the literary seduction that had started when he first read Tablada, the poet who introduced haiku to the literature of the Spanish language. In 1955 Paz collaborated with a Japanese friend, Eikichi Hayashiya, in the preparation of the first Western-language version of Bashõ Matsuo's poems Sendas de Oku (published in 1957; translated into English by Earl Miner as The Narrow Road Through the Provinces, 1966). He also wrote several articles on Oriental art and literature. Later, between 1962 and 1968, Paz lived in India, and in 1969 he published a book of poems written in the Orient, Ladera este (Eastern Slope, English translation in CP, pp. 163-331). This book contains two sections he wrote in India, Afghanistan, and Ceylon: "Hacia el comienzo" ("Toward the Beginning") and "Blanco" ("White"). In 1971 he and the French poet Jacques Roubaud, the Italian Edoardo Sanguinetti, and the Englishman Charles Tomlinson collaborated on a poem in four languages and four voices, Renga (Renga, 1972). This poem was a re-creation and transformation of the Japanese tradition of renga (a collective poem), which developed between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. His long prose poem, El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian, 1974), refers repeatedly to India and specifically to the Galta Road in Rajasthan.
Paz lived in Mexico between 1952 and 1958, still in the employ of the foreign ministry. Following his return to his homeland, he became one of the most active forces in Mexican culture, introducing writers from abroad and showing Mexican painters and writers in a new light. He had obvious influence on La revista mexicana de literatura (The Mexican Review of Literature), which was edited in its early years by Carlos Fuentes and Emmanuel Carballo. In 1955 he founded the experimental theater group Poesía en voz alta (Poetry Out Loud) in collaboration with several other artists. During its existence, this group was recognized for its avant-garde stage productions. In 1956 he published his only play, La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini's Daughter, English translation in Chantikian, ed., Octavio Paz, pp. 34-65), a work in one act based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The play was produced that year under the direction of Héctor Mendoza.
The year 1956 saw the publication of another important book of poetics by Paz, El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre), which continued the exploration into the nature of poetry begun almost fifteen years before in his essay "Poesía de soledad y poesía de comunión." From the outset the author rejected the contention that this book was a theoretical tract, preferring to characterize it as testimony to an encounter with several poems. According to Paz · who follows Heraclitus in using this image · poetic man simultaneously shares in the nature of the lyre, which locates him in the world with its song, and of the bow, which impels him beyond himself. The first edition of the book, which is divided into three sections, addresses these questions: Is there a poetic statement that cannot be reduced to any other statement? What do poems say? How is the poetic statement communicated? The first question points to an examination of the elements of a poem itself: language, rhythm, verse and prose, and imagery. The second leads us into the world of poetic revelation, of inspiration, and of the trip we take to "the other shore" in order to have the poetic experience. In addressing the third question, Paz again shows his preoccupation with the relationship between history and poetry · with the ways in which the irreducibIe poetic act introduces itself into the world. Once again, Paz concludes that poetry should not sing to history but be history. Once again he conceives of the poetic experience as a return to oneself, to one's most profound and authentic desires. And once again he affirms that solitude continues to be the dominant note in the poetry of today. This essay displays erudition and originality in its interpretation of the passionate adventure of contemporary poetry. The author concludes by leaving open the questions he raised in the beginning, asking himself if answers for them even exist. In fact, Paz leaves a path open for his future work as an essayist. A strong and wide current of thought sweeps through all of his books of literary essays; this is true in particular of Children of the Mire, which in certain ways can be seen as an extension of The Bow and the Lyre.
In the second edition of The Bow and the Lyre (1967), the original epilogue is replaced by an essay titled "Los signos en rotación" (Signs in Rotation). This essay presents a new poetic manifesto, arguing that modern poetry is not "poetic poetry," as had been maintained before by the poets of the older generation, but rather that the most elevated form of poetry currently consists in the negation of poetry, in the criticism of language and of the poetic experience itself. It is the sign of our times: the reading of a poem lies in the poem itself, but this reading should never be fixed or closed. Furthermore, poetry should not be invention, but discovery of others, of the otherness that surrounds us. Hence, poetry is the mysterious and authentic search for a here and a now. The theme of poetry and revolution, of poetry and society, is revised and placed again in parentheses · identifying it as a sort of intrusion. According to Paz, the mission of the poet had previously been seen as giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe; today the poet's task is to question that meaning. At the same time, poetry is an attempt to reunite elements that have been pulled apart.
Paz' activity as literary critic and essayist has been enormous. Las peras del olmo (Pears from the Elm Tree, 1957) was his first volume of relatively miscellaneous literary essays. It was followed in 1965 by Cuadrivio (Quadrivium), in 1966 by Puertas al campo (Gateway to the Field), by Alternating Current in 1967, and by Los signos en rotación y otros ensayos (Signs in Rotation and Other Essays) in 1971. El signo y el garabato (The Sign and the Scribble) appeared in 1973, In/Mediaciones (Im/Mediations) in 1979, Sombras de obras (Shadows of Works) in 1983, and Hombres en su siglo (Men in Their Century) in 1984.
Interspersed among these were other collections that focused on a single theme. Claude Lévi-Strauss; o, El nuevo festín de Esopo (Claude Lévi-Strauss; or, Aesop's New Festival, translated into English as Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction) came out in 1967. Two years later Conjunciones y disyunciones (Conjunctions and Disjunctions) was published. In 1971 Traducción: Literatura y literalidad (Translation: Literature and Literalness) appeared, in 1973 Apariencia desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp (Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare), and in 1974 La búsqueda del comienzo (Search for the Beginning) and Children of the Mire. Xavier Villaurrutia en persona y en obra (Xavier Villaurrutia in Person and in His Work) was published in 1978, and in 1982 the by now already indispensable volume of literary history Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; o, Las trampas de la fe. Sor Juana is both a study of the times in which the sixteenth-century Mexican nun and poet lived and an audacious and very complete reflection upon her life and work.
On occasion Paz has given interviews, which are no less important than his essays because of the careful attention he gives to them. Two noteworthy collections of his interviews are Solo a dos voces (A Solo for Two Voices, 1973) and Pasión crítica (A Critical Passion, 1985). Solo a dos voces is an interview with Julián Ríos; Pasión crítica, which was edited by Hugo J. Verani and is the more important volume, includes the interview with Ríos.
In all of these books one sees Paz' intense dedication to cultural journalism, a moderate amount of his reminiscing about writers he knew in earlier times, and studies of writers whose works have become classics of Spanish-language literature and literature in other languages. These collections contain fundamental ideas: that modernity in art is a tradition, a tradition made up of ruptures; that the decline of the avant-garde becomes plausible when one realizes the impossibility of believing in linear and progressive time; and that the modern is in a state of crisis, which leads to the dissolution of the notion of the future and of change as well. Paz anticipated by at least fifteen years all the concerns that are now subsumed under the label "postmodern."
Paz' exploration of modernity and the directions of its development has centered on literature · especially poetry · and on other forms of art, with particular emphasis on painting. As an art critic, Paz opened up Mexico to modernity, not only by informing the country about what was happening in the world, but also by helping people understand the work of modern Mexican painters. Before long pre-Columbian art was being seen in a new light, because Paz had passed through surrealism and therefore was able to appreciate · and inculcate appreciation of · "the primitive" as an authentic and remarkable art form. He also threw himself into the debates of the most irritated nationalists, defending Rufino Tamayo's art against its detractors.
Paz lived in Paris again from 1959 to 1962, after which he was named ambassador to India. He stayed in India until 1968. That year, after the massacre of students at the Plaza de Tres Culturas on 2 October, he resigned his diplomatic post and spoke out against his government in the international press, causing tremendous public outrage. A short time later he wrote Posdata (Postscript, 1970), a critical and self-critical update of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It was a criticism of the government and even more deeply a criticism and interpretation of the history of Mexico, with all its recent errors and horrors: a "Crítica de la pirámide" ("Critique of the Pyramid") and of the idols within ourselves.
Paz' ideas have been echoed elsewhere in Latin America and on occasion have provoked considerable debate. In 1979, nearly ten years after the publication of Posdata, he published a thick volume of historical and political criticism, El ogro filantrópico (The Philanthropic Ogre). The title points to the principal characteristics of the Mexican state. The first section of the book, "El presente y sus pasados" ("Thee Present and Its Pasts"), contains essays on Mexico that continue the analyses of The Labyrinth of Solitude and Pasdata; the second section returns to the history of Mexico; the third discusses totalitarianism and eroticism; and the final section is a set of essays on intellectuals and power. Dissent, says Paz, is the nobility and honor of our time.
Tiempo nublado (Clouded Time, translated as One Earth, Four or Five Worlds, 1983) brings together essays on international politics and on the crises caused by the imperial democracy of the United States and by the Russian bureaucracy; it gives particular attention to the nature of the relationship between the United States and Latin America. In all his political essays Paz affirms the need for the modern intellectual and critic to be independent of political parties or "sciences of truth." He describes his work in political analysis as the inquisitive passion of a writer, of a poet who gives testimony about his times outside of his poetry. A large number of his literary and political articles were originally published in the cultural magazines he edited during the 1970's and 1980's. These were Plural, which he edited from 1971 to 1976, and Vuelta (Return), which he has edited since 1976.
But no less important than his role as witness to his time has been his role as champion of poetry. He has read, commented on, and supported the work of many young poets. In collaboration with three Mexican poets · Alí Chumacero, Homero Aridjis, and José Emilio Pacheco · Paz edited and wrote the introduction to an anthology of modern Mexican poetry that is a classic in its genre: Poesía en movimiento: México 1915-1966 (New Poetry of Mexico, 1966). He had already edited and written the introduction and notes for another anthology of Mexican poetry in 1950. Commissioned by UNESCO, this anthology was translated from the French into several languages; the English translation, published in 1958, was by an Irishman who was not well known at the time, Samuel Beckett.
Paz has been a passionate and tireless translator. He has developed theories of translation and, most importantly, has made many foreign poets known to Mexicans, including the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). He has collaborated on the translation of Chinese, Japanese, and Swedish writers. His book Versiones y diversiones (Versions and Diversions, 1974) is a compilation of a large portion of his translation work up to that date.
During his stay in Mexico in the 1950's and after he wrote Eagle or Sun?, Paz' poetic work became ever more innovative and experimental. His poetic adventures were opening new pathways for young poets as well, poets who always followed in his steps. In 1954 he published Semillas para un himno (Seeds for a Hymn), and in 1957 the long poem Piedra de sol (Sun Stone), the culmination of a poetic search. This circular poem is simultaneously about love and about the crimes of history. It is about a meeting with the beloved when the world is in ruins, and when the sun opens minds like stones and makes life spring forth from them. In 1958 La estación violenta (The Violent Season) was published; it included Sun Stone. In 1960 La estacion violenta was itself included in the new edition of Libertad bajo palabra.
Paz' poems written between 1958 and 1961 and collected in 1962 in the volume Salamandra (Salamander) are fervent examples of a poetry that · as Paz had already noted · lives and grows: it creates and re-creates itself through critical self-reflection. The same volume contains short and equally fervent poems on erotic encounters.
In 1967 the poem Blanco ("White") (English translation in CP, 309-331) came out in a limited first edition, well suited to the poem's experimental form. The poem is printed on a single folded sheet that on being unfolded produces the text, as space itself becomes text. The intention is for the reading act to become a ritual, a trip with several possible routes. The three parallel columns, each written in a different script, offer at least six combinations or possibilities for reading.
The following year, in 1968, his experimentation with spaces and the art of combinations reached its culmination when he published Discos visuales (Visual Disks) in collaboration with the painter Vicente Rojo. The year before he had experimented with the Apollinairean calligram and the concrete poetry of Tablada in his Topoemas ("Topoems," published in 1971; English translation in CP, pp. 333-339).
In the majority of poems included in Eastern Slope · where "White" is presented in linear form · the poetic process reaches an immense calm, as if the whirlwind of innovation were now working more deeply inside Paz than before, and as if silence had transformed everything. Then comes the singular experience of The Monkey Grammarian, written in 1970. Aside from the beauty of its intense prose, the book again synthesizes Paz' poetic efforts of various years. In this volume writing is simply movement, and as we travel down the Galta Road, it gradually fades away before us, leaving us in our own hands, defenseless before ourselves. Several times we find our bearings, only to become lost again. Are we the Way? Or is everything that distracts us the Way? The book advances in a spiral, and in the end poetry is seen as the convergence of all points and an act that at the same time is a body. A poem writes itself as it is read: both actions coincide and in the process both reconcile themselves and liberate themselves from one another.
The book Vuelta ("Return," 1976; English translation in CP, pp. 341-429) contains poetry written between 1969 and 1975. These are the poems of a homecoming, of a return not only from the geographical Orient, but also from the Orient of poetry into which the poet had penetrated. Memory reveals a "Paisaje inmemorial" ("Immemorial Landscape"). But it is not the exploration of memory but of poetry that creates and re-creates disturbed worlds as the poetry is made and makes itself, as it is spoken and speaks, and as it is read and reads itself. One sees Paz' friends and Mexico City of the 1930's; one hears the quiet breath of his "Jardines errantes" ("Nomadic Gardens"). His long poem of this period is Pasado en claro (The Past Illuminated, 1975; translated as A Draft of Shadows). In this poem the poet invokes the past and yields himself to possession by the past. A new grammar of the world takes form, and as the poet proceeds, he recognizes, among all the references to the past lives of others, references to himself. A large house looms up from his infancy, in decay, and inhabited by ghosts. "Mis palabras, / al hablar de la casa, se agrietan" ("My words, / speaking of the house, split apart," CP, p. 449), says Paz. "En mi casa los muertos eran más que los vivos. . . . Mientras la casa se desmoronaba / yo crecía. Fui (soy) yerba, maleza / entre escombros anónimos." ("In my house there were more dead than living. . . . As the house crumbled, I grew / I was (I am) grass, / weeds in anonymous trash," CP, p. 451). And the poem's conclusion conforms to the pattern we have already seen elsewhere in his poetry: action, poem, and poet making themselves and being made, as the boundaries between them dissolve.
pasos dentro de mí, oídos con los ojos,
el murmullo es mental, yo soy mis pasos,
oigo las voces que yo pienso,
las voces gue me piensan al pensarlas.
Soy la sombra que arrojan mis palabras.
footsteps within me, heard with my eyes,
the murmur is in the mind, I am my footsteps,
I hear the voice that I think,
the voices that think me as I think them.
am the shadow my words cast.
(CP, p. 465)
In 1976 a new edition of all his poetry written between 1935 and 1975 was published under the title Poesía (Poetry). In 1987 he published Arbol adentro (A Tree Within, English translation in CP, pp. 594-635). In this book the erotic tendency of his poetry forcefully manifests itself, confirming that his poetics is an "erotic treatise" in the sense that it is a search for the other, for the "otherness" he desires, and an encounter with it on the tactile surface of the poem. In A Tree Within everything · the trees rustling their leaves, for example · becomes language for speaking with the beloved, and things are signs that lovers impregnate each other with.
The year 1987 also saw the publication in three volumes of Paz's writings on Mexico. The first volume, El peregrino en su patria (The Pilgrim in his Fatherland), unites a broad selection of the articles he wrote on the politics and history of Mexico. The second volume, Generaciones y semblanzas (Generations and Biographical Sketches), contains articles on literature and Mexican writers. The third, Los privilegios de la vista (Privileges of View), is the most unusual: it presents a rich collection of essays on Mexican art never brought together before, including articles on pre-Columbian art, art of the nineteenth century, contemporary artists, and certain aspects of muralism. The three volumes were published under the title, México en la obra de Octavio Paz (Mexico in the Work of Octavio Paz). Later, a series of twelve programs on the books was aired over Mexican television. Paz has worked with Mexican television in the past, contributing such cultural programs as Conversaciones con Octavio Paz (Conversations with Octavio Paz), produced in 1984, and a series an Ezra Pound, aired in 1986.
Among the numerous awards that Paz has received are the Premio Miguel de Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Prize), awarded in Madrid in 1981; the Jerusalem Literature Prize, 1977; the German booksellers' Peace Prize, 1984; and El Premio Nacional de Letras (The National Prize in Letters), awarded in Mexico in 1977. In 1963 he won the International Poetry Prize in Brussels; he was awarded the Oslo Poetry Prize in 1985, the Premio Menéndez Pelayo (Menéndez Pelayo Prize) of Spain in 1987, the Premio Ollin Yoliztli (Ollin Yoliztli Prize) of Mexico in 1980, and the Neustadt Literature Prize of the University of Oklahoma in 1982. In addition he has received honorary doctorates from Boston University (1973), the University of Mexico (1978), Harvard (1980), and New York University (1984).
Octavia Paz' work as poet, essayist, political polemicist, editor, translator, and active champion of culture during his career of fifty years has opened the doors of modernity to the Spanish language. It has also built bridges to the literatures of other languages and of other times and showed how to apply criticism to creation and creation to criticism.
Translated from the Spanish by S. G. Stauss
From: Alberto Ruy-sánchez. "Octavio Paz." Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.