Rest in Paz
We pause to remember one of the most eloquent voices of the 20th century.
By Gregory McNamee
JUNE 15, 1998:
The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, edited by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions). Paper, $21.95.
OVER THE SEVEN decades preceding his death last month, the Mexican writer Octavio Paz worked steadily to enrich world literature with his many books of poems and prose studies on a range of topics: anthropology, poetics, linguistics, film and the visual arts, Asian religions, politics, translation theory, Latin American culture and history. In the United States, Paz was best known for one of those books of prose, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), an incisive critique of Mexican society that won him many readers--as well as many enemies within the Mexican government.
Paz was born in 1914, at the height of the Mexican Revolution, in Mixcoac, a hamlet since swallowed by Mexico City. His boyhood was bookish, his education progressive and agnostic. Paz published his first book of poems, Luna silvestre ("Wild Moon"), at the age of 19; and he founded a number of short-lived literary magazines. During the Spanish Civil War, he traveled to Spain as a civilian volunteer to the Republic. There he met a number of European and Latin American poets whose influence would immediately transform his work: Luis Cernuda, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, Tristan Tzara, Vicente Huidobro and Pablo Neruda.
Steeped in literary modernism and revolutionary politics, Paz returned to Mexico in 1938, working as a journalist and editor for socialist newspapers and again founding a series of literary journals. During the 1940s and early 1950s, Paz traveled throughout the United States and Europe, where he prepared several books of cultural criticism and of verse, poems later collected in Libertad bajo palabra ("Liberty on Parole," 1949) and Aguila o Sol ("Eagle or Sun," 1951).
The Collected Poems, an already big book, does not take in this early work. It begins instead in 1957, the year Paz published his long poem Piedra de Sol ("Sunstone"), a meditation inspired by the Aztec calendar from which it takes its name. Piedra de Sol was the first of Paz's books to be widely recognized beyond Mexico, with translations quickly issued in all the major European languages. Piedra de Sol also initiated an artistic period the characteristics of which define Paz's mature work. With it, Paz's sensibility became aggressively modernist, in revolt against a culture that, as he has written, is at its core antimodern, bound by inflexible theology and regressive politics. At the same time, Paz reached backward to claim as his own the brilliant and then-forgotten tradition of Gongora, Quevedo, and Sor Juana de la Cruz, radical critics of their time; but his own attitudes remained carefully nondogmatic ("ideology," he remarked, "converts ideas into masks").
That mature vision was imagistic and impressionistic: Paz's skies are hewn of stone, his trees ablaze with immortal fire, his world provisional and illusory. His words are marks that refuse to lie still on the page. Announcing an esthetic drawn in equal parts from Buddhism, European modernism, and pre-Columbian Mexican beliefs, Paz moved from the world of duality into the timeless. With Piedra de Sol, Paz's poetic grammar became progressive and reiterative: Few things actually happen, begin and end in it. And his language slowly became a private code, an idiom lying within but not encased by Spanish.
With the book-length poem, Paz's subsequent themes announced themselves as well. Among them are a philosophical fascination with language and the graphic possibilities of the written word. He reveled in the realities and paradoxes ("the day is short/the hour long") that language enables. Paz was increasingly given to making connections between language and the world of rocks and sand and water, of flowers and stars.
His poem "Duración" ("Duration," 1960) typifies this attachment to the mystery of words in a world where humans scarcely matter:
I will speak to you in stone-languagePaz's work of the early and mid-1960s, narrowly anticipating the scholarly revolution in theories of language, extended this fascination with the inhuman. The period is crowned by the difficult sequence Blanco ("Blank," 1966), a poem meant to be read at least six, and perhaps many more, ways. Eliot Weinberger, the American editor of the Collected Poems, translated Blanco while still a teenager in order to test his self-taught Spanish, and he sent a late draft to Paz, who approved of his work, beginning a collaboration that lasted some 30 years.
With Paz's next book, Ladera este ("Eastern range," 1968), written during his tenure as Mexico's ambassador to India, his work becomes still more reclusive, dense with private allusions to Hinduism. Only with his resignation from his embassy, in protest against the Mexican government's massacre of hundreds of student demonstrators at the 1968 Olympic Games, did Paz's work return for a brief moment to his early directness in the melancholy sequence Intermitencias del Oeste ("Interruptions from the West"). Paz's great period of linguistic experimentation ended with the series Topoemas (1968), concrete poems made up of single words, letters, and graphic images. Having stripped the Spanish language to the bone, Paz now seemed unable to recover its flesh.
His work of the 1970s and early 1980s centered on now-familiar subjects: apparitions, hallucinations, images, inks, hands, ethereal birds, inconstant winds, fiery trees, the rocky heavens. Repudiating all political systems and theories, including the socialism of his youth (as a Mexican proverb has it, "all revolutions degenerate into governments"), Paz avoided topicality of any kind, and his work took on a definite other-worldliness. Tracing this development, the Collected Poems ends quietly with Paz's last major sequence, fittingly called Árbol adentro ("A Tree Within"), evoking the mysterious places Paz sought to inhabit throughout a lifetime's work.
Weinberger's edition of Paz's later poetry, gathering more than 200 poems, includes English versions by many able hands, among them Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, and especially Weinberger himself. It does much to give English-language readers a full view of this remarkable poet--one of the greatest of the 20th century--and it is a fitting monument.
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