In the early chapters of The Bow and the Lyre, Paz seeks as much common ground with his readers as possible by enumerating the attributes poetry is commonly thought to have. It is not bothersome that some of these, such as spiritual exercise and exorcism, madness and logos, are inherently contradictory. He accepts Aristotle’s broad and generic view of poetry and is careful to distinguish between poetry and poetic forms, such as sonnets, which are poems only to the extent that they have been touched by poetry. According to Paz, poetry is a use of language poised between tension (the taut string of a bow) and resolution (the strings of a lyre, the ancient symbol of Apollo as guardian of the Muses). This is not to imply that for Paz the best poetry is that which is most agreeable to the reader; rather, he is convinced that the poet’s job of using language in unusual ways, particularly through metaphor, often causes hostility, or worse, indifference, among readers. Every human being can, and often does, express ideas through metaphor. The poet, however, makes an art of subverting language, of using it in a highly original way which nevertheless evokes certain similar, though never identical, responses in readers. This causes the majority of readers to view the poet as a revolutionary and the poem itself as something suspect.
The appearance of new idiom and the declaring of archaism are indications that everyone recognizes the need for originality in language. By extension, the effect of an archaic word or phrase in the work of an earlier poet can often be pleasing for a contemporary reader. Those who call themselves poets, however, cannot merely restore an archaism to its place in the active language; instead, they work on the cusp of the new, as if anticipating a star before it is discovered.
Poets, then, are constantly in the position of declaring the relationship of this, that, and the other. Violence is implicit in such verbal gymnastics because such declarations are not of the conventional variety. The poet usually does not say that this girl is like the other, but he might well compare a virgin to an unplowed field. All language has certain rhythms in the very patterns of speech, but the poet as magician knows when to create rhythmic irregularity or even interruption in the dance of words.
Rhythm prefigures language just as poetry prefigures prose; by Paz’s definition even nonliterate societies have a poetry, even if they do not have a prose. Paradoxical though it seems, the most primitive (or more accurately, the least technological) societies have the richest poetry, rich because it is oral and therefore mythic and based on imaginative analogy. This leads Paz to accept much broader definitions of what constitutes verse, even in modern literature. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), because of its rhythm and as much for its mythic content, becomes for him a poem. D. H. Lawrence’s and William Faulkner’s prose works have, as Paz reads them, the rhythmic unity of free verse.
Paz, as might be expected from the foregoing, views poetic imagery as the product of a participation between poet and reader. Darkness of itself connotes weight, oppression, or ignorance in the minds of most, but each reader makes a personal association which conforms to the image as it appears within the poem. A poet might...
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One can easily read The Bow and the Lyre as the kind of impersonal autobiography many poets could have written at the dawn of the technological age. Though poets have always been outcasts, the denial of the imaginative power of language creates a labyrinth of solipsism (the belief that the self can know only its own experiences). Joseph Campbell, the eminent writer on myth and ritual, has reached exactly the same conclusions as Paz in noting the disappearance of mythos in the contemporary Western world.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz had called this modern phenomenon soledad (solitude which implies alienation) and opposed it to comunion (communion or association which leads to salvation). It is not encouraging that The Bow and the Lyre emphasizes soledad to the almost total exclusion of comunion as the fruit the contemporary world will reap. Though Paz marshals a staggering variety of philosophers and poets to support his argument, conspicuous by his absence is the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. This omission is strangely pleasing, as though Paz is still willing to entertain some hope of comunion.
With the writing of The Bow and the Lyre, Paz showed that he had passed not only beyond the Surrealist involvements of his youth but also beyond the circle of poetes maudits (accursed poets), the revolutionary poets damned for their antiestablishment values. Though he continues to hold that all poets are revolutionaries, this book marked Paz’s return to Mexico and established him as its reigning philosopher-poet. The surprisingly favorable criticism it received from academic critics (such as Helen Vendler), not to mention its broad circulation in English and French translations, transformed a revolutionary into a respected literary figure.