Paz, Octavio 1914–
A Mexican poet, essayist, diplomat, and social philosopher, Paz also has written one play. Known primarily as an epic poet, Paz in his verse departs from traditional concepts of linear time, reality, and consciousness. Like Whitman, Paz uses the concept of the Self to merge metaphorically with other sensibilities and to make personal discoveries at a deeply psychic level. (See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 4, 6, 19 and 119.)
Octavio Paz stands in the first rank of poets on the world-scene today. I'd stress the notion world-scene because it won't do thinking of him as a local, a Mexican or even South American.
Paz's poetry, uttered in what seems a direct, even brutally vigorous language, derives its transcendental thrust and vision, its visual, aural, tactile power from the intellectual authority of the French Symbolists, from Surrealism during the 20s and 30s, from English and German romantic poets—all melded through the sonorities of 17th-century Spanish Baroque masters.
What results is a poetry cosmopolitan, truly international, often somewhat mystical in a realistic or materialistic way. Partly, it's the Latin American's situation that forces such development….
The language that long ago was imposed on ancient native empires has worked to create a necessarily complex, irrational and tensely potent continuum, as is demonstrated in Paz's magnificent long chant, "Sun Stone."…
[Paz] has recently gone from his erotic, world-seeing rapturous lyrics toward a structuralist and Buddhist view, via concrete poetry, and is exploring (and erring too, I think: see "Blanco," a long poem) … the silences between words and sounds, the blank spaces between words.
Paz must emerge from this passage through theory; he has the power. He may be reacting against the way the world is being crammed with sheer noise, but it's no help to speak about the unspeakable, when the poet's task, finally, is to express it itself.
Jascha Kessler, "Paz: An Ecumenical Poet," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1971, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1971, p. 20.
In spite of being a "world" poet, as glossily cosmopolitan as they come, [Octavio Paz] remains programmatically Mexican, not to say pre-Columbian; and in spite of being contemporary, so abreast of the very latest movements that he suffers, not gladly, the tag "post-avant-garde," he is still acutely conscious of belonging to his own generation, far from a young one now…. (p. 5)
A Mexican, but what is a Mexican?… The question is not a simple one for Señor Paz himself, and his many prose works on all sorts of subjects, and many of his poems too, are indirectly or directly about it. (p. 7)
A great part of his being a Mexican poet is a variable and ambivalent relation to Spain and her literature, quite like our relation to England and her literature. As we have tended to loosen the colonial relation by adopting other cultures than England's for our literary uses …, Mexico, or rather Central America, has tended to adopt other cultures as counterpoises to Spain, mainly the French…. [For] Paz the French master is not a contemporary … but, of all people, Mallarmé, and this in spite of Paz's affinities with contemporary French surrealism and his friendship with André Breton. (pp. 7-8)
The connection or, as Paz would say, the "correspondence," is surprisingly plain if you take Mallarmé in what has become his essential aspect, his use or expression of Nothingness. The full insistence on that aspect—on Un Coup de Dés, as against the Symbolist sumptuosities of L'Après-Midi d'un Faune or the syntactical fancy-work of such poems as the sonnet on Poe's tomb, which were Mallarmé in my youth—probably dates from about 1959, when Maurice Blanchot, himself a great specialist and virtuoso in Nothingness, published his essay on Mallarmé in a collection entitled, if you please, Le Livre à Venir. It is true that in 1939 Raymond Queneau had already invented the memorable and rather wicked formulation: la mallarmachine à faire le vide, but I imagine that was only a gag in passing, not a decisive reinterpretation.
Though Nothingness as a concept is prevalent enough in France, especially since Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and nihilism as an attitude is now, understandably, common among young Frenchmen, a strong sense of Nothingness as something substantial is far more Spanish than it is French. You can pretty well manipulate le néant, but nada gives no ground. As Spanish, it is to a degree Mexican, and to a high degree if you associate it closely with death…. In spite of the historical anomaly, which is not really an anomaly if you reject, as Paz does, "linear" history in favor of history as multidimensional and discontinuous, Mallarmé "corresponds" to French, Spanish, and Mexican realities simultaneously and even—if you follow Blanchot and not Queneau—to future poetry. Paz's poem Blanco, which uses blanks or white spaces in the manner of Mallarmé, looks like a supercivilized little stunt, and it is that, but it is much more real and weighty than that, to him, and to a contemporary Hispanic reader. It stands firmly on one of the prime intuitions of that culture and is furthermore backed, not so much by a Mallarmé revival, as by modern philosophy, which Paz takes as seriously, and as personally, as an earlier Mexican might take theology.
The Hispanic mind, however, loves to go by pairs of opposites, whether the opposites conflict, complement each other, alternate, or interact. Nothingness and its modes, such as death, emptiness, and silence, have to be countered with Being and its modes, such as life, plenitude, and sound, and all those things are usually made emphatic, peremptory, unmodulated. So that that other side of Mallarmé, his great richness and intricacy, is also to the Mexican purpose. Those qualities are certainly characteristic of Octavio Paz's mind, while he can also be, naturally simplicity itself. In Blanco they are at an extreme, in the dense interlocked passages, which counter the open-work passages on a ground of emptiness. (pp. 8-9)
Repleteness or congestion is a quality of most of his own work, poetry or prose. He may have got it from—or been confirmed in it by—the muralists [Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros],… but he seems to have felt they were old-fashioned political illustrators, and a more congenial source would have been the Baroque façades of Mexican churches and, still more, Aztec sculpture. One of his handsomest poems, "Sun Stone," is a verbal version of the circular Aztec calendar stone, containing as many lines as that calendar has days: 584. The initial scheme is no doubt trivial, at best ritual, but the congestion of the poetic design, like that of the stone, has a rather terrifying force…. [He] can take on far more of the Occult, East and West, come Boddhisatvas, Boehme, or Blavatsky, without being for an instant (or for more than one ecstatic instant) befuddled by it all, than one would think possible. And he has the irrationalities of Surrealism quite in his pocket. And the devotional intellectualism of a Calderón or a Hopkins. The man is an orchestra. (p. 10)
Moving to and fro among the contrarieties of his own mind, those of his country, and those of his lifetime, political and artistic, he still keeps—or instantly recovers—his head and his balance. He goes at everything with a passion, with a voracity of interest, which threatens to carry him away, but he regularly plays a subject against its opposite—Duchamp against Picasso, Pound and Eliot against the European moderns of the same time, or against each other—and that keeps it all steady as well as dramatic. Incidentally, or alternately,...
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Octavio Paz wrote in 1953 his only play, a one-act re-creation of [Hawthorne's] "Rappaccini's Daughter." Re-creation, not simply adaptation. For while the Mexican poet does not tamper much with the plot, he significantly changes the atmosphere and meaning of the tale. Hawthorne contrasts love with "poisonous" sex, transcendent faith with imperfect empirical and rational knowledge. The tone and symbolism of "Rappaccini's Daughter" are influenced by the writings of such intensely moral allegorists as Dante, Spenser and Milton. Paz's chief concern, however, is metaphysical rather than moral; while he treats the human situation as "fallen," his idea of the fall is similar to André Breton's in Nadja: a loss of...
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[The] sense of motion created by "Exclamación" and "Juventud" … is a key to the dynamic process of both poems. However, neither work contains any verbs and the poet has succeeded in creating the feeling of motion without the use of a single verbal mechanism, and this is a remarkable achievement. In "Exclamación" the skillful juxtaposition of contradictory statements produces a feeling of motion and both poems depend on the adept manipulation of words to enhance this sensation. The reader's imagination is activated and stimulated by the staccato lines and the contradictions in both poems.
"Exclamación" and "Juventud" portray an objective reality and there is little if any human presence in these...
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[In the poems of Octavio Paz] I recognized the paradox which haunts us all, which makes of art criticism a perpetually unsatisfactory endeavor. I recognized that if the word springs ahead of thought, as Octavio said, and if it rises from the written page, and if, as he keeps repeating in all his poetry, the presencia arrives by means forever undisclosed, so does the painted image. What is true about the image, or presencia, is precisely what cannot be rendered through any other image, and especially not through that logic encountered at the circumference of experience. What I knew about visual art, I found confirmed by Octavio's poetry. (p. 32)
The mirrors and bridges and apparitions...
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Though [Paz's] account of modern poetry is deliberately selective [in Children of the Mire], there are many passages which a more systematic historian of literature might envy. As a Latin American poet, he writes with particular authority of the relation of modernismo to European romanticism and of the extent to which positivism, for nineteenth-century Latin American writers, implied an intellectual crisis similar in its terms, if not in its scope, to that of the Enlightenment in Europe. There are signs, too, that Paz is continuing to adjust his view of the romantic tradition: thus, his long-standing interest in Nerval now takes him back more profoundly than before to the German romantics, and in...
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Why does the writer write? Paz once stated that this was the only valid question. He himself has been writing, as early as his classical Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) shows, in order to understand Mexico. In Vuelta he continues this commitment. A privileged moment is his return from the East (in 1969) that allows him—as happened before with Diego Rivera's return from Europe—to see the Mexican reality as if he hadn't seen it before.
Back in Mexico, Paz weeps not tears of love, as did Ulysses at the sight of his Ithaca, but of wrath, as did Moses descending from the Horeb…. Anger is all-powerful in the valley and contaminates the poet. Seeing...
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