Eliot Weinberger has carefully selected from four previous collections of the poetry of the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz and produced a valuable and manageable introduction to the work of this vital and transcendent writer. Although most of these poems have already appeared under the New Directions imprint, several have been newly translated for this book, and in a small number of cases, Paz’s own revisions have been taken into account. Weinberger provides many of the translations, a useful if fulsome introduction, and a few notes at the end. It is especially fortunate that permission has been available to reprint several of the best translations of these poems; among the eleven distinguished poet-translators in this book are Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Charles Tomlinson, and William Carlos Williams. Except for rare cases of unusual skill and sympathy, this approach is “fairer” to the originals than collections done entirely by a single translator; if one is unable to be sure when a poet-translator is giving in too much to his own tendencies, one at least has a chance to see these tendencies shift from one sensibility to another.
On May 16, 1984, at the annual ceremonial of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Octavio Paz delivered the Blashfield Foundation Address. This brief lecture provides a few useful insights into Paz’s understanding of his role as a poet and as a spokesman for Latin American literature and culture. Having noted the remarkable rise of Latin American literature in the last half of the twentieth century, Paz said:There is one feature that unites the literatures of the United States, Brazil and Spanish America: the use of a European language transplanted to the American continent. This fact has marked the literatures of America in a deeper and more radical way than any economic structure or any changes in technology and politics.[There emerged,] as the critic Philip Rahv put it: two breeds of writers, the “palefaces” and the “redskins,” the Henry Jameses and the Walt Whitmans. In Spanish-speaking America these two attitudes are represented by a tradition that stretches, on one side, from Sarmiento to Vallejo, and on the other, from Darío to Reyes and Borges.
With the quickness of wit and vision that characterize his poetry, Paz went on to reveal the artificial side of this classification and to turn a phrase or two suggestive of his own way of doing things: “Our great authors have been, at the same time, cosmopolitan and American, with their feet on the earth and their heads among the clouds. Or the other way around: some have practiced upward flight and others downward, some have been miners of the heights while others have soared the depths.”
Selected Poems suggests the poet’s slow but steady progress toward such an all-encompassing vision; the first third of the book consists of small selections from each of seven books that appeared originally between 1944 and 1961; with the exception of the major “Sun Stone” and poems from Eagle or Sun? (1951), these generally have the flat prosiness which characterizes translations of poetry that are both surrealistic and openly philosophical. Even in Eagle or Sun? one finds occasional examples of this problem, as in this passage from the prose “Toward the Poem”:Words, phrases, syllables, stars that turn around a fixed center. Two bodies, many beings that meet in a word. The paper is covered with indelible letters that no one spoke, that no one dictated, that have fallen there and ignite and burn and go out. This is how poetry exists, how love exists. And if I don’t exist, you do.
It is important to emphasize that much of the trouble here arises from the translator’s impossible task; he (Weinberger, in this instance) has conveyed what can be paraphrased, but not such musical qualities as may make these statements more pervasive in the original. The reader is given too much freedom to doubt what is being said, because the ingredients which make the passage compelling have been strained out.
On the other hand, with the remaining prose passages from Eagle or Sun?, whether excerpts from a long sequence of paragraphs entitled “The Poet’s Works” or self-contained items for which the unfortunate term “prose poem” may suffice, both Paz and Weinberger have been much more successful. Most of these pieces belong to the tradition of prose poetry as exemplified by Charles Baudelaire: The language is dense with “poetic effects,” but what truly carries the reader along is the narrative force of brief, dreamlike visions that often burst into surrealism or at times even begin with it.
The four passages from “The Poet’s Works” are wittily various in their treatment of usual poetic obsessions, from the Word that will say it all to the frustration of needing a fresh pack of cigarettes. By giving in to quite plausible bursts of near silliness, Paz undercuts the portentousness that usually afflicts this kind of writing:It...
(The entire section is 2071 words.)