Please explain what this poem would like to express to the reader: "I Speak of the City" by Octavio Paz. Thank you!

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Octavio Paz was the son of a Mexican lawyer. His father was exiled for his part in defending and supporting Mexican revolutionaries which exposed Paz to social injustice and made him feel that he could change the world through his poetry. Paz reacted against any form of extremism, left- or right-wing, and his poetry reflects this.

"I Speak of The City" relates to Paz's own experience of city life, his own beloved home and, in fact, anywhere in the world because the feelings are all the same. He says, "We are in the City, we cannot leave except to fall into another city, different yet identical," because every city has its good and bad points and is able to uplift and devastate its citizens. Therefore, we note that this poem is about the struggle and how each day is a new challenge as "all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream." Inner conflict is evident in the use of strong words, designed to shock but also to bring a realization that "the paralytic slum..." and "garbage heaps" are a part of everyday life in every city and Paz creates a stark visual image because it is so easy to ignore these aspects of the city otherwise—in doing so, the mind closes and opportunities elude us and "the key locks and time ceases to flow." 

Paz wants readers to understand the value of change but also the inherent dangers when people try to change, try to improve their circumstances but go from one disaster to the next because they cannot break out of the monotonous cycle that is apparent throughout history as people repeat the same mistakes, themselves falling "into the pit of history." Paz points out that some things never change, despite technology and advancements and if we are not paying attention, there is a danger that it will envelop its citizens as it "all turns to smoke." Progress, therefore, has its benefits and its disadvantages as it has the capacity to leave behind or destroy potential. 

Having an identity is a very real issue in this poem if citizens are to ensure that they survive transformation. There is a threat to individuality when people become "an I adrift" in what is a collective "coming and going." Life needs to have meaning—"why? Toward what? For what?"—otherwise loneliness will be all consuming. He sends a powerful message that the city is far more than the buildings, "the towers, bridges, tunnels." A person could get lost as much in the city where he has lived all his life as much as in an unknown city as he is faced with challenges "as old as time."

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