Please provide a concrete analysis of Octavio Paz's poem "I Speak of the City."

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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I am very excited to begin this analysis of Octavio Paz's famous poem "I Speak of the City" by focusing on a concrete list of poetic devices and figurative language.  I will discuss each device separately and give a quotation for each.

Repetition

Probably the first noticeable device that Paz uses in his poem is repetition (which is simply using the same words or phrases again and again in order to provide emphasis).  In the title, the reader will immediately notice the most common repeated phrase, "I speak ..." 

I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine,
I speak of the forest of stone, the desert of the prophets ...

To "speak" of the city is to speak of a living, breathing character full of all these things.

Parallelism

Another device that should catch the reader's attention almost immediately is Paz's use of parallelism (which is using the same grammatical structure again and again to create a poetic flow).  This is my very favorite device that Paz uses.  Paz uses parallelism especially in regard to the prepositional phrase.

I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine,
I speak of the forest of stone, the desert of the prophets, the ant-heap of souls, the congregation of tribes, the house of mirrors, the labyrinth of echoes ...

I speak of the city built by the dead, inhabited by the stern ghosts, ruled by their despotic memory…

Paz will often use a prepositional phrase and then list many objects for that preposition:  "of the forest of stone, the desert of the prophets, the ant-heap of souls, the congregation of tribes, the house of mirrors, the labyrinth of echoes."  Sometimes he will use prepositional phrase after prepositional phrase:  "I speak of our public history, and of our secret history."  Where he departs from this pattern, namely with the words "yours and mine," you can assume that Paz wants us to take note.  Paz wants to stress that these ideas are not only his but those of his reader.  Paz furthers his use of parallelism by sometimes varying the pattern by adding active verbs before prepositional phrases such as "built by the dead, inhabited by the stern ghosts, ruled by their despotic memory."  This provides an indelible ending to his poem.

Imagery

There is no doubt that Paz is a master of imagery!  Further, where some poets only achieve images of a few of our five senses, Paz makes sure to hit all five!  Let's look at them.  The sight images are obvious.  Anything we could see with our eyes counts.  (Sight images are the most commonly used images, of course.)  My favorite of Paz's sight-only images is the image of the buildings of the city:  "buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel."  Paz's sound images present themselves in words like "the tide of voices" and "haggling" and "singing."  But let's not forget the most important of all Paz's sound images:  "I speak ..."  Touch images are a bit more muted here, but they are there in words like "bustle" and even in the coldness of the "stone" in the buildings that Paz is happy to list.  In approaching olfactory images (the images related to the sense of smell), you will find that they mingle with the images of taste.  My favorite of these images is the image of the market:

I speak of the markets with their pyramids of fruit, all of the flavors and colors, the smells, the tide of voices – water, metal, wood, clay – the bustle, the haggling, the conniving as old as time.

I wanted to include these entire few lines here because ALL of the senses are included:  sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  But, of course, since we are ending with smell and taste, let's talk about words such as "fruit" and "flavors" and "smells" and "water, metal, wood, clay."  You mix all five senses together and you have a delight for any human willing to imagine what one can sense within a city.

Simile

Paz also uses similes in his poem.  A simile is an unlikely comparison using the words "like" or "as."  Paz prefers the simile with the word "as."  Look at the line "old as time, endless as a galaxy."  Instead of just using the words old and endless, Paz augments the idea by using similes here.

Personification

We would be remiss if we didn't mention Paz's use of personification as well.  Personification is giving human qualities to very unhuman things. Specifically, Paz gives human qualities to the city, making it very, very alive.

space is singing ...

the city that dreams us all ...

The city that wakes every hundred years and looks at itself in the mirror of a word
and doesn’t recognize itself and goes back to sleep

Humans sing, dream, wake, look, recognize, and sleep.  A city, of course, cannot do this, but it can with the beauty of this poetry.  Therefore, THIS is the literary device that makes the city a living, breathing character in this poem.  Which leads us into a very interesting literary device that can connect this poem with prose:

Character

It is important to realize that, just like in a short story or a novel, the city in this poem is the main protagonist, or the main character, in this tale.  Why?  For all the reasons mentioned above in regard to personification.  If we fail to see the city as a living, breathing being then we have failed to see the point of Paz's poem.  They key is near the end of the poem:

And in every one of [the cities] there is an I slipped from a we

The "we" is the city, a melding of all the people there.  The "I" is the individuals within that city.  But it is most precisely the "we" that makes the city its own being.  The city ceases to be a group of individuals and begins to take on a personality of its own.

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