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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1388

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...

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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 choose to place the word “chair” before readers, but this bare image compels readers to summon up the object as each individually perceives it at a given time. Obviously, each perception differs, though all will be within the limits the word chair imposes. No readers will perceive “table” if the poet directs that they perceive “chair”; thus, the poet’s task is to guide rather than to describe in order to force the active participation of readers in creating the image. Paz’s understanding of poetic imagery clearly springs from his reading of Plato’s theory of imitation.

The participation of readers in a poet’s vision is thus particularized by their experiences, becoming a mystical journey which Paz views as potentially a form of religious experience. The one becomes the Other, something unlike the original being which is also nonbeing and which is, at least initially, terrifying. There is, however, a fascination which draws the reader forward. Paz finds the greatest potential for such experience in his reading of French Symbolist poetry; he cites the horrible and irregular beauty of Charles Baudelaire’s poems. Though Paz’s use of the words “repulsive” and “revulsive” to describe what is supposedly a religious experience appears just as shocking as much of Baudelaire’s synesthesia (the production of an indirectly stimulated response, as when a color recalls a smell), Paz sees poetic revelation as “a casting out of the inner and secret, a showing of the entrails.”

The second half of Paz’s book deals primarily with the poet’s role in creating, just as the first examined the reader’s reception of what the poet created. Just as he sees the reader’s encounter potentially akin to religious experience, so he views the poet as producing a work of timeless history. Homer’s poems, for example, describe a Mycenaean Greece which had passed out of existence half a millennium before Homer was born; yet they reflect a poetic vision of that world even as they timelessly describe the behavior of their heroes. Paz, like many writers, notes the odd feeling a writer has when a text suddenly assumes a life of its own, when a given phrase is correct and the only one permissible while another, though it satisfies formal requirements such as meter, is unquestionably wrong. One could call this inspiration or “alien collaboration,” but it is a regular phenomenon for creative writers. It serves to create a historical view which is true in the artistic sense. No reader could doubt that Dante made his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, because, despite whatever lapses critics may discover, every element of his poem is inspirationally and (by a poet’s understanding of the word) historically correct.

Further unifying his association of poetry, religion, and history, Paz argues that the poet’s task is to render the instant sacred. Poems mediate between a given original experience and a cluster of subsequent experiences to privilege a moment based on all of these. The loves of Sappho have their primary identification in history and are unrecoverable, but her poetry continues to create these as sacred moments which live in new form each time her poems are read. Poetry thus incarnates history to yield a changing present with each reading and reader. The poems become archetypal history because they transcend the epoch in which they were composed, and poetry reproduces this tension of having been and being again “like the bowstring or the strings of the lyre.” He sees this tension, as does the philosopher Heraclitus, as unchanging change, which poetry at its best captures.

Uncanny prophecy appears in Paz’s final chapters. He views the period in which he writes as the end of the modern age and concludes that Karl Marx’s apocalyptic vision of the end of the labyrinth of history, humanity’s ability to create and modify its own existence, has come to pass. He believes, however, that the technology which has allowed this, and which Marx had viewed as essentially liberating, has had a devastating effect on the creation of poetry. Because technology imposes empiricism (proof by demonstration) on all that it touches, it privileges the “I” at the expense of the imaginable “Other.” Carried to its furthest refinement, technology allows the “I” not only to exist by itself but also to control every aspect of its being without external referents. This reduces not only the imaginative capacity of the individual but also, more dangerously, the mythos (place of story or legend) within the group of individuals once considered a society. Heroes cannot exist because their flaws are all too clear; rites and rituals lose their meaning because technology respects no symbols but its own jargon. These frightening prospects show how far Paz has come from his association with the Surrealists, who had heralded technology as a form of art. They reveal Paz at his philosophical best.

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