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The Bow and the Lyre is Octavio Paz’s diffuse theory of poetry, which sprang indirectly from his involvement with French and Spanish Surrealists during the years 1937-1942. It is a far-ranging work which deals with fundamental questions such as the differences between poetry and prose and between poetry and poem, the nature of inspiration (and the question of its existence), the relationship of poetry and history, and by extension of the epic and the modern novel. Though it addresses the same concerns that Andre Breton considers in Manifeste du surrealisme (1924; Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969), the first of his three pronouncements on the nature and aims of the Surrealist movement, Paz’s work is by no means tied to this ideology of his youth. He has, instead, written his own highly personal, subjective, and ultimately incontrovertible study of the development of poetry and its nature in the contemporary world.

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It is nearly impossible to argue against the positions Paz takes, even if one differs with his conclusions, because each is clearly grounded in a premise, admittedly his own, based on a lifetime of reading psychology, history, and aesthetics as well as literature. Though his foreword to the first edition traces the origins of his study to a series of lectures in 1942 with Spanish poet Jose Bergamin, with some of these thoughts finding their way into Paz’s El laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de Mexico (1950, 1959; The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961), it is clear that by the time of the revised edition Paz was more concerned with the poor state of poetry in his native Mexico, where its poets were generally despised or ignored. Thus, true to his Surrealist background, Paz turns inevitably to the course of politics and the appearance of modern technology in his account of this phenomenon.

With consummate irony, his work on poetics indirectly mounts an attack (though never calling it one) on Mexican intellectuals and presents a view of poetry in their chosen medium: prose. Never naming his opponents, Paz formulates broad theses backed by his own readings of a welter of sources cited in rapid succession but almost never argued in close detail. He clearly wishes to avoid the tone of academic argument or traditional literary criticism, just as he tries to skirt narrow, limited invective of the sort he had aimed in 1954 at Antonio Castro Leal’s academic view of Mexican poetry.

More than anything, The Bow and the Lyre is a prose synthesis of Paz’s poetics, but one which extends far beyond the traditional limits of poetry. Both explicit and implicit in his arguments is the notion that the poet is essentially subversive, most often disdained or ignored by the powerful elite rather than actively persecuted. The contradiction, which Paz notes and argues, is that the nature of poetry is to avoid cliche through metaphor, an instinctive desire of all who use language, even those not considering themselves poets. If one accepts the premise, it follows either that there are no poets or that everyone has some claim to being one. Paz is willing to accept either conclusion with a delight exceeded only by the consternation of his adversaries.

Though there is some playful sophistry underlying Paz’s arguments, The Bow and the Lyre is actually a densely written tripartite study with an epilogue and appendices on his own conception of poetry, the poetic, and history. Its first five chapters are a series of bold but often-compelling generalizations on the nature of poetry and the poetic and the commonly accepted attributes of poetry: poetic language, rhythm, verse, and imagery. This already broad field broadens more with three aspects of what is generally called inspiration and culminates in four chapters on poetry’s relationship to history. Paz obviously considers these the most crucial parts of his work, for he concludes with three specific discussions, written as appendices, on poetry, society, and state; on ease and euphony in poetry; and on Walt Whitman, who for Paz combines all the constituents of an ideal poet.

Paz saw The Bow and the Lyre as a summation of his own poesis; this is clearly the reason it draws its examples and sources more heavily from Continental literature than from less widely known poets writing in Spanish. Though the book was originally a response to the cultural values of his country, Paz authorized the distinguished translation by Ruth L. C. Simms because he saw similar dangers in academic criticism in the English-speaking world.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

Brotherston, Gordon. Latin American Poetry: Origins and Presence, 1975.

Ivask, Ivar, ed. The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz, 1973.

Phillips, Rachel. The Poetic Modes of Octavio Paz, 1972.

Vendler, Helen. “Diary of the Poetic Process: The Bow and the Lyre,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIX (June 30, 1974), pp. 23-24.

Wilson, Jason. Octavio Paz, 1986.

Wilson, Jason. Octavio Paz: A Study of His Poetics, 1979.

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