The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730

“Clear Night” is a long poem of 141 lines in free verse. It is divided into seven stanzas of varying length. The poem is dedicated to André Breton and Benjamin Péret, two influential Surrealist poets with whom Octavio Paz became associated in the 1940’s while he lived in Paris. From the opening two stanzas, one is led to believe that the three characters in the poem correspond directly to Paz, Breton, and Péret, and the rest of the lyric confirms this belief. The poet uses the first person with no suggestion of artifice; that is, one can safely assume that the speaker of the poem is Paz himself and not a fictional persona. The poem is cast as a recollection of an experience, so much of the time the past tense is used. At moments of special importance the poet shifts to the present tense, as if he were reliving those moments.

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Contrary to the suggestion of the title, the poem begins with the three poets sitting in a café at ten o’clock on a misty autumn evening. They are the only ones lingering there. They feel the ominous approach of autumn, which is compared to a “blind giant” (line 5) and “faceless man” (line 8) advancing toward the city. Suspending such dark thoughts, the poet shifts the reader’s attention to scenes of the city, and the reader views these scenes as if through the same window as the three friends in the café. It is this experience of carefully attending to the city—not only to its main streams but also to its underground life—that informs the poet’s observations throughout the rest of the poem. In particular, he focuses on a teenage couple. The boy is streetwise and tough. The girl is more innocent, small and pale but also resilient and surprisingly durable, like a “pale branch in a patio in winter” (line 54). She is wearing a red jacket on which one sees the boy’s hand. The word “love” is spelled on his fingers. One imagines the boy grasping the back of the girl’s neck as they pass by the poets’ window. Although they seem an unlikely match in some ways, their interaction is characterized by an entwining passion and sexual energy.

The poet’s attitude toward the boy’s gesture is ambivalent. In the apostrophe to the hand, he seems at first to deplore the predatory relation between the boy and the girl implied in the grasping. The hand as “collar” (line 64) seems to choke the “eager neck of life.” In the next lines, however, the poet admires the sign of love painted on the hand. The hand becomes a symbol of redemption rather than a fetter.

In the fourth stanza, there is a shift back to the three friends who now are walking through the city. The language here is highly symbolic—they see at least two distinguishable rivers, the river of centuries and the river of stars. The poet re-creates the excitement of the moment by adopting the present tense and by recalling the urgent voices that direct and manipulate his gaze. It is at this point that the night “opens” (line 79). This marks the first epiphany, or revelation, of the poem.

The fifth stanza returns to a more narrative mode. It begins by describing the friends’ separation and a brief observation about the wind and the river which remind the reader of the literal setting of the poem. This literalness is, however, short-lived, for the poet quickly moves to pondering the violence of time. He seems to conclude that humanity inevitably loses the battle with time. Poetry is the only means of defeating time. Paz is not invoking the classical idea that poetry is a means to immortality through fame; rather, he is defining poetry as a particular way of experiencing reality that does not view time as linear and death as an end.

The last long division of the poem describes a second epiphany, one which the poet experiences apart from his friends. It is here that Paz explores in erotic imagery the relation between poetry and the point of silence from which poetry begins and toward which it leads. This silence is not negative; rather, it is the necessary condition for the observer who would penetrate the surface of reality with “the light push of a thought” (line 17).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

The reader of “Clear Night” is rewarded when she or he perceives the network of images that Paz has woven into the poem, for the interconnectedness of these images offers an interpretative key to the poem. In the central image of the night as it “opens” (line 79) its hand, for instance, one recalls the earlier description of time, not progressing as one normally understands it, but as opening up—the “minute opened into two” (line 20). Shortly after, the poet perceives the city as revealing itself in a similar way: “The city opens like a heart” (line 28). Finally, in the last long section of the poem, the city “unfolds” (line 106) itself to the sensitive poet. Thus, Paz invites the reader to link thematically the images of the hand, time, the city, and the clear night.

Such attention to imagery helps interpret the most enigmatic parts of the poem. In section 3, one is given a sense of a great disaster in a London subway, but the poet speaks in a highly symbolic code and depends on imagery rather than literal description to convey the significance of the event. It is no accident that the poets sit in “Café d’Angleterre” (line 1) as this event is recalled. Although their café is situated in Paris, its name (café of England) reinforces the sense that the poets are connected to the tragedy. The mutilation of the victims is described in a way that evokes the earlier image of autumn. Just as autumn is a “faceless man,” so these victims become “faceless” and lose their identities through the mutilation. The poet uses the first person plural to speak for the victims as if all humanity, past and present, share in that disaster. Paz is exploring the relation between human identity and a reality that seems intent on erasing it.

Much of the difficulty and much of the beauty of “Clear Night” derives from Paz’s reliance on imagery and the narrative discontinuity that results from this emphasis. Once the poet sets the scene in the first section, he quickly moves to a meditation cast in opaque symbolic language. Although he does mark a break in thought by capitalizing the first letter of a line, the absence of punctuation throughout the whole poem gives the sense of fertility, abundance, and overflow of energy. This energy is precisely what the poet hopes to capture of the city’s activity. Lines such as “walking flying ripening bursting” (line 23), “a vagabond grey sparrow streetsmart a bully” (line 51), “embracing splitting joining again” (line 75), “centuries generations epochs” (line 83), “echoes calls signs labyrinths” (line 87), and “towers plazas columns bridges streets (line 109) not only describe the variety of ways one can experience reality at the same time, but more important, such lines also convey the energy with which the poet is manipulating language in order that it correspond to the richness of his experience.

Manipulating language is one way to convey the wealth of experience. Another way is to go outside language. The most noticeable device in the poem is Paz’s simple illustration of the hand of the boy, which is set within his verbal description of it. In a very basic way this drawing challenges the reader’s preconceived notions about poetry; poetry is more than words organized in a certain way. The simplicity of the drawing is in marked contrast to the network of images in the poem, and although this hand is linked thematically to the more complex corpus of the poem (the hand is not completely devoid of language, for the hand contains the word “love” on its fingers), it remains apart, as if to hint that this image remains the seed of the poem.

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Themes