The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz

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The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957-1987 is a virtually complete gathering of Paz’s poetry from Piedra de sol (1957; Sunstone) to his first new book of poems in eleven years, Árbol adentro (1987; A Tree Within). As Eliot Weinberger notes, the latter “appears in translation here simultaneous to its Spanish edition, perhaps a ’first’ for a book of foreign poetry.” In this handsome volume, the Spanish text appears facing the English translation, so that even a reader who has had nothing more than a bit of high school Spanish can get a sense of the sound of Paz’s poetry. More than half of the poems in the collection are appearing in English for the first time. Most of the translations are Weinberger’s, and they read very well; also included are a handful of translations by other poets, contributed chiefly by Charles Tomlinson and Elizabeth Bishop. In his preface, Weinberger provides an overview of Paz’s career; the text is also supplemented by twenty pages of notes supplied by the poet himself (quite helpful), a list of Paz’s works available in English translation, and indexes of titles in both Spanish and English.

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While Paz has received a generous amount of critical attention, his own wide-ranging prose remains the best guide to his poetry. Particularly valuable is the revised edition of El arco y la lira (1967; The Bow and the Lyre, 1973), part treatise on poetics, part literary history, part manifesto. There, Paz connects poetry with “the perception of the spark of otherness in each of our acts.” Awareness of otherness is variously manifested in poetry, religion, and love: “Hidden by the profane or prosaic life, our being suddenly remembers its lost identity; and then that ’other’ that we are appears, emerges.” In calling poetry to the recovery of the sacred, Paz chides modern rationalism for its denial of this entire realm of human experience, yet at the same time he rejects religion’s claim to it: “The experience of the divine is more ancient, immediate, and original than any religious conception.” Above all, he rejects the emphasis which Christianity and other religions place on a life after death: “I am not concerned about the other life elsewhere but here. The experience of otherness is, here and now, the other life.

Poetry as a revelation of the other life: This is the recurring theme that gives continuity to Paz’s massive and multifaceted body of work. It can be traced over the entire span of the present volume through a group of remarkable poems that strongly resemble one another in subject and form. While Paz has ranged from haiku to book-length poems such as Sunstone, the poems in this group are of intermediate length, roughly five to ten pages. Like most of his work, they are written in free verse.

These poems are linked by other similarities as well. They are firmly in the lyric tradition: The poet speaks in the first person, and the voice is consistently his own, so that the reader is not inclined to make any distinction between the speaker of the poem and Paz himself. Most of these poems begin at night or in twilight, at a time when the ordinary world is transformed; many of them take as their point of departure the act of writing, reflecting on their own composition as they progress.

One of the first poems of this group is “Same Time.” It is set in Mexico City, at night; the opening lines establish a contrast between the natural world, which is “at rest,” and the city,

   turning on its shadowsearching always searching itselflost in its immensitynever catching up    never able to leave itself

The city is an emblem of consciousness, and the poet feels the contagion of its restlessness:

I close my eyes and watch the cars go bythey flare up and burn out and flare upburn out  I don’t know where they’re goingAll of us going to die

(The entire section contains 1533 words.)

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