Octavio Paz’s poem “Duration” was originally published in his 1962 collection Salamandra (1958– 1961), later published in English as Salamander. It provides an excellent example of one of the twentieth century’s most important poets working at his prime. In this poem, Paz, the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, shows his interests in writing poetry outside of the poetic tradition, in exploring new methods of using language on the page. The images that he uses here do not follow one another gracefully, but they do add up to a new way of looking at reality. By breaking reality into fragments and then putting them back together in careful arrangements, “Duration” is able to raise questions about the ways that the fragments of experience relate to one another.
Paz was an important world literary figure from the 1950s until his death in 1998 and is considered by many to be the most important and influential writer that Mexico has ever produced. Much of his most notable experimental poetry was produced while he worked for Mexico’s diplomatic corps in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to poetry, he is known almost equally well as a literary theorist, with numerous books of essays about the nature of art and the possibilities of language.
Today, “Duration” can be found in both English and Spanish in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957–1987, published by New Directions.
The epigraph that starts this poem is from the I Ching, an important text of ancient Chinese Confucianism. The I Ching, also referred to as “The Book of Changes,” expresses the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, the balance of opposites in all things. This is shown in the first two lines of “Duration,” which juxtapose the darkness of the sky against the lightness of the earth.
In addition to a balance between things, line 3 presents a balance between objects and actions, as the crowing of a rooster, generally recognized as a sign that dawn is coming, is presented as a violent, tearing motion that can affect the night, dividing it into parts.
The poem’s first section contains two lines, 4 and 5, that have parallel wording. In each case, Paz urges readers to rethink the reality of what is discussed. Of course, water and wind do not wake at any one point: they go on with a steady motion day and night. The poem gives them human characteristics, anthropomorphizing them. More specifically, it gives them the characteristics of the speaker of the poem by having the second one ask about a person to whom the poem’s speaker would be talking. The white horse at the end of the stanza is not, significantly, counterbalanced with another parallel image, implying that it is a symbol of freedom that is outside of the yin/yang perspective.
The point of this stanza is to draw a comparison between the “you” being addressed in the poem and the elements of nature. It starts with a personification of nature, portraying the forest’s quiet stillness as “sleep” and the leaves that lie on the ground in the forest as a “bed.” After the first line, each subsequent line focuses on the human being surrounded by nature, and with each line the imagery becomes more imaginative. Imagining rain as a bed for a sleeping person is reasonable, because a person could sleep in rain or on top of the puddles it leaves. The “bed of wind” mentioned in the third line is less likely, however, as is the idea of singing in a bed. Mentioning wind draws a connection from this stanza back to the epigraph from the I Ching. The last line’s reference to kissing in a bed of sparks is a sexual reference, implying the electricity released in passion. Once more, there is an unstated contrast between the active verbs that Paz uses and the stillness that is associated with sleeping in a bed.
Having alluded to sexuality in the previous stanza, here the poem uses imagery that is more openly erotic. Odor is a very sensual thing in poetry, if only because it is the sense that is least often represented by writers and therefore has a stronger impact on readers. The fact that the odor mentioned in the first line is both “multiple” and “vehement” gives it a stronger impact than it would have if it were restrained. The second line of this section connects hands to bodies, showing how all people are connected to each other on the “invisible stem” of the third line. This section ends with the same whiteness that ended the first section, a reminder to readers of the freedom of the image of the white horse. After portraying all of mankind as being connected and having made the connection between humanity and nature in the previous stanza, the poem reminds readers of things that exist outside of the closed circuit.
The nature of the fourth section is communication. The words in the first lines are the ones most often used to discuss conversation: “speak,” “listen,” and “answer.” They are not, however, presented in a way that is meant to resemble conversation. They are jumbled together without any punctuation in a way that does not allow for any give-and-take between them, as if the actions of speaking and listening and answering could happen all at once. Though the poem’s title, “Duration,” refers to an extended period of time, this line contrasts that by forcing three distinct acts together as if no time passes between them.
The rest of this section shows another case of personifying nature. While the first line makes human communication a supernatural thing that occurs outside of the flow of time, the last three lines present nature communicating as humans do. The thunder is another reference to the poem’s epigraph, showing that the things of the world endure. The fact that it speaks here, and the woods understand, refers to the poem’s very first lines, about the relationship of the sky and the earth. The “understanding” in the poem’s eighteenth line shows Earth and sky—in essence, everything there is— interacting with each other and not just existing side by side.
The poem, not having mentioned the “you” explicitly in several stanzas (and only having implied that character in the commands at the start of section IV), returns to an examination of human relations in section V. Here, human interaction is shown to be extremely intimate: the speaker of the poem is inside of the other person. They are linked by sight and by mouth.
The third line of this section, “you sleep in my blood,” takes this relationship beyond the smaller concerns of two people and, instead, hints at genetic memory passed down through generations. In the style of the rest of the poem, its exact opposite occurs in the very next line: “You” is replaced by “I”; “sleep” is replaced by “waken”; and “blood” is replaced by “head.” The contrast is drawn here between the unconscious knowledge, carried in sleep and in blood, and conscious knowledge that occurs in the mind while awake.
The poem’s final section summarizes the dualities that have been established earlier, showing the contrasts between language and nature, sense and nonsense, the “I” and the “you.” Of the four types of language that are referred to here—stone, snow, water, and blood—it is the last one that is a human property. Placing it at the end of the list like this brings it into the group, reminding readers that blood is as much a natural element as the other three.
The parenthetical responses in the evennumbered lines of this stanza represent the poem’s most challenging mysteries. There is no symbolic significance to a green syllable, a fan of bees, a canoe of lightning, or a tower of birds. They are mentioned as appropriate responses to language precisely because they lack meaning, and dialog is therefore rendered impossible. This might seem to deal language a crippling blow, but, as it is presented in this poem, language is elevated, not diminished. Talk and answer are not connected sensibly, but they do exist together, and like yin and yang, like thunder and wind, they have a deep, natural relationship that goes beyond human comprehension.