Critical Overview

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Octavio Paz’s reputation as one of the greatest literary figures of Latin America in the twentieth century and certainly Mexico’s most important writer at that time rests on both his extensive output of poetry—over thirty collections over the course of fifty years—and his essays, which almost equal the poetry in quantity, thoughtfulness, and influence. The two categories of writing compliment each other. As John C. Fein put it in an essay titled “Toward Octavo Paz: A Reading of his Major Poems, 1957–1976,” “His success in diversified fields is heightened in the ways in which his essays and his poetry are complimentary: the core of his creativity is a concern for language in general and for the poetic process in particular.” In other words, critics’ positive reaction to Paz’s poetry is brought to an even higher level by the fact that his poetry is based on sound principles enumerated in his nonfiction, particularly those regarding the use of language. Salamandra (1958–1961), the 1962 volume that “Duration” was first printed in, is particularly often cited as an example of how Paz would work with ideas about language.

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Because critical approval of Paz’s work is universal, the only question that came up when he was awarded the Noble Prize for literature in 1990 was why it took so long. In his introduction to a volume about essays on the poet, Harold Bloom noted that giving him the prize was “one of the sounder choices,” alluding to the unusual degree of approval from literary critics around the world. As The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature summarized Paz’s career, “There is Spanish American poetry after Octavio Paz: generations of poets who reject his legacy, and others that continue his line of experimentation. Nevertheless, the imprint that Paz has given to the tradition as a whole will be with us for years to come.”

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Essays and Criticism