Octavio Paz wrote poetry for over fifty years, and he published extensive essays and articles about the nature of art. The mysteries of most of his works have been addressed and usually accounted for in some way. Still, there are fragments and stray lines that just do not make sense. Part of this was to the point: Paz wrote in a postmodern style, well aware of the technique that he used and the ways in which it violated the common understanding of logic. Even knowing this, though, does not keep readers from wondering what particular lines mean, especially when they appear in a context where everything else has a meaning, even if that meaning is specific only to the boundaries of that one poem. For instance, Paz’s poem “Duration” is clearly meant to make readers take a fresh look at how they perceive reality. It rewrites the rules and thus is not required to follow the standards that readers usually hold for knowledge. But there is still one section that does not fit, even within the world of this particular work. The third stanza of the poem marks a significant break in tone and subject matter from what comes before or after, and it is the reader’s job to at least wonder why.
If there is to be any understanding, the first step is to admit that this is a poem that ought to be understood on its own terms. Paz wrote it in the late 1950s or early 1960s, a period when he was at his most productive and most avant-garde. The influences of surrealist painting and modernist poetry can be seen in the way that he easily dispenses with the formalities of ordinary experience: water talks, trees sleep in beds, bees fan out in response to “snow-language,” and so forth. Some readers find themselves put off by this heavy-handed type of free association, but it would be difficult to claim that it is pointless. Paz does not just force together opposites or unexpected images, here, the way a surrealist might. He is building toward one cumulative effect. That effect probably has to do with the words from the I Ching that the poem starts with, but it does not help much to look to them for understanding: they are too far removed from the poem’s center to offer much help until after the poem is already understood. An epigraph like this can set the mood of a poem, but its point is to raise questions, not provide answers.
What can be safely said about this poem is that it concerns the relationship between nature and humanity. What feels like surrealism, like a constant violation of reality, is actually a continuous use of anthropomorphism, of attributing human motives and behaviors to nonhuman things. For what it is worth, Paz was known for focusing on the odd distinction that is intellectually devised between the “us” of humanity and the “them” of everything else in the universe. As Jason Wilson put it in a 1979 book about Paz, “Underlying all of Paz’s poetics is a myth about nature that can be conventionally schematized as seeing the natural (good) set against the artificial (evil).” This analysis might overstate the case somewhat—there is no real indication of a judgment of good or evil in “Duration”—but it does show how integral nature is to Paz’s poetry, confirming the idea that nature is a, if not the, key aspect of this particular work.
Nature is represented by sky and Earth, by rain and wind and thunder, by forests, by birds and a rooster and a white horse. Humanity is represented by speech and bed and kissing. The lines blur: the natural things are the ones talking to each other in their own spontaneous dialog, and the humans are the ones who lose the ability to speak, entering one another through touch, resting in the blood like genetic code instead of understanding each other intellectually. If nature is assuming human skills, then it cannot be as simple as a matter of humanity being evil and nature good, or...
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