Octavio Paz 1914-1998
Mexican poet, essayist, critic, nonfiction writer, editor, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Paz's life and works. See also Octavio Paz Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 4, 6, 10, 119.
An internationally acclaimed poet and essayist, Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, the first Mexican to do so. In both poetry and prose, Paz explored complex and contradictory forces in modern life, revealing a love for Mexican history and culture as well as an interest in surrealism, existentialism, oriental mysticism, and leftist politics. Among his diverse literary activities, Paz was an adept translator fluent in several languages, and he also founded and edited literary periodicals designed to introduce Latin American readers to international writers and their works.
Paz was born March 31, 1914, in Mexico City. His grandfather was a writer and a government official; his father was a diplomat and political journalist who represented Mexican revolutionaries during the 1910s. While Paz was still quite young, his father was hit and killed by a train. Paz later wrote of his father's death in the poem, “Pasado en claro,” translated in English as “A Draft of Shadows.”
A family legacy of intellectual intensity and social action influenced Paz's political and cultural alignments from young adulthood. His first volume of poetry, Luna silvestre (Sylvan Moon), appeared in 1933, when he was not yet twenty. While he was a law student in Mexico, Paz corresponded with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who offered a favorable review of his work and invited him to attend the Second International Congress of Antifascist Writers in Spain in 1937, where Paz began to build his professional reputation. This was during the Spanish Civil War; the experience broadened Paz's perspective on the place of war in history and culture, and this would become a recurring theme throughout his subsequent work.
Paz later visited France, spent two years in the United States, and in 1945, began a twenty-three-year career in the Mexican diplomatic corps, starting with an assignment to the Mexican embassy in Paris. His Parisian experience provided Paz with cultural, philosophical, and political inspiration, as well as time to pursue his literary interests. At the start of the 1950s, he published two major works—El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), a collection of essays that appeared in 1950, and the 1951 prose-poem ¿Águila o sol? (Eagle or Sun?).
Paz's work as a Mexican diplomat continued through the 1950s and 1960s with assignments in Mexico, Tokyo, and New Delhi. In 1962, he became the ambassador to India; he resigned this post in 1968 in protest of the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City by government forces. During his time in Asia, Paz broadened his knowledge of Eastern literature, art, and philosophy, and he explored these themes in works such as Salamandra (1962), Blanco (1967), and Ladera este (East Slope) (1969).
After his diplomatic career came to an end, Paz held visiting professorships in the United States and England for several years. By 1972, he was editing the literary journal Plural. Four years later he founded Vuelta, which has become one of the foremost Latin American literary journals. He maintained an active presence in international literary circles and won numerous literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. Paz died from cancer April 19, 1998.
Paz enjoyed an international reputation as a poet and essayist. Although he was considered one of the greatest poets ever to write in the Spanish language, scholars note that his prose writings attracted a larger audience. Paz continued to write and publish poetry until the year before his death, but critics identify the poetry written before 1971 as his most significant. The lines between poetry and prose were not absolute in Paz's writings; critic Jose Miguel Oviedo notes that Paz had long expressed an interest in producing “a text which would be an intersection of poetry, narrative, and essay,” which he accomplished in his 1974 exploration of India, El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian).
Among Paz's most significant works of poetry are ¿Águila o sol?; 1957's Piedra de sol (Sun Stone); and three collections from the 1960s: Salamandra, Blanco, and Ladera este. Later collections of poetry include Pasado en claro (A Draft of Shadows) (1975), Arbol adentro (A Tree Within) (1987), and A Tale of Two Gardens (1997).
Throughout his career, Paz garnered the respect and genuine admiration of his peers and critics. This was not just for his own literary achievements but also for his role as a champion of Hispanic literature and creative expression. As noted by Robert González Ecchevarría, Paz “made the leading artistic and ideological trends in the world intelligible and relevant to Hispanic culture. And he has fashioned a Spanish capable of speaking the discourse of modernity; even when those of us who write in Spanish disagree with Paz, we must do so in the language he has given us.” In addition to the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he was nominated several times before winning in 1990, Paz won numerous awards throughout his long career, including the International Poetry Prize in Brussels (1963), the Jerusalem Literature Prize and El Premio Nacional de Letras (National Prize in Letters) in Mexico, both in 1977. In the following decade, he was awarded the Premio Miguel de Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Prize) in Madrid (1981); the Neustadt Literature Prize of the University of Oklahoma (1982); the German booksellers' Peace Prize (1984); and the Oslo Poetry Prize (1985).