Octavio Paz Paz, Octavio (Vol. 3) - Essay

Paz, Octavio (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paz, Octavio 1914–

See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 6, 10, 19 and 119.

Paz is a Mexican visionary poet.

Octavio Paz is Mexico's greatest living poet. But let's face it: that's like saying William Carlos Williams was Paterson's best writer. For Americans, a better way of indicating Paz's importance will have to be found. Perhaps it would be more suggestive to say that in the universe of Latin American writing, Neruda's poetry is solar: a lavish, Hispanic fulmination—like a Tamayo watermelon—and Paz's poetry lunar: a rarer, Gallic luminosity—like a Magritte moon—; or, to put it another way, to say that while Neruda is directly concerned with the world, its objects and processes (including poetry), Paz is more frequently concerned with poetry, its procedures and words (meaning things).

But let's really face it: Paz is an even better essayist than he is a poet. His 1950 evocation of Mexican character and culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, is, in fact, devoted to the real world and it produces an astonishing image of a whole nation, truer than the profound truths it reveals for presenting them in a mythos made entirely beautiful. Written in a lucid, rich prose, Labyrinths of Solitude is Paz's poetic masterpiece….

Eagle or Sun?… is a significant experiment in the career of a significant poet, and its longest piece, "My Life with the Wave" (which tells of a man's falling in love with a wave, his taking her home and the tides of their affair until she freezes in his absence and he sells her to a waiter who chops her up into little pieces to chill bottles) is a breathtaking success. It is a fantasy as delicate as anything by Hans Christian Andersen or Perrault, as magical as anything by André Breton or Dali and as beautiful as anything else by Paz. "My Life with the Wave" alone justifies the experiment and the volume….

Like so much contemporary art, Eagle or Sun? is self-consciously about itself; but, for a change, intelligently, illuminatingly so. Thus it is not a carefree volume, because Paz explains that "Every poem is made at the poet's expense"; and while it sings the pain of creation—the Passion of Poetry, not the passion in poetry is Paz's theme—it also celebrates the poetic opportunity by rejoicing in the "World to populate, blank page," privileging us to witness a poet who can accurately say that "From my body images gush" while he gracefully avoids that modern literary pitfall, "a bramble of allusions, tangled and fatal." Of course everything in Eagle or Sun? is not as good as "My Life with the Wave," but by pointing always in the direction of itself, the book establishes its own elevated norms and provides a fine introduction to all of Paz's work.

Ronald Christ, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 24, 1970, pp. 148-50.

Octavio Paz is Latin America's most controversial and stimulating essayist and thinker, and at the same time one of its most exciting poets. In both fields he plays very complex games with words but the patterns he creates are apt to be intellectually baffling, in poetry and prose alike, and it is very convenient to know the rules by which the games are played….

Paz is concerned with the continual combination and recombination of "signs in rotation" (los signos en rotación) and deeply conscious that signs are at two removes from things. This distancing may be more obvious in his poems, but his prose, too, is a separate man-made structure existing in an alternative universe, which is yet a kind of equivalent for the real one in which he and his readers have to live.

"Rotating Signs," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 29, 1972, p. 1144.

In his earlier writings published during the decades of the thirties and forties, Octavio Paz stressed the importance of the artist's ability to draw the reader into a creative relation with the poem. Communication with a broad public and the creation of a poetic community were conceived as priorities. In more recent works, on the other hand, in Corriente alterna or Marcel Duchamp o el castillo de la pureza, Paz emphasizes the necessity of transforming the reader into a "poet" by confronting her/him with difficult and very demanding literature, "a poem by Mallarmé or a novel by Joyce."… According to this view of reader participation, the interpretive act becomes synonymous with the creative process itself.

To account for the changes in his poetics we must look to the years that separate the first edition of El arco y la lira (1956) from the second and revised version published in 1967. During this period Paz reevaluates many of his ideas in light of structuralism and Buddhist philosophy….

On the basis of his own poetic evolution, it would be fair to assume that Paz's audience has become increasingly a public composed of other artists, poets and scholars. Octavio Paz has become the poet's poet as was Mallarmé. It is the most difficult art which allows for the quality of participation that Paz seeks. Participation means the ability to interpret poets whose language and meanings are not easily deciphered….

[The] sense of "arte espiritual" sheds light on the notion of participation that Paz implies at this stage in his thinking. It embraces certain contradictions which are exceedingly difficult to reconcile but which Paz does, in fact, attempt to overcome in Blanco. Blanco represents the culmination and synthesis of this understanding of poetry…. The reader's participation … necessitates considerable intellectual research into Paz's sources. Without an understanding of the Tantric books, the language, symbols and layout of Blanco do not disclose their significance. In addition, Paz refers to this poem as an attempt to open the poetic form in order to allow the reader freedom in choosing how to read the poem. Yet this freedom is elusive…. Besides the Tantric book … there are other structural influences in the work which we would not uncover without a careful study of Paz's sources. Mallarmé is one; structuralism is another. Together with Tantrism, these three converge to form the world view that Paz incorporates in Blanco.

In order to understand what Paz means by "arte espiritual," we must sketch out briefly the parallels between Blanco and The Hevajra Tantra. Blanco is a poem of language, the symbolic matrix where "todo se corresponde porque todo es lenguaje." If, as Paz now maintains, language shapes the world we know, then Blanco represents the poet's efforts to capture symbolically the relationship of the word to reality….

On the basis of Blanco, we can see how Paz conceives ideally of the function of the work of art and specifically how it relates to the reader. It is not a question of participation in the way that the surrealists envisioned it, based on the ideal conceived by Lautréamont. Paz cites Lautréamont, but his own poetry and poetics do not coincide with those of many of the avant-garde artists who did, in fact, stress the reader's primarily artistic role in the creative process. Through a poem like Blanco, we can judge the intellectual demands which Paz places upon his reader. Consequently, the poem rather than the act of creation itself acquires the most importance. It provides the structure for a meditation that should direct the reader on a path toward spiritual liberation. The problem still remains, however, with all those readers who cannot or do not undertake to interpret and decipher the poem's secrets. As Paz's poetic language becomes more defined in terms of its spiritual function, the reading public grows more limited. The poet-reader gives way to the poet-initiate.

Ruth Needleman, "Poetry and the Reader," in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, pp. 550-59.

In view of the proverbially comprehensive nature of Octavio Paz's literary criticism, it is perhaps amazing to recall that he has devoted so much time to his own literature. It is equally true that for this very reason he is genuinely universal in his outlook, at the same time rejecting forcefully any spurious nationalism. Paz clearly does not believe in Mexican literature in the abstract, but rather in certain Mexican authors and in certain poems written by Mexicans who are progressively taking a major role in the literary dialogue of our times. However, from the decade of the thirties when he began to practice what he modestly called literary and artistic journalism, up to the panoramic prologue to "Poetry in Movement" (1966), he has not failed to be deeply concerned with Mexican literature, its past and its present….

[His] is a creative criticism, inseparable from poetic activity, always highly personal and the product of wide and careful reading. It is an open criticism, made in lively response to the works studied, which establishes the multiple resonances they wake in his spirit. To read his pages is to embark on a voyage through all cultures and all literatures, although it is not difficult to perceive certain preferences or families of writers that especially attract him. Without speaking of oriental sources, there are among the French: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Appollinaire and the surrealists; Novalis and the German romantics; Blake, Donne, Whitman, Eliot and other figures in poetry of the English language; the Spanish baroque writers (reading Góngora and Quevedo was decisive for him) and certain contemporary writing in Spanish from Darío and Lugones to Cernuda and Guillén. Among the Mexicans to whom he is devoted alongside Pellicer, Villaurrutia and Cuesta, three national authors seem to be particularly distinguished by his preference: Alfonso Reyes, José Juan Tablada and Ramón López Velarde.

Allen W. Phillips, "Octavio Paz: Critic of Modern Mexican Poetry," in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, pp. 567-78.

It is well known that the effective poetics of Octavio Paz—what I call incorporated poetics to distinguish it from the other voluntary and theoretical poetics, the poetics of the essay—has conserved throughout its evolution a single predominant element: the concern for the Word and for words. I do not mean that this concern, and others of his incorporated poetics, are not found as well, even in the same way, in his literary theories. No serious reader of Paz will need a detailed demonstration of the fact that Paz's poetics is incorporated into his poems.

Tomás Segovia, "Poetry and Poetics in Octavio Paz," in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, pp. 595-600.

Octavio Paz is the founder of a rigorous and profound criticism of our language [Spanish], especially in its spoken form, and the attempts to found a poetics based on the results of that criticism have certainly not been fruitless in Paz's own creative work. In fact, one could say that his poetry represents one of the vastest undertakings of that type that has been attempted in a Spanish-speaking country: a freely given patrimony the benefits of which we now retain.

His critical work has valiantly confronted the most generalized and least rigorous suppositions about the values of our modern traditon and even of that paradoxical "tradition of the present" that has so frequently tried to install itself in our intellectual medium.

Salvador Elizondo, in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, p. 607.

[In] El laberinto Paz has dramatized one of the stubborn brute facts of the twentieth century—the seemingly ineradicable strength of national loyalties. Paz's mythical drama of rebirth and resurrection also point up the truth that in our time the nation is a kind of empty category—malleable raw material in the hands of politicians and myth-makers—a power for infinite good or infinite evil, revolution or reaction.

… Paz's prophetic vision, whether it be true or false, of the underdeveloped nations as the principal force capable of resisting the apparently irreversible dehumanizing, collectivistic thrust of existing industrial societies is, in my opinion, an example of his inability to deal adequately with the real political and social forces of our time. Above all, he seems to take it for granted that advanced industrial societies are internally homogenous, so highly integrated that no single class or sector can possibly initiate radical change. As for the underdeveloped nations, in spite of the obvious inroads of industrialism, Paz tends to see them also as internally homogenous, but still essentially "human," tabulae rasae if you will, capable of inventing, as he has said recently, "more human models of development" that "will correspond to what we are" rather than accepting the "compendiums of horrors that both East and West now offer us," a modest enough proposal if compared to his early apocalyptic revolutionary fervor, but still essentially mythical rather than rational.

George Gordon Wing, "Octavio Paz, or the Revolution in Search of an Actor," in Books Abroad, Winter, 1973, pp. 41-8.

"Alternating Current," [is] a high-pressured gathering of essays. The sheer range of the book is notable—evidence of [Paz's] determination to bring the world to Mexico and perhaps even Mexico to the world. Everything tempts Paz, as if the world of modern culture were still young, still fresh, and he writes in "Alternating Current" about literary theory, Mexican fiction, European poetry, Sartre, Oriental thought, drugs, McLuhanism, the politics of "the third world."…

With Paz's poetry one had better be a little … cautious. His theories about poetry, drawn mainly from French sources and developed in the first section of "Alternating Current," are familiar, even too familiar: the celebration of the word severed from mere reference and become an icon or sacred object in its own right. But at least in Paz's longer poems, what strikes one forcefully is the dominance of Latin rhetoric, a facility in gestures of excess. In a long poem like "Solo for Two Voices," a North American reader searches for points of connection, and some do appear: passages suggesting Whitmanesque self-transformation, a kind of protean slipperiness meant to project possibilities for renewal of experience, and other passages sounding a more erotic, even "primitive" ground-note, as if Paz were searching for bits of salvage in the Mexican dust….

Paz's criticism, of a kind seldom undertaken by his sober contemporaries to the north, consists of an epigrammatic philosophical dramatism, with a high quotient of generality and not much effort at textual detail or expository sequence…. [Sometimes] Paz's criticism becomes a relentless hammering of displayed brilliance, a little wearying in its emission of insights and formulas; one wishes for occasional moments of quiet conversation, the relaxed talk of a friend….

Full of energy, curiosity, intelligence, still eager to taste the goods of this world, and loving, as he says, nothing "more than verbal perfection," Octavio Paz is an intellectual-literary one-man band who performs everything from five-finger sonatas to full-scale symphonies and even electronic music, all in "Alternating Current."

Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1973, pp. 1-2.