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Paz, Octavio 1914–
A Mexican poet, essayist, diplomat, and social philosopher, Paz also has written one play. Known primarily as an epic poet, Paz in his verse departs from traditional concepts of linear time, reality, and consciousness. Like Whitman, Paz uses the concept of the Self to merge metaphorically with other sensibilities and to make personal discoveries at a deeply psychic level. (See also, Octavio Paz Criticism and volumes 4, 6, 19 and 119.)
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Octavio Paz stands in the first rank of poets on the world-scene today. I'd stress the notion world-scene because it won't do thinking of him as a local, a Mexican or even South American.
Paz's poetry, uttered in what seems a direct, even brutally vigorous language, derives its transcendental thrust and vision, its visual, aural, tactile power from the intellectual authority of the French Symbolists, from Surrealism during the 20s and 30s, from English and German romantic poets—all melded through the sonorities of 17th-century Spanish Baroque masters.
What results is a poetry cosmopolitan, truly international, often somewhat mystical in a realistic or materialistic way. Partly, it's the Latin American's situation that forces such development….
The language that long ago was imposed on ancient native empires has worked to create a necessarily complex, irrational and tensely potent continuum, as is demonstrated in Paz's magnificent long chant, "Sun Stone."…
[Paz] has recently gone from his erotic, world-seeing rapturous lyrics toward a structuralist and Buddhist view, via concrete poetry, and is exploring (and erring too, I think: see "Blanco," a long poem) … the silences between words and sounds, the blank spaces between words.
Paz must emerge from this passage through theory; he has the power. He may be reacting against the way the world is being crammed with sheer noise, but it's no help to speak about the unspeakable, when the poet's task, finally, is to express it itself.
Jascha Kessler, "Paz: An Ecumenical Poet," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1971, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1971, p. 20.
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In spite of being a "world" poet, as glossily cosmopolitan as they come, [Octavio Paz] remains programmatically Mexican, not to say pre-Columbian; and in spite of being contemporary, so abreast of the very latest movements that he suffers, not gladly, the tag "post-avant-garde," he is still acutely conscious of belonging to his own generation, far from a young one now…. (p. 5)
A Mexican, but what is a Mexican?… The question is not a simple one for Señor Paz himself, and his many prose works on all sorts of subjects, and many of his poems too, are indirectly or directly about it. (p. 7)
A great part of his being a Mexican poet is a variable and ambivalent relation to Spain and her literature, quite like our relation to England and her literature. As we have tended to loosen the colonial relation by adopting other cultures than England's for our literary uses …, Mexico, or rather Central America, has tended to adopt other cultures as counterpoises to Spain, mainly the French…. [For] Paz the French master is not a contemporary … but, of all people, Mallarmé, and this in spite of Paz's affinities with contemporary French surrealism and his friendship with André Breton. (pp. 7-8)
The connection or, as Paz would say, the "correspondence," is surprisingly plain if you take Mallarmé in what has become his essential aspect, his use or expression of Nothingness. The full insistence on that aspect—on Un Coup de Dés, as against the Symbolist sumptuosities of L'Après-Midi d'un Faune or the syntactical fancy-work of such poems as the sonnet on Poe's tomb, which were Mallarmé in my youth—probably dates...
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from about 1959, when Maurice Blanchot, himself a great specialist and virtuoso in Nothingness, published his essay on Mallarmé in a collection entitled, if you please,Le Livre à Venir. It is true that in 1939 Raymond Queneau had already invented the memorable and rather wicked formulation: la mallarmachine à faire le vide, but I imagine that was only a gag in passing, not a decisive reinterpretation.
Though Nothingness as a concept is prevalent enough in France, especially since Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and nihilism as an attitude is now, understandably, common among young Frenchmen, a strong sense of Nothingness as something substantial is far more Spanish than it is French. You can pretty well manipulate le néant, but nada gives no ground. As Spanish, it is to a degree Mexican, and to a high degree if you associate it closely with death…. In spite of the historical anomaly, which is not really an anomaly if you reject, as Paz does, "linear" history in favor of history as multidimensional and discontinuous, Mallarmé "corresponds" to French, Spanish, and Mexican realities simultaneously and even—if you follow Blanchot and not Queneau—to future poetry. Paz's poem Blanco, which uses blanks or white spaces in the manner of Mallarmé, looks like a supercivilized little stunt, and it is that, but it is much more real and weighty than that, to him, and to a contemporary Hispanic reader. It stands firmly on one of the prime intuitions of that culture and is furthermore backed, not so much by a Mallarmé revival, as by modern philosophy, which Paz takes as seriously, and as personally, as an earlier Mexican might take theology.
The Hispanic mind, however, loves to go by pairs of opposites, whether the opposites conflict, complement each other, alternate, or interact. Nothingness and its modes, such as death, emptiness, and silence, have to be countered with Being and its modes, such as life, plenitude, and sound, and all those things are usually made emphatic, peremptory, unmodulated. So that that other side of Mallarmé, his great richness and intricacy, is also to the Mexican purpose. Those qualities are certainly characteristic of Octavio Paz's mind, while he can also be, naturally simplicity itself. In Blanco they are at an extreme, in the dense interlocked passages, which counter the open-work passages on a ground of emptiness. (pp. 8-9)
Repleteness or congestion is a quality of most of his own work, poetry or prose. He may have got it from—or been confirmed in it by—the muralists [Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros],… but he seems to have felt they were old-fashioned political illustrators, and a more congenial source would have been the Baroque façades of Mexican churches and, still more, Aztec sculpture. One of his handsomest poems, "Sun Stone," is a verbal version of the circular Aztec calendar stone, containing as many lines as that calendar has days: 584. The initial scheme is no doubt trivial, at best ritual, but the congestion of the poetic design, like that of the stone, has a rather terrifying force…. [He] can take on far more of the Occult, East and West, come Boddhisatvas, Boehme, or Blavatsky, without being for an instant (or for more than one ecstatic instant) befuddled by it all, than one would think possible. And he has the irrationalities of Surrealism quite in his pocket. And the devotional intellectualism of a Calderón or a Hopkins. The man is an orchestra. (p. 10)
Moving to and fro among the contrarieties of his own mind, those of his country, and those of his lifetime, political and artistic, he still keeps—or instantly recovers—his head and his balance. He goes at everything with a passion, with a voracity of interest, which threatens to carry him away, but he regularly plays a subject against its opposite—Duchamp against Picasso, Pound and Eliot against the European moderns of the same time, or against each other—and that keeps it all steady as well as dramatic. Incidentally, or alternately, he is excellent at elaborating finer distinctions than polar contrast. (pp. 11-12)
In The Bow and the Lyre, a vast and swarming panorama of the poetry of the world as he, a participant, sees it or lives in it, the "savage" or visionary figures, such as Blake or Hölderlin or Rimbaud or Lautréamont loom larger than usual. I see them smaller, but a reader more in sympathy with current poetry of the bardic and prophetic sort may feel, with joy, that Paz has got everything exactly in scale and place at last. I do, though intermittently, and when I do not I am still delighted with the beautifully conducted argument, in thought and style.
One disturbance, for me, comes in his handling of Greek epic and tragedy. Obviously, nobody can have gone through all the scholarship and speculation on those highly unsettled subjects, and if some prodigy had done so, exhaustively, there would be nothing left of his mind to make a generality with. Even the decently informed scholar, if he wants to treat Greek epic and tragedy as single and distinct genres—they are in fact maddeningly multiple and mixed—has to abstract and simplify in a very high-handed way…. At any rate, once he has set up his philosophical formulations of Greek epic and tragedy, he uses them with wonderful dexterity and imagination to distinguish other kinds of epic, the novel, and other kinds of tragedy, Elizabethan, French, and Seventeenth-Century Spanish. And so it goes, through a formidable range of forms, literatures, and ideas.
The Bow and the Lyre, though most of it is early (1956), is no doubt his big central work in prose. Later works are excursions or developments from it. Conjunctions and Disjunctions, while still concerned with modern man and his literatures, is occupied mainly with correspondences and differences in the Orient, especially with the sacred abominations of Tantric Buddhism. Alternating Current is a collection of fugitive and topical essays, brilliantly turned and fascinating to read, whether or not you know the larger work looming behind them. The prose works, together, constitute a monumental accomplishment, and, outside the Hispanic world, they may well outweigh his poetry, since they lose much less in translation. But what are they? Criticism? A few years ago, when I had read very little of him, I referred to him as "the eminent Mexican critic," which was miserably inadequate. Though I still like him best when he is bringing his manifold resources to bear on the analysis of a particular and difficult case, such as Duchamp or Pessoa, the criticism seems incidental to philosophy, as it is in Sartre. Does that make Paz a philosopher?
I think so, but of a kind that is a little strange to us. Our philosophers are not poets, except for Emerson, whereas Spain, from the end of the Nineteenth Century, has produced several philosophers of stature who are poets also, or novelists…. Paz has been compared with Ortega y Gasset, and owes a little to him, but Ortega was not a poet, and Paz is better associated with the others, especially with Machado, to whom, especially as a philosopher of Being and Not-Being, he owes a great deal. Not much, however, as a poet. (pp. 13-15)
In prose or poetry he is Unamuno's "man of flesh and bone" and then some. He carries a skeleton inside him (I owe that one to Machado) and has all the erotic fleshliness our fashion could ask. Moreover he celebrates the asshole, as fact and symbol. How complete can you get? A speculation of his on shit should interest us especially, even the Federal Reserve. Assuming the Freudian correspondence between gold (or capital) and the retention of shit, he proceeds to another correspondence, between gold and the sun, so that gold, not hoarded but invested and expended, becomes, like the sun and its light, the great productive source. I know of no better rationale for capitalism since Calvin, though the method is "savage" and poetic, not logical or theological as in Calvin.
That flight of Baroque imagination indicates, besides his energy and dash, the main terms of his world: man in the mortal flesh and an astronomical universe. That large view of the world need not exclude history, society, terrestrial nature, reason, taste, and other secular matters, but it certainly does subordinate and surround them. It corresponds to the view of Seventeenth-Century Spain and, I gather, that of the Aztecs, so that Paz comes by it naturally, but for him the religion that kept up the scale of Calderón's universe is gone, and the planet Venus is no longer Quetzalcoatl. The stars are now a "vain chess-game, once a combat of angels." You would think the universe would thus shrink to its foreground concerns, history and the rest; but, marvelously, it does not. The Calderonian spaciousness, in which man is "prisoner of the stars," is kept up. On what? Nothingness, largely.
Gertrude Stein one said that Spanish space has always to be "full, very full, of emptiness and suspicion." She was referring to pictorial space, but the remark may serve to account for Paz's cosmic space, which is full, very full—"replete"—with a nada substantial enough to support the constellations.
Though his philosophizing, savage and logical, ranges over everything that concerns him, small and large, myth and history, language and versification, his great distinction is, I feel, as a philosopher of temporality. Not of Time or of History so much as of the brutal changes in temporal orientation he and his generation have had to live in…. Hardest of all to deal with, for literary people, is the fact that modernism depends for its meaning on history, on getting on from the past into the future, and so does the avant-garde. The situation is intricate, to say the least, and worse, unconcluded, but Paz is magnificent in making it articulate, even in its indeterminations. What remains, through the shipwreck of historicism, is evidently the cosmos and the more-or-less nonconsecutive present, in Paz's version, a universe bounded by the stars and then the fulgurant or "eternal" moment of poetic vision. (pp. 15-17)
Renga is of very little interest in itself, as a book of poems. If you can read the four languages in which it is written it is an amusing exercise for your polyglottery, and the roughly surrealist manners, though rather belated, have some charming moments. But the importance of the work, if any, is in the theories behind it, questions of the author and his identity, single or multiple, of Language and languages, of the work as written or something lived. (p. 17)
Early Poems 1935–1955, on the other hand, can be enjoyed in a number of ways, with or without theoretics. The poems, though relatively "early" and preliminary to more impressive works like Blanco and Sun Stone, are not juvenilia, and already the main terms of his world are set…. [One] can spot motifs and manners from more recent predecessors, Machado, Jiménez, and perhaps Alberti, but these early echoings are, as I hear him at least, happily dominated by his own strong voice—not necessarily a shout, but round, full, and emphatic. There is also a delightful variety of forms in this volume, from short epigrams, with and without images, to rather long avalanches of metaphor, from very neat and complete things to long and short fragments, from the very plain to the very fancy. The book, though small, is a multitude.
Is there anything like him in English? He has something in common with Charles Olson, but really not much; with e. e. cummings in his typographical phase, but their differences are vast; with T. S. Eliot as a philosophical poet, but … [Hopkins] may well be our best approach to Paz, at least in his more Baroque stretches. Catholic doctrine apart, they have the same vast world, the same acute sense of the instantaneous and abrupt—in phenomena, but in their phrasing, too—and in both there is "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation" in the thick of abounding imagery. Hopkins is an approach well enough but no thread for the labyrinth. For the ordinary reader, with little time, the short prose work, Children of the Mire, would be the best possible introduction. (pp. 17-18)
Donald Sutherland, "Excursions and Incursions and Returns of a Candy Skull," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring-Summer, 1975, pp. 5-19.
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Octavio Paz wrote in 1953 his only play, a one-act re-creation of [Hawthorne's] "Rappaccini's Daughter." Re-creation, not simply adaptation. For while the Mexican poet does not tamper much with the plot, he significantly changes the atmosphere and meaning of the tale. Hawthorne contrasts love with "poisonous" sex, transcendent faith with imperfect empirical and rational knowledge. The tone and symbolism of "Rappaccini's Daughter" are influenced by the writings of such intensely moral allegorists as Dante, Spenser and Milton. Paz's chief concern, however, is metaphysical rather than moral; while he treats the human situation as "fallen," his idea of the fall is similar to André Breton's in Nadja: a loss of memory of a deep, original self. Like Breton, and unlike Hawthorne, Paz seeks reintegration, wholeness, through erotic love; but in La hija de Rappaccini, this love is undermined both by its external enemies—a sterile rationalism and a murderous will to power—and by the very differences between man and woman which draw them together in the first place. (p. 230)
Paz has much in common with Eastern thinkers. Specifically, the image in La hija de Rappaccini (and elsewhere in his poetry and prose) of "the other shore" ("la otra orilla") is closely related to the concept of The Other Shore in Buddhist texts. As Paz uses the term, its meaning differs from that of the "paradise" evoked by Hawthorne in that it implies not a washing clean of sin, but a reabsorption into the wholeness or nothingness from which we emerge at birth.
A third important difference in Paz's poetic drama from Hawthorne's story is a mythic perspective emphasizing cyclical rhythms rather than linear time. In La hija de Rappaccini as in the Aztec world view, death and life are complementary manifestations of one reality. (pp. 230-31)
[In Hawthorne's tale] Beatrice's body is as poisonous as the shrub, both having been nurtured by Rappaccini, [but] her soul is pure, like the water from the shattered fountain. The story is the most explicit condemnation of unhallowed sex that Hawthorne ever published. One passage, in which a smirking servant tells Giovanni of a "private entrance" into Rappaccini's garden, "where you may see all his fine shrubbery,"… recalls the earthly delights of Hieronymus Bosch. No other Hawthorne fiction contrasts so clearly the "Eden of the present world" with a vision of paradise regained.
It is this kind of dualism which Octavio Paz considers to be typical of the "unhealthy" Western world view. In 1953, after returning from a stay in Japan and India, he contrasted the outlook of "primitives, Chinese Taoists, ancient Greeks, and others" whose "vision of chaos is a sort of ritual bath, a regeneration by immersion in the primal source," with the Occidental conception of the world: "It is moral. It isolates, divides, splits man in two. To return to unity of vision is to have done with the morality of duality." The central theme of La hija de Rappaccini is the quest of a lost unity, the effort to escape from the prison of individuality through love or—finally—through a leap to "the other shore." (pp. 232-33)
[Paz's] prologue prepares us to meet characters who are not, as in "Rappaccini's Daughter," individuals making choices weighted with moral responsibility, but types enacting patterns recurrent throughout history. And history, in La hija de Rappaccini, is a dream in which human beings catch occasional glimpses of a forgotten reality. The doomed erotic relationship between Juan and Beatriz is their almost somnambulistic effort to rediscover what each of them has lost…. Unlike Hawthorne's Beatrice, Beatriz does not construe Juan's eventual shrinking from her on account of her poisonousness as a lack of faith in her inner purity; rather, she accuses him of refusing to accept the mortal risk of love. (p. 234)
Paz's characterization of "el doctor Rappaccini" emphasizes the theme of sexual estrangement, for the scientist understands that man and woman seek in each other a lost unity. (p. 235)
Paz's treatment of Beatriz's death underlines the difference in his idea of Rappaccini from that of Hawthorne. When at the end of the short story Beatrice dies at her father's feet, he is "thunder-stricken," but this is all we know of his reaction. In the play, just after Beatriz has drunk the antidote (an act which her father has repeatedly pleaded with her not to commit, while Hawthorne's Rappaccini seems unaware of her intention), he cries out, "Daughter, why hast thou abandoned me?" This ironic echo of Jesus' last words emphasizes both Rappaccini's quasi-incestuous dependence on the daughter he has enslaved, and his despair as she leaves him forever. Hawthorne's scientist is an inverted Puritan, who sees Beatrice as a projection of his will to power. Paz's Rappaccini is an impassioned caudillo who would bind Beatriz to himself as well as to her lover.
Two relatively minor differences enhance the contrast between the Christian allegory and the pagan play. The Baglioni of Hawthorne's tale is a conventional and worldly academic who respects "the good old rules of the medical profession" and has social "habits that might almost be called jovial."… Since we're impelled when reading Hawthorne to assess the characters in moral terms, we would probably consign Baglioni to limbo. But Paz, whose categories differ from Hawthorne's, simply squeezes all the juice out of Baglioni: he becomes the "Hermit" of the Tarot deck, "worshiper of the triangle and the sphere … ignorant of the language of the blood, lost in his labyrinth of syllogisms …"…. He is a desiccated, sententious Cartesian, an enemy of the body as Paz's Rappaccini is an enemy of the spirit.
Consonant with his treatment of erotic love not as sinful but as a quest for a lost harmony is Paz's divergence from Hawthorne's idea of the pandering servant. The smirking Lisabetta of "Rappaccini's Daughter" is given a piece of gold by Giovanni as payment in advance for showing him the "private entrance" into the garden. In Paz's version, the servant Isabel obviously wishes to lead Juan to Beatriz, but she speaks of no private entrance, and Juan makes his way unaided to the girl.
Finally, the difference between Hawthorne's and Paz's major symbols reflects the dissimilarity of the writers' preoccupations. Hawthorne is particularly concerned to contrast the heavenly purity of water with the earthly impurity of the poisonous shrub; Paz, to oppose the idea of the "other shore," where mortal contradictions are resolved, to that of the "mirror"—a symbol of the imprisoned self…. Juan and Beatriz, incarnating the "Lovers" of the Tarot deck, fail to escape from the imprisonment of the self (given Paz's idea of sexual alienation, we may wonder whether love actually is a "choice," in the Messenger's words, of "life or death"), and Beatriz seeks re-integration into the "other world" from which she had received a "message" in the form of the bouquet of flowers given to her by Juan…. Her [dying] words, "I have made the final leap, I am on the other shore," echo language quoted elsewhere by Paz from the Sutra Prajnaparamita: "Oh, gone, gone, gone to the other shore, fallen on the other shore." But Beatriz's final words, "I do not touch the depths of my soul!" leave unanswered the question, What follows death? Unlike Hawthorne, who envisioned Beatrice in paradise, forgetting her grief in the light of immortality, Paz can only give expression to an ardent hope. As he says in his essay, "The Other Shore," "We scarcely know what it is that calls us from the depths of our being…. Do we truly return to that which we are? Return to what we were and foretaste of what we shall be … And perhaps man's true name, the emblem of his being, is Desire…." Certainly it is the essence of La hija de Rappaccini. (pp. 235-37)
Richard C. Sterne, "Hawthorne Transformed: Octavio Paz's 'La hija de Rappaccini'," in Comparative Literature Studies (© 1976 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois), September, 1976, pp. 230-39.
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[The] sense of motion created by "Exclamación" and "Juventud" … is a key to the dynamic process of both poems. However, neither work contains any verbs and the poet has succeeded in creating the feeling of motion without the use of a single verbal mechanism, and this is a remarkable achievement. In "Exclamación" the skillful juxtaposition of contradictory statements produces a feeling of motion and both poems depend on the adept manipulation of words to enhance this sensation. The reader's imagination is activated and stimulated by the staccato lines and the contradictions in both poems.
"Exclamación" and "Juventud" portray an objective reality and there is little if any human presence in these poetic compositions…. [The] poetic voice narrates in an impersonal third person in both poems and this tends to enhance the sensation of human distance, at least in a personal sense. However, the reader becomes involved in the creative experience of both poems by participating in a process of discovery, and the trajectory of this experience moves him toward the attainment of an illuminating insight that transcends the limitations of material reality. Although the approach is depersonalized, it does not mitigate the reader's participation in the two poems, and this is testimony to Octavio Paz's mastery of poetic technique. The reader's subjective and limited view and the extensive visions offered by the poems are combined by a dynamic process, and this creative procedure causes the reader to experience the world in a new light. It is the reader's own subjective being rather than the poet's that merges and is incorporated into the objective reality portrayed in the poems. The poet stands aside and works his artistry on the reader and the world. In this regard, the poetic work is the point at which the subjective reader and the objective world meet. "Exclamación" and "Juventud" do not contain the anguished or highly emotional individual voice so frequently present in Paz's poetry, and one encounters in these two poems a contemplative serenity and an integration with the material world that impart a sense of harmony. Both poems emphasize a creative process of discovery rather than a static condition, and it is unlikely that a reader will see the world in exactly the same light after experiencing these poems. (pp. 121-22)
Raymond D. Souza, "Time and Space Configurations in Two Poems of Octavio Paz," in Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century (copyright © 1976 by the Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century), Fall, 1976, pp. 117-22.
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[In the poems of Octavio Paz] I recognized the paradox which haunts us all, which makes of art criticism a perpetually unsatisfactory endeavor. I recognized that if the word springs ahead of thought, as Octavio said, and if it rises from the written page, and if, as he keeps repeating in all his poetry, the presencia arrives by means forever undisclosed, so does the painted image. What is true about the image, or presencia, is precisely what cannot be rendered through any other image, and especially not through that logic encountered at the circumference of experience. What I knew about visual art, I found confirmed by Octavio's poetry. (p. 32)
The mirrors and bridges and apparitions which course in the timeless currents of Octavio's creations, surfacing in the most unexpected moments to pose the paradox of creation itself, are finally justified by his faith in the presencia—which after all abides with the same durability in the works of the true visual artists. In those grand metaphors from which, by the very nature of perception, we cannot escape, finally lies the poet's power of salvage. (p. 35)
Dore Ashton, "Octavio Paz and Words and Words and Images," with translations by Andrée Conrad, in Review (copyright © 1976 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1976, pp. 32-5.
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Though [Paz's] account of modern poetry is deliberately selective [in Children of the Mire], there are many passages which a more systematic historian of literature might envy. As a Latin American poet, he writes with particular authority of the relation of modernismo to European romanticism and of the extent to which positivism, for nineteenth-century Latin American writers, implied an intellectual crisis similar in its terms, if not in its scope, to that of the Enlightenment in Europe. There are signs, too, that Paz is continuing to adjust his view of the romantic tradition: thus, his long-standing interest in Nerval now takes him back more profoundly than before to the German romantics, and in particular to Jean Paul Richter, the earliest proponent of the "death of God." Whether he is speaking of intellectuals like Marx and Fourier (one of the few writers, for Paz, in whom the possibilities of poetic thought and revolutionary thought coincide), or of the differences between Eliot and Pound, his judgments are invariably accurate and often memorable. (pp. 86-7)
Occasionally, what might have been a genuine insight remains at the level of a bright idea, as when he speaks of an "intimate relation" between Protestantism and romanticism, or of the possible link between accentual versification and analogical vision. More seriously, perhaps, there are moments at which the pattern is made to seem a little too neat, as when certain phenomena are said to be linked by a "contrary dialectic" or are described as "metaphors" of one another. Such verbal shortcuts are particularly frustrating in a writer of Paz's intelligence, since one inevitably feels them to be the result of overcompression, rather than of any basic failure of thought.
Having said this, one can only admire the scope and clarity of the rest. The final sections, in particular, contain some of Paz's most persuasive observations on the situation of the contemporary artist. Roughly, what he is saying here is that the whole conception of the avant-garde is becoming outdated, since, as he puts it, "modern art is beginning to lose its powers of negation" …; or, in terms which deliberately echo the theme of the early chapters, "the present has become critical of the future and is beginning to displace it."… Thus poetry, like politics and ethics, is being driven back on the present, though the very idea of the present has by now taken on the sense of a return to the beginning. Where poetry is concerned, this means a return to the voice of language itself, to the "founding word," which is more permanent and less fortuitous than the utterance of the poet as individual.
These are difficult speculations, though all the more admirable since they offer no easy solutions. Yet, if Paz's account of modern poetry often has more of the quality of a fable than of objective history, his own recent poetic practice is there to provide the necessary body to his theories. Both as a profession of faith and as a subtle commentary on some of the most striking tendencies in the poetry of the last two hundred years, this is an impressive book, and one which could only have been written by a major poet. (p. 87)
Arthur Terry, in Comparative Literature (© copyright 1977 by University of Oregon), Vol. 29, Winter, 1977.
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Why does the writer write? Paz once stated that this was the only valid question. He himself has been writing, as early as his classical Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) shows, in order to understand Mexico. In Vuelta he continues this commitment. A privileged moment is his return from the East (in 1969) that allows him—as happened before with Diego Rivera's return from Europe—to see the Mexican reality as if he hadn't seen it before.
Back in Mexico, Paz weeps not tears of love, as did Ulysses at the sight of his Ithaca, but of wrath, as did Moses descending from the Horeb…. Anger is all-powerful in the valley and contaminates the poet. Seeing Mexico's errors—those common to Latin America—allows him, forces him, to meditate on himself and the meaning of his vital adventure…. The autobiographical is another important thematic line of Vuelta, continuing the effort emphasized by his previous books El mono gramático (1974 …) and Pasado en claro (1975).
Paz has defined himself as a man in search of the word…. His fidelity to this destiny has been an exemplary one. Consequently he is beginning to be praised by the new generations of Hispanic readers. But this poet, finally consecrated by the literary establishment, does not permit himself to be deceived by this recognition. He knows that, in a real sense, he has not "arrived."…
In the uncertain path that the poet walks, in which the return to the fatherland is not the final journey, what is it that sustains Paz? First of all, in spite of his surrealistic flair, his lucidity. Neither slogans nor ideologies, nothing moves him but his own visions—poetry/language, woman/nature. Also, the existential certainty that "History is a mistake."… (p. 87)
Vuelta is written in four parts (four is the cipher of the universe for ancient Mexicans), and each part has a long central poem. There are others, shorter, mostly in homage to artists of words or images. Another constant of Paz has been his generous perception of the young artists around him. The poetry of Octavio Paz is not easy. There are neither sentimental effusions nor dazzling metaphors. He faces language with both vigilance and abandonment. Normally it is the mot juste, but sometimes a drunken freedom leads him to strange neologisms…. Like Huidobro, he plays, not always succeeding, trying to go through alliteration and paronomasia to new discoveries. Paz is primarily a poet of Poetry, one who looks at himself in the act of creation, one who never tires of reflecting on the mysterious and sacred nature of that "most innocent of all occupations" (Hölderlin).
Some of the passages of this skillful and refined book are unforgettable: the opening of the day over a grove, the snow falling among a river of cars, the sleeping wife "sculpted by her throbs," and the poet finally feeling himself alive—confident of the woman's "quiet flow." (p. 88)
Carlos Cortínez, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978.