“Amazed at the moment’s peak,
flesh became word—and the word fell.”

—Octavio Paz, A Draft of Shadows

Upon a confirmed gringo like me, contemporary Spanish language poetry makes much the same impression as contemporary Spanish or Latin American concert music. Broad prairies of cadenza enclose a garden patch of melodic theme, an orotund thunder of flourish results in a brief shower of substance. The treacherous mellifluousness of Spanish cloaks even the most shocking and brutal of utterance with a lyric sangfroid. For some intangible reason, it becomes hard to take Spanish language literature as seriously as other modern literatures. There is no solid reason that the works of Heinrich Boll and William Golding should be better known than those of Pio Baroja—but they are.

This supranational critical neglect has endured for a long time now, but there is a possibility that in our time three writers may have restored some measures of justice to the appreciation of Latin American literature. These writers are Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Octavio Paz.

This trio of names will irritate Paz. He does not count Brazilian writers or the Portuguese language as belonging to the Latin American tradition. He is fed up to the teeth—like most of his colleagues—with the name of Borges, but perhaps he does not recognize that for many of us much of the importance of Borges lies in the fact that he was denied the Nobel Prize because of his conservative political views. That injustice still rankles even in my own bleeding-heart liberal breast. And I think that Paz would not like to find himself designated as standard bearer tor Latin American literature if there were any hint of programmatic insularity or provincialism connected with that honor.

Octavio Paz is quite consciously a global poet, one whose reputation is unhobbled by national boundaries. We have had precious few poets with such magnitude of repute since the time of Pound, Eliot, and Auden. Stephen Spender is still with us, and in the United States we have Robert Penn Warren; Russia boasts ofYevtushenko, but his work is not much respected by other poets. And these are about all the world class bards we have on hand, aren’t they?

Perhaps not—but in whatever list we set down, Octavio Paz will be included, and he will stand out among the other names as one who deliberately fashioned himself into this kind of poet, a man who realized there was a choice to be made, a position to fill.

There was first of all the matter of apprenticeship. We cannot say that Paz is the disciple of any single poet in the way that we can describe Robert Hillyer and William Meredith as disciples of Robert Frost. Paz took the whole modernist hagiology as his example and has tried to make personal acquaintance with as many of these figures as possible. In dedications to poems and in incidental remarks in critical essays, we find the names of Pierre Reverdy, Luis Cernuda, Andre Breton, John Cage, Roger Caillois, Robert Motherwell, Vasko Popa, Albert Camus, and many, many others—even Robert Frost, who seems almost bumptiously out of place in this aggregate of intellectual fashion plates. Paz studied the works of these artists, found opportunity to meet them, questioned them, and took from them all that he profitably could.

In a North American poet this procedure might well appear sycophantic, but to Paz it was necessary. He found Mexico a culturally backward country, he regarded himself in his earliest years as something of an outsider, and he saw the modernist tradition as a set of doctrines for which he could serve as evangelist. He need not—indeed, he did not—espouse all the ideas he imported and explained, but he was attracted to a great many of them and has enjoyed cheerful flirtation with scores of concepts which contradict one another. Paz is a Don Juan of the intellect. His thought is articulate, passionate, and extremely eclectic, but it is not profound; he takes such sensual enjoyment of so many ideas that he cannot bear to form a lasting relationship with any of them.

Romanticism, socialism, Freudianism, surrealism, Buddhism, Hinduism, cubism, Jungian archetypes, regionalism, dada, expressionism, haiku, renga, ballad, folk song, pun, rhyme, free verse, Donne, Gongora, Whitman, Sade, Quevedo, even Samuel Johnson (whom he wildly misunderstands)—all these impulses, tendencies, isms, itches, notions, whims, motives, concepts, tics, and frotheries have received at least passing attention from Paz. He has proclaimed and explained and declaimed and disowned and denied and decried all of these and many more besides. If 16th-century euphuism showed its flowery countenance upon the earth once again, Paz would have a weekend fling with it.

Such ideological philandering marks Paz as lacking the highest philosophical seriousness, but at the same time it helps to make him a powerful and valuable artist. He is a better surrealist poet for not submitting to doctrinaire surrealist policy as pronounced by Andre Breton or Max Ernst or anyone else. When he is a nationalist poet, he is more deeply regional for placing his work directly in the tradition of the European avant-garde. When he is a concrete poet, making poems in which the most apparent interest is visual design, he gives these productions point by rooting them in the peculiarities of the Spanish language. While it is true that he has deliberately searched out the most fashionable of intellectual fads of our time, he has been able to turn all of them to personal expression and to nobler purpose than they ordinarily enjoy. Materiem superabat opus, yes; but in Paz what the artistry transcends is not the materials but the mannerisms that usually accompany a certain style.

In a poet so many-minded it is impossible to find lines that might be designated as “typical,” but perhaps this stanza from “One Day Among Many” can give a characteristic impression of Paz’s surrealism:

The cars are nostalgic for grass
Towers walk time has stopped
A pair of eyes won’t leave me alone
they are an agate beach in
the calcined south
they are the sea between rocks the
color of rage
they are the fury of June and
its shawl of bees.

There is nothing finally distinctive about these phrases, which could as easily have been written by Breton or Paul Eluard or Rene Char; this is the common idiom of surrealists, interchangeable among poets as well as among poems.

But Paz has seen through this style so thoroughly that he has produced, in “This and This and This,” a telling parody. The poem begins, as surrealist poems so often do, with a portentously self-gratulatory overstatement, “Surrealism has been the apple of fire on the tree of syntax.” A long litany of absurd and bombastic claims follows—”Surrealism has been the cardboard crown on the headless critic and the viper that slips between the legs of the critic’s wife”—and climaxes in a hysterical overview of modern history: “Surrealism has been the seven-league boots of those who escaped from the prisons of dialectical reason and Tom Thumb’s hatchet that severs the knots of the poisonous vines that cover the walls of the petrified revolutions of the Twentieth Century.” When surrealist poetry begins to sound like a Woody Allen character trying to write a surrealist poem, we know the jig is up.

Not that the possibilities of surrealist style are exhausted for Paz, not at all. His work is always going to be marked in some degree by fantastic hyperbole. But surrealism is to be counted as merely one more style, one more useful weapon in the poet’s varied arsenal; for Paz it is neither a religion nor a politics, as it was for those figures of the 1930’s who now look so quaint. I am thinking of the early Luis Bunuel, the early Marcel Duchamp, the early Louis Aragon; I am thinking of “Un Chien Andalou.”

But Paz can remember the revolutionaries of that period, political and artistic, in darker terms. He speaks of them in a poem of the 1970’s, “San Ildefonso nocturne”:

Good, we wanted good:
to set the world right.
We didn’t lack integrity:
we lacked humility.
What we wanted was not
innocently wanted.
Precepts and concepts,
the arrogance of theologians,
to beat with a cross,
to institute with
blood. . . .
became secretaries to the secretary
to the General Secretary of the
became philosophy,
its drivel has covered the planet.

The warmest attraction of these lines is the evident fact that they are written more in sorrow than in anger. The belated recognition of common human frailty in the youthful utopists is a fresh theme and genuinely pathetic. In order to write these lines, the poet has had first to experience, and then to overcome, his weary disillusionment. He may abhor the outcome of reckless idealism (in this line from “Although It Is Night” he refers to Stalin’s purges: “Utopia comes to earth in the Camps”), but he does not despise the idealists.

In fact, in his remarks about the weakling state of contemporary poetry in the world, he is both shrewd and sympathetic. In “The Verbal Contract,” a public address published in Convergences, he says, “I imagine that the timidity of today’s poets is due, among other things, to sheer fatigue: for more than half a century we have devoted all our energies to frenetic formal experimentation in the arts. It is a commonplace that these successive movements have degenerated into sterile manipulation: the avant-garde today repeats itself endlessly and has become a form of academicism.”

One of the peculiarities of Paz’s proposed regimen—as it is of his career—is that an artist is to begin as a member of the avant-garde and then to graduate from that brilliant but shallow cosmopolitanism into work that is more individual, more personal, more local. I am reminded of the story about Duke Ellington and the experimental jazz bass player Charles Mingus, when they were preparing to produce a recording together. “Hey, man,” Mingus said, “let’s do some avant-garde music.” “Aw no,” Ellington replied, “let’s do something modern.” All those literary and artistic isms that Paz has been involved with appear to have been procedures he made himself learn in order to be able to forget. He begins to look through the predictable future into the unpredictable past.

“We are returning to diversity,” he declares. “This is one of the few positive signs in this terrible end of a century. Uniformity is death, and the most perfect form of uniformity is universal death; hence the collective extermination practiced in the twentieth century. Life is always particular and local: it is my life, this life of mine here and now. The resurrection of national and regional cultures is a sign of life.”

Reflecting upon these words, we are not surprised to recall that one of Paz’s almost constant heroes is Charles Fourier. The specifics of Fourier’s Utopia he rejects as unworkable and in the end as undesirable. But the ambition to humanize technology, to make it responsive to individual needs and desires, remains supremely valuable in his eyes. It becomes clear that for Paz avant-garde artistic movements are like technologies which the artist must master and subdue and bend to his own purposes. His cheerily restless experimentation has amounted to a lifetime of apprenticeship needed to fashion a skill, or even a genius, which could define and express the soul and body of his native Mexico, the collective spirit of Latin America.

The work that embodies these great aims will never be written. Paz fits into that modern romantic tradition in which the poet’s great work remains unfinished. Romanticism is a mode of discourse which gives us hope by breaking its promises, and many of its greatest figures trace incomplete careers. Coleridge, Keats, Rimbaud, Holderlin, Lorca—the pantheon of maimed titans is a large one. Like his great precursors, Paz understands that the only way to get the highest expression out of art is to demand of it more than it has to give. To this end, he keeps on defining and redefining poetry in his work. There must be scores of separate, and differing, definitions of the poetic art in his essays and poems. This one, from “San Ildefonso nocturne,” may serve to help define Octavio Paz for us and to illustrate the noble shapes his thought and feeling take:

suspension bridge between
history and truth,
is not a path toward this or that:
                                        it is to see
the stillness in motion, change
in stillness.
History is the path:
it goes nowhere,
we all walk it,
truth is to walk it.
                                        We neither go nor come:
we are in the hands of time.
to know ourselves,
from the beginning, hung.
Brotherhood over the void.


[The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987, edited by Eliot Weinberger; New York: New Directions]

[Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature, by Octavio Paz; San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich]