The following is the text of Mr. Paz’s address at the 1987 Ingersoll Prizes Awards Banquet.
It moves me to be the recipient of the T.S. Eliot Award, established by The IngersoU Foundation to honor poets and writers of different languages. The emotion I feel is only natural. Primarily because of the award itself and what it signifies in the realm of contemporary literature: it is an award foreign to those two passions that pervert our culture, ideology and nationalism. Secondly, because of the eminence of my three predecessors: Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Ionesco, and V.S. Naipaul. And finally, I am moved by the name T.S. Eliot. In all truth, though I mentioned it last, the fact that the award bears the name of the Anglo-American poet is of the utmost significance for me and is both intimate and symbolic. It is more than an award: it is a countersign, a password. I was an adolescent when I read Eliot for the first time, and that reading opened the doors for me to modern poetry; now upon receiving the award that bears his name, I see my life as a long “rites of passage” that leads me back, more than a half a century after my initiation, to one of the masters of my youth.
In 1930 I was 17 years old and eagerly read poetry. In those years a group of Mexican writers edited a literary journal, Contempordneos. The name of the magazine alluded to their intention to open doors and windows so that the fresh air of world culture could enter Mexico. In the August issue of 1930 a long and strange poem appeared, and I read it with awe, bewilderment, and fascination: The Waste Land. It was preceded by an intelligent prologue by its translator, a young Mexican poet, Enrique Mungui’a, who died a few years later. I never knew him, but today I remember his name with gratitude and sorrow. It’s not difficult to imagine the puzzlement that this first reading caused me: perplexity but also curiosity, seduction. I read the poem over and over again; I managed to get another translation that had been published in Madrid; I read Eliot’s other poems in Spanish versions (in those days there were many translations of his poetry, especially in Mexico). Later, with a fuller grasp of English, I ventured reading him in the original. As the years passed, my image of the poet changed according to both the successive turns in his thought and writing and my own. His image changed, but not my attachment to his poetry. The Waste Land is still for me, through so many years and turns, like an obelisk covered with signs, invulnerable to the fluctuation of taste and the vicissitudes of time.
How is it that a Mexican boy fond of poetry should experience such a sudden and lasting passion for a work in English bristiing with difficulties? It is hardly necessary to answer the question. The force that pulled me was the excellence of the poem, the rigor in its construction, the depth of its vision, the variety of its parts, and the remarkable unity of the whole. But not just its excellence: its novelty and strangeness as well. The form of the poem was unexpected: the ruptures, the sudden jumps and unforeseen connections, the fragmentary nature of each sequence and the apparent disorder in which they are related (though governed by a concealed coherence), the amalgam of distinct characters and figures, the juxtapositions of time and space—the 20th century and the Middle Ages, Alexandria and London, the fertility rites and the Punic Wars—the combination of colloquial phrases and quotations of religious and poetic texts from the Greek and Sanskrit. The poem didn’t resemble any of the poems I had read before. It occurred to me that its true likeness was not in literary works but in modern painting: in a Cubist canvas of Picasso or in a “collage” by Braque. I wasn’t wrong. A few years later I discovered that The Waste Land‘s method of composition—as Pound’s Cantos and other poems of the period—obeyed the same principles that had inspired the Cubist painters: the juxtaposition of fragments destined to present a pictorial reality never seen before that nevertheless exchanges knowing glances with real reality.
There is, however, an essential difference between the Cubist painters and the poetry of Pound and Eliot: although the technique is similar, a painting nevertheless presents a reality while a poem tells a story. Or said another way: a painting is static whereas a poem elapses. Regardless of this, the true origin of this simultaneous manner of representing reality was still Cubist painting. Its first expressions in poetry were the compositions of Apollinaire and Cendrars. Reverdy followed them, but more radical than his predecessors, he suppressed almost all elements of narrative. Pound and Eliot conserved narrative, that is, movement and temporality. Pound declared time and again that this “method of presentation,” as he called it, came from the ideograms of Chinese poetry. Whatever the reasons were for that strange declaration—oversight, vanity. Orientalist obsession?—it’s clear that the French poets were the initiators and that their example, Apollinaire and his famous poem Zone in particular, were decisive for Pound. I know this opinion isn’t shared much by English-speaking critics, but it is consoling to remember that the poet Kenneth Rexroth thought the same as I do.
I said before that the novelty of The Waste Land explains the fascination it held for me; let me clarify now that when its initial literary and stylistic newness wore off, a novelty of a different nature appeared. A timeless novelty, as it were, because it is a part of the human condition and at the same time is profoundly contemporary. The innovation of The Waste Land isn’t in its form as much as it is in the apparition of human history as substance of the poem. Poetry returns to epic. As in all epic, the poem tells a story transfigured by myth. Furthermore, it’s an epic that includes the present age, which is why it is also a film, a news report, a chronicle. In ancient epic the poet vanishes: Homer is not Achilles, nor is Vergil Aeneas; the central character of The Waste Land, masked and covert, is the very poet Eliot. (The same thing happens but in a more pronounced way in The Cantos.) As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the hero of The Waste Land is an allegory of the human soul, lost in the purgatory of earthly history. The hero of Zone isn’t unlike Baudelaire’s: a poet lost in the city; The Waste Land‘s hero embodies Western History and its Fall. A fall that is also a psychological depression, a nervous illness, and a mortal sin.
The fusion of the subjective I and the historic we, that is, the intersection between social and individual destinies, was and is the great novelty of The Waste Land and The Cantos. The adaptation of a poetic form initiated in France and in which—thanks to the juxtaposition of verbal blocks (presentation and narration are combined)—allowed the two poets to recover the central tradition of the great poetry of the West and, at the same time, give us an image of contemporary reality. Symbolism had expelled history from the poem; with The Waste Land the poem returns to historic and concrete time. Time: man as the incarnation of time and the conscience of history.
My fascination with The Waste Land didn’t blind me as to the incompatibility between my convictions and the ideas and hopes which nourish that poem. All visions of history, including those that positivism has elaborated, contain a metahistory. The one that animates The Waste Land was and is in open opposition to my ideas and beliefs, both then and now. Not only did I not feel nostalgia for the medieval Christian order nor did I see in the return to Rome a way to salvation (although I should observe in passing that Eliot stayed halfway back, in the Anglican Church); instead I had broken with my twofold Hispanic American past: the Catholic and liberal traditions. I believed in a universal revolution that would transform society and change man. Both geometries of the future and the wilderness of the beginnings of history seduced me. Nothing farther from Eliot, nothing more foreign and opposed to his thinking than Rousseau and Fourier, the cave of the savage and the voluptuous gardens of the phalanstery. But the fascination persisted. What drove me to The Waste Land? The horror of the modern world. Before the disasters of modernity, the conservative and the rebel share the same anxiety:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Many years have passed, and my ideas and feelings have changed as our world has. The great victim of the wars and revolutions of the 20th century has been the future. Now at the crossroads of history, no one knows what awaits us: destruction, the night of barbarism, or rebirth. There are signs in the sky of history, but they are blurry; few among us know how to read them, and no one listens to them. Eliot believed in fidelity to tradition and authority; others of us believed in subversion and change. Today we know that spiritual and political health lives in different words, less colored by absolute ideas: the words that founded the Modern Age such as liberty, tolerance, recognition of the other and of others. In short: democracy. I know that modern democracies have been indifferent—and often stupid and cruel—in regard to the art of poetry. Since Romanticism, poetry has been condemned to live in the outskirts of society and even underground. But I also know that such severe and rigorous condemnations as appear in some poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Yeats, Pound, and other great poets could only have been written under a democracy.
As the century ends, the marginality of poetry grows. Today it is either a ceremony in the catacombs, a ritual in the urban desert, a fiesta in the basement, or a revelation in the supermarket. It’s true that poets are still persecuted in totalitarian countries and in old-fashioned military tyrannies; in democratic nations they are allowed to live and are even protected—except that they are locked within four walls not of stone but of silence. In the affluent societies of the West, dedicated to business and entertainment—or to passing the time, as the indicative phrase says—there is no time for poetry. Nevertheless, the poetic tradition has not been broken, nor will it be. If it were interrupted, the words would wither on our lips and our discourses would once again be the howling of monkeys. The continuity of poetry is the continuity of the human word, the continuity of civilization. Which is why the other name for poetry, in times like ours, is perseverance. And perseverance is the promise of resurrection.