Octavio Paz

The Mexican diplomat, playwright, and essayist, Octavio Paz (born 1914) was internationally regarded as one of the principal poets of the twentieth century. His work was formally recognized in 1990 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the first Mexican to be so honored.

"Poetry," wrote Octavio Paz in El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre), "is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation." According to Paz, poetry is a form of transcendence, removing the self from history and offering in its place a vision of pure or essential being and time. Poetry is sacred, providing salvation in a secular world.

Paz was born March 31, 1914, to a distinguished Mexican family. His father, a lawyer from a mixed Spanish and Indian background, participated in the Mexican Revolution and was politically prominent. The family lost much of its wealth, however. While Paz was growing up they could not maintain the grand house near Mexico City in which they lived. The elegant furnishings, Paz once said, had to be moved to different parts of the house as various rooms became uninhabitable. For a while he occupied a room with one of its walls gone and only screens to keep out the weather. The surrealist character of his early work may owe something to that curious world he knew as a boy.

Although reared as a Roman Catholic, he broke from the Church when he was still young. His poetry may perhaps be understood in part as an effort to find a substitute for it. He published his first book in 1933 when he was 19. Four years later he went to Spain and participated in the civil war there. In Paris and then back in Mexico he met various members of the surrealist movement. Returning to Europe once again, he met André Breton, and his association with surrealism deepened. Paz was soon recognized as a major surrealist poet. ¿Aguila o sol? (1950) collects some of his strongest work from that period.

Surrealism may have appealed to Paz partly because of its effort to locate a reality greater than that immediate to the senses. Oriental philosophy promised a similar release from the material world. Paz not only became a profound student of Eastern culture, but lived for a while in Japan. Between 1962 and 1968 he served as the Mexican ambassador to India. He resigned in 1968 as a protest against the massacre of student demonstrators by the Mexican government.

The Eastern vision of a non-dualistic, non-Cartesian universe is central to Paz's work. For the Hindu, as he told Rita Guibert in an interview, the real is outside time and history. So is it in his poetry, too. Eastern philosophy, like surrealism, probably did not so much influence Paz as provide correspondences or parallels to central ambitions in his poetry. It is Mexico which seems to be the great abiding fact in his work. In a sense, Paz's poetry begins with the recognition that isolation and solitude are inevitable for everyone, and that they are especially characteristic of Mexican life. The individual is divided not only from the world but also from his or her true self. "We are condemned to live alone," he wrote in El larerinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). "Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves."

Solitude can be transcended both in the creation of poems and in the re-creation which occurs whenever they are understood. The function of the poem then is essentially ritualistic. It exorcises the anxieties and fears that rise from the inevitable alienation of modern life and, through rhythmic configuration and image, initiates the reader into an awareness beyond time. In part the poem derives its power from eros as in the world of medieval troubadours for whom transfiguration was possible through love and sexuality.

In addition to his poetry, Paz was a major critic of his country's social and political life. In a succession of books beginning with El larerinto de la soledad, he saw the Mexican dilemma as arising in part from the fact that its culture has roots in both Spanish colonial and native Indian traditions. One tradition buttresses the other in maintaining a hierarchical and in some ways conservative society, vastly different from the world to the north. The United States seems either to have no origins or to have origins that are fundamentally European, but Mexican culture derives from Spain and the Counter-Reformation on the one hand and distinctly non-European cultures and values on the other. The United States and Mexico share the same continent, but their cultures and values are hugely different.

Paz was very interested in the world to his north. He lived at various times in the United States and taught at Harvard and the University of Texas. His only play is an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," and his poems include meditations on John Cage and Joseph Cornell, those masters of silence and stillness. Perhaps the American poet who most shares his epic and transcendent poetics is Walt Whitman.

Paz also published books on Marcel Duchamp and Claude Lévi-Strauss. He wrote on politics, religion, anthropology, archaeology, and poetics. He edited various anthologies and translated from Japanese, Portuguese, English, French, Swedish, and other languages. He also worked on joint projects with various artists and edited a series of literary magazines. He taught at various universities, including Cambridge.

Paz distinguished himself as a diplomat, critic, editor, translator, playwright, and essayist, but it was as a poet that he was internationally known. His poetic theories are widely respected, and his poetry is considered among the best any poet of his generation has yet published. This was confirmed by the Swedish Academy of Letters, which awarded Paz the 1990 Nobel Prize in literature, citing his work's "sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity." The Academy also quoted one of his love poems:

fountain in the night.
I am bound to her quiet flowing

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Paz has continued to write. In 1994 he produced The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, an exploration of the current state of love in Western cultures. Two other prose pieces from 1994 include Essays on Mexican Art and My Life with the Wave.


Further Reading on Octavio Paz

A great poet often attracts prominent poets as translators, and much of Paz's work is available in excellent English versions. Muriel Rukeyser was among his first translators, and her version of "Sun Stone" is itself a major poem. All of his poetry from 1957 to 1987 has been translated by Eliot Weinberger, and individual poems have been translated by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, and William Carlos Williams, among others. The two major collections in English are Early Poems: 1935-1955 (1973) and The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957-1987 (1987), edited by Eliot Weinberger. The essential prose works include The Labyrinth of Solitude, translated by Lysander Kemp (1961), and The Bow and the Lyre, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms (1973). Paz generated a formidable amount of commentary in English as well as Spanish. See especially The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz, edited by Ivar Ivask (1973) and Toward Octavio Paz: A Reading of His Major Poems, 1957-1976 by John M. Fein (1986).