The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957-1987, edited by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions. 669 pp. $37.50. Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature, by Octavio Paz. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 303 pp. $19.95.
Born in 1914, the Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz has passed through almost a century of revolutions - political, social, and artistic - with hardly the smell of smoke on him.
But he is no romantic innocent. In the essays assembled in ``Convergences,'' he confronts the nihilism - the rejection of ``the word'' - that haunts modern thought. He notes the failure of linguists to care about the meaning of the meaning, the form behind the verbal forms they study.
And he shows how the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that the forms of each language absolutely determine the experience of its speakers, then later went beyond such relativism.
Whorf did not escape relativism by speculating about an original language. Rather he contemplated a vision of a unity beyond language. Paz adds: ``It is not an exaggeration to compare this vision of language, bathed in a current of aesthetic delight, to the contemplation of the philosophers of antiquity.''
In a skeptical age, such remarks show a kind of innocence. Like Whorf, Paz has sifted the universal word from the words. As editor and translator, as well as poet, Paz has devoted his life to modern poetry. With one foot in Mexican syncretism - the native art produced by mixing Spanish and Indian influences - the other in Parisian Surrealism, he has had to look beyond his original modernism.
Often his sprawling, droning, self-absorbed verse recalls his own image of ``vertigo high above a mirror.'' His poems reflect the depth of his solitude. Paz writes about love but is not a love poet in the usual sense. He is likely to compare his lover to language and says, ``I am the shadow my words cast.''
In his beautifully printed, dual-language ``Collected Poems,'' it seems that Paz has himself moved away from mere words toward the word. Paz's original innocence is Adamic, with a difference. His gnostic feeling of having been thrown into a solitary existence is not the likeliest basis for communication. His poems have often seemed to stutter. Each formulation, however arresting, is crowded out by a new one. At their best, though, his poems involve the reader in classic contemplation.
Beginning with a new retranslation of his most famous poem, ``Sunstone'' (1957), the book provides much food for thought. The final chapter, ``A Tree Within,'' is Paz's first new collection in 11 years. It caps a lifework and reveals its overall direction - in the words he used in the essay on Whorf, from ``seeing'' to ``understanding.''
The book closes with the triumphant ``Letter of Testimony.'' Here Paz recapitulates his themes, erotic and verbal. The language, as always, is concentrated. This time, there is much to concentrate. The thought is muscular. As before, one line seems to evaporate into the next, but this time we follow, fascinated, charmed.
The words are charged with memory as well as theory. The straggly modernist lines are like tree skeletons. The words stick to them like snow. They pile up. The effect is dazzling. This time the silence - the meaning beyond the meanings - is palpable. The words seem to throw meaning into relief.
This monologue is a dialogue. The other, the lover, is us. Just as the poet ``creates'' his reader, the lover creates the beloved. The lover speaks, and we believe - or rather, in Paz's word, we ``understand.''
In the ``Coda,'' Paz bears witness to the otherness of the beloved. Paradise lost can be paradise gained. He says:
``Perhaps to love is to learn/ to walk through this world./ To learn to be silent/ like the oak and the linden of the fable./ To learn to see./ Your glance scatters seeds./ It planted a tree./ I talk/ because you shake its leaves.''
Thus the old poet who started his career with the Surrealists in Paris during the bad days of the Spanish Civil War becomes the inspired classicist, his innocence intact. He is hopeful.
Paz is no optimist. Once Mexican ambassador to India, he quit in 1968 in protest against the Mexican government's open firing on demonstrators just before the Olympic Games. In June of this year, he delivered the inaugural lecture of the International Congress of Intellectuals and Artists in Valencia, Spain. It is a great Pazian performance, redolent with innocence and faith. Still, he begins with a frightening sketch of the future. He rejects the ideas of revolutionaries; ``wherever they have taken power,'' he says, ``they have muzzled their people.''
Rejecting revolutionary power, Paz is no more sanguine about art. His hope lies not in art per se but in what he calls criticism. Criticism, not verbal formulas, maintains the bridge between the actual and the ideal. It also ensures that we continue to distance ourselves from our acts and see ourselves as ``others.''
Paz is a great poet-critic. His innocence is at once radical and classical. Today he speaks not only for Mexicans, but also for all mankind as he continues his dialogue with the word.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.