Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Paz's Poetry Replaces Revolutionary Hope

By Thomas D'EvelynThomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. / October 18, 1990



FOR Octavio Paz, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature must seem like a vindication of his lifelong passion for poetry. The $700,000 award will mean a lot for this man of letters, who resigned his position in the Mexican Foreign Service to protest the Mexican government's use of deadly force against students in 1968. Born in 1914, Paz has been long acquaintaned with political violence. Both his grandfather and father were part of the Mexican revolution. During the Spanish Civil War, Paz went to Madrid in support of the republicans.

Skip to next paragraph

In Madrid, his own revolutionary poetics took root in the soil of European surrealism. Paz's belief in a reality beyond conventional appearances has born fruit for over half a century. In essay and poem, Paz has measured the world against the ideal poem.

His first prose proved to be his most popular work. ``The Labyrinth of Solitude'' (1950) explained Spanish Americans to themselves. Having seen the Mexican revolution turn sour, Paz wrote: ``History has the cruel reality of a nightmare, and the grandeur of man consists in making beautiful and lasting works out of the real substance of nightmare.''

Twenty years later he would attack the condescending idea of ``underdeveloped country'' because it uses economic development to measure the success of a nation rather than the broader human culture. By that time he had turned against the revolutionary promise of the Marxists. And he had seen the cause of revolution spread to the ``developed'' countries.

Poetry filled the vacuum left by the diminishment of revolutionary hope. In his mature poetry, Paz witnesses a time beyond time. As a self-described member of the ``repentant avant-garde,'' Paz has re-envisioned poetry so it can bear the weight of hope once born by revolutionary ideology and violence. His vision owes much to his last foreign-service post. From 1962 to 1968 he served as an ambassdor to India (where he met his wife). Paz says he learned there how to integrate the silence of the page into the poetry. Praised by the Nobel committee for his sensuous intellect, Paz is in fact far more conceptual than most popular poets. Some critics use the word mystic to describe his point of view.

In a word, Paz's poetry is strange; it would be a disservice to pretend otherwise. As he says of Dante, ``Among the many ways we may read the great books of the past, there is one which I prefer: to look in them not for what we are, but for the thing which denies what we are. I return to Dante, precisely because he is the least up-to-date of the great poets of our tradition.''

Now he celebrates a postmodern poetry of the present. In ``Children of the Mire, '' he says that the new poetry is ``Pure time: heartbeat of the presence in the moment of its appearance/disappearance.''

Thus Paz's chastened view of modern politics has yielded a counterbalancing view of poetry. But he saved something else from the old surrealism. Paz is a great love poet. Perhaps that is why he likes both Dante and e.e. cummings!

Paz's way with love and art is illustrated by a little lyric called ``With Eyes Closed'' (see box). The old Pygmalion tale of the sculptor falling in love with his statue comes alive for Paz as he deploys his most powerful word. Not I, as with so many modern poets, but you: you the reader, you the lover, you the other, you the work. The difference with Paz is that both ``I'' and ``you'' have our eyes closed and so know each other. For Paz, this intimacy, equally poetic and erotic, is a great consolation. With Eyes Closed

With eyes closed you light up within you are blind stone

Night after night I carve you with eyes closed you are frank stone

We have become enormous just knowing each other with eyes closed.

- Octavio Paz