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The Poet and Time

By Felix StefanileFelix Stefanile is a poet and a professor emeritus of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. / December 10, 1991



EARLY recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation in his native Mexico, Octavio Paz has carried on over the decades an Olympian career as poet, essayist, diplomat, and interpreter of cultures. Born in 1914, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990."The Other Voice" consists of seven essays on poetry, the modern age, history, and society's sense of time. These essays, written over a period of 15 years, are interrelated, with a strong narrative thrust toward a conclusion. Aptly, the last piece in the collection bears the book's title. The "other voice" is poetry. Wonderfully up-to-date, Paz announces his slant on the present time early in his introduction: "The contemporary period has been called 'postmodern.' An equivocal name. If our era is 'postmodern,' what shall our grandchildren call theirs - postpostmodern?" Time, as a touchstone for understanding civilizations, is a major motif for Paz. He discusses, with poets like Dante in view, the linear, finite time of the Christian era - a time expected to end, followed by judgment. He fixes the split between such a time-concept and modernity with the arrival of Milton, whose Satan plunges into the "endless void" of space-time, the "double infinite" of the cosmic and the psychic. With the fully born new science of the Age of Reason in the 18th century, poets and philo sophers replaced the myth of heaven with the myth of revolution. It is this era, according to Paz, which is now collapsing around us. Paz calls for a new sense of the present among us, a sense of "the presence of the present." His feeling for history is both cyclical and optimistic, and, despite the human tragedy that surrounds us, he believes that now, at the end of a troubled century, we are in a fallow time of beginning again. "The Other Voice" is quintessentially a defense of poetry, and the author's concept of the new present is linked to his idea of poetry as the consciousness of immediacy, as close as the air we breathe. For Paz , poetry is not like the other arts, things you can hang on a wall or walk through. It is centered in a liberating moment between past and future, life and death, reality and dream. As a sociologist of the spirit, Paz also sees poetry, our other voice, as the natural politics of "otherness," the breaker of barriers and borders, the uniter of the arts of East and West, North and South. For him, poets stalk the pages of history - Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman, Mallarme, and many others. In a challenging and satirical essay, "The Few and the Many," he makes game, with a great flair for paradox and comedy, of the game of numbers pundits play about the popularity of poetry, an age-old question. He tells us, in effect, that a good idea is not countable and generates its own census over the centuries. Rooted as he is not only in European tradition, but also in his own country's pre-Columbian past, and a deep scholar and student of other world cultures and religions, Paz brings us rich insights and experiences. His words on Whitman and Mallarme as paradigms of modernity are brilliant. What he has to say about the difference in the dating of literary periods between Spanish and Anglo-American scholars is intriguing. His feelings about the "intellectual delirium" of theorists in our time will bring smiles. As a survivor of many literary and political movements, his personal recollections are persuasive reading. His "A Balance Sheet and a Prediction," about the state of poetry at the end of the century, is a vivid appeal to the reader's imagination. On the next to last page of this brainy - and heady - book Paz quotes from Hugo and then stakes his claim: "Everything seeks everything, without purpose, without end, with out cease. The relationship between man and poetry is as old as our history: It began when human beings began to be human." The present volume is the latest of a dozen or so of his works to be translated into English. As usual, Paz compels and excites.

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