The Nobel Prizewinning poet and man of letters Octavio Paz was also a brilliant reader of other writers, and this book selects his best critical essays from over three decades. In the sixteen pieces collected here, Paz discusses a wide range of poets and writers, both American and international, from Robert Frost and Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams; from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Luis Buñuel to Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and from Charles Baudelaire to Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton, and Henri Michaux.
Paz writes, “I believe that a writer’s attitude to language should be that of a lover: fidelity and, at the same time, a lack of respect for the beloved object. Veneration and transgression.” When this original thinker meets these writers, each essay is an adventure of the mind.
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About the Author
Octavio Paz was born in 1914 in Mexico City. A poet, writer, thinker, and diplomat, he was the author of many volumes of poetry as well as literary and art criticism and works on politics, culture, and Mexican history. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, he was also awarded the Jerusalem Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Neutstadt International Prize for Literature, and the German Peace Prize. He died in 1998.
Read an Excerpt
Robert Frost: Visit to a Poet
After twenty minutes walking along the highway under a three o'clock sun, I came at last to the turning. I veered right and began to climb the slope. At intervals, the trees along the path provided a little coolness. Water ran down a small brook, through the undergrowth. The sand squeaked under my tread. Sun was everywhere. In the air there was a scent of green, hot growth, thirsty. Not a tree, not a leaf stirred. A few clouds rested heavily, anchored in a blue, waveless gulf. A bird sang. I hesitated: "How much nicer it would be to stretch out under this elm! The sound of water is worth more than all the poets' words." I walked on for another ten minutes. When I got to the farm, some fair-haired children were playing around a birch tree. I asked for the master; without interrupting their game, they replied, "He's up there, in the cabin." And they pointed to the very summit of the hill. I set off again. Now I was walking through deep undergrowth that came up to my knee. When I reached the top I could see the whole little valley; the blue mountains, the stream, the luminously green flatland, and, at the very bottom, the forest. The wind began to blow; everything swayed, almost cheerfully. All the leaves sang. I went toward the cabin. It was a little wooden shack, old, the paint flaked, grayed by the years. The windows were curtainless; I made a way through the underbrush and looked in. Inside, sitting in an easy chair, was an old man. Resting beside him was a woolly dog. When he saw me the man stood up and beckoned me to come around the other side. I did so and found him waiting for me at the door of his cabin. The dog jumped up to greet me. We crossed a little passage and went into a small room: unpolished floor, two chairs, a blue easy chair, another reddish one, a desk with a few books on it, a little table with papers and letters. On the walls three or four engravings, nothing remarkable. We sat down.
"Sure is hot. You want a beer?"
"Yes, I believe I do. I've walked half an hour and I'm worn out."
We drank the beer slowly. While I sipped mine, I took him in. With his white shirt open — is there anything cleaner than a clean white shirt? — his eyes blue, innocent, ironic, his philosopher's head and his farmer's hands, he looked like an ancient sage, the kind who prefers to observe the world from his retreat. But there was nothing ascetic in his looks, rather a manly sobriety. There he was, in his cabin, removed from the world, not to renounce it but to see it better. He wasn't a hermit nor was his hill a rock in the desert. The three crows hadn't brought him the bread he ate; he'd bought it himself in the village store.
"It's really a beautiful place. It almost seems real. This landscape is very different from ours in Mexico, it's made for men to look at. The distances are made for our legs, too."
"My daughter's told me the landscape of your country's very dramatic."
"Nature is hostile down there. What's more, we're few and weak. Man is consumed by the landscape and there's always the danger you might turn into a cactus."
"They tell me that men sit still for hours there just doing nothing."
"Afternoons you see them, completely still, by the roadsides or at the entrances to towns."
"Is that how they do their thinking?"
"It's a country that's going to turn to stone one day. The trees and the plants all tend to stone, just as the men do. And the animals, too: dogs, coyotes, snakes. There are little baked clay birds and it's very strange to see them fly and hear them sing, because you never get used to the idea they're real birds."
"When I was fifteen I wrote a poem. My first poem. And you know what it was about? La noche triste. I was reading Prescott then, and maybe reading him set me thinking about your country. Have you read Prescott?"
"That was one of my grandfather's favorite books, so I read him when I was a boy. I'd like to read him again."
"I like rereading books, too. I don't trust folk who don't reread. And those who read a lot of books. It seems crazy to me, this modern madness, and it'll only increase the number of pedants. You've got to read a few books well and frequently."
"A friend tells me they've invented a way of developing speedreading. I think they're planning to introduce it into schools."
"They're mad. What you've got to teach people is to read slowly. And not to fidget about so much. And do you know why they invent all these things? Because they're scared. People are scared to pause on things, because that compromises them. That's why they flee the country and move to the cities. They're scared of being by themselves."
"Yes, the world's full of fear."
"And those with power exploit that fear. Individual life has never been so despised or authority so revered."
"Sure, it's easier to live as one, to decide as one. Even dying's easier, if you die at someone else's expense. We're invaded by fear. There's the common man's fear, and he hands himself over to the strong man. But there's also the fear the powerful feel; they don't dare to stay alone. Because they're scared, they cling onto power."
"Here people abandon the country to go work in factories. And when they come back they don't like the country anymore. The country's hard. You've always got to be alert, and you're responsible for everything and not just for a part, like in a factory."
"What's more, the country's the experience of solitude. You can't go to the films, or take refuge in a bar."
"Exactly. It's the experience of being free. It's like poetry. Life's like poetry, when the poet writes a poem. It begins as an invitation to the unknown: the first line gets written and what's to follow is unknown. It's unsure whether in the next line poetry's waiting for us, or failure. And that sense of mortal danger accompanies the poet in all his adventures."
"In each verse a decision awaits us, and we can't choose to close our eyes and let instinct work on its own. Poetic instinct consists of an alert tension."
"In each line, in each phrase the possibility of failure is concealed. The possibility that the whole poem, not just that isolated verse, will fail. That's how life is: at every moment we can lose it. Every moment there's mortal risk. Each instant is a choice."
"You're right. Poetry is the experience of liberty. The poet risks himself, chances all on the poem's all with each verse he writes."
"And you can't change your mind. Each act, each verse is irrevocable, forever. In each verse one is committed forever. But now folks have become irresponsible. No one wants to decide for himself. Like those poets who copy their ancestors."
"Don't you believe in the tradition?"
"Yes, but each poet's born to express something that's his own. And his first duty is to deny his ancestors, the rhetoric of those who've come before. When I started writing I found that the words of the old writers were no use to me; it was necessary for me to create my own language. And that language — which surprised and troubled some people — was the language of my community, the language that surrounded my childhood and adolescence. I had to wait a long time before I found my words. You've got to use everyday language. ..."
"But subjected to a different pressure. As if each word had been created only to express that particular moment. Because there's a certain fatality in words; a French writer says that 'images can't be looked for, they're found.' I don't think he means that chance presides over creation but that a fated choice leads us to certain words."
"The poet creates his own language. Then he ought to fight against that rhetoric. He should never abandon himself to his style."
"There are no poetic styles. When you get to style, literature displaces poetry."
"That was the case with American poetry when I started writing. That's where all my difficulties and my successes began. And now maybe it's necessary to fight against the rhetoric we've made. The world goes round and what was in yesterday is out today. You've got to make a little fun of all this. No need to take anything too seriously, not even ideas. Or rather, precisely because we're so serious and passionate, we ought to laugh at ourselves a little. Don't trust those who don't know how to laugh."
And he laughed with the laughter of a man who has seen rain, and also of a man who has got wet. We got up and went out for a little walk. We went down the hill. The dog leapt ahead of us. As we came out, he said to me: "Most of all, don't trust those who don't know how to laugh at themselves. Solemn poets, humorless professors, prophets who only know how to howl and harangue. All those dangerous men."
"Do you read the contemporaries?"
"I always read poetry. I like reading the poems of young writers. And some philosophers. But I can't stand novels. I don't think I've ever read one through."
We walked on. When we got to the farmhouse, the children gathered round us. The poet was now telling me about his childhood, the years in San Francisco, and his return to New England.
"This is my country and I believe this is where the nation has its roots. Everything grew from here. Do you know that the state of Vermont refused to participate in the war against Mexico? Yes, everything grew from here. This is where the desire to immerse oneself in the unknown began, and the desire to stay alone with yourself. We ought to go back to that if we want to preserve what we are."
"It seems pretty hard to me. You're now a rich people."
"Years ago I thought of going to a little country, where the noise that everyone makes just isn't heard. I chose Costa Rica; when I was getting ready to go I learned that there too an American company called the tune. I didn't go. That's why I'm here, in New England."
We came to the turning. I looked at my watch: more than two hours had passed.
"I'd better be going. They're waiting for me down below, in Bread Loaf."
He stretched out his hand.
"You know the way?"
"Yes," I said, and we shook hands. When I'd gone a few steps I heard his voice:
"Come back soon! And when you get to New York, write to me. Don't forget."
I answered with a nod. I saw him climbing the path playing with his dog. "And he's seventy years old," I thought. As I walked back, I remembered another loner, another visit. "I think Robert Frost would like to have known Antonio Machado. But how would they have understood each other? The Spaniard didn't speak English, and the American doesn't know Spanish. No matter, they would have smiled. I'm sure they would have made friends straightaway." I remembered the house at Rocafort, in Valencia, the wild, neglected garden, the living room and the dust-covered furniture. And Machado, the cigarette in his mouth gone out. The Spaniard was also an old man retired from the world, and he too knew how to laugh and he too was absent-minded. Like the American, he liked to philosophize, not in the schools but at the periphery. Sages for the people; the American in his cabin, the Spaniard in his provincial cafe. Machado too expressed a horror of the solemn and had the same smiling gravity. "Yes, the Anglo-Saxon has the cleaner shirt and there are more trees in his view. But the other's smile was sadder and finer. There's a great deal of snow in this fellow's poems, but there's dust, antiquity, history in the other's. That dust of Castile, that dust of Mexico, which as soon as you touch it dissolves between your hands. ..."
Vermont, June 1945CHAPTER 2
Walt Whitman is the only great modern poet who does not seem to experience discord when he faces his world. Not even solitude; his monologue is a universal chorus. No doubt there are at least two people in him: the public poet and the private person who conceals his true erotic inclinations. But the mask — that of the poet of democracy — is rather more than a mask; it is his true face. Despite certain recent interpretations, in Whitman the poetic and the historical dream come together. There is no gap between his beliefs and social reality. And this fact is more important — I mean, more widely pertinent and significant — than any psychological consideration. The uniqueness of Whitman's poetry in the modern world cannot be explained except as a function of another, even greater, uniqueness which includes it: that of America.
In a book* which is a model of its genre, Edmundo O'Gorman has shown that our continent was never discovered. In effect, it is impossible to discover something which does not exist, and America, before its so-called discovery, did not exist. One ought rather to speak of the invention of America than of its discovery. If America is a creation of the European spirit, it begins to emerge from the sea-mists centuries before the expeditions of Columbus. And what the Europeans discover when they reach these lands is their own historic dream. Reyes has devoted some lucid pages to this subject: America is a sudden embodiment of a European utopia. The dream becomes a reality, a present; America is a present: a gift, a given of history. But it is an open present, a today that is tinged with tomorrow. The presence and the present of America are a future; our continent is, by its nature, the land which does not exist on its own, but as something which is created and invented. Its being, its reality or substance, consists of being always future, history which is justified not by the past but by what is to come. Our foundation is not what America was but what it will be. America never was; and it is, only if it is utopia, history on its way to a golden age.
This may not be entirely true if one considers the colonial period of Spanish and Portuguese America. But it is revealing how, just as soon as the Latin Americans acquire self-consciousness and oppose the Spaniards, they rediscover the utopian nature of America and make the French utopias their own. All of them see in wars of independence a return to first principles, a reversion to what America really is. The War of Independence is a correction of American history and, as such, a restoration of the original reality. The exceptional and genuinely paradoxical nature of this restoration becomes clear if one notes that it consists of a restoration of the future. Thanks to French revolutionary principles, Latin America becomes again what it was at its birth: not a past, but a future, a dream. The dream of Europe, the place of choice, spatial and temporal, of all that the European reality could not be except by denying itself and its past. America is the dream of Europe, now free of European history, free of the burden of tradition. Once the problem of independence is resolved, the abstract and utopian nature of liberal America begins to show again in episodes such as the French intervention in Mexico. Neither Juarez nor his soldiers ever believed — according to Cosío Villegas — that they fought against France, but against a French usurpation. The true France was ideal and universal and more than just a nation, it was an idea, a philosophy. Cuesta says, with some justice, that the war with the French should be seen as a "civil war." It needed the Mexican Revolution to wake the country from this philosophical dream — which, in another way, concealed an historical reality hardly touched upon by the Independence, the Reform, and the Dictatorship — and discover itself, no longer as an abstract future but as an origin in which the three times needed to be sought: our past, our present, our future. The historical emphasis changed tense, and in this consists the true spiritual significance of the Mexican Revolution.
The utopian character of America is even purer in the Saxon portion of the continent. There were no complex Indian cultures there, nor did Roman Catholicism erect its vast nontemporal structures: America was — if it was anything — geography, pure space, open to human action. Lacking historical substance — old class divisions, ancient institutions, inherited beliefs and laws — reality presented only natural obstacles. Men fought, not against history, but against nature. And where there was an historical obstacle — as in the Indian societies — it was erased from history and, reduced to a mere act of nature, action followed as if this were so. The North American attitude can be condemned in these terms: all that does not have a part in the utopian nature of America does not properly belong to history: it is a natural event and, thus, it doesn't exist; or it exists only as an inert obstacle, not as an alien conscience. Evil is outside, part of the natural world — like Indians, rivers, mountains, and other obstacles which must be domesticated or destroyed; or it is an intrusive reality (the English past, Spanish Catholicism, monarchy, etc.). The American War of Independence is the expulsion of the intrusive elements, alien to the American essence. If American reality is the reinvention of itself, whatever is found in any way irreducible or unassimilable is not American. In other places the future is a human attribute: because we are men, we have a future; in the Anglo-Saxon America of the last century, the process is inverted and the future determines man: we are men because we have a future. And whatever has no future is not man. Thus, reality leaves no gap at all for contradiction, ambiguity, or conflict to appear.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "On Poets and Others"
Copyright © 1986 Octavio Paz.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
ROBERT FROST: VISIT TO A POET,
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: THE SAXIFRAGE FLOWER,
THE GRAPHICS OF CHARLES TOMLINSON: BLACK AND WHITE,
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: A MEMENTO,
BAUDELAIRE AS ART CRITIC: PRESENCE AND PRESENT,
ANDRÉ BRETON, OR THE SEARCH FOR THE BEGINNING,
DOSTOEVSKI: THE DEVIL AND THE IDEOLOGUE,
CONSIDERING SOLZHENITSYN: DUST AFTER MUD,
GULAG: BETWEEN ISAIAH AND JOB,
JOSÉ ORTEGA Y GASSET: THE WHY AND THE WHEREFORE,
LUIS BUÑUEL: THREE PERSPECTIVES,
TWO NOTES ON JOSÉ REVUELTAS: CHRISTIANITY AND REVOLUTION,
LUIS CERNUDA: THE EDIFYING WORD,