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Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

 

Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. With Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Paz is one of the several Latin American poets whose work has had wide international impact. Although many of Paz's poems are developed within the discipline of regular meter and rhyme, he has also experimented with the form. Among his most famous poems is Piedra de sol (1957, Sun Stone), referring to the planet Venus, a symbol of sun and water in Aztec folklore; Goddess of love in Western mythology. The poems were modelled on the famous Aztec calendar stone. It starts with the same lines with which it ends, and unites in the first part nature and love.

"I travel your length
like a river
I travel your body
like a forest."

(from 'Piedra de sol')

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City. His grandfather was a novelist and his father worked as a secretary to Emiliano Zapata. When Zapata was driven into retreat and assassinated, the family lived in exile in the United States for a short time. After the return to Mexico, Paz studied law and literature at the National University, but refused to take his degree. However, from his youth Paz's ambition was to be a poet. Encouraged by Pablo Neruda, Paz started to write. From 1933 he published over 40 books. Paz's first collection was Luna silvestre (1933).

In 1937 Paz married Elena Garro; they divorced in 1959. During the Spanish Civil War, Paz visited Spain, and fought on the Republican side. His experiences in Spain, where he met among others André Malraux, André Gide, and Ilja Ehrenburg, Paz recorded in the collection Bajo tu clara sombra (1937). The leftist overtones of his poetry were temporary, but he remained unyielding in his defence of freedom of expression and democracy. From the 1940s he started to use Surrealistic images; he had met André Breton already in Mexico in the 1930s and experimented with automatic writing. However, Paz's expression was never uncontrolled. "Poetry lets us touch the impalpable," he wrote in The Double Flame (1993), "and hear the tide of silence that covers a landscape devastated by insomnia."

Disgusted with Stalinism, Paz had rejected the Left by the time the Cold War began. Language became Paz's central concern. "I think that for intellectuals, politics has replaced ideology and to some extent religion," Paz once said. With this attitude he departed from such leading Latin American writers as Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, both sharp political critics. Neruda never abandoned his faith in Communism and García Marquez defended the Cuban Revolution. Paz often warned about Soviet and Cuban intervention in Latin America and his friendship with Gabriel García Marquez and Neruda partly fell apart because of different political views. In 1976 Paz wrote: "Between what I see and what I say / Between what I say and what I keep silent / Between what I keep silent and what I dream / Between what I dream and what I forget: / Poetry". Paz's has called writers the "guardians of language."

In the late 1930s and in the 1940s Paz worked as a journalist. He founded and edited several important literary reviews, including Taller (1938-41) and El hijo pródigo, which introduced such diverse writers as Eliot, Lautréamont, and John Donne into Spanish. In 1941 he co-edited Laurel, an influential anthology of Spanis-language poetry. At the beginning of the 1940s, Paz received a Guggenheim fellowship for travel and studies at the University of Berkley. After WW II he joined the Mexican Diplomatic Corps. He spent six years in Paris. "My superiors had forgotten me, and I secretly thanked them," he later wrote in Vislumbres de la India (1995). He was devastated to leave his friends and the city, but continued his career in Japan, the United States, and India, serving also as Mexico's representative to UNESCO. While in India, he met and married Marie-José Tramini, saying that it was the most important thing that had happened to him after being born.

By 1957, when The Sun Stone appeared, Paz had been publishing poetry for twenty-six years. In 1968 Paz resigned his diplomatic post in protest over the massacre of students at Plaza Tlateloco in Mexico City in October, before the Olympic Games. Paz moved back to Mexico in 1969 and started in his poetry to explore his childhood and youth. In Vuelta (1976) and Pasado en claro (1975) he used autobiographical material. In 'San Ildefonso Nocturne' Paz looked ironically into the past and asked what has happened to those who wanted to "set the world right."

The boy who walks through this poem,
between San Ildefonso and the Zócalo,
is the man who writes it:
----- this page too
is a ramble through the night.

(from 'San Ildefonso Nocturne')

From 1968 to 1970 Paz was a visiting professor of Spanish American Literature at the universities of Texas, Austin, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. He was the Simón Bolívar Professor of Latin American Studies (1970) and Fellow of Churchill College (1970-71), and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, Cambridge (1971-72). From 1971-76 Paz was editor of the Plural, and from 1976 he edited the Vuelta. In 1982 he won the prestigious Neustadt Prize. Paz's collected poems (1957-87), in Spanish and English, were published in 1988. Octavio Paz died at the age of 84 on April 19, 1998.

Paz had early adopted influences from Marxism, surrealism, existentialism, Buddhism, Hinduism, French and Anglo-American modernism. However, by the time of the Nobel prize, he had become a conservative; he also defended the contra wars in Nicaragua. Many of Paz's later poems are based on paintings by such artists as Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Antoni Tapies, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roberto Matta. In Salamandra (1962) Paz used innovations of French Cubism. His writing often dealt with opposites, passion and reason, society and the individual, word and meaning. "The poetic image is an embrace of opposite realities," Paz wrote in The Double Flame.

As an essayist Paz dealt with such issues as Aztec art, Tantric Buddhism, Mexican politics, neo-platonic philosophy, economic reform, avant-garde poetry, structuralist anthropology, utopian socialism, the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, sexuality and eroticism. El laberinto de la soledad  (1950, The Labyrinth of Solitude) is considered one of the most influential studies of life, Mexican character and thought. In Los Angeles Paz noted, that although Mexicans in the streets wear the same clothes and speak the same language as the other inhabitants, they feel ashamed of their origin. "What distinguishes them, I think, is their furtive, restless air: they act like persons who are wearing disguises, who are afraid of a stranger's look because it could strip them and leave them stark naked." According to the author, his countrymen are instinctive nihilists who hide behind masks of solitude. They do not know who they are and they are suspicious of others because they are suspicious of themselves. The book-length essay from a psycho-mythic perspective deeply influenced Mexican writers, particularly Carlos Fuentes.

Los hijos del limo (1974) explores the history of modern poetry from German Romanticism to the 1960s avant-garde. Paz's distaste for the materialism of the Western democracies is seen in Corriente alterna (1967). Also in Children of the Mire (1974) he argues that "the tendency to identify the modern age with civilization, and both with the West, has become so widespread that many people in Latin America talk about our cultural underdevelopment." Posdata (1970) was an interpretation of the failures of Mexico's political system and its relation to culture. Although Paz was known as a supporter of the neo-liberal economic policies, he criticized the weakness of liberal democracy in Tiempo nublado (1983), La otra voz (1990) and Itinerario (1993). Paz's numerous essays on Hispanic and French poetry include El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre 1956), Los hijos del limo (Children of the Mire 1974), and Marcel Duchamp (1968). In Essays on Mexican Art (1993) Paz dealt with pre-Columbian art, its "otherness" manifested in massive blocks of carved stone. He also contemplated on the secret of Rufino Tamayo's paintings, and examined critically Frieda Kahlo's self-portraits. "The true artist is the one who says no even when he says yes," Paz once wrote.

For further reading: The Poetic Modes of Octavio Paz by Rachel Phillips (1972); Aproximaciones a Octavio Paz, ed. by A. Flores (1974); La poesía hermética de Octavio Paz by C.H. Magis (1978); Octavio Paz, ed. by A. Roggiano (1979), Octavio Paz: A Study of His Poetics by J. Wilson (1979); Octavio Paz: Homage to the Poet, ed. by K. Chantikian (1981); Octavio Paz by Jason Wilson (1986); Octavio Paz by John M. Fein (1986); Una intraduccción a Octavio Paz by Alberto Ruy Sánchez (1990) Biografía política de Octavio Paz by Fernando Vizcaíno (1993); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Understanding Octavio Paz by Jose Quiroga (1999) - Note: Paz founded the highly esteemed magazine Vuelta in 1976. Its last number appeared in 1998, but the magazine is continuing under another title. Suom.: Suomennettu teos Suuri lasi (Apariencia desnuda, 1991), esseekokoelma Ruhtinas ja narri (1988), runosuomennoksia kokoelmissa Näin ihminen vastaa (1964), Kello 0 (1969), Tuhat laulujen vuotta (1973), Kotka vai aurinko (1991), runot viimeksi maittuun valinneet ja suomentaneet Jyrki Kiiskinen ja Jukka Koskelainen.

Selected works:

  • Luna silvestre, 1933
  • Bajo tu clara sombra, 1937 (rev. ed., 1941)
  • No pasaran!, 1937
  • Raíz del hombre, 1937
  • Voces de España, 1938 (editor)
  • Laurel: antología de la poesía moderna en lengua española, 1941 (editor, with others)
  • Entre la piedra y la flor, 1941 [Between the Stone and the Flower]
  • A la orilla del mundo y primer día, 1942
  • Libertad bajo palabra, 1949
  • El laberinto de la soledad, 1950 (rev. ed., 1959)
    - The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico (tr. Lysander Kemp, 1961)
  • ¿Águila o Sol?, 1951
    - Eagle or Sun? (tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1970)
    - Kotka vai aurinko (valinneet ja suomentaneet Jyrki Kiiskinen ja Jukka Koskelainen, 1996)
  • Anthologie de la poésie mexicaine, 1952 (editor)
  • Semillas para un himno, 1954
  • El arco y la lira, 1956 (rev. ed., 1967)
    - The Bow and the Lyre (tr. Ruth L.G. Simms, 1973)
  • La hija de Rappaccini, 1956 (play, from the story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, prod. 1956; in Primera antología de obras en un acto, ed. Maruxa Vilalta, 1959)
  • Antología poética, 1956 (editor)
  • Las peras del olmo, 1957
  • Sendas de Oku / Basho, 1957 (translator, with E. Hayashiya) 
  • Piedra de sol, 1957
    - Sun Stone. Piedra de sol (tr. Muriel Rukeyser, 1962) / The Sun Stone (tr. Peter Miller, 1963) / The Sun Stone (tr. Donald Gardner (1969) / Sunstone = Piedra de sol (tr. Eliot Weinberger)
    - Aurinkokivi (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 1990)
  • La estación violenta, 1958
  • Anthology of Mexican Poetry, 1958 (editor; tr. Samuel Beckett)
  • Agua y viento, 1959
  • Tamayo en la pintura mexicana, 1959 (editor)
  • Libertad bajo palabra. Obra poética 1935-58, 1960 (rev. 1968)
  • El laberinto de la soledad, 1960
  • Salamandra 1958-1961, 1962
  • Magia de la risa, 1962 (editor)
  • Antología / Fernando Pessoa, 1962 (editor)
  • Cuatro poetas contemporáneos de Suecia, Martinson, Lundkvist, Ekelöf y Lindegren, 1963 (editor, with Pedro Zekeli)
  • Selected Poems, 1963 (tr. Muriel Rukeyser)
  • Los signos en rotación, 1965
  • Viento entero, 1965
  • Vrindaban; Madurai, 1965
  • Cuadrivio, 1965 (on Darío, Lopez Verlarde, Pessoa, Cernuda)
  • Poesía en movimiento: (México 1915-1966), 1966 (editor, with others)
    - New Poetry of Mexico (ed. Mark Strand, 1970)
  • Puertas al campo, 1966
  • Claude Levi-Strauss; o, el nuevo festín de Esopo, 1967
    - Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Introduction (tr. Helen J.S. and Maxine Bernstein, 1970) / On Lévi-Strauss (tr. 1970)
  • Corriente alterna, 1967
    - Alternating Current (tr. Helen Lane, 1973)
  • Blanco, 1966
    - Blanco (translation by Eliot Weinberger, 1974)
  • Discos visuales, 1968
  • Marcel Duchamp; o, el castillo de la Pureza, 1968
    - Marcel Duchamp; or, the Castle of Purity (tr. Donald Gardner, 1970)
  • Ladera este (1962-1968), 1969
  • La centena, 1969
  • México: la última década, 1969
  • Conjunciones y disyunciones, 1970
    - Conjunctions and Disjunctions (tr. Helen Lane, 1974)
  •  Posdata, 1970
    - The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyradim (tr. Lysander Kemp, 1972)
  • Configurations, 1971 (tr. G. Aroul et al.)
  • Renga, 1971 (with others)
    - Renga (tr. Charles Tomlinson, 1972)
  • Topoemas, 1971
  • Las cosas en su sitio, 1971 (with Juan Marichal)
  • Los signos en rotación y otros ensayos, 1971 (ed. by Carlos Fuentes)
  • Traducción: literatura y literalidad, 1971
  • El signo y el garabato, 1973
  • Veinte poemas / William Carlos Williams1973 (translator) 
  • Apariencia desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp, 1973
    - Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare (tr. Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardener, 1978)
    - Suuri lasi (suom. Anita Mikkonen, 1991)
  • El signo y el garabato, 1973
  • Sólo a dos voces, 1973 (with Julián Ríos)
  • Versiones y diversiones, 1974 (translations)
  • La búsqueda del comienzo, 1974
  • Teatro de signos / transparencias, 1974 (ed. by Julián Ríos)
  • Los hijos del limo: Del romanticismo a la vanguardia, 1974
    - Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde (tr. Rachel Phillips, 1974)
  • El mono gramático, 1974
    - The Monkey Grammarian (tr. Helen Lane, 1981)
  • Early Poems, 1935-1955, 1974 (tr. Muriel Rukeyser et al.)
  • Pasado en claro, 1975
    - Draft of Shadows (edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger, 1979)
  • Vuelta, 1976
  • The Siren and the Seashell and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry, 1976 (tr. Lysander Kemp and Margaret Seyers Peden)
  • Poemas 1935-1975, 1978
  • Xavier Villaurrutia en persona y en obra, 1978
  • 15 poemas / Apollinaire, 1979 (translator)
  • Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, 1979
  • El ogro filantrópico: historia y política 1971-1978, 1979
  • Poemas recientes, 1981
  • In-mediaciones, 1979
  • A Draft of a Shadow and Other Poems, 1979
  • Selected Poems, 1979 (tr. Charles Tomlinson)
  • Airborn / Hijos del Aire, 1981 (with Charles Tomlinson)
  • Rufino Tamayo, 1982
  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe, 1982
    - Sor Juana; or, The Traps of Faith (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1988) / Sor Juana: Her Life and World (UK title; tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1988)
  • Tiempo nublado, 1983
    - One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History (tr. Helen Lane, 1985)
  • Sombras de obras, 1983
  • Günther Gerzso, 1983 (in Spanish, English and French, in collaboration with John Golding)
  • Selected Poems, 1984 (ed. by Eliot Weinberger, tr. G. Aroul et al.)
  • Hombres en su siglo y otros ensayos, 1984
    - On Poets and Others (tr. Michael Schmidt, 1986)
  • Cuatro chopos=The Four Poplars, 1985 (translated by Elliot Weinberger)
  • Instante y revelación, 1985
  • The Labyrinth of Solitude, The Other Mexico, Return to the Labyrith of Solitude, Mexico and the United States, and the Philantrophic Ogre, 1985 (tr.. Lysander Kemp)
  • Árbol adentro, 1987
    - A Tree Within (tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1988 )
  • México en la obra de Octavio Paz, 1987 (3 vols.: El peregrino en su patria; Generaciones y semblanzas; Los privilegios de la vista)
  • The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987, 1987 (edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger)
  • Primeras letras (1931-1943), 1988
  • La otra voz. Poesía y fin de siglo, 1990
    - The Other Voice (tr. Helen Lane, 1990)
  • Pequeña crónica de grandes días, 1990
  • La búsqueda del presente, 1990
    - In Search of the Present (tr. Anthony Stanton, 1990)
  • Convergencias, 1991
    - Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature, 1987 (tr. Helen Lane, 1987)
  • One World to the Other, 1992 (tr. Amelia Simpson)
  • Itinerario, 1993
    - Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey (tr. Jason Wilson, 1999)
  • Un más allá erótico: Sade, 1993
    - An Erotic Beyond: Sade (tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1998)
  • Essays on Mexican Art, 1993 (tr. Helen Lane)
  • La llama doble, amor y erotismo, 1993
    - The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism (tr. Helen Lane, 1996)
  • Vislumbres de la India, 1995
    - In Light of India (tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1997)
  • A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems From India 1952-1995, 1997 (ed. and tr. Eliot Weinberger)
  • Obra poética I (1935-1970), 1997
  • Figuras y figuraciones, 1999 (with (Marie José Paz)
    - Figures & Figurations (tr. Eliot Weinberger; afterword by Yves Bonnefoy; translated by Esther Allen, 2002)
  • Sueño en libertad: escritos políticos, 2001 (edited by Yvón Grenier)
  • Obra poética II, 1969-1998, 2003
  • Obra poética, 1935-1998, 2004 (2nd ed.)
  • Cartas a Tomás Segovia, 1957-1985, 2008
  • Jardines errantes: cartas a J.C. Lambert, 1952-1992, 2008
  • Un sol más vivo: antología poética, 2009 (edited by Antonio Deltoro)
  • Huellas del peregrino: vistas del México independiente y revolucionario, 2010 (edited by Adolfo Castañón, foreword by Jean Meyer)


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