Octavio paz: the other voice

Mashup by Juliane Duda of the book by Octavio Paz: The Other Voice

This book gathers together various essays written in the course of the last few years, all of them dealing with poetry and its situation in our time. I started writing poetry very early, and very early I also started thinking about the act of writing poetry. It is a most ambiguous activity: an occupation and a mystery, a pastime and a sacrament, a profession and a passion. My first essay dates from 1941. It was a meditation (perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a wandering because of its incoherence) on the two extremes of poetic and human experience: solitude and commonality. I saw it personified in the works of two poets I read with devotion in those years: Lagrimas de un penitente (also called Heraclito cristiano y Segunda harpa a imitacion de David, 1613) by Quevedo and Cantico espiritual by San Juan de la Cruz. Later I wrote a whole book, El arco y la lira (1956), which was followed by other essays and, still much later, another book, Los hijos del limo (1972). In this last one I deal with modern poetry from Romanticism to Symbolism and the avant-garde movements. The essays I am now publishing are a continuation of the last part of Los hijos del limo, which deals with the end of the avant-garde and the situation of poetry today. We are not witnessing the end of poetry, as some have said, but of a poetic tradition that began with the great Romantics, reached its peak with the Symbolists, and came to its fascinating end with the avant-garde movements of our century. Another art begins.

The first part of this small volume consists of three essays. In the first one I deal with the precedents of the extensive poem. It’s a poetic form that was very popular in 20th-century poetry. The second essay is about modern poetry and the end of the tradition of rupture. I am not saying that the best modern poems are the long poems; perhaps the opposite is true: often the intensity of a poem of three or four lines is able to break through the wall of time. But the long poems – those of Eliot, Saint-John Perse, and Jimenez, to cite three excellent examples – were expressions of our era and shaped it. The second essay is about modern poetry and the end of the tradition of rupture. The third is a brief reflection on the ambivalent and almost always unhappy relationship between poetry and the myth of revolution. The second part of the book examines the function of poetry in contemporary society. It ends with a question and an attempt at an answer: what will be the position of poetry in the future? My response is more than a description and less than a prediction; it is a profession of faith. These pages are just a variation, one more, of this Defense of poetry, which modern poets have been writing tirelessly for more than two centuries.

Octavio Paz, Mexico, 31.1.1990

This new volume of essays by the Mexican poet

gathers several essays written in the course of the last years, all of them dealing with poetry and its situation in our time.
Octavio Paz, who has lived through the inevitable ‘experience of modernity’ with his whole person – as a lyricist, as an art connoisseur and essayist, as a political man – asks about the causes of the life or death of a poetic form, examines the relationship between poetry and revolution, and states the end of the "tradition of rupture" in modern poetry. Finally, he poses the question of the function of poetry in contemporary society.
Needless to say that the Nobel Prize winner of 1990 speaks with the competence of the poet in these matters, the immense knowledge of a true homme de lettres and not least with a great urgency that passionately unites thinking and writing.

Suhrkamp Verlag, blurb, 1994

Free spaces of thought

– Thoughts on the work of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. –

An encounter with the work of Octavio Paz comes close to an encounter with the different, with the "other" (otredad/otro), equal. Not only because much of his writing confronts the reader with the "eccentricity" of Mexican thought and feeling, but especially because thinking and writing take place in Paz as dialogue and in dialogue. But if the I is always confronted with a You, it is not a matter of uniting I and You in a "third", but of recognizing in the I the You and in the You the I. That is: it is ultimately not about synthesis, but about transparency, or about the space that spans between I and you, between yes and no, about a "field of tension" that the poet tried to capture in an "ideogram of freedom" ("Ideograma de libertad") published in 1971:

aaaaa SINO
aaaaa ⎠ ⎝
aaaa NO SI

"Sino: No – SI" ("Fate: No – Yes"); whereby the Spanish Sino refers to the Latin Signum, a word from which also Signo ("sign", "constellation") originated. So what does the "ideogram" "tell" us?? First of all, that freedom and destiny belong together, that freedom shines in that field of tension between yes and no, of which the (word) "destiny" is made up of. If freedom begins here first with a questioning, of the existing – with a no – it should not be equated with a negation. The ‘no’ is only the first, necessary step of a distancing: a moving away, which is to create space and in which fate is ‘broken open’ as compulsion. The "center" of the poem here is an opening, an in-between space (not only the interval between No and SI, but also what separates Sino from No – SI) – a free space of pure expectation. And what emerges in this "play of syllables" is a constellation. Better said: the syllabic play itself is a constellation, a si(g)no, in which fate as freedom is recognized as fate put in question, fate set in motion.

"Transparency is all that remains" is written in the great poem "Blanco" (1967) inspired by Mallarme’s "Un coup de de" and Tibetan Tantrism. It is the "place" in which everything flows together, in which everything recognizes itself in everything. But this also means that transparency is the highest fulfillment of analogical thinking. What is analogy? It is, according to Paz, the "science" of references and correspondences: a ciencia, that lives from the differences. Because only because "this is not that, it is possible to build a bridge between this and that. The bridge is the word ‘like’ or the word ‘is’: this is like That, This is That".

If now everything is connected with everything, if star and cicada "speak" with each other, the world, spanned by a gigantic net, itself becomes a communication system, in which nothing is meaningless, in which nothing falls back into itself, nothing is thrown back upon itself. Not only does the twinkling of the stars refer to the chirping of the cicadas, but star and cicada exchange their location: in the night sky, the intermittent glow becomes "audible". Thus, transparency is what becomes visible when each is brought into relation with everything, when everything appears and shines through in everyone. It is the happiness (felicidad) of difference: fulfilled analogy.

"Analogy, universal transparency: seeing in this that": In Meditation on Language and Poetry. "El mono gramatico," the poem finds its symbol in crystal as a "condensation" of such transparency. This symbol, in turn, is perceived by the poet as all too immobile and rigid. The inner coherence of the "crystal poem", which thanks to manifold references, thanks to reflections and refractions is produced again and again, and in the "consummation" of which meaning is first created, could indeed "condense" to such an extent that it would become that dungeon of the One against which Octavio Baz rebelled throughout his life. It is not the crystal, not the fire frozen in ice that is to become the "model" of the analogy – and thus of the poetry – for the crystal points to a "petrification" and thus to that "death in form" from which no new life can arise.

The crystal is to be opposed by an "image" in which the "point" that holds everything together remains pure opening. An image that can embody both motion and stillness, both existence and non-existence, both series time and timelessness. For years it was the water, the water in the fountain, flowing and still at the same time, moving and unmoving, in which the poet recognized such an "image". In the eighties, however, the fountain is "overlaid" by a new image. The dancing column becomes more transparent and "bodiless"; the weightlessness, the floating up and down is joined by a ghostly back and forth, but also by a continuous coming into being and passing away. The water becomes wind, the fountain becomes a whirlwind, a swirl of dust. At the same time the poet also finds back to his own country. Dust swirls belong to the Mexican landscape and are at the same time an image of those abrupt, unpredictable outbursts of anger of a people persisting in resignation. Dust vortices: arising and passing, they are a moment that has taken shape; timeless like time itself, they are and yet they are not. As pure movement they stand motionless.

I open the window,
that opens nowhere.
the window,
that opens inwards.
The wind
light, ephemeral
Towers of dust swirl up.
They are
higher than this house.
They find place
on this paper.
They fall and rise.
Before saying anything,
when turning the page they are

More and more often, the swirl of dust, the fleeting column of air that suddenly rises from nowhere and dances, is equated with one’s own work. "No / in the maelstrom of that which disappears / the whirl of appearances / Yes", we already read in "Blanco", in verses that seem to anticipate the "ideogram of freedom". And what becomes visible here, in the tension between No and SI, what is whirled up here to dissolve again immediately, these are the words and images of the poem itself. A poem that is actually nothing other than a "shaped" free space that breaks open fate (Sino), a structure of the moment in which fate becomes freedom.

"With words and their shadows I created a wandering house of reflections, a tower that moves, a structure of wind." And in this transparent building Paz recognizes himself. Thus, in a poem published in 1988, we read: "For a transparent clear moment I was / the wind that stands still, / spinning on its own axis and dissolves again."

And it is no coincidence that "El mono gramatico" is dedicated to the Indian monkey king and god Hanuman. The figure of Hanuman first imposed itself on Paz through the concrete experience of a pilgrimage in India. But Hanuman himself is also wind. A founder of grammar (the ninth "grammarian" of India), a friend of Valmiki, the creator of the Ramayana epic, Hanuman is himself a poet. An incarnate "monogram of language" – mono/grama del lenguaje -, the Monkey King (mono means "monkey") to the "ideogram of the poet". As master and servant of all metamorphoses, as great imitator and repetition artist, he is above all also the great fertilizer: the "semantic seed" par excellence. "Because he is air, he is also sound and sense: a word transmitter, a poet. Son of the wind, poet and grammarian, Hanuman is the divine messenger, the holy spirit of India."

Poetry is ultimately pure space, word-formed transparency, a gaze that penetrates itself, a place where "words" become "eyes" –

sows eyes on paper,
Words in the eyes.
Eyes speak,
Words look,
Eyes think.
The eyes close,
The words open.

But the space of "transparency" opening up between yes and no points in its turn to that distance which makes reflection, critical thinking, possible. Thus, criticism is first of all pure "debate", and its task is to create the (free) space in which creative thinking becomes possible. "We know that criticism in itself creates neither literature nor art nor even politics. That is also not its task. We also know that only it can create that space – that physical, social, moral space – in which art, literature and politics can develop." To create such a space is the duty of every writer today.

By both opening and measuring the path between yes and no, criticism is also that which leads us from monologue to dialogue, that is, to that other in which I am to recognize myself. Again it is a question here of "freedom", of that "rift" which breaks open destiny. Again, a compact sino is split into sI and no, the two syllables of the word "destiny" are reversed. And in the interplay of No / SI and SI / No begins that movement which the poet calls the "rotation of signs".

However, by repeatedly acknowledging that free space between SI and No, that in-between (entre), also reveals its linguistic structure. Actually, language and criticism can be equated. Language in fact presupposes distance, it arises from distance, is anchored in it. The "thing" we name is not the "thing" itself, but its "lack". This "absence," in turn, is cancelled out in the word insofar as the word "evokes" the presence of what is named. Words are steps with which we measure the distance that separates us from things. And yet, precisely because they mark intervals, they are also what leads us to things, what connects us to them. The word is a scar that points both to the wound and to its healing. Even more: it is comparable to a bridge that brings two banks together and yet always points to their separation. And if in the game of correspondences and references, which is called analogy, it was about building the "bridge" of the word "like" or the word "is" between this and that, now in speaking the word itself is recognized as bridge. "Between now and now, between I am and you are, the word bridge."

"Words are bridges."And so writing (should writing) can become a bridge-building. For precisely because the word is not identical with what it designates, precisely because it is distance and interval, it can connect and bring together. "We need works that are bridges, people that are bridges."In a world that tends towards dogmatism, towards "monolithic thinking", in a world that recognizes only the enemy in the "other" and the "different", criticism should become an "architecture of bridges". Thus, the critic, the writer is supposed to be the do, what language actually is is.

Here, however, the "kinship" of criticism with another activity, translation, also becomes apparent. It is not by chance that the poet and critic Octavio Paz became a translator. From an initial distrust – Paz still speaks in 1956 of the "impossibility of translating poems" – an unreserved affirmation of the translation becomes. And if, according to Paz, poetry and criticism are ultimately inseparable, if the poem even already contains its own criticism as a reading, a kind of translation is recognized in both, in the poetry as well as in the criticism.

What is criticism? It is first and foremost reading. Through it, the written sign, "captured" on the paper, is set in motion again, so that that "rotation of signs" begins, which was modelled in the game Sino / No – SI. Something similar happens only in translation. A text "frozen" in its own linguistic references is read, broken up, brought into flow. Translated into a new language, it becomes different – and yet is always the same. What is writing, what is speaking, if not translating? "Learning to speak is learning to translate, when the child asks for the meaning of this or that word, he wants you to translate the unknown expression into his language." – "Language itself is translation: (…) speaking is a continuous translation within the same language."

The fascination that translation exerts on Paz, however, only becomes fully explicable when the accent is placed on the becoming different of the same, on transformation. "What we translate, we change, and – above all: we change ourselves in the process. For us, translation is transmutation: metaphor: an expression of change and rupture."Once more the one is broken open, the prescribed fate is read towards the freedom of otherness. Only here it is the text that is freed from the "dungeon" of itself, so that it, "being different", finds itself again.

From this movement, the common idea that translation could be betrayal of the original has become impossible. Since the change that the original text necessarily undergoes in translation is part of the poetic act par excellence, the betrayal could only be that the translation would be too "literal". In this case, there would be no real translation, but only a "masking": a falling back of the text into its own (dead) mask. It is not the translator who is a traitor, but the purist, the one who adheres to a false fidelity to the text.

Just as the interjection had pointed to "criticism," the transparency to "poetry," the bridge points to "translation". All three, d.h. Poetry, criticism, and translation, ultimately revolve around the same point: that living fulcrum the poet calls metaphor. All three are "metaphorical acts," pacing speech that – always saying the same thing – always says something else. All three signify each other. For while criticism as reading approaches translation, the play of the "universal relations" of "analogy" on which poetry lives is nothing other than a "system of translations".

The force from which we speak and which at the same time is able to break open destiny, the force that "inhabits" the free space between No and SI and designs the "ideogram of freedom", this force Paz calls "metaphors". In the beginning, then, was not the word, but the metaphor. But this also means that there is no real beginning: "There is no beginning, there is no word of origin, every word is the metaphor of another word that is the metaphor of another, and so forth. They are all translations." Thus the search for the beginning, for the origin, becomes illusory, for it can lead us only as far as that act which could paradoxically be called "original metaphor"; first translation. It can only reach that point which is actually pure "movement" and opening: a "step" towards the other – that "in-between" which reveals itself in destiny as an ever new departure towards freedom.

Maya Scharer, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, 22./23.4.1989

Third Circle – The New Stormy Season 1959-1990

3. Memory and Melancholy

There are two sides to the return to Mexico in the seventies. On the one side there is action, politics, on the other poetry and melancholy. The mood that prevails in his poems of that time is clearly marked by memory: he evokes the shadows, clarifies his past. While his political writings are a confrontation with the philanthropic man-eater, daytime business, his poetry is a return to himself, nocturnal reflection. His poetic creation of the seventies is driven by a nocturnal force, his poems are night pieces.
The volume Vuelta (Return) collects the poetry from 1969 to 1975, poems of a homecoming, not only from the geographical East, but from that East of poetry to which the poet had gone. Memory exposes a "primordial landscape," but it is not memory that is explored, but poetry, which in coming into being, being said, being read, creates and recreates overthrown worlds. The friends and the city of the thirties appear, with a gentle breath his "Jardines errantes" (Sweeping Gardens) appear. In 1974 he writes the long poem "From the Clade to Clarity", which is published the following year. In it, the poet invokes the past, letting it overwhelm him. A new grammar of the world takes shape, and the poet gradually recognizes his own points of reference among all the references to the past lives of others. The dilapidated mansion of his childhood rises, crumbling, haunted by its ghosts. "By talking about the house, my words become cracked," says Paz.

In my house there were more dead than alive. (…) While the house fell apart, I grew up. I was (I am) grass, weeds among debris without name.

And at the end of the poem, in keeping with his poetics, action, poem and poet come together, dissolve: merge with each other.

Footsteps, inside me, heard with the eyes, the murmur is in the head, I myself am my footsteps, I hear the voices that I think, the voices that think me by grounding them. Am the shadow that my words cast.

A new edition of all his poetry from 1935 to 1975 was published in 1976 under the title Poemas.
Inspired by his time in the Far East, he published in 1971 a collective poem, written after the Japanese model of renga, in which the Frenchman Jacques Roubaud, the Italian Edoardo Sanguineti and the Englishman Charles Tomlinson collaborated. With Tomlinson, he later undertook a similar, though two-part, effort entitled Hijos del aire (Children of the Air, 1979)-
After eleven years of not publishing a collection of poems, but only numerous volumes of essays, in 1987 he published In me the tree (arbol adentro); in them, the erotic side of his poetry emerges again with power, renewed confirmation that his poetics is an erotics, in the sense of a search for the other, the longed-for "otherness," an encounter with it on the tangible surface of the poem. In the volume In me the tree all things – the trees, for example, swaying their leaves – become language, a dialogue with the beloved. But the things are signs that the lovers scatter like seeds. The book closes with one of the most beautiful long poems of his entire œuvre: "Charter of faith" ("Carta de creencia"), a piece about love and poetry.
Octavio Paz was also always a passionate, tireless translator. He has developed various theses on translation, but above all he has made known a number of foreign poets in Mexico. Fernando Pessoa was one of them. In addition, with the help of others, he has also translated Chinese, Japanese and Swedish authors. In his book Versiones y diversiones (1974) he summarized a large part of his translational work.
He also remained extremely active as a literary essayist during these two decades; there appeared In/mediaciones (Un/mediated, 1979), Sombras de obras (The Works Shadow, 1983), Hombres en su siglo (Men and their century, 1984), Primeras letras 1931-1943 (Early writings, 1988) as well as some interviews in Pasion critica (Critical Passion, 1983). In 1974 he again published a fundamental book: The Other Time of Poetry (Los hijos del limo), based on lectures he had given at Harvard in 1972 on literature and the end of the avant-garde, respectively on "the modern tradition of poetry," reflections on "the double, antagonistic temptation that has alternately or simultaneously fascinated modern poets: the religious and the political temptation, magic and revolution. In the face of Christianity, modern poetry presents itself as a other Religion; the revolutions of the 19. and 20. The author’s voice is the voice of the primordial revolution of the twentieth century. A twofold heterodoxy, a twofold tension, equally present in the romantic William Blake as in the symbolist Yeats or the avant-gardist Pound; in Baudelaire as in Breton, in Pessoa as in Vallejo."
In 1982 he published Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz or The Pitfalls of Faith (Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe), a great biographical essay, a study in literary criticism and at the same time a history book about the Viceroyalty of New Spain. It is a fundamental book in Mexican literature, the study of a work still alive today, of a controversial past and contemplation of life circumstances that allow a clear comparison with the present day. Once again Octavio Paz reflects on the place of poetry in history.
In 1987, Octavio Paz’s writings on Mexico appear in a three-volume edition. The first volume, El peregrino en su patria (The Pilgrim in His Fatherland), brings together an extensive selection of essays on Mexican politics and history. The second, Generaciones y semblanzas (generations, lives), contains essays on Mexican literature and writers. The Third, Los privilegios de la vista (The Preferences of Seeing), is most unusual: it presents a rich collection of essays never before seen in context on the art of Mexico: prehispanic art, art of the 19. The book is a study of the work of the twentieth century, critique and reassessment of muralism, contemporary artists. The three volumes are published under the title Mexico en la obra de Octavio Paz (Mexico in the Work of Octavio Paz) and later serve as the basis for a twelve-part television series. Octavio Paz has worked with some regularity for the cultural program of Mexican television; notable are the Conversations with Octavio Paz (1984), a series about Ezra Pound (1986), the series in question Mexico in the work of Octavio Paz (1989) and the political series The 20. Century: The Experience of Freedom (1990).
Based on the title Los privilegios de la vista was published in 1990 in a museum in Mexico City, the Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporaneo, opened a large exhibition that brought together some of the works of art that have guided the poet like fixed stars on his life’s path. Almost fifty years of art criticism are revealed in an extensive and varied exhibition. A large catalog entitled Octavio Paz: los privilegios de la vista contains images of many of the exhibited works and presents texts by the poet about them as well as various essays on Octavio Paz and his relationship to the visual arts. This exhibition also features, for the first time, the Collages by Marie Jose Paz is shown.
A new essay on Mexican art, "Voluntad de forma" (Will to Form), opened the same year the catalog of the monumental exhibition Mexico: the splendor of three millennia at Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His latest book, La otra voz. PoesIa y fin de siglo (The Other Voice. Dichtung und Jahrhundertende (Poetry and the End of the Century, 1990), especially the long title essay, continues the discussion about the position of poetry in today’s world that already dominated the final chapter of The other time of poetry certain. Also includes La otra voz Essays on the nature and history of the long poem, and studies of modernism, myth, and revolution in their respective relations to poetry. "These pages," says the poet, "are nothing but a variation of those Defense of Poetry, which poets have been writing tirelessly for more than two centuries." The appearance of this Defense coincides with the news that Octavio Paz has won the Nobel Prize for Literature receives.
Among the numerous recognitions and prizes that have been awarded to Octavio Paz’s work are: 1943 Grant from the Guggenheim Foundation; 1956 Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, Mexico1963 the Brussels Grand Prix International for Poetry; 1972 Honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; 1973 Doctor h.c. Boston University; 1977 Jerusalem Prize, Premio Nacional de Letras, Mexico, and Premio de la Critica, Barcelona; 1979 Grand Aigle d’Or of the Festival du Livre, Nice; and Doctor h.c. of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; 1980 Premio Ollin Yolliztli as well as Doctor h.c. of Harvard University; 1981 Premio Miguel de Cervantes; 1982 of the New Town – International Prize of the University of Oklahoma; 1984 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; 1985 Prize of the city of Mazatlan, the Poet Prize of the City of Oslo as well as Doctor h.c. of the University of New York; 1986 Premio Alfonso Reyes, Mexico, and Cruz de Alfonso X El Sabio, Madrid; 1987 Premio Menendez Pelayo, Santander, the T.S. Eliot Prize of the Enciclopedia Britannicae and American Express Price, Miami; 1989 Prix Alexis de Tocqueville, France, and the Montale Prize, Italy. 1990 Nobel Prize.
The work that Octavio Paz, poet, essayist, political analyst, pugnacious spirit, editor, translator and active promoter of culture, has produced in the course of almost six decades has opened the doors of modernity to the literature of our language and, at the same time, to its disintegrations; it has built bridges with the literatures of other languages and other times, and it has taught us all the necessity of the interpenetration of criticism and creativity.

Alberto Ruy Sanchez, from Alberto Ray Sanchez: Octavio Paz. Life and work, Suhrkamp publishing house, 1991

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