• Art of Inspiration

    • “My true biography are my poems”, Octavio Paz wrote. It is possible to follow his life through his work, with this clue in mind.

    The centennial of Octavio Paz: his biography as told by his poems / 

    This year Mexico is celebrating the man who undoubtedly is the country’s best known poet, Octavio Paz, whose anniversary has reached one-hundred years, an emblematic centennial for a man and work which, because of its celebrity status (but also due to its own achievements), is not worn out or forced, but, quite the opposite, it remains profoundly alive, current, a legacy that even today speaks to and deciphers us, helps us read our reality to understand it better.

    “My true biography are my poems”, Paz wrote to Jean-Clarence Lambert (one of his first French translators) in a letter written and dated in Tokyo on September 3, 1952 and, perhaps, if we pay heed to this assertion, we will be led down a path that pays less attention to encyclopedias and thematic dictionaries and more towards his poetry and other books he published during his life.

    Yes, it’s true, it remains practical to know he was born on March 31, 1914 in Mixcoac; that his father was sent to the United States by Emiliano Zapata, as his personal representative; that his grandfather, Ireneo, was an adamant reader and a seasoned journalist (to the extent that he solved a defamation made against him in a duel where Justo Sierra’s brother lost his life), or that, in addition to being an ambassador in Delhi and the cultural attaché in Paris and other cities in Europe and in Asia, Paz finally received the Nobel Literature Prize in 1990, a recognition that lived with him another 8 years, until he passed away.

    But does this synthesized biography not pale in comparison to his poetic oeuvre? Is it not more stimulating and enriching to follow the course of his life tracing the threads of his verses and his essays?


    (Mexican Song)

    My grandfather, taking his coffee,
    would talk to me about Juarez and Porfirio,
    the Zouaves and the Silver Band.
    And the tablecloth smelled of gunpowder.

    My father, taking his drink,
    would talk to me about Zapata and Villa,
    Soto y Gama and the brothers Flores Magón.
    And the tablecloth smelled of gunpowder.

    I kept quiet:
    who was there to talk about?

    (From East Slope, 1962-1968)

    This short poem condenses the dual perspective that converged during the early intellectual and practical formation of Paz, a couple of decisive men, his grandfather and his father, who partook in the great successes that transformed Mexico, a closeness to protagonists, achieved thanks to a solid ability to think and act, qualities that later would be reflected in young Octavio, despite the early loss of his father.

                     I am where I was:
    Within the indecisive walls
    of that same patio of words.
    Abd al-Rahman, Pompeii, Xicotencatl,
    battles on the Oxus or on top of the wall
    with Ernesto and Guillermo. Thousands of leaves,
    dark green sculpture of whispers,
    cage of the sun and hummingbird’s flash:
    the primordial fig tree, leafy chapel of polymorphous,
    diverse and perverse ritual.  

    (From A Draft of Shadows, 1974)

    The library and the garden, two of the most generous lands on this planet, for Paz were also the object of his first explorations, the first approach to “the forgotten amazement of being alive”, the ground where his calling as a poet began to grow and which eventually led him to the Congress of Antifascist Writers, celebrated in Valencia in 1937, one of the many actions in defense of Spanish Republicans, his first great poetic and political experience, where his praxis was tempered and wherefrom he would become a restless explorer of geographies, but, above all, of intellectual movements.

    Madrid, 1937,
    in the Plaza del Ángel the women were sewing,
    and singing along with their children,
    then the alarm rang and there were screams,
    houses kneeling in the dust,
    dented towers, spit up fronts,
    and the hurricane of the engines, set:

    (from Sunstone, 1950)

    The next important place, in the course of this trajectory, was Paris, where the poet was sent to as part of the Mexican Foreign Service; it was there that he finished writing The Labyrinth of Solitude and, no less important, he struck up knowledge with the most distinguished surrealists of the time, among these André Breton and Benjamin Péret, who he dedicated his poem Sleepless Night (1958) to:

    A ten at night in the Café d’Angleterre
    Only the three of us
                                       were left
    Outside the damp footsteps of fall could be heard
    the footsteps of a blind giant
    the footsteps of a forest reaching the city
    With a thousand arms and a thousand feet of mist
    a face of smoke a faceless man
    autumn walked toward the center of Paris
    with the steady steps of the blind

    From that point onwards it could be said, like when one flips a coin, that their luck was cast. The coin is suspended in the air, but in a way, destiny has already been defined: “heads or tails” (“águila or sol” in Mexico, incidentally the title of one of his best known books). Paris, Geneva, Tokyo, Korea and Delhi were some of the cities that led him to that destination, an incredible itinerary that can also be traced through several epistolary relations, one of the richest ones is that he sustained with the poet Tomás Segovia.

    Almost ten years after his Parisian adventure, Paz arrived in India, another great biographical moment, a source of surprising experiences that were inevitably reflected in his work. Some of the most valued texts within his oeuvre, and within Spanish literature in general, belong to this period: his poetry books Salamander and East Slope, the disquieting experiment entitled The Monkey Grammarian (which some consider is Paz’ best prose text, beyond his essays) and the ambitious Blanco, a poem inspired by the Hindu notion of time and space, as a continuous flow that at once dialogues with other Western traditions, such as the theory of the four elements.


    I will speak to you in stone-language
                             (answer with a green syllable)
    I will speak to you in snow language
                             (answer with a fan of bees)
    I will speak to you in water language
                            (answer with a canoe of lightning)
    I will speak to you in blood language
                            (answer with a tower of birds)

    (From “Duration”, Salamander, 1958-1961)

    As we know, his stay in India ended abruptly when he left his position as ambassador; a form of protest against the massacre of the students of Tlatelolco in 1968, an event which pulled him out of that “Oriental drunkenness”, and pushed him fully into the Mexican reality and its contradictions.

    After a brief stop in the United States, Paz returned to a country that seemed to boast a certain economic bonanza (symbolized through the Olympic games of that year), which socially continued to reproduce the atavistic practices that flowed in the opposite sense to this supposed modernity that he endeavored to partake in. In Postdata, and addendum to the Labyrinth of Solitude, he tried to explain said tension, concluded that the massacre was not only an extraordinary event in Mexican history, but also a continuation of it, an expression of its society and a political system build on the foundations of forms and ritualization.

    From then on, Paz’ life is less impetuous. The poet was over 50, and even though he was essential to the projects that defined the cultural history of Mexico (the foundation of the Vuelta magazine and the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes during Carlos Salinas’ government) until his death, in comparison, his work and even his poetry, could be considered a lot more retrospective. Except, perhaps, when in 1994 during the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas he recovered some of his vitality before an interlocutor, sub-commander Marcos, whose talented debate skills he recognized.

    As we can see, Paz led a rich life on its own accord, exuberant in more than one way, impossible to define in terms of the experiences that also passed through the crucible of poetry, where the path of transmutation persisted to remain until this day, allowing us to discern our reality through one of his prisms and thus participate in the diversity and many forms amazement can take.

    All the poems used in this article were taken from The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987, edited by Eliot Weinberger.

    Tagged: Octavio Paz, poets, inspiration, poetry