Book Review: The Poems Of Octavio Paz

The Poems Of Octavio Paz, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger

It is testament to the small world that the poet inhabited that the translator of this work actually has a poem dedicated to him.  I do not think that everyone will appreciate a book like this one, with almost six hundred pages of poems, some of them quite experimental in their design and their use of white space and in the way that they could be put together, but as someone who is fond of reading poetry it is clear that the poetry here makes it easy to understand why it was that Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize for literature.  As a poet, the author shares some clear ideological commitments that make him an obvious choice for awards ceremonies like this one, and even as someone who does not share the various commitments of the poet, there is still a lot to appreciate here.  If I have read some poets I enjoy more, I have read a great many I enjoy less.  If that seems tepid praise for a book I really enjoyed reading, it is because what I found to be most inspirational and enjoyable about this book is not something that I think will be conveyed to all readers.

In terms of its scope, this book is truly a large one.  Many “best of” books end up being very short, but this one gives full scope to the immensity of the author’s poetic output.  The poems included here were written over a span of about six decades or so.  We begin with a few poems which are appropriately called “First Poems” from 1931-1940 that introduce the author’s concern with identity, night, games, creation, and death, for example.  After that comes a few poems written from 1941 to 1948 that include the moving and dark “Epitaph For A Poet” which points at the dishonesty of much poetic enterprise, the author’s included.  Then there follows selections from Eagle Or Sun from 1949 to 1950 that look to the author’s own Mexican context as a source of inspiration.  Selections from four volumes of poetry from 1948 to 1957 demonstrate the author’s interest in stones and ruins as well as the sensuality of woman to this most sensual of poets, culminating in the lengthy poem “Sunstone” from the book of that title.  From this point onward the poems become increasingly experimental in nature, some of them short and equivocal, some of them possible of being rearranged in many fashions, and a great many of them (especially from “East Slope”) examining Eastern thought and religion and contemporary society’s interest in the East.

Over and over again in these poems the poet returns to a familiar set of narrow concerns. Of particular interest to me as a reader was the way that the author seems to have had an immense fear of imprisonment.  Why is this the case?  Did the poet feel that his creative spirit was imprisoned in a physical body of considerable limitations?  Did he feel that his political views threatened him with imprisonment in corrupt and dictatorial regimes (by no means an unreasonable fear for many poets and other creative people)?  Did he feel that his own cultural and personal background was a sort of prison?  It is hard to say for sure, but the author returned over and over again to the issue of imprisonment, including imprisonment in a castle, to allow the reader to see how the fear and reality of imprisonment and confinement shaped his poetic sense and his longing for some sort of freedom.  Whether or not one agrees with the author’s approach–and I do not agree with all of it myself, this work does demonstrate both the consistency as well as the variety of the poet’s art over the course of a long and productive life of creation.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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