Real isn’t real

Michael Wood

  • BuyThe Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger
    New Directions, 606 pp, £30.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 8112 2043 9

In 1950 André Breton published a prose poem by Octavio Paz in a surrealist anthology. He thought one line in the work was rather weak and asked Paz to remove it. Paz agreed about the line but was a little puzzled by the possibility of such a judgment on Breton’s part. He said: ‘What about automatic writing?’ Breton, unperturbed, replied that the weak line was ‘a journalistic intromission’. Your true surrealist knows good automatisms from bad, high from low. We may think, as no doubt Paz did, that Breton was making an ordinary, and sound, critical call rather than a surrealist selection, but it’s interesting that he could make the call and still, however grandly or ironically, sustain the lingo. The lingo too has its virtues, and the question of who or what writes a poem, which agency creates which pieces, even if none of the players is exactly automatic, takes us a long way into Paz’s work, handsomely represented in this new collection, from whose notes I have taken the above story.

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[*] The translation here is by Muriel Rukeyser; the rest are Eliot Weinberger’s with the exception of ‘Native Stone’ which is also by Rukeyser.