Real isn’t real

Michael Wood

  • The 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.

When over the paper the pen goes writing
in any solitary hour,
who drives the pen?
To whom is he writing, he who writes for me …
Someone in me is writing, moves my hand,
hears a word, hesitates,
halted between green mountains and blue sea …
He writes to anyone, he calls nobody,
to his own self he writes, in himself forgets,
and is redeemed, becoming again me[*]

There is no question of automatic writing here or even of Romantic inspiration, but those ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away. In this early work – written in the 1940s – Paz is thinking of something like Paul Valéry’s idea of what is ‘given’ in a poem and what is made, what seems to come from a place that is not the writer’s mind, and what is manifestly a matter of craft and labour. ‘The gods give us a certain first line for nothing,’ Valéry wrote, ‘but it is up to us to fashion the second.’ Paz, however, is prolonging what may or may not be the gift of the gods well past the second line.

‘Every poem is finished at the poet’s expense,’ a proposition from a slightly later poem, glances at this question among others. ‘I do not write to kill time,’ Paz says in another piece, ‘nor to revive it/I write that I may live and be revived.’ Literally, and unidiomatically even in Spanish, Paz says, ‘I write that it may live me,’ enacting the same displacement of self as the early poem does. With these claims and quotations in mind we may be surprised at the extraordinary consistency of Paz’s poetry. There are other apparently non-mitigating factors too. He likes to combine ‘chance and the creative will’, and wrote a poem about John Cage using the I Ching. He said he composed the opening lines of his great work Sunstone (1957) ‘in a state that was almost like sleepwalking’, and added that he was ‘shocked that those lines later struck [him] as beautiful’.

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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.