In Mexico the tradition of poetry extends back into ancient times. Even in pre-Columbian days the country could boast of poets among some of the Indian rulers and an oral poetic tradition of great aesthetic value mingled with rites and mythologies. The Indian poet performed an official function and was the speaker of the community. When the Spaniards arrived, they found, mainly among Aztecs, a rich body of poems, both lyric and epic, chanting the eternal themes of mankind: divinity, death, time, beauty, and the heroic deeds of warriors and gods. During the so-called colonial period, under Spanish rule, Mexico continued to speak with poetic voice. The European literary movements of Baroquism and Neoclassicism found a well-prepared soil in which poetic expression could flourish. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a nun considered perhaps the best feminine poet in Spanish-speaking countries, left a copious testimony of poems of standing value. Later, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Modernism was represented in Mexico by poets of great renown, such as Gutierrez Najera, Diaz Miron, Othon, Gonzalez Martinez, Nervo, and Urbina, who together with other Spanish-American poets, especially the leader of the movement, Ruben Dario, gave to the Western world the first uncontaminated and original literary expression of Latin America. In this century, though poetry has been somewhat disregarded, Mexican writers have not completely neglected the poetic attitude. Lopez Velarde, Torres Bodet, Pellicer, Jose Gorostiza, Novo, and Villaurrutia represent, among others, some of the leading figures of modern poetry in Spanish. As the most recent and famous voice, Octavio Paz has been acclaimed Mexico’s greatest living poet. He began his poetic career under the auspices of the group called Taller (Workshop). Some of the traits of this group were opposition to the merely literary expression and the search for the original word, the mot juste. A poem is not to be regarded as an excercise of expression but an act of vital affirmation. Man must use poetry as a way of stating not only his inner thoughts and feelings, but his condition of social being. Under these premises we deal with Paz’s work. His poetry is not an easy one. Nourished in wide reading, always alert to the deep and wide in every cultural direction, at the same time Mexican and universal, traditional and modern, Paz in his poetry embraces many ideas, attitudes, problems, and forms of expression. He has delved into the study of many philosophic, religious, and aesthetic movements. Proof of this statement is found in his inquisitive books in prose in which he has analyzed the soul of his country, the creative process of poetry, and the problems of artistic expression in different cultures. Having lived as a diplomat in many countries, both in the Western and the Eastern world, in contact with different and sometimes opposite ways of life, he can say, like Terentius, that because he is a man nothing is alien to him. El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) is the title of one of Paz’s books in prose. It could be applied to the perspective of his poetry which in some ways resembles a labyrinth, not exactly because it is confusing, but because of its hermetism and intricacies. It is a poetry of solitude because the writer’s basic attitude is that of a man who feels alone in the world, always in need of the "other" to attain his own self-realization. As an inference of this attitude, man can be said to be a half-being who strives after his integration and completion. He intends to reach this state of fulfillment by three elements: the poetry, which reveals the unity of mankind; love, which makes the ego realize himself in the "you"; and the sacred, which shows the "other shore" of life. This itinerary begins in solitude, is continuously stimulated by desire, and tends to arrive at the communication. Paz’s literary technique of expression is that of surrealism, so that he may appear incongruous and unnatural on the surface. Though this is true on some occasions, Paz is not, however, a poet of mere free associations and emptiness of message. His poetry has both width and depth. He embraces all the basic problems of man and deals with them in a tragic and sympathetic way. He hates the easy expression because he thinks that poetry is a very serious, complex, almost magic task, not reserved to the multitude but to a very few people capable of delving into the analysis of the most intimate problems surrounding human life. LIBERTAD BAJO PALABRA (FREEDOM AND THE WORD)
, in its second published edition in 1960, is a collection of the best poems written by Paz between 1937 and 1960. In the prologue to this book he said that he wrote the word freedom, a word that created itself and him. These words mean that the poet creates his poetic universe in spite of himself and others, and that the poetry is a way of liberation, a need and the outmost revelation of the poet. Poetry becomes a consubstantiation with the poet and makes him feel his true origins. Images of opposition and conflict cloud the eyes of the poet. He does not find his place in this world, nor does he believe in earth or heaven; he is anchored in a sea of skepticism and desperation, and cries in solitude, as in "Nor Heaven nor Earth." Prisoner in a contradictory world, man has the obligation of being audacious, though he knows at the same time that he is slave of necessity and is the alpha and the omega of himself in a cyclical process of creation and destruction. Paz intends also through his poetry to touch the limits of the absolute, mainly through love, which is a hunger of life. In "The Broken Jar" and "Sun Stone," his best and longest poems, Paz takes ancient Mexican mythologies and symbols to eddy into the most universal and intimate themes of mankind. In the first of these poems, Paz begins by presenting the jewelry of the Mexican sky in a rich enumeration of metaphors. In contrast with such wealth, he looks at the vast wasteland surrounding him, flooded with blood, dust, and misery. He recalls the Aztec gods of abundance and rain, and sees that the only prevailing divinity in this land is the toad, symbol of drought and scarcity. The poet then makes transference and its mythologies to the spiritual world from the reference to the Mexican land of man. This is also a barren land, a broken jar, in thirsty quest of water, namely, in anxious quest of others. Words and love are the best vehicle for this communication. They give the human being the deep, true, original significance of his existence. PIEDRA DE SOL (SUN STONE)
is Paz’s most ambitious poem. There is in it an obvious reference to the Sun Stone of the Aztecs, better known as the Calendar Stone, a huge block representing the history of the world and embodying the statement of the infinity of the Aztec universe. In the center of this stone is the sun set within the sign Four Motions representing according to Aztec mythology, the dates of the four previous ages of the world. Among many other symbols there are two immense fire serpents, symbolic of the year and time, circling the exterior to meet each other at the base. In this poem, Paz wants to call up the sense of repetition of human life within eternity and the sense of ambiguity and duality of the universe. Written in 584 lines, the same number of days that it takes the planet Venus to complete its synodic period, the poem strives to be cyclical also. The first six lines of the poem are the last ones, signifying the re-entry into a new and identical cycle. After this beginning the poet deals with himself, placed in the world, among past and future, spending an ephemeral life made only of instants. Love is, among all human experiences, the deepest and most rewarding. However, consubstantial to love is death; therefore, all human experiences, including love, are nothing in contrast with eternity.