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Paz, Octavio (1914–1998)

Paz, Octavio (1914–1998)

Octavio Paz (b. 31 March 1914; d. 19 April 1998), Mexican poet and essayist. Recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990 and one of the leading Mexican poets and intellectuals of the twentieth century, Octavio Paz was born and raised in Mixcoac, now part of Mexico City. His father, Octavio Paz Solórzano, was a political journalist who wrote a biography of Emiliano Zapata and helped found agrarian reform. Paz attended French and English language schools and read widely in the library of his grandfather, the novelist Ireneo Paz, before transferring to public schools, and ultimately the National Preparatory School, where he studied law. He founded the magazine Barandal (Balustrade) in 1931–1932, followed by Cuadernos del Valle de México (Notebooks from the Valley of Mexico) in 1933–1934. Paz abandoned his legal studies in 1937 to visit Yucatán, where he helped establish a progressive school for workers and discovered Mexico's pre-Columbian past. That same year he went to Republican Spain to attend the Second International Congress of Anti-fascist Writers, where he met most of the great poets writing in Spanish, as well as English and French writers, including André Breton, the founder of surrealism. As a result of this trip, he developed a philosophy of poetry that sought to create language anew, with the dual purpose of revealing human fragmentation and solitude and demonstrating how language prevents the modern world from understanding itself and its "real reality." In this way Paz tried to resolve the tension between pure poetry and art committed to social progress.

In 1938 Paz returned to Mexico and helped found the journal Taller (Workshop) to explore his new ideas. When that magazine folded, he helped found El Hijo Pródigo (The Prodigal Son) in 1943, a periodical representing the Mexican vanguard, poets who believed that writing had a special mission. In 1944 Paz was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and spent the next ten years of his life away from Mexico. He went first to San Francisco and then to New York City, where he studied the life and work of José Juan Tablada and published an important critical essay on that poet. Tablada's influence led him to his lifelong fascination with Asian literature and culture. In 1944 he taught at the Middlebury College Spanish Summer School in Vermont, where he met the poet Robert Frost and became reacquainted with Jorge Guillén. In 1945 he joined the Mexican diplomatic service and went to Paris, where he was strongly influenced by the surrealist movement. In 1952 he served as Mexican ambassador in India and Japan, furthering his interests in Eastern art and architecture and in the classics of Buddhism and Taoism, influences felt subsequently in his poetry. He returned to Mexico in 1953.

Paz's work reached maturity in the late 1940s. Appearing in 1949 was his Libertad bajo palabra (Freedom on Parole), championing the Latin American critical avant-garde. In 1950 he published a classic analysis of the Mexican people, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). These works inaugurated his most productive and complex period. He published poetry and essays, lectured on and presented new poets and painters, founded journals and a theatrical group, translated ancient and modern poetry, and participated in literary and political polemics. In 1956 he published El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre), an important work examining the function of poetry itself. Paz returned to Paris in 1959 and subsequently was renamed ambassador to India in 1962, a post he resigned in 1968 in protest over the 2 October massacre of students in Tlatelolco Square. He displayed his outrage in Posdata (1970; Postscript), a critical reevaluation of the Labyrinth of Solitude. He expanded on the ideas in this book in El ogro filantrópico (1979; The Philanthropic Ogre). During the 1970s, he founded two significant magazines, Plural (1971) and Vuelta (1977), which he continued to edit in the 1990s, demonstrating his strong commitment to cultural journalism and his anticipation of the "postmodern."

Paz is primarily important as a poet and essayist, but he has also written unpublished short stories and a play. His published works in Spanish include nearly thirty volumes of poetry, over thirty volumes of essays, numerous anthologies of poetry in Spanish, as well as anthologies of poetry in translation from the French, English, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese, and Japanese. His own poetry and essays have been translated into English, French, Italian, and numerous other languages. Paz is also important as an art critic and promoter.

Paz has taught at major universities in the United States and Europe. He is a member of the Colegio Nacional (Mexico) and the Consejo Superior de Cooperación Iberoamericana (Spain), and has won the International Prize for Poetry (Brussels, 1963), the Cervantes Prize (Spain, 1981), the International Prize for Literature (1982), and the Menéndez Pelayo Prize (Spain, 1987).

In the late twentieth century, Paz remained the leader of the generation that emerged toward the end of the 1930s, which was largely responsible for establishing the outlines of contemporary Mexican literary criticism and cultural thought. His work has been fundamental in bringing the Spanish language and Mexican literature and culture into the modern and postmodern age, as well as in opening them up to other cultures. Further, he has become one of the principal contemporary theorists of Mexican history and what he sees as the crisis of present-day Mexican culture. As he noted when he received the Nobel Prize, a writer has two loyalties, first to literature and second to his native culture.

See alsoLiterature: Spanish America .


Saúl Yurkievich, Fundadores de la nueva poesía latinoamericana (1971, 3d ed; 1978).

Rachel Phillips, The Poetic Modes of Octavio Paz (1972).

Gordon Brotherston, Latin American Poetry: Origins and Presence (1975).

Monique J. Lamaître, Octavio Paz: Poesía y Poética (1976).

Carlos H. Magis, La poesía hermética de Octavio Paz (1978).

Alfredo Roggiano, ed., Octavio Paz (1979).

Pere Gimferrer, Octavio Paz: El escritor ante la crítica (1982, reprinted 1989).

John M. Fein, Toward Octavio Paz: A Reading of His Major Poems, 1957–1976 (1986).

Jason Wilson, Octavio Paz (1986).

Maya Schärer-Nussberger, Octavio Paz: Trayectorias y visiones (1989).

Manuel Durán, "Octavio Paz: Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1990," in World Literature Today (Winter 1991): 5-7.

Additional Bibliography

Bloom, Harold, ed. Octavio Paz. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.

Grenier, Yvon. From Art to Politics: Octavio Paz and the Pursuit of Freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Poniatwoska, Elena. Octavio Paz: Las palabras del árbol. Barcelona: Plaza Janés, 1998.

                                    Keith McDuffie

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