Friday, February 27, 2009

Reader's Diary #461- Octavio Paz: Selected Poems

Reading Selected Poems of Octavio Paz brought back painful memories of reading Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems a couple years ago. Both won the Nobel Prize for Literature and both seem way out of my league. Accessibility is a fickle beast isn't it? Too accessible and it's like Top 40 mush, too inaccessible and no one except the Nobel judges claim to understand it. Actually, I have liked some Nobel winners, but Heaney and Paz just make me feel stupid.

Paz did give me pause for thought. (This could be a witty pun, but I'm not sure how you pronounce his name.) Unfortunately, it felt more like a surreal philosophy text than a book a poetry. One of the major themes running through many of the poems seemed to revolve around the stagnancy/fluidity of time. What is it with the surrealist crowd and their melting clocks? I must say, I short-circuited many brain cells trying to decide what the opposite of time is. (I've come up three possibilities so far: life, never, and God.) Another common theme seems to be the reality of imagination. Notice how I keep saying what the themes seem to be. In actuality, I have no idea. I repeat: Paz made me feel stupid.

As for the poetic merit, I couldn't find much. The poems felt like random trains of disjointed thought, I couldn't get a feel for any rhythm, the few good images were overwhelmed by high-falootin' Zen mantras, and well, I guess I'm not yet enlightened enough for Paz.

I did enjoy the Escher-esque way Paz presented images collapsing in on themselves, even if he did overdo that idea. This poem, one of the few accessible poems in the collection, has a nice, creepy Halloween feel just in case you don't pick up on the ideas of loneliness, identity confusion, etc:

The Street

A long and silent street.
I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall
and rise, and I walk blind, my feet
stepping on silent stones and dry leaves.
Someone behind me also stepping on stones, leaves:

if I slow down, he slows:
if I run, he runs. I turn: nobody.

Everything dark and doorless.
Turning and turning among these corners
which lead forever to the street
where I pursue a man who stumbles
and rises and says when he sees me: nobody

This version of "The Street" was translated by Muriel Rukeyser. Other translations in this volume were written by Paul Blackburn, William Carlos Williams, and the editor, Eliot Weinberger. Normally when I don't enjoy a book of translated poems, I give it the benefit of a doubt that something was lost in translation. However, when a whole team of translators can't convince me, I think I just have issues with the original poet.


Wanda said...

Odd that I don't like horror, neither in movies nor in books but give me a poem like 'The Street' and I gobble it up every time. Perhaps it's the suggestion of creepy, of letting my mind wonder at will with the nightmare dream sequence images that I like. Not sure exactly but I'll take poems like these any day over the in-your-face, visual assault kind of stories.

Having recently finished a translation 'Tremor: Selected Poems ~ Adam Zagajewski', I have to admit to the same feelings of stupidity that you felt reading Paz. However, even though some of his poetry simply whizzed over my head, I enjoyed the overall voice and imagery of his work. I'll continue to risk the cost of feeling stupid for the reward of images I can glean and gush over.

As always, John, great review! One of these days, I'll have to do a Poetry Friday post of my own...

Anonymous said...

Well, I do like the repetition and the clever ending of the one you have here. I don't recall having read Paz before.

Finding a truly wonderful poem--one that reaches you on all levels--is so rare (at least, it is for me). But with poetry as with other things in life, there's something for everyone!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The Street does have a lovely feel to it, very visual and disturbing. For me, poetry is never very accessible, so I find I do best to just let it flow over me like a stream.

Anonymous said...

Ooh - liked that poem. Totally surreal. Haven't tried any other Paz, though, and your review makes me think it's just fine if I keep putting it off. Heck, just your question "what is the opposite of time?" made my brain hurt. Maybe death?