Sunday, December 7, 2014

Octavio Paz: some short poems


My steps along this street
             in another street
in which
              I hear my steps
passing along this street
in which

Only the mist is real

   -- Octavio Paz --

I have been in a thick fog or mist and there are strange sounds and strange visions immersed in there, along with me.


He walked among the crowds
on the Boulevard Sebasto',
thinking about things.
A red light stopped him.
He looked up:
the gray roofs, silver
among the brown birds,
a fish flew.
The light turned green.
As he crossed the street he wondered
what he'd been thinking.

         -- Octavio Paz --

I was not very alert when I first read this poem, but something bothered me about it--just couldn't put my finger on it.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't find it until the third reading.  Perhaps I did see it the second time but refused to "see it."   Perhaps the colors distracted me as I read along--first red, then gray, followed by silver and then brown, with the silver being the only color that didn't immediately precede the noun it modified.  Who knows?  Maybe I'm just an inattentive reader at times (only at times I hope.)


              not on the branch
in the air
               Not in the air
in the moment

                  -- Octavio Paz --

A hummingbird--it's here, and then somewhere else, and then gone.

This one is very much like a haiku, or so it struck me.  I remembered it when I came across the following poem:

Basho An                                                 Basho An

The whole world fits in-                          El mundo cabe                       
to seventeen syllables,                             en diecisiete silabas:
and you in this hut.                                  tu en esta choza.

Straw thatch and tree trunks:                   Troncos y paja:
they come in through the crannies:          por las rendijas entran
Buddhas and insects.                                Budas e insectos.

Made out of thin air,                                 Hecho de aire
between the pines and the rocks               entre pinos y rocas
the poem sprouts up.                                 brota el poema.

An interweaving                                        Entretejidas  
of vowels and the consonants:                   vocales, consonantes:
the house of the world.                              casa del mundo.

Centuries of bones,                                    Heusos de siglos,
mountains: sorrow turned to stone:           penas ya pen~as, montes:
here they are weightless.                           aqui no pesan.

What I am saying                                      Esto quie digo
barely fills up the three lines:                    son apenas tres lineas:
hut of syllables.                                          choza de silabas. 

                                     -- Octavio Paz --

The first and third lines consist of five syllables while the second line has seven--the seventeen syllables of a class haiku.  In the fifth stanza, the second "penas" should have a tilde over the "n."

Basho, of course, is the most famous haiku poet in Japan.  I once purchased a book titled The Haiku Masters and was surprised to find that Basho was not included among them.  The editor in the Introduction explained that the Masters are those superior haiku poets who are second to Basho, who is not a haiku master, but the Haiku Poet.


A butterfly flew between the cars,
Marie Jose said:  it must be Chuang Tzu,
on a tour of New York.
                                       But the butterfly
didn't know it was a butterfly
dreaming it was Chuang Tzu
                                                or Chuang Tzu
dreaming he was a butterfly.
The butterfly never wondered:
                                                  it flew.

                  --  Octavio Paz --

This, of course, refers to a famous saying by Chuang Tzu, some thousands of years ago, in which he supposedly comments on the nature of reality--that one can't tell the difference between reality and a dream.  He said that once he dreamt he was a butterfly and then awoke, and couldn't decide whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly.  I always believed he was satirizing those pompous sages whose wise utterances consisted of obscure formulations.  They always reminded me of the following:
Seek clarity--        and you gain wisdom.
Seek wisdom--      and you gain obscurity.
Seek obscurity--    and you gain followers.

Octavio, of course, has many long poems, but those are for another day.

Which, if any, are the most interesting to you, and why?

All poems come from The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, edited by Eliot Weinberger and published as a New Directions Paperback in 1991.  Most translations are by Eliot Weinberger.


  1. Fred,

    To me, I think that "not seeing" due to distractions, etc. in life is just what the poem Pedestrian is about. We see, but we don't really see. So it's appropriate that you didn't see it right away. Sometimes we have expectations of what we'll see and so we don't look close enough. Just a thought.

  2. So, when I see a silverfish scurrying along the linoleum in the dark corners of this old house, I will now -- for the most bizarre reasons -- think of Paz and you.

    BTW, in several of the poems, I am reminded of Emily Dickenson. But perhaps that is just my frame of mind these days. Almost everything has me pondering the Ms. Dickenson's poems.

    As for your posting, I have to give it more time. My reading abilities leave a lot to be desired these days. I will return with fresher eyes at a later time.

  3. Cheryl,

    Yes, we look, but we don't see. We listen, but we don't hear. Something unusual happened to the pedestrian, but all he could remember was that he lost track of what he was thinking. He wasn't there, really, but somewhere else.

    And, if we are distracted, we really don't read closely, we just scan.

  4. R. T.,

    Silverfish--well, that's better than being completely forgotten, I suppose.

    Emily Dickinson--yes, there's a spareness there, and a slightly off center thread going on. The spareness in these poems reminded me of haiku, which is why I selected them. Hope you do return with fresher eyes for a second look.