BOOK REVIEW: Octavio Paz / Selected Poems ed. by Charles Tomlinson

Selected PoemsSelected Poems by Octavio Paz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Octavio Paz was a Mexican author, poet, and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. (By separating “author” and “poet” I mean that he wrote in a variety of forms, and he is as famous for his essays as for his poetry.) His poetry reflects not only Mexican culture and sentiments but it also displays an infusion of the flavor of places he was posted or visited – e.g. there are many references to India and Hinduism as Paz was the Mexican Ambassador to India in the 1960’s. That variety is the spice of life is a sentiment Paz seems to have embraced. The poems included present examples of both short and long form, as well as prose poems and free verse. There is even concrete (visual) poetry in which the words are formed into an evocative shape. Also, as hinted at, there’s a mix of Eastern and Western worldview in these poems.

There are a number of different “Selected Poems of Octavio Paz” collections available. The details of the version I read are ISBN: 0140422463, first published in 1979 by Penguin Books and edited by Charles Tomlinson. The various collections tend to share many of Paz’s “greatest hits” and so the reason I mention the publishing details isn’t because you’re likely to get an entirely different selection of poems, but rather the features and translation skill may vary from one edition to the next. Most notably, the paperback edition I read is a bilingual edition (Spanish and English.) That didn’t do much for me as I’m not a Spanish speaker, though I do have an interest in the sound of poetry. While I can’t speak to the trueness of translation, I found the Tomlinson text to be evocative and effective.

The edition mentioned includes 56 poems drawn from five different poetry collections, ranging from the late 1940s to 1976. (Paz died in 1998.) Paz’s early collections favor prose poems and he moves more into free verse and short form poems later.

I enjoyed this collection. I was particularly enamored of Paz’s presentation of surrealist imagery and his questioning of reality. I would highly recommend poetry readers take in some of Paz’s work.

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Around the World in 5 Works of Poetry

5.) On Love and Barley by Matsuo Basho [Japanese]: One doesn’t get better haiku [and other traditional Japanese poetry forms] than Basho.

4.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur [Indian-Canadian]: This isn’t the expected fair for an “around the world” post as it’s not blatantly infused with setting / geography, but culture does factor in prominently.

3.) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman [American]: Not only does Whitman explore the many dimensions of America, he also references other cultures and locales. [There was a fascination with the East brewing in Whitman’s day.]

2.) Octavio Paz / Selected Poems by Octavio Paz [Mexican]: Paz was a diplomat as well as a Nobel Laureate, and his poems include many references to India (where he was posted) as well as Mexico.

1.) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran [Lebanese-American]: Featuring an intriguing melange of advice in poetic form.

NOTE: It’s not as global a list as I’d like. I’d love to hear what works others might include in the list. I don’t think poetry gets translated as much as fiction and so it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s much easier to find examples of novels & short story collections from far-flung corners of the world.