THE VOICE OF MEXICO
April 20, 1998
Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist, passed away Sunday in Mexico City. Phil Ponce and guests remember the Nobel Prize-winning author.
PHIL PONCE: Octavio Paz, poet, essayist, and political thinker was considered by many to be one of the great writers of the 20th century. In 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first for a writer from Mexico. There he was particularly known for his 1950 essay on the Mexican psyche called "The Labyrinth of Solitude." But he was equally revered as a poet. Here he is in a 1989 Bill Moyers documentary called "The Power of the Word: The Simple Acts of Life." The poem he's reading from is called "Trawl Bridge Street." The other voice you'll hear is his long-time friend and translator, Elliot Weinberger.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 15, 1998:
Charles Wright discusses his 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
April 3, 1998:
Robert Pinsky celebrates National Poetry Month.
October 9, 1997:
The NewsHour explores the work of the 1997 Nobel Laureate for Literature, playwright Dario Fo.
April 2, 1997:
America's new poet laureate Robert Pinsky discusses the state of poetry.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Arts and Entertainment.
Information on Octavio Paz from the Nobel Prize Archive.
Paz's 1990 Nobel Laureate lecture.
Yahoo's Octavio Paz links.
OCTAVIO PAZ: "Trawl Bridge Street." (Reading poem in Spanish)
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: (Reading Translation of Poem) "Sun throughout the day, cold throughout the sun. Nobody on the streets. Parked parks. Still no snow but wind, wind, a red tree still burns in the chilled air. Talking to it, I talk to you. I am in a room abandoned by language. You are in another identical room, or we both are on a street your glance has depopulated. The world imperceptibly comes apart. Memory decayed beneath our feet. I am stopped in the middle of this unwritten line."
PHIL PONCE: For more we're joined by NewsHour essayist Richard Rodriguez, editor at the "Pacific News Service," and author of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, and Elliot Weinberger, the man whose voice you just heard. He's translated the poetry of Octavio Paz for the last 40 years. Gentlemen, welcome.
Exploring the impact of Paz's writings.
Richard, how important a writer was he?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: Well, let me say for myself Octavio Paz was the voice of Mexico. He was the soul of Mexico. A few years ago when I wanted to write about Mexico, about the country of my heritage, and the birthplace of my parents. Octavio Paz was both the obstacle and the opportunity for me. He was the person I had to pass through. Mainly, for me as a thinker I found Octavio Paz, especially his early essay, "The Labyrinth of Solitude," his study of the Mexican character, to be breathtaking in its implications not only for Mexico but for the United States because so many of the ways he judged himself as a Mexican was in the dialectal of conversation he had with the United States of America and with Europe as well.
PHIL PONCE: And how did that essay speak to you personally?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, for me, the problem of being Mexican has always been the problem of being--of two separate lines. On the one hand, the Mexican is--the father of Mexico is the Spaniard, Cortez. The Mexican has never come to terms with the father, barely wants a statute to Cortez to be raised in all of Mexico. The mother of Mexico is the Indian. Their marriage may have been also of rape. Octavio Paz writes about how difficult it is to be of both traditions. In that sense he is hemispheric. He writes as an American who knows more than one heritage, one culture. It seems to me that it is particularly American--and I use that word hemispherically--an American dilemma, to be of more than one tradition. He ends up in his life searching throughout the world, not simply between the Indian and the Spaniard, but France and Mexico, the United States and Mexico. He spends much of his life wondering about the mythic spirituality of India. There is nobody on the world stage right now, it seems to me, no writer who is as global in his thinking as Octavio Paz. And I think he belongs generally to the predicament of the Mexican, at once abandoned, an orphaned child in search of parents, but, therefore, free to run the world.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Weinberger, first of all, our condolences on the death of your friend. You've been translating his work for 40 years or so. Is there recurring imagery in his poems?
ELLIOT WEINBERGER, Translator: Yes. Well, I think that the idea of opposites that Mr. Rodriguez was talking about in the Mexican character also spins out into the poetry, Mexico, of course, being a country built on the meeting of two opposites, the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadors. And this spins out into the poetry in terms of complimentary opposites, male and female above all, yes and no, light and dark. And it's this sense of a play between these two that seems to always--that creates the tension that creates the poem.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Weinberger, as somebody who closely collaborated with him, did he have a sense of his own standing?
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: It would be difficult to avoid. I mean, he was a--he was a superstar in Mexico. I mean, if you walked down the street, everyone knew who he was. Mexico's a country that reveres its cultural figures in a way that's probably unimaginable for us. If you went out to a restaurant with Octavio, the waiters would ask for his autograph. So it was something that he couldn't avoid. On the other hand, I think he had a tremendous humility about it. He always felt that he was primarily a poet and he was a poet of a few short lyrics that might perhaps survive.
"It is the father of Mexico who's died this weekend, nothing less."
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Rodriguez, what does it tell you, that the announcement of his death was made by the president of Mexico?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, the interesting thing about Octavio Paz is that he saw this--most of this century--a century in which not only the male principal and the female principal in his mind were at war--but also Mexico was at war with herself. He saw the revolution. He saw Mexico through this enormous period of turmoil. He, himself, resigned from his diplomatic post in India over the slaughter of Mexican citizens by its own army, the brutality of the Mexican army against its citizenry in 1968, just before the Olympics in Mexico City. He knew that Mexico was at war with its own self. And it seems to me that both--within that duality he also recognized the totality of that warfare made the--made Mexico one. And in the end, the government, which he was also critical, announces his death. And it seems to me that's only fitting. You know, many young Mexicans I know found Octavio Paz an overwhelming presence. They were always complaining about ever present he was; that he was always on the news. He was always spoken about. His books and his poetry were always there, and they grew tired of him in many ways and disrespectful of him. But that was--the disrespect they paid him was also the respect they gave him. He was their father. And it is the father of Mexico who's died this weekend, nothing less.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Weinberger, in this country, what can you tell us about his appeal? For example, you would go with him to poetry readings. What kind of a turnout would he get and what kind of a reception would he get in the United States?
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: Well, he was enormously popular. Every reading that we gave together was sold out, no matter how large the auditorium was. I remember a few years ago reading in Chicago at the art institute, and there were people outside holding up signs saying, "Paz Tickets, Will Pay Any Price," so it's a popularity that's almost unimaginable.
The message of his poetry and essays.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Weinberger, I know it's hard to reduce a lifetime of writing into simple sentences, but is there a way to summarize what the message was of his poetry?
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: Well, I don't know. I don't think you can summarize poetry into a message, but the thing about Paz's poetry is that he's talking about most of the things that make us human. He's talking about life and death and love and eroticism, politics, mythology, religion in ways that were extremely accessible on first reading or hearing of the poems and yet were enormously rewarding as one kept reading these poems.
PHIL PONCE: Richard, of the--of his writings, would you say that it was "The Labyrinth of Solitude" that has had the most impact in this country?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think so. And it's--I think it's the essay that Americans will remember most, but, you know, within the last few months Octavio Paz published "Recollections of India." Just more recently there was an essay on the Marquis De Sade. This is a man whose intellect roamed the world. You can't imagine that kind of intellect coming out of New York or Paris. In a way, it belongs to the Third World. It belongs to a man who did not feel connected to one intellectual tradition but felt himself pushed upon and given birth by many, many intellectual traditions. And Nigeria would produce such a man. Pakistan would produce such a man. He was the great voice of the Third World. And I think his book "Labyrinth of Solitude" will be read all over the world by people who understand that they belong to more than one intellectual tradition.
PHIL PONCE: And, Mr. Weinberger, how do you think he'll be remembered?
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: Well, the essays are wonderful, of course. I think that Octavio would think that he'd be remembered for the poetry. After all, the--we still read Dante even when we forget who the Gibbelines and the Gelfs are and all the political ramifications in Dante. And I think after many of these issues in Mexico are long forgotten in the centuries to come, he'll still be reading the poetry because the poetry is about what is irreducibly human in all of us remains human.
PHIL PONCE: And in the short time we have left, I understand that he would read a poem about brotherhood at the end of every poetry reading. Would you please read that for us.
ELLIOT WEINBERGER: Yes. This is how he ended all of his readings. And it's a poem called "Brotherhood." "I am a man. Little do I last. And the night is enormous. But I look up. The star is right. Unknowing, I understand. I too am written, and at this very moment, someone spells me out."
PHIL PONCE: Thank you both very much.