Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)


Book Review – Death etc. by Harold Pinter

Some time ago I had a discussion regarding Harold Pinter with my writing partner. We got talking about his 2005 Nobel Lecture. I explained how the playwright devoted half the speech to his vitriolic hatred of the leaders of the United States and Great Britain; the then on-going war in Iraq germinating much of this animosity. At times I believed Mr. Pinter became unhinged in his excoriation of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. My writing partner suggested that since he did suffer from terminal cancer at the time, he may not have felt any reason to restrain himself. Death etc. left me with the impression his remarks to the Swedish Academy reflected an ordinary conversation with Mr. Pinter.

Death etc contained a diverse sampling of the playwright’s later works. It included several poems, a number of speeches and some of his shorter dramas. As a fan of his plays, I enjoyed the diverse sampling of his writing.

I’ve read Pinter’s Collected Works volumes one through four. The latter ended at 1981. I liked that this book included his later dramas Mountain Language, The New World Order, One for the Road, Press Conference, and Ashes to Ashes.

The plays provided a solid sampling of Pinter’s unique gift for language. In One for the Road he included the expression, “Your soul shines out of your eyes.” (Location 492)

In my review of Betrayal I commented on Pinter’s minimalist use of language. The following passage from One for the Road made the wording in that play seem like something out of a thesaurus.

Nicolas: When did you meet your husband?

Gila: When I was eighteen.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: Why?

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I just met him.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I didn’t plan it.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?


Nicolas: (Continued.) Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I met him. (Location 529)

I mentioned in my opening that Mr. Pinter vocally criticized both the US and the UK for their roles in the Iraq War. His dissatisfaction with their respective policies towards that country began long before then. He expatiated on his anger in Death etc. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” written five years prior to the conflict. He wrote:

Dear Prime Minister (Tony Blair):

We have been reminded often over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein’s appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinize the record of your ally, the United States, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The United States has supported, subsidized, and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive US administrations. (Location 719)

I felt his observations would’ve had more resonance if he placed them against the appropriate back-drop of the Cold War. Nonetheless, I accept the old libertarian adage that, “Freedom is your freedom to disagree with me.” I also respect the author for the strength of his convictions.

While Mr. Pinter’s political views may offend some readers, his poetry will, no doubt, turn off others. I thought his verse rather cross and graphic. Here’s a stanza from 1997’s “Death.”

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the dead body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body (Location 1339)

The playwright also quoted this poem during his Nobel Lecture.

Mr. Pinter held strong left-of-center political positions. He also didn’t show reticence or restraint when he expressed them. For that reason, Death etc would best be enjoyed by hard-core Harold Pinter fans. I’d advise those with a modest interest in his plays read the four volume Collected Works.

In The Press Conference, Pinter wrote, “He that is lost is found.” (Location 704) That expression summarized his view of political philosophy. While I disagree with his harsh condemnation of the free world’s policies, individuals like Mr. Pinter show us that our leaders and existing orthodoxy should always be challenged.

The Valentine’s Day Masterpiece

For the last thirty years I’ve been working on an epic poem about my love life. It’s appropriate that I should finally complete it so close to Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t planned on sharing it with the blogoshphere. After further reflection I thought readers may be curious and possibly offended that I kept my masterpiece from them. So here it is.

Tears drown the train wreck.

Ten thousand dollars well spent.

This sucks.

I’m sure astute poetry fans noticed the epic poem ended up being just a haiku; missing a few syllables. One person I presented it to compared me to Keats, though. Not so much for writing ability, but because he died young. She wished I could’ve died young; or at least before writing this poem.

I might be writing a sequel to this poem in the near future…