- Octavio Paz and T. S. Eliot: Modern Poetry and the Translation of Influence by Tom Boll
“What drew me to The Waste Land,” the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz once wrote, “was horror at the modern world.” Paz is without a doubt the most important literary figure in twentieth-century Mexico, and one of Latin America’s crucial essayists, alongside Borges and Vallejo. Dozens of book-length studies have been published on Paz’s poetry, prose, and political writings, but most of these have been written by Mexican critics who place the author in a purely national context. Paz’s relationship to the Mexican Revolution, to the Revolutionary Institutionalized Party (PRI), and to his Mexican predecessors has been studied in depth by critics as diverse as Manuel Ulacia, Anthony Stanton, Guillermo Sheridan, and Ilán Stavans.
What has been missing from Paz scholarship so far are comparative studies that take a larger international approach to a poet who prided himself on his intellectual cosmopolitanism. Paz met André Breton in Paris and was influenced by surrealist poetics early on. He read Roger Caillois’s texts on mimetism and incorporated some of those ideas into The Labyrinth of Solitude. Paz also praised Georges Bataille’s theories of eroticism and modeled his own books on them. He often cited Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche as crucial philosophical influences, and Eliot, Breton, and Mallarmé, among others, as models of poetic invention. Scholarship in this field would greatly benefit from studies of Paz and Marxism (an excellent starting point is a chapter on Paz’s political thought in Enrique Krauze’s recent book Redeemers), Paz and surrealism, Paz and Anglo-American modernism and other similar inquiries.
Tom Boll’s Octavio Paz and T. S. Eliot is a welcome contribution in this direction. It presents a careful and impressively researched study of young Paz’s reflections on Eliot’s poetry, which the former repeatedly acknowledged as one of the most important influences on his early work and on his vision of modernity. Critics like Charles Tomlinson and Manuel Ulacia have mentioned this aesthetic debt, but Boll develops that line of inquiry into an equable comparison of both poetic projects. Boll’s essay is divided into two parts: the first, “Mexican Contexts,” discusses the earliest Spanish translations of Eliot’s poetry and reconstructs the work that a young Paz—who would not have spoken English yet—would have read in the Mexican literary journal Contemporáneos in the 1930s. The chapter devoted to “Eliot in Spanish,” for instance, shows how Enrique Munguía Jr.’s translation of The Waste Land resolved many of the original’s semantic and stylistic ambiguities by flattening out Eliot’s language into relatively straightforward prose. This first section also includes an erudite discussion of the poetic models favored by the previous generation of Mexican poets, and highlights the importance of Ramón López Velarde, Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, and others in shaping Paz’s poetic voice.
The second part bears a title taken from one of Paz’s declarations about Eliot’s poetry: “Me acompaña, me intriga, me irrita, me conmueve” (“It accompanies me, it intrigues me, it irritates me, it moves me”). The chapters grouped here situate Paz in relation to various intellectual and literary debates that shaped the 1930s and the post-war years: art for art’s sake, Marxism, and the relationship between poetry and history. Boll notes insightfully that there seems to be a contradiction between Paz’s enthusiasm for Eliot’s poetry and his attraction to Marxism: “Paz struggles to account for the two imperatives of the Marxist project: the one to acknowledge historical circumstance; and the other to act upon it for change” (68).
In the second part of the book, Boll discusses Paz’s relationship to his notable contemporaries: Luis Cernuda, Jorge Cuesta (a Contemporáneos group member who was a crucial early influence), and Pablo Neruda (who chastised Paz for not taking his...