Born a century ago, on March 31, 1914, Octavio Paz landed on this planet square in what the Aztecs called “the navel of the world”—Mexico City, that is, as cosmopolitan as London or New York. His arrival coincided with the rise of literary modernism, a movement he would embrace and improve on, and over the decades preceding his death in 1998, Paz worked steadily to enrich world literature with his many books of poems and prose studies on a range of topics: anthropology, poetics, linguistics, art, religion, politics, history. His best-known book remains The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), an incisive critique of Mexican society that won him readers and enemies.
Paz published his first book of poems, Luna silvestre (Wild Moon), at 19. He joined the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War, and in Spain, he met a number of poets whose influences would transform his work, including Antonio Machado and Pablo Neruda. He returned to Mexico in 1938, working as a journalist and editor for socialist newspapers and founding a series of literary journals and writing his first books of prose, along with several collections of poems.
In a sense, though, Paz’s literary career really began in earnest with the publication, in 1957, of a long poem called Piedra de sol (Sunstone), a meditation inspired by the Aztec calendar from which it takes its name. It was the first of Paz’s books to be widely recognized beyond Mexico, with translations quickly issued in all the major European languages. It also initiated an artistic period whose characteristics define Paz’s mature work: His sensibility became aggressively modernist, in revolt against a world that, as Paz wrote, is at its core anti-modern.
Drawing inspiration in equal parts from Buddhism, European modernism and pre-Columbian Mexican beliefs, Paz moved from the world of duality into the timeless, his language slowly becoming a private code, an idiom lying within but not encased by Spanish. He was fascinated by words, by typography, by books, by the realities and paradoxes (“the day is short/the hour long”) that language enables.
As the years passed, Paz was increasingly given to making connections between language and the world of rocks and sand and water, of flowers and stars. His poems inhabited a world where humans scarcely matter: “I will speak to you in stone-language / (answer with a green syllable) / I will speak to you in snow-language / (answer with a fan of bees).”
Paz served briefly as ambassador to India, a post he resigned in protest against the Mexican government’s massacre of hundreds of student demonstrators at the 1968 Olympic Games. He founded literary magazines, published book after book, lectured, criticized. He made a study of apparitions, hallucinations, inconstant winds, and more and more, his work took on a disquieting otherworldliness. His last major sequence of poems was called, fittingly, Arbol adentro (A Tree Within), evoking the mysterious places Paz sought to inhabit throughout a lifetime’s work. A century after his birth, his words resound, preparing the way for the world without us: “Between being and nonbeing / the grasses waver.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.