It's hard to accuse poets of "selling out." How many poems, after all, have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters? How many of them have become miniseries or made their authors rich with residuals from T-shirts and coffee mugs? Apart from T.
S. Eliot who lent his poems, posthumously I might add, to Cats, the stage extravaganza that is sometimes referred to as a play, few poets have hogged the limelight _ and even fewer have made any money from their work.
So it is especially gratifying to think of Octavio Paz receiving $703,000 in prize money from the Nobel Committee for a lifetime of writing poetry. Like most poets, even relatively famous ones, the Mexican poet was hardly striking it rich with his poems. In the United States at least, his books of poetry up until now had been lucky to sell more than 5,000 copies. It is gratifying to think that now, thanks to the few minutes of fame winning the Nobel Prize for literature affords, his work might reach a wider audience.
"It's very difficult to be a poet," Paz said at a press conference just after hearing that he had won the annual award, "but it's not so bad. .
. Poets _ with or without prizes _ survive."
Poets survive precisely because they are not linked to the vicissitudes of economic prosperity. One of the rare examples of a poet who enjoyed financial security was Wallace Stevens who in addition to penning verses worked as an insurance salesman. Other poets, like Allen Ginsberg, took on jobs as welders, copy boys and eventually as professors in universities. The latter position is probably the closest poets get to "selling out." "When he purchased a new dish rack and an electric clock for the kitchen," Barry Miles writes in his recent biography of the Beat poet (See our review below.) Ginsberg was accused of becoming a yuppie.
No one in his right mind would become a poet to become a success, financial or otherwise, says poet Andrei Codrescu, who is a professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (He wrote the polemic review of the soon-to-be published The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry which appears on the opposite page.) Remaining an outcast is the point of being a poet, the feisty Codrescu once explained at a poetry seminar in New Orleans when someone asked him for some tips on how to break into the poetry market. He consoled his clearly disappointed interlocutor, however, by pointing out that at least poetry was one of the least expensive activities he could engage in. "Writing poetry takes almost no capital investment," said Codrescu. "All you need is a blank wall and a razor blade."
Paz himself accepted a job as a diplomat to keep the bills paid. "Before entering the diplomatic service I went through some very difficult times," he said in an interview in Seven Voices: Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert (Alfred Knopf, 1972). "I had no fixed profession, and I jumped from one job to another, all of them temporary. At one time I was employed counting old bank notes." When Paz was down and out in San Francisco, a sympathetic hotel manager let him live in the basement where an elderly women's club met every afternoon. "The only trouble was that I had to wait for the old ladies to go before I could enter my cellar," he remembered. "But those San Francisco days were marvelous _ a sort of physical and intellectual intoxication, a great mouthful of fresh air. That was where I embarked on my path in poetry _ if there are paths in poetry."
In 1968 Paz quit the diplomatic service _ he was by then Mexico's ambassador to India _ to protest the government's massacre of students during a protest in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City. He later wrote a poem about the affair called The Municipal Employees Clean the Blood from the Plaza of the Sacrifices: "Shame is anger/Turned inward:/A whole nation has it/A lion about to spring has it./They're cleaning/(The government pays them to clean it)/The blood/From the walls of the Plaza of Sacrifices." The poet was once again an outsider.
"Poetry is not a very popular art form these days," Paz told the group of journalists gathered more than two decades later to note down his reaction to winning the prize, "but it's an essential part of human life. Poetry is the memory of a country, a language."
For Paz that language, of course, is Spanish, the country, Mexico or perhaps more broadly, Latin America. He is not, however, a poet only for Spanish speakers nor only for Latin America which has for too long, as Paz himself has lamented, remained "the suburbs of the West, in the outskirts of history." The feeling of solitude that Paz described so lyrically in The Labyrinth of Solitude, written 40 years ago as a poetic description of the Mexican soul, is not confined to the countries south of the border. "The terrible sensation of alienation, of being on the margin," Paz told Guibert, "is a universal situation common to all modern men."
Poetry doesn't give us answers. It only gives us a common bond. Or as the poet has already more eloquently said it:
suspension bridge between history and truth
is not a path toward this or that:
it is to see
the stillness in motion._ San Ildefonso nocturne (Selected Poems, Octavio Paz, A New Directions Book, 1984)
Margo Hammond is book editor for the St. Petersburg Times.