The bow and the lyre


I followed a lead, nudged by a hunch, and it brought me here. The book is In Their Own Words (edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, Salt, 2012) and the poet is Deryn Rees-Jones. She said: ‘It’s enough to stop you in your tracks.’

So here we are, at the first paragraph of The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz. With a few liberties.


1. Poetry and Poem


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.

Bread of the chosen; accursed food.

It isolates; it unites.

Invitation to the journey; return to the homeland.

Inspiration, respiration, muscular exercise.

Prayer to the void, dialogue with absence: tedium, anguish, and despair nourish it.

Prayer, litany, epiphany, presence.

Exorcism, conjuration, magic.

Sublimation, compensation, condensation of the unconscious.

Historic expression of races, nations, classes.

It denies history: at its core all objective conflicts are resolved and man at last acquires


of being something more

than a transient.

Experience, feeling, emotion, intuition, undirected thought.

Result of chance; fruit of calculation. Art of speaking

in a superior way;

primitive language. Obedience

to rules; creation of others. Imitation

of the ancients, copy of the real, copy of a copy of the

Idea. Madness, ecstasy, logos.

Return to childhood, coitus, nostalgia for paradise, for hell, for limbo.

Play, work, ascetic activity, Confession. Innate experience.

Vision, music, symbol.

Analogy: the poem is a shell that echoes the music of the world,

and meters and rhymes are merely correspondences, echoes,

of the universal harmony.

Teaching, morality, example, revelation, dance, dialogue, monologue.

Voice of the people,

language of the chosen,

word of the solitary.

Pure and impure, sacred and damned, popular and of the minority,

collective and personal, naked and clothed,

spoken, painted, written, it shows every face

but there are those who say it has no face: the poem is a mask that hides the void —

a beautiful proof of the superfluous grandeur of every human work!


Octavio Paz: The Bow and the Lyre, paragraph 1 (trs. Ruth L.C. Simms, University of Texas Press, 1987)


  1. But what about that old cynic W.H Auden’s :

    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth….

    taken from In Memory of W B Yeats, the whole poem itself, ironically,a tower of evidence to the contrary! Perhaps irony (which, by distancing poetic expression from the sordidness of reality, also, in some mysterious way, elevates it above the squalor of the mundane) is key in poetry. Poets have always known this, though I suspect that many contemporary poets labour under the misapprehension of having invented it! Your blog, Anthony, provides interesting food for thought, as always!


    1. I Kind of think Auden was right and deeply wrong at the same time.
      Of course poems change nothing.
      At the same time their power is limitless.
      It is possible to believe both.
      as ever with thanks



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