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Maria Esther Maciel 


      During the past three decades, Octavio Paz and Haroldo de Campos have maintained an intense critical-creative dialogue in letters, essays, and translations.  In "galactic conjunction," as Rodriguez Monegal would say, and sharing, each in his own way, a vivid interest in Mallarmé’s work and the movements of rupture in modernism, they have stimulated by way of poetry a nearly non-existent intellectual exchange up to then between Mexico and Brazil. 

     Paz, provoked by the  experimental radicalism of concrete poetry, incorporated in his own poetic work certain procedures defended by the group Noigandres and Invenção. Campos, in his turn, seduced by the vigorous innovation that the poetry of Octavio Paz brought to the context of Latin American poetry in Spanish from the first half of the 1930s, dedicated himself both to the task of translating into Portuguese several poems of the Mexican poet and a critical reflection on the aesthetic ideas throughout Paz’s vast oeuvre.  This exchange, impelled by affinities and differences between the two poets, culminated in the publication of Transblanco, by Haroldo de Campos, a work which concentrates on the "transcreation" of Paz’s poem Blanco, and which brings together diverse texts on the Mexican poet, as well as their correspondence. 

 In this interview, Haroldo de Campos deals acutely with various themes regarding the poetic world of Paz, elucidates theoretical questions pertinent to the contemporary debate on poetry at this turn of the century, revisits in the light of agoridade (nowness) the main poetic manifestations of Latin-American modernity, and discusses his own current aesthetic restlessness. 


Maria Esther – How do you place Octavio Paz in the context of modern Hispanic-American poetry?

Haroldo de Campos – Octavio Paz has done a great service to Latin American poetry in the Spanish language by representing an antidote to the rhetorical poetry in the manner of Neruda.  Especially since the last Neruda, the one of the Canto General [General Song], Spanish language poetry has turned into a vast, tedious discourse, into a facile device.  The great Neruda, the one of Residencia en la tierra [Living on Earth], is a poet of vigorous metaphors, who coincides with the Garcia Lorca of Poeta en Nueva York [Poet in New York].  Really, the great innovator of the neo-baroque metaphor, of a surreal type, associating or contrasting dissonant bands of sensibility in an extremely powerful synthesis, was Garcia Lorca in Poeta en Neuva York.  After that, a few years later, we have the first and best Neruda, which is, in my view, the Residencia en la Tierra. 
      Paz, although he was a great admirer of Neruda, and has a certain indulgence for relation to him which I don’t share, represents the anti-rhetorical tradition, and has sensitively altered the panorama of Spanish language poetry.  His poetry has freed the young poets of the predominating fascination for Neruda, besides taking up once again a constructive, critical line that used to exist in Latin American poetry:  the line of Huidobro, there in Chile, of César Vallejo, in Peru, and of a poet about whom Paz says little, but who without a doubt also belongs to this line of metalanguage, of the search for the core of language, who is the Argentinean Girondo.

M.E. – If Paz represents an anti-Neruda tradition, how do you explain his "indulgence" for the Chilean poet?

H.C. – Neruda was Paz’s poetic idol when he was younger. I don’t know exactly their age difference, but Neruda is to Paz what João Cabral was to my generation.  Except that João Cabral is a rigorous poet, he has a stripped-down level, and Neruda is just the opposite.  Neruda in Brazil would be the Jorge de Lima of Invenção de Orpheu [Invention of Orpheus], an extremely uneven, extremely prolix poet.  Even though Paz’s poetry is an antidote to Nerudian poetry, he has learned from Neruda.  One of the phases of his early poetry is metaphorical.   This debate, in fact, you can follow in our exchange of letters, which is in Transblanco, when Paz, replying to a question of mine, justifies the metaphorical phase of his poetry.  It’s when I say that there are two general lines he takes in his poetry which interest me:  the bare, synthetic Hai Kai line, and the line of metalinguistic poetry.  But there was something else in his poetry that responded to a more common tone of Latin American poetry, which was the genitive metaphor.  There, he was a little "burned up," "provoked" at the comments I made.  My relations with Paz were not established around amenities but around an aesthetic questioning.  As Ezra Pound said, "a civilized person is one who answers a serious question in a serious way." I posed a serious question to Paz and he, an extremely civilized man, answered me in a serious way.  He felt obliged to explain to me why this metaphorical trend existed in his poetry and what tradition it responded to.  what he says about this makes perfect sense:  he shows how he tried to treat metaphor with rigor.  Rigor, in fact, is mirrored in the poem-score Blanco [White], where metaphor attains its maximum concentration, eschewing the merely decorative to become essential metaphor.

M.E. – To what extent can Octavio Paz be considered an avant-garde poet?

H.C. – There is no doubt that Paz is a modern poet.  He’s extremely modern, but not properly speaking an avant-garde poet. He was never a radical poet nor does he have the relation with tradition that, for example, a type of avant-garde poetry has as I understand it.  Brazilian avant-garde poetry had a specific characteristic:  it not only proposed a paideuma, a set of basic authors for the production of new poetry, but also a revision of the past, from the synchronic point of view, based on this paideuma, which allowed this poetry to rediscover, for example, Sousândrade, who was practically ignored by our literary historians, and to see anew Oswald de Andrade, who was silenced by a discrediting campaign at a time when the university environment only talked about Mário de Andrade.  It was the work of concrete poetry that reversed this expectation.  Not that one can say that there was a campaign against Mário.  Whoever says this is being inconsistent.  Just look at my own case:  I have an entire book on Mário and none on Oswald.  So, concrete poetry took these radical attitudes in relation to a program for the future, or, what would be the new poetry and the revision of the past, including the more immediate past, which would be the past of the modernists.
      Paz is a poet who was also concerned about this a lot; look at his work on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  But you can say that he has a more shaded relation with the past. First, because his poetry was never a specifically avant-garde poetry.  There is the poem Blanco, but before and after this poem, we don’t find any others that display the same radicalism.  Paz isn’t an avant-garde poet insofar as he has never had a programmatic position in relation to his own poetry.

M.E. – But he had strong links with the French surrealist movement.

H.C. – Yes, he took part in the surrealist movement and was a surrealist to a certain extent, but he never was a surrealist by precept like the French who followed Breton.  He is a poet who uses surrealist things, but was not a sectarian surrealist in Mexico.  He was someone who respected Breton a lot, who has a regard for surrealism that we Brazilians do not have.  Surrealism was absolutely important for Paz and for the whole Spanish-American world, but for us it was not of much interest.  In our poetry, surrealism had a very relative interest.  Here in Brazil, perhaps the only surrealist poet (who also was not a surrealist by precept), has been Murilo Mendes.  João Cabral absorbed some aspects of the surrealist aesthetic in his first book, Pedra do Sono [Stone of Sleep], but without adhering to the movement’s precepts.  Paz, too, although he had been with Breton’s group in Paris, was not entirely a surrealist: he used surrealism as a technique of metaphor, as a way of incorporating the dream element and the erotic element.
      So I would say that Paz is a modern poet, a poet who within his modernity has attained a culminating and radical level in the poem Blanco, a poet who has always maintained in his poetry these outbursts of radicalism. He is a poet who is interested in the new, interested in a tradition of renewal. Paz is the greatest living poet in the Spanish language, a classic always interested in the new.

M.E. – Octavio Paz, in his studies of poetry at this turn of the century, speaks of the crisis of modernity and the exhaustion of the creative potential of the avant-gardes.  For him, the art that stands out, far from enrolling in the avant-garde cult of rupture and the future, inscribes itself in an aesthetic of "nowness." How do you see this question?

H.C. – I believe that the crisis of ideologies has created a crisis of utopia and the crisis of utopia has caused a crisis of the avant-garde.  Without utopia there is no avant-garde, for the avant-garde is a collective project and it needs a utopian horizon.  Therefore, in my most recent reflections on poetry in our time, I prefer to use the term "post-utopian" instead of "postmodern."  I think that we are still within the space of modernity, opened up by Mallarmé, or the in postmodern space, if we consider Baudelaire as the modern.  We have not exhausted this space.  What happened was that, at a certain point, this space was invaded by a post-utopian moment, which put the programming of the future in crisis.  So we are living in a time of a poetry of presentness, and in this I coincide very much with Octavio Paz.  Enough programming of the future;  let’s try to think critically the poetry of the present.  I, personally, have been doing this kind of poetry, since my book Educação dos cinco sentidos [Education of the Five Senses]. 
      The avant-garde, for me, had a crisis at a time when the collective hope that stimulated it was questioned by the crisis of ideology. Which does not mean that in the future there cannot be new conditions for the avant-garde.  Who can tell us, for example, that among these Russian poets who are living a very special period of a discredited Soviet Communism, of a rethinking of their own society, a group will emerge all of a sudden that thinks Soviet poetry on a utopian horizon? I can’t say, that depends on the historical conditions of Russia.

M.E. -  Paz himself, even when he declared the end of utopias, insists, in La outra voz [The Other Voice], on the idea that poetry, a "model of cosmic brotherhood," can transform humanity in the 21st century.  Isn’t he, with this idea, holding on to a "post-utopian utopia" and bringing back one of the beliefs of the surrealist poets?

H.C. – No one totally abdicates from the utopian residues, much less from that critical element that is a part of utopia.  It’s obvious that when one speaks of the poetry of presentness, of post-utopian poetry, this is placed in the circumstances in which we are living. I don’t know what is going to happen in society after the year 2000 and I don’t care to be a soothsayer.  I can only say that, just as this post-utopian circumstance can be prolonged for many years, nothing prevents a new utopian circumstance from emerging.  For example, just as Paz thinks of the possibility of a new society, of new bases, you can think of what the new media will lead us to do in poetic terms.  It suffices to see what a Macintosh computer allows a poet to do today. I, for example, say this with no problem, because I don’t work with a computer.  I am a man of the word, but my brother, who is an inter-semiotic poet by definition, who operates the musical code, the pictorial code, as well as the verbal code, is working directly on the Macintosh.  His new book, which is coming out by Perspective, a collection of the poems of the last ten years, is a book he has programmed from the cover to every single poem.  The poems are in fact quite complex, very well-crafted, and include items from the Braille alphabet, to be read by touch, to colors and more different configurations than the new electronic media allow.  In the past, in the 1950s, there were times when one thought of luminous letters to make a poem, but that was really utopian.  Not today, for we have already projected here in São Paulo, laser-ray poems on the buildings on Avenida Paulista.  The laboratory of computer graphics of the Escola Politécnica of USP has already made a poem with me on a huge computer they have, which is something marvelous. The result, my crisântempo [Chrysanthemtime] video-poem, looks like a cosmic hole appearing on the screen.  So in this way we can even think that great future possibilities will be in evidence in terms of language, and this can even coincide with a moment of future planning.   The fact that we say we are living in a crisis of ideologies, in a post-utopian period, doesn’t mean that other utopian periods can’t arise in the future and other parts of the world.

M.E. -  You mentioned a little earlier the work that concretism did in terms of a synchronic revision of the literature of the past and you recognize that Octávio Paz was also interested in this work, when he reread and recovered, in the light of the present, the work of Sor Juana.  But it seems to me that Paz, even adopting a synchronic vision, does not ignore the diachronic but rather places the two in relation to one another.  How do you see this notion?

H.C. -  In terms of the synchronic, linguistics itself, especially Jakobson’s, says that no one is absolutely synchronic.  All synchrony has diachronic aspects, and vice-versa.  For the importance of a poet like Sousândrade to be discovered, for example, it is necessary to make a synchronic reference, but this reference is a part of a diachronic line of development. When Sousândrade published his first book, Harpas selvagens [Savage Harps], in 1857, Baudelaire published Les fleurs du mal [Flowers of Evil], and a little while later Casimiro de Abreu published his Primaveras [Springtimes].  So, in relation to what does Sousândrade represent a deviation from the norm?  He represents the deviation from that norm cultivated by Casimiro de Abreu, from that sentimental, almost childish, poetry of the heart that today seems like kitsch to us, which was the poetry of the sensibility of the time.  It was against this romantic tendency that the poetry of Sousândrade reacted, to the extent that Sílvio Romero thought he was an unreadable poet, thought that he was formally inept.  This is because Sousândrade made poetry that retreated from the canons of what was understood as poetry.  And what was understood as poetry was encased within the canons of a foreign Romanticism, since in Brazil there never was an intrinsic Romanticism of the English or German type, but there was an extrinsic type, the type with sentimental effusions and very little attention to language games.  We didn’t have a Novalis, we had a Casimiro de Abreu;  we didn’t have here, for example, the Byron of Don Juan, but we had the Byron of conventional Romantic biography, of satanism;  we had a Castro Alves who took up the more rhetorical side of Victor Hugo.  Our poet, the one who made the great Romantic poetry in the language, was Sousândrade.  Especially when he wrote Guesa, he led the models of the time to total disorder and was not understood by his contemporaries.  It’s clear that if we didn’t have the standards of modern poetry, we wouldn’t have the standards to evaluate Sousândrade and we would be on the same footing as Sílvio Romero.  People who think they are exempt from judging a writer are mistaken.  Everybody has standards for judging. People, for example, who don’t accept the standards of modernity use Parnassian or Romantic standards for judgment. Everybody makes a synchronic reference, except that the synchronic reference made by many people is the one on the horizon of Olavo Bilac or Castro Alves, whereas my synchronic reference, which incorporates the past of Brazilian literature, has as its standard the language of Brazilian poetry since the modernism of 1922.
 So when we recover Sousândrade we are not only making a synchronic reference, we are also examining the diachronic.  See then how there cannot be any pure synchrony, since it works within the diachronic.  And that’s the case with Octávio Paz.  When working with Sor Juana, he can only recognize that the Primero Sueño [First Dream] is a poem that is a precursor of Mallarmé, because he knows and appreciates Mallarmé.  If he didn’t know him, he’d say what others said before him, namely, that Sor Juana had been merely an epigone of Gôngora.  But as Paz had other standards, he could make this synchronic reference and bring Sor Juana into modernity.  But for that purpose he made a profound study of the historical and biographical context of the writer.  Generally, people who protest that the synchronic approach is ahistorical are not interested either in history or in modernity, but want to preserve a past image of literature.

M.E. -  Would this synchronic reference that both you and Octávio Paz make in literature be a procedure proper to the so-called poet-critics?  Leyle Perrone, in an essay on the modern writer-critics, points to this choice of synchrony as a feature common to them all.  Do you agree?

H.C. – I know Leyla’s work, which is very well structured, and she’s probably right, although it may happen that non-poets, gifted with a profound sense of the poetic, may make the same choice.  That is the case of Jakobsen and other linguists, including the philologists like Rodrigues Lapa.  They are sensitive to the aesthetics of language, they have a perception of the relation between sound and sense, and they value the meaningful form of the poem.  Of course, this has happened more systematically with poets who reflect on their own poems, but we cannot forget, for example, a Walter Benjamin, who was neither poet nor writer of fiction, but who had both these qualities.  He translated poems, translated Baudelaire, Proust.  He is a creative essayist, his essays are quite literary.  If he hadn’t lived with expressionism in Germany and with surrealism in France, he would not have recovered German Baroque.  Benjamin also saw the Baroque from the synchronic point of view.  So much so that he projected the problem of Baroque allegory from the viewpoint of Baudelaire.

M.E. – Speaking of Walter Benjamin, I can see that there are certain common features shared by Benjamin’s and Paz’s theories. You yourself once said that the analogical method, infiltrated with irony, which Paz has adopted, would be similar to the  allegorical method, permeated by the idea of ruins, which Benjamin adopts.

H.C. -  I have the impression there are coincidences in the manner of each one’s thinking.  Although there are points of contact between them, both have arrived at these formulations by different paths.  It is a theme to be looked into more deeply.  Benjamin is not an author present in the work of Octavio Paz, and he doesn’t contribute to Paz’s development.  It seems to me that Paz even has a certain reserve regarding Benjamin, in the same way he has regarding Derrida and the deconstructionist thinkers.  Which is rather intriguing, since they have a lot in common with Paz’s thought.  I think that his aversion to Derrida owes less to Derrida than the caricature they made of Derrida.  There was a kind of reception that has deformed the French thinker in the American universities, so much so that deconstruction is not a tendency in French criticism but in American criticism.  Derrida has a much larger audience in the United States than in France itself.  In the USA, he has an audience that has turned epigonal, everywhere deconstructionism is talked about.  It is perhaps this fashionableness that irritates Paz a little.

M.E. – When Paz choose the analogical method, it gave analogy a special place in his reflections on poetics and the history of modern poetry.  How do you see this?

H.C. – Paz really uses analogy as a tool of critical reflection and his poetry is very well armed in terms of analogical construction.  He works with a sort of play of ying and yang, through which contraries sometimes coincide, sometimes are resolved and then return to oppose one another.  In fact, the structure of Blanco is very much like this.  That is a particular characteristic of Paz.  His essays also display a sort of balancing of movement which resembles that of his poetry.

M.E. – But he posits analogy as the basis of poetic construction; he says that poetry is  analogical by nature.  This is clear when he treats the poem as a double of the universe, as a game of universal correspondences, an idea that is also present in the first German and English Romantics, in Mallarmé’s project of the Great Book, in Borges’ "Library of Babel," and even in your Galaxies...

H.C. – That is quite true.  The pursuing of certain fundamental metaphors by poets really occurs.  Only that, naturally, each poet formulates this in a different way.  As we discussed it in the previous question, what Paz calls, for example, an analogical vision, Benjamin would call an allegorical vision.  They deal with the same problem but with nuances and some differences, which shows how the different inflections of two autonomous thinkers may suddenly meet in conclusions that are similar up to a point.  The fact is that these questions hit on certain basic notions of modernity.  I have been very concerned, perhaps because of my Poundian heritage, with the problem of ideogrammatic writing, of the juxtaposition of opposites.  This has been very important to me, whether from the viewpoint of critical reflection or the making of my own poetry.

M.E. – And even for your translation work, hasn’t it?

H.C. – Oh yes.  Both for me and Paz, translation is a work of poetic construction and a motive for theoretical reflection.  A systematic practice.  In my case, even a more systematic practice than in Paz’s case.  With him, there is quite a lot of intensity in translation but it has not come to be theorized in such a detailed way and in light of so many different elements as is the case in my own essays.  Even because of didactic questions, I have dedicated a large number of my essays to translation.  In the post-graduate level at PUC, I gave several courses on the poetics of translation.  And every translation I do I try to enlarge my reflections on those poetics.  In fact, I am preparing a specific book on translation, in which I assemble essays I have published separately.  It already has a title: Da transcriação:  poética e semiótica da operação tradutora [On Transcreation: the Poetics and Semiotics of the Translation Process].  I haven’t yet been able to bring all these dispersed texts together from a complete lack of time.  I work alone, I’m my own typist, my own file-clerk.  I don’t have an office staff.  And my wife, who could always work with me, lately has had other work of her own that doesn’t allow me to ask her for help.  I don’t even work with a word-processor yet.  I don’t really want a computer, I’m addicted to writing long-hand and on a typewriter.  I write by hand even today.

M. E.  -  Since we have touched on the question of translation, I’d like to know a little about your work on translating Hebrew texts.  Where does your interest in the Jewish tradition come from?

H.C.  - It has a lot to do with my friends. Since the 1960s I have been in constant contact with important Jewish intellectuals here in São Paulo, such as Jacó Guinsberg, the director of Perspectiva, his wife, who was the assistant of Mário Schenberg, Mário Schenberg himself, who was my friend, Boris Schnaiderman, Regina Schnaiderman.  So I have these friendships since the Sixties.  Being around Jacó, I was exposed a lot to aspects of Hebrew culture till I decided to translate some Biblical texts, since along with the Homeric poems they are the great paradigm of western literature.  For this work, I spent six years studying Hebrew.  In the beginning, I had one class a week, lasting two hours, and later began to set aside one day a week, studying on my own.  Nowadays, I am practically a lay rabbi:  what I have in Bibles, books on the Bible, dictionaries...

M.E. -  Does this interest of yours have any connection with the order of the sacred?

H.C. – No, it doesn’t, although sometimes that order concerns me.  I have a lot of respect for it, but my work is centered above all on the poetic.  Evidently, as Novalis says, "the more poetic, the truer." So, for one who has poetic and religious sensibility, reading a transcreation of the Bible that preserves the scriptural values of the text is more satisfactory than reading a banal translation, which often transforms the Biblical text into kitsch.  Hebrew has a fantastic poetry. If there is something that justifies Jakobsen’s poetic function it is the Hebrew Bible.  Jakobsen has an essay in which he thematizes Biblical poetry, showing the great techniques of oral poetry in the Biblical scriptures:  the play of rhymes, parallelism, combinatory techniques and paronomasias.  Orality does not mean less sophistication than the written tradition.  The Bible, before being fixed in writing, had an immense oral tradition, such that one of the names of the Hebrew Bible is not "scripture" but "reading." It was to be read within the community, in the synagogues.

M.E. - Taking advantage of this mention of the sacred, let me ask one more question about Octavio Paz:  do you see a mystical dimension in his work?

H.C. – It is worth noting that he has a relation to the sacred through the tantric.  There is a time for him when the erotic and the sacred are very close.  It’s not accidental that within the various Buddhist traditions what touches the poet closest is tantric Buddhism, which is expressed in Blanco.  Also, his interest in Sor Juana involves a dimension of the sacred. The fascination Paz has for Sor Juana, this nun who was also a philosopher, a poet, a thinker, who lived in the repressive, macho Mexican colonial context, includes the dimension of the sacred, since this was the dimension of the period.  Now, in his poetry, I don’t see this dimension, except, as I’ve just said, on the erotic plane.

M.E. – But in theory this link with the sacred is already clearer, when, for example, he relates poetry and myth, when he speaks of the primordial language, the return to origins.

H.C. -  Oh yes, a mythical sacred, not a religious-confessional one.  That’s true.  Also, the concern with Buddhism, if one can consider Buddhism a religion.  Perhaps it is more of a philosophy, an attitude toward the world.  Paz lived a long period in India and had contact there with mythical and mystical things.  In his work, this living contact truly shows.

(Trans. by Thomas Burns)

Title in Portuguese: Sobre Octavio Paz: conversa com Haroldo de Campos. Nossa América/Nuestra América: São Paulo: Memorial da América Latina, n. 12, 1995.


Maria Esther Maciel