Two Visits to Oklahoma

 

Octavio Paz, 1982 Neustadt laureate, and his wife, Marie-José, at Indian City in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1971.
Photo by Tom J. Lewis, from the archives of World Literature Today.

I

The closing dinner that the magazine Books Abroad held in honor of Octavio Paz took place on October 16th, 1971. The speeches read by friends of Paz are gathered here.

The magazine Books Abroad was founded by Roy Temple House in 1927 with the idea of serving the university, state, and international communities, aiming for excellence as a literary publication, and sponsoring literary prizes and a cultural center for students. It was based in the city of Norman, the seat of a well-known university in the United States, close to the capital of Oklahoma, which was also home to the National Weather Service because it was an area of terrible tornadoes.

Octavio Paz was a reader of Books Abroad:

I remember how many years ago, when I was studying for the Bachelor’s degree and was beginning to discover literature for myself, a copy of the journal came into my hands. In those days the literary isolation of Mexico was almost absolute, to the degree that when I read those pages, I felt the opening of the doors of contemporary literature in languages other than my own. For a while Books Abroad was my compass, and foreign literatures ceased to be for me an impenetrable forest.1

In 1968, Estonian poet Ivar Ivask, who was the fifth editor of the magazine since its founding and its director at the time, as well as Lowell Dunham, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Oklahoma, decided to pay tribute to the poet Jorge Guillén on the year of his 75th birthday with a special issue and a symposium that lasted three days. Thus, a great tradition was born.

In 1969, Jorge Luis Borges was the honoree during two weeks of conferences, seminars, and symposia. Later on, it was decided the event would be held every two years and would be called the “Oklahoma Conferences on Writers of the Hispanic World,” always featuring a prominent writer along with academic activities and a dedicated conference with two days of lectures and master classes.

Twenty years after the publication of the first review dedicated to his work in Books Abroad—written by the Italian critic Donato Internoscia about Libertad bajo palabra—it was announced that Paz would be the topic of the third tribute.

Paz arrived in Norman on Monday, October 4th, a few days after having announced in Mexico, along with other politicians and intellectuals, that a new political party was being formed. Two of his public talks were given in English: “The New Analogy: Poetry and Technology” and “André Breton.” His graduate seminar, “Poesía hispanoamericana moderna: postmodernismo y vanguardismo,” was divided into six lectures dedicated to “[elucidating] aspects of Spanish American poetry in its evolution from romanticism to symbolism and on to the present, and the essential differences between Spanish American and Spanish Peninsular as well as European literature,”2 always with an eye on the present and in permanent openness to the future.

As Ivask recalls, “his contact with the audience was quite different than that of Borges. […] while Borges had dwelt on the past, Paz launched us always back into the present; while the world of Borges tended to be circularly closed and self-sufficient, the reality of Paz remained porous, open to the universal future; Borges appealed as the slightly ironic, humble bard of mythic memory, while Paz won over with his prophetic fervor exploring the ever new, yet old as the dew in the morning.”3

On October 15th and 16th, the seminar “Life and Work of Octavio Paz” took place. Its participants included Manuel Durán (Yale), Ricardo Gullón (Austin), Ruth Needleman (Santa Cruz, California), Allen W. Phillips (Austin), Rachel Phillips (Vassar), Emir Rodríguez Monegal (Yale), Alfredo A. Roggiano (Pittsburgh), and Tomás Segovia (El Colegio de México). The closing was a panel discussion with Durán, Roggiano, Phillips, and Segovia.

In between official activities, “Paz and his wife Marie-José found the time and interest to explore such Oklahoma landmarks as Indian City and the Cowboy Hall of Fame before the final weekend’s symposium [unlike Borges, Paz did not attend the sessions] and the now customary reading and dinner.”4

During the closing banquet, on Saturday, October 16th, several tributes by friends of Paz were read, including the following:

Jorge Guillén:

This homage paid to Octavio Paz at the University of Oklahoma is very timely. The poet himself is there with you. It is a pleasure to confirm that his works are an admirable extension of his person. Poet, critic, essayist; Mexican, European, attracted incessantly by Asian cultures; very sensitive to the most intimate life and very interested in the problems of his time. So many aspects of Octavio Paz are dominated—it is evident—by his poetic nature: creator of the essential word in all its revelatory power. Allow me to add my word to this homage.

Carlos Fuentes:

I gladly join you in homage to Octavio Paz: greatest living Mexican writer, great renovator of the Spanish language, great universal poet and essayist.

Salvador Elizondo:

At a time when the strict exercise of the critical conscience is about to be reborn in Mexico, I very affectionately salute Octavio Paz, whose technical and theoretical work without doubt will be one of the most characteristic axes around which the new conscience will turn, a conscience to which many writers, here, for the first time will have to accede.

Octavio Paz is the founder of a rigorous and profound criticism of our language, especially in its spoken form, and the attempts to found a poetics based on the results of that criticism have certainly not been fruitless in Paz’s own creative work. In fact, one could say that his poetry represents one of the vast undertakings of that type that has been attempted in a Spanish-speaking country: a freely given patrimony the benefits of which we now retain.

His critical work has valiantly confronted the most generalized and least rigorous suppositions about the values of our modern tradition and even of that paradoxical “tradition of the present” that has so frequently tried to install itself in our intellectual medium.

Therefore, I take this opportunity to wish success to this conference and personal fortune to Octavio Paz.

José Emilio Pacheco:

I wonder—once more, now, when everything seems about to go up in flames again—if there is a place for a poem in this uproar, in this confusion of sonorities that surround us like islands everywhere crowding in upon the sea.

Perhaps poetry is another vocation of darkness, a streaked disc that multiplies, until they come apart, the voices of the great enchanters, dead a century ago at a time when, newly humanized, God buried God and uttered not a see-you-later but a definitive good-bye.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to settle for a perfunctory greeting: I have written many times on him but in doing so I have always restrained myself. I recognize distances, and besides, fervor should be somehow secret or shy.

Nevertheless, I open his books again and again and—through an absolving mirage—the years are as they were: I am again the deplorable adolescent whose only virtue is innocence. And every page becomes a garden and its vegetation is a ferocious star enlightening me.

Appearances are beautiful in their momentary truth. Words are born in the visible center of the earth. Bodies renew their joy. The sun stone lights up streets that do not yet exist. Night dissolves in the sea. Dawn is flooded with birds. Dawn-like, worlds rise over the transparency of space and the shadow of the wind over the water. And suddenly, between stillness and vertigo, the present is perpetual

Marco Antonio Montes de Oca:

I ask you to accept my enthusiastic support for the homage the University of Oklahoma is paying to the great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz. The undisputed master of the new generation in Latin America, a man of impeccable moral stature, an essayist of a most brilliant and original imagination, Octavio Paz is, above all, a poet whose only parallel can be found among the great inventors of Spanish literature in the 16th century. Therefore, I consider the academic recognition you have organized at a North American University appropriate and certainly not the least of those our “miglior fabbro” has received beyond the borders of his own country.5

And finally, it was Paz’s turn. He said:

From the day we arrived in Oklahoma, Marie-José and I have felt surrounded by a lucid cordiality which seemed a kind of spiritual correspondence to the brightness of these autumn days. We encountered here the lively friendship of Astrid and Ivar Ivask, two poets, two names more lunar than solar, two hearts closer to the hearth than to the snow; the broad hospitality of Lowell Dunham—generous as these fields interrupted here and there by graceful hills (one of those hills is named Francis); the warmth of Karen and Tom Lewis, impassioned and idealistic in the moral, not the philosophic sense—as is the North American youth of our day in its admirable rebellion; and among all these proofs of friendship, there is one we hadn’t counted on: the exquisite courtesy of a cloudless sky and of radiant air. And all the friends who have gathered here to speak of a person I know and do not know, who has the same name as I but who is not to be confused with me and who is the author of books that bear my name. Extraordinary, unusual days in whose atmosphere a sensation of strangeness developed—a delicious sensation not without irony and melancholy—which you have created in me when talking about me and my work as a writer. The other day I read that Picasso had said ‘I frequently paint false Picassos.’ Something about that strikes me as curious: an author’s works are perhaps not so much portraits of him, although each literary work contains autobiographical elements, as of his reader—his readers. Literary works are mirrors that never reflect the same images; they invent the author who writes them and the reader who recreates them. Thanks, kind friends, for such varied, intelligent and penetrating readings: I do not see myself in what I have written; rather I see you. I see landscapes and worlds created by you, by your creative sympathy. Thanks also to Dr. Jim Artman who has awarded me the key to this city, a city without walls or doors. Thanks finally, and above all, to President and Mrs. Sharp who have honored us with their presence.6

The dinner ended with a recital by Paz in which he commented upon each poem, as Ivask read the translations. Paz chose for this occasion seventeen poems from ¿Águila o sol? and Ladera este: “Escribo sobre la mesa crepuscular,” “Jadeo, viscoso aleteo,” “Hace años con piedrecitas,” “Un poeta,” “Hacia el poema I, II,” “Aquí,” “Madrugada,” “Juventud,” “Pueblo,” “Aparición,” “Madurai,” “México, Olimpiada 1968,” “Lectura de John Cage,” “Pasaje,” “Contigo,” “Ejemplo,” and “Viento entero.”

The following day, at noon, Paz flew to Cambridge, where he was to take on the honor of delivering the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, a series of conferences that Guillén and Borges delivered as well before Paz did.

The essays from the symposium appeared as a publication in the fall of 1972 from Books Abroad. An expanded version was published in 1973 in the book The Perpetual Present: The Poetry and Prose of Octavio Paz.

With the years, the recognition grew to include writers of any nationality and adopted the name of “The Puterbaugh Festival of World Literature and Culture.” After Paz, only one other Mexican has won the prize: Carlos Fuentes in 1983. Paz did not know it, but a year before Fuentes, he would return to Norman for a different reason.

 

II

Chronicle of the prize awarded to Octavio Paz in 1982 by the University of Oklahoma and the magazine World Literature Today.

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is an award of high prestige in the United States, considered by The New York Times to be equivalent to the Nobel Prize.7 It is a biennial prize that started being awarded in 1970, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and the magazine World Literature Today. Its first promotor was the poet Ivar Ivask, and its patronage came from the Neustadt family. In 1982, it awarded twenty five thousand dollars—today the sum has doubled—with a certificate and an eagle feather bathed in silver, which hearkens to the Native American tribes of Oklahoma.

Any living writer could be a candidate for the prize, as long as a part of her/his important work is available in English or French. At its origin it was called the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature, for the former name of the magazine World Literature Today, which later on, in 1976, changed to its current name.

The first winner was Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. In 1972, Ivask nominated Paz, with the support of the Belgian poet Fernand Verhesen, who lauded “the extreme originality of his work and the fervent and lucid profundity with which he attempts to reconcile man with the external world and with himself.”8 The rest of the jury, however, opted for another Latin American, the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez.

Ivask wrote to Paz: “What have I done to deserve this massive silence from you? I hope that you are not angry at me for the way the jurors voted.”9 And Paz answered: “How could you even think that I would be angry at you? I am vain like (almost) all writers, but my vanity does not lie in prizes.”10

In the following years, the prize was awarded to Francis Ponge, Elizabeth Bishop, Czeslaw Milosz, and Josef Škvorecký. Paz would not be nominated again until a decade later. Once again, Ivask advocated in his favor, along with Jaime García Terrés, who in his presentation pointed out that:

Paz is one of those phenomena who change the cultural face of a whole continent. At the same time, he has discovered, with singularly penetrating insight, the meaning and the raison d’être of Mexico and of things Mexican. Precisely because he was nurtured from universal springs (including the Orient and Western antiquity), he has been able to acquire such sensitivity toward the values of the immediate present that, together with the poetic vigor to rejuvenate those values, he has opened our culture to the enriching influences of the best from abroad, making us, as he himself says, “contemporaries of all men.”11

Just like he did every two years, Ivask appointed the international jury, in consultation with the fifteen members of the magazine’s editorial board, who each had the power of nominating one candidate. That year the jury was composed of Miguel Durán (who represented García Terrés), Yehuda Amichai, Poul Borum, John L. Brown, Efim Etking, Francine du Plessix Gray, Mimmo Morina, Hualing Nieh, and Östen Sjöstrand. Another two appointees—Giancarlo Vigorelli and Maurice Nadeau—could not attend due to sickness and problems getting a visa, respectively. The candidates, other than Paz, were Robert Penn Warren, John Hawkes, Laura Riding, Vladímir Nikoláyevich Voinovich, Ted Hughes, Ba Jin, Max Frisch, Artur Lundkvist, Leonardo Sciascia, and Eugène Guillevic.

Deliberations began on February 25th. At first, it seemed that the winner would be the great English poet Hughes. However, Durán’s tenacity prevailed and Paz was declared the winner. The Catalan poet was proud to point out that he “championed his cause during the jury deliberations and was able to convince the jurors: […] I should add that his accomplishments made my task very easy”12 and he expressed himself in these terms about Paz’s work: “By approaching language through poetry and passion, he deals with a universal fact—there is no culture without language, and language belongs to all of us—through feelings (sensuousness, sexual passion) that are also our common heritage.”13

Congratulations were not late in coming. Jorge Guillén said: “Octavio Paz is the critical, free, lucid conscience of the world in which we live. […]. Octavio Paz certainly knows and deeply feels our Spanish literature. For example, he who writes these lines is indebted to him for several splendid analyses […] Ultimately one reaches a state in which words are insufficient. I simply cannot ‘express’ my entire gratitude.”14

 

Awarding of the Neustadt Prize.

The formal ceremony was held on 9 June and close to three hundred invitees attended. William S. Banowsky, president of the University, Manuel Durán, Doris Neustadt, and Walter Neustadt Jr. were on the panel, in addition to Paz and Marie-José. Ivask gave the opening remarks, Durán read an essay about the poet’s work, and Paz gave a talk in his mother tongue.

In all languages there are limpid words which are like air and the water of the spirit. To express such words is always marvelous and furthermore necessary, like breathing. One such word is gracias, thank you. Today I pronounce it with joy. Also, with the awareness of being the object of a happy confusion. The truth is that I am not very certain of the value of my writings. On the other hand, I am certain of my literary passion: it was born with me and will die only when I die. This belief consoles me. The jurors were not completely mistaken in awarding me the Neustadt International Prize for 1982: they wanted to reward, in my case, if not excellence, then obstinacy… I shall not say more about my feelings. I am no more than the incidental (or accidental?) cause, and so what should count, however deep my gratitude, is not only my person but the significance of the Neustadt Prize. It is worth reflecting upon this for a moment. Situated in the center of the United States and surrounded by immense plains, Oklahoma seemed destined due to geographic fate for interior activity and historical apartness. However, the relation of every society with its surrounding physical reality is one of contradiction: men who inhabit a valley climb mountains which separate them from the world, and men of the plains move along the endless expanse as if it were a navigable sea. These are opposite and reversible metaphors: the desert is a sea for the Arab, and the sea is a desert for the sailor. In each case the metaphor is a challenge and an invitation: the horizon remains at the same time a call and an obstacle. In the domain of literary communication, Oklahoma has overcome isolation and distance through a series of exemplary initiatives. […]. On the other hand, there are very few literary prizes indeed which are truly international. Among these a place apart is occupied by the Neustadt Prize. Two characteristics lend it a unique face: the first is that each jury is composed of critics and writers belonging to different languages and literatures, which means that it constitutes and international body, as international as the prize itself; the second characteristic is that the jury is not permanent but instead changes from one prize to the next —that is every two years. These two characteristics translate into two words: Universality and Plurality. Due to the first word, the prize has been awarded to poets and novelists in Italian, English, French, Polish, Spanish, and Czech; due to the second word, Plurality, we find among the laureates not only writers of different languages but also of different literary and philosophical persuasions. In esthetic terms, Plurality is a richness of voices, accents, manners, ideas and visions; in moral terms, Plurality is a richness of voices, accents, manners, ideas and visions; in moral terms, Plurality signifies tolerance of diversity, renunciation of dogmatism and recognition of the unique and singular value of each work and every personality. Plurality is Universality, and Universality is the acknowledging of the admirable diversity of man and his works. Considering all this, in the convulsed and intolerant modern world we inhabit, the Neustadt Prize is an example of true civilization. I will say even more: to acknowledge the variety of visions and sensibilities is to preserve the richness of life and thus to ensure its continuity. Hence the Neustadt Prize, in stimulating the universality and diversity of literature, defends life itself.15

The president of the university, William S. Banowsky, handed him the certificate, the respective check, and the sculpture. A recital by Paz concluded the evening. One of the first people he wrote to was Guillén:

[Postcard. Handwritten]

[Oklahoma, n/d, ca. October, 1982]

My dear and admired don Jorge: Here we are, Octavio Paz, Marie Jo, the Ivasks, and three hundred other people for the Neustadt Prize: all of us have thought about you with warm admiration. You are still our hero, the prince of poetry!

Manolo Durán

And with the privilege that you gave me a few years ago in Cambridge. I use the familiar with you, dear Jorge! Celestial, terrestrial, maritime, fiery poet—the four elements and the four cardinal points resolved in one pure form, transparent, and illuminating us: your poetry that has many names—year, light, chameleon, spark, and, above all, Irene

With a big hug

Octavio and Marie José

Ivask has an anecdote about what happened that night: “We stepped into the garden before dinner, and there the Mexican poet suddenly reached into the breast pocket of his navy blue blazer to offer me a special present: he broke a small twig off some laurel leaves from the Villa Medici in Rome, which he always carried on him as a talisman. Shared laurel leaves!”16

The following day, Paz said that he has never written in order to win prizes, but due to an intimate necessity, and then for other reasons: self-discovery and the search for a reader. Even if it’s only one, two, or a million good readers, that is the real prize and the only monument to which a writer aspires. […]. Prizes belong to another sphere […], they are a great simulation. Prizes have always existed and, from the social and cultural viewpoint, they preserve the continuity of literature.

No other Mexican writer has been awarded the Neustadt Prize since.

Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio

1 Octavio Paz, “Laureate’s Words of Acceptance,” in World Literature Today, volume 56, number 4, 1982, pp. 595–596.

2 Ivar Ivask, “The Perpetual Present,” in Books Abroad, 1972, volume 46, number 4, pp. 543-545.

3 Ibidem.

4 William Riggan, “The Puterbaugh Conferences: a retrospective appreciation,” in World Literature Today, 2002, volume 76, number 2, pp. 16-18.

5 Jorge Guillén, et al., “Tributes to Octavio Paz,” in Books Abroad, 1972, volume 46, number 4, pp. 607 and 608.

6 Ivar Ivask, “Introduction: The Perpetual Present,” in Books Abroad, 1972, volume 46, number 4, p. 544.

7 Edwin McDowell, “Publishing: The Oklahoma ‘Nobel,’” in The New York Times, February 26th,1982, section C, p. 22.

8 William Riggan, “The 1982 jurors and their candidates for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature,” in World Literature Today, Autumn 1981, volume 55, number 4, p. 629.

9 Ivar Ivask to Octavio Paz, January 1st, 1973, Norman, Oklahoma.

10 Octavio Paz to Ivar Ivask, February 7th, 1973, Mexico City.

11 William Riggan, “The 1982 jurors and their candidates for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature,” in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1981, volume 55, number 4, p. 629.

12 Manuel Durán, “Remembering Octavio Paz,” in World Literature Today, volume 73, number 1, Winter, 1999, pp. 101 to 103.

13 Manuel Durán, “Octavio Paz: The poet as philosopher,” in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1982, volume 56, number 4, pp. 591 to 594.

14 Jorge Guillén, “In homage to Octavio Paz, Neustadt Laureate,” in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1982, volume 56, number 4, p. 607.

15 Octavio Paz, “Laureate’s words of acceptance,” in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1982, volume 56, number 4, pp. 595 and 596.

16 Ivar Ivask, “Shared laurel leaves: From Jorge Guillen to Octavio Paz,” in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1982, volume 56, number 4, p. 589.

 

Luis Guzmán Valerio has a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His creative writing has appeared in Chiricú. His literary translations have been published in BODY LiteratureDelosFIVE:2:ONESargasso, and Translators’ Corner. He lives in New York City. 

Languages

LALT No. 17
Number 17

In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Albalucía Ángel

Dossier: Octavio Paz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Chronicle

Interviews

Pandemic Postcards

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Dossier: Eduardo Chirinos

Nota Bene