Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre


Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.


“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)


Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?


Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)


It bothers me when people tell me they are not creative. Creativity, inborn in human beings, comes in so many forms. Just because a person does not identify as a recognizably creative person–artist, decorator, writer, teacher, etc.–that doesn’t mean he or she lacks creativity. We cannot solve problems without engaging our creativity, and most of us solve hundreds of small problems daily. We just tend not to consider those talents as “creative.”

One of my colleagues is a consummate problem-solver. Yet she constantly derides her work: “A monkey could do my job,” she claims. It would have to be one heck of a creative monkey! For years, I’ve been constantly amazed at her creative solutions to problems that students present to her…everything from advising to financial aid to family issues to roommate problems and issues that are once-in-a-career type peculiarities. She always says, “I’ll see what I can do;” 90% of the time, she finds a workable solution.

Another thing that intrigues me about her is the way she uses language. She reminds me of my grandmothers: sensible, smart women born and raised in one region and wedded to certain habits but possessing considerable grit and spunk and … creativity. Including marvelous slips of the tongue or twists on clichés. One of her most charming accidental neologisms is that instead of saying memento, she says “momento.” Educated well–with a Masters degree–she probably spells the word correctly when she writes. But I love hearing her say “momento,” because that’s one way of thinking about the word: a reminder of a moment. So apt! While the etymology of the word derives from the Latin (imperative of meminisse, to remember), the idea of recalling a moment through some sort of small souvenir strikes me as perfect.

Another creative use of language occurs when we are talking rapidly and the standard word or metaphor doesn’t come quickly to mind, so our brains substitute something else. My colleague’s creativity shows up at such times. I tend to stumble and say, “uh…um…” when that happens to me; but her mind comes up with alternatives (which occasionally make me laugh, but which always make me delighted). A recent example: during a freshman student program, there was an unexpected downpour which arrived just as the 18-year-olds were walking from breakfast in the cafeteria to a classroom building some distance away. Of course, none of them had umbrellas or rain jackets.

“Those poor kids!” said my friend. “They were all huddled in their soaked hoodies like wet mice. Like…like little wet mice, trying to get dry!”

I’d have resorted to the common phrase “drowned rats,” but little wet mice wearing soaked hoodies seems so much more vivid and elicits more sympathy. It’s also more creative–don’t  you agree?


“About as sharp as a sack of wet mice.” Foghorn Leghorn probably knew my grandparents….