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Man's hands breaking bread

Octavio Paz Revealed the Meaning of Life in this Poem


Still a young man and still overcoming the death of his father, Octavio Paz wrote this poetic celebration of the simple things in life.

In 1945 Octavio Paz was 31, lived in San Francisco and combined his poetic ambitions with a bureaucratic existence in the Mexican Foreign Service. The mid-length poem “The Simple Life” belongs to that era, written in hendecasyllables that, as its title suggests, has life as its central theme.

Call bread bread and that it appear

On the tablecloth each day;

Give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream

and the brief heaven and hell and the body

and each minute what they require;

smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,

without laughter sounding like broken glass;

drink and in drunkenness seize life,

dance the dance without losing a step,

touch the hand of a stranger

on a day of stone and pain

and that that hand have the firmness

that that of a friend never had;

Biographically it is important to mention that that year marked the tenth anniversary of the the tragic death of Paz’s father, who was knocked down by a tram while drunk. The coincidence between that anniversary and the writing of the poem is not only anecdotal, but it is also true that Paz knew how to transform that painful experience into a work that stands alone, in which we can now appreciate in the search for something as enigmatic as ‘the meaning of life.’

The poem could be read as an appendix to the vast tradition of the carpe diem, that call to “seize the day” that since classical antiquity has been a poetic motive to inspire us to exhaust life, to consume for our benefit every single one of its minutes because, among other reasons, we don’t know if we will have a tomorrow. We hope so, but we can never be certain.

In Paz’s poem there is a similar call but from the opposition between life and death, and which gives that carpe diem a little more depth, and even existential weight, as it is not just about making the most of our days but about enjoying life, that which is composed of bread and dance, although also of solitude and pain.

Try solitude without the vinegar

making my mouth contort,

or repeat my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence

bristling with teeth that grate:

these four walls –paper, plaster,

thin carpet and yellowing bulb –

are still not the promised hell;

may not that desire frozen by fear

hurt me more, a cold wound,

burned lips unkissed:

clear water never pauses

and there is fruit that falls once ripe;

As a result of these contrasts, “The Simple Life” is also close to another poetic tradition: the Baroque tendency of the Spanish Golden Age. Like Góngora and Sor Juana, Paz celebrates life because he cannot cease to recall that on the other side is death, the “dust” that the poem refers to near the end and which in the verse is found on either side of the “fruits” of life:

Fight for the life of the living,

Give life to the living, to life,

And bury the dead and forgotten

as the earth forgets them: in fruit …

And at the moment of my death

let me die like men and that

forgiveness come to me

and the everlasting life of dust,

of fruits, and of dust.

“Dust” that comes directly from two of the best known verses of the poets mentioned:

in earth, in smoke, in dust, in shadow, in nothing. (Góngora)

it’s corpse, it’s dust, it’s shadow, it’s nothingness. (Sor Juana)

However, unlike that tradition, Paz abandons the grave tone and solemnity to embrace simple things. That is the difference.

With the option of urging us to enjoy life or remind us that we are going to die, the poet prefers to grasp the elemental and find in it a reason to live: “to know how to cut the bread and share it.”

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