Poetry: Octavio Paz QEH, London

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The Independent Culture
There is an atmosphere of steamy restiveness within the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Why is Octavio Paz so late? This is not, after all, some jazz bash. It is, according to the press release, an encounter with Latin America's greatest living poet.

Then a literature officer bounds, gazelle-like, a little breathless, on to the stage. Apologies for the delay, she says. Some translations are on their way to us in a taxi. As soon as they arrive, we'll start. That bodes well for the quality of the evening: these translations are clearly too alive with the life of the mind to be faxed.

Then, half an hour into our fraying patience, on they troop, a rather grim-looking trio of older men: a publisher and old friend of Paz called Michael Schmidt; a small, rotund, elderly man who looks far more morose than we feel so far (this is Octavio Paz); and a third man, very stiff and thin and upright, who rather resembles a retired Grenadier Guard. But not a typical Gee-Gee at all: this one, since his retirement, has dared himself to grow a set of tremendously long and aberrantly bushy sideburns. This is the poet Charles Tomlinson, Paz's translator, old pal and sometime collaborator.

Schmidt, mindful of the hour, races through an intellectually well-stuffed lecture about: Paz's value to Western culture (increasingly recognised since 1971, a quite unexpected historical turning-point); modernist traditions of discontinuity and Paz's place within the same; one poet's search for his own beginnings; Paz as point of confluence. He then helpfully explains why Charles Tomlinson is part of this evening's cultural circus. "Octavio Paz is associated with Charles Tomlinson because he is a poet for whom the visible world exists." Unfortunately, I happen to blink as he says that.

Then Tomlinson and Paz step up to the microphones, and there follows almost an hour of Paz's poetry - read in the original Spanish by Paz, and in English by Tomlinson. In that order. Which seems, to the minority of the audience whose first language is English, rather unhelpful; and, to the majority of the audience who speak Spanish and are either employed by the Mexican Embassy or have managed to ferret out a distant friend who is, absolutely marvellous.

To listen to these two men read is to discover that there are not one but two Octavio Pazs standing in front of us. One is the Paz created by Tomlinson. Paz-Tomlinson is a poet who strikes out boldly at the world through language, and recognises his own sense of importance as an intellectual adventurer. This man's delivery is fearless and almost hectoring - as if he is giving us all a necessary lesson in how to read great poetry in public. The other is Paz himself, a much more muted, melancholy, tentative figure altogether, who reads undemonstratively, and with a painful, almost doleful, sense of his own inwardness.

n `The Double Flame', a new collection of essays by Octavio Paz on the subjects of love and eroticism, has just been published by the Harvill Press