The poem has a really smooth, dreamy sound, almost like what you might hear if you happened to stumble upon Octavio Paz talking in his sleep. How does he get this effect? Repeat after us: repetition!
Just look at the first line:
At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death.
All that repetition of "the vertigo of" over and over is called in the poetry biz anaphora. What's more, it sounds like a magician trying to hypnotize someone into thinking they're a chicken, or something… All those soft G's in "vertigo" and the repetitions of "the" over and over makes us feel ve-ry slee-py.
Another sound that adds to that sleepy sensation is the repeated S. There are shushing S's in just about every line. For one example, look at lines 4 and 5:
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses
Read out loud, those lines give us a whole heapin' helpin' of smooth and sleep S sounds to linger on. What's more, that poem's last one really whispers it on home. The repetition of the S sound throughout the poem is a technique called consonance, when a consonant sound is repeated.
So why all the sleepytime sounds there, Octavio? Given Paz's enthusiasm for surrealism (which relied on dreams as a vital source of imagery and a window into the unconscious), it seems only natural that he includes all these suave, soft sounds and repetition in his work. Even on a sonic level, this poem is encouraging a dream-like state to delve deeply into the hidden powers of poetry.
Prose + Poem = "Proem." Get it? Got it? Good. But hold up there. That's not the end of the story. Is this "proem" really a prose poem? It isn't written in verse, but it does have the line breaks, rhythm, and structure of a regular old poem. So what is this all about?
Well, yes, a "proem" can be a prose poem, but it more often means a preface or introduction to a literary text. This poem was the first one in Paz's book A Tree Within, and makes a really nice opening poem since it's all about the magical things poetry is. As an introduction, then, it really sets the stage for a reader to approach the wild language that awaits, and is a good way to get ready for a whole bookful of poems!
It's hard to say where this poem takes place geographically. It probably has more to do with a dreamland, or that subconscious place where poems come from. We don't get any concrete references to a real place, but there are some wild deserts and seas. Plato's famous cave is an imaginary place that is referenced in line 10, but it's an important one in the cultural landscape of Western civilization.
There are also some references to places that don't exist anymore, but did in ancient times, like Epicurus' and Netzahualcoyotl's gardens. This puts the poem smack into a long, classical tradition—Paz is no dummy! He knows how to situate himself. And above all else, in terms of setting, he situates this poem in the realm of the possible. As the lines sketch out all manner of metaphors for exploring the possibilities of poetry, we can best think of the backdrop to these lines of inquiry as a little place called… Imagination-land.
Speaker, we hardly knew thee! We really don't get much info on the poetic speaker in "Proem." There's no "I" or "you"—the whole thing is very impersonal, really. However, the speaker sure knows a lot about poetry and wants to let it out!
The philosophical and historical references let us know that the speaker is an educated person, and while references to Plato or Epicurus might be found in almost any Western poem that wants to show off its classical knowledge, bringing up King Neza lets us know that this speaker has some relationship with Mexico.
Beyond that, though, this speaker is a person who delights in the possibilities of imagination. We mean, come on! Words that parachute onto the "sands of a page"?! That is wild, wacky stuff, gang. That this would even occur to the speaker indicates the power of his (or her) imagination, as well as the burning curiosity that drove him (again, or her) to this investigative thinking exercise in the first place!
Don't worry if you get tripped up in all those poetic "vertigos" and lose your sense of up and down while you're making this climb. Paz throws in a lot of mysterious references to ancient figures and uses some flowery language to make his point, but his definition of poetry is a really beautiful one, once you make the climb to put it all together.
Octavio Paz was a very well educated man, and he let his writing show it off. He uses big words and makes references to Greek philosophy, like Plato and Epicurus.
However, as a Mexican intellectual, he was also committed to his nation's history and culture. So bringing in figures from the pre-Hispanic (that's before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors) past is a classic Paz move.
For being about poetry, "Proem" is pretty loosey-goosey. It doesn't rhyme, it doesn't have a regular meter, and doesn't really follow any poetic structures. Maybe that's part of why some people consider it to be a prose poem, even though it also doesn't exactly fit into that tradition either, because it does have poem-like line breaks. Instead, all of the lines except for the last two end in semicolons, as though the poem were just one, long run-on sentence. And, really, it kind of is.
So what does this free-for-all do for the reader? It feels like an improvised creation, and since it isn't methodically structured, it seems a little more dream-like, which goes with a lot of the poem's surrealist imagery. Try the opening lines on for size:
At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens; (1-2)
All those "ands" in the first lines, together with the crazy undersea garden image and the lack of a regular rhyme or meter make the poem sound like the poet is making it up on the spot, as though he were in a trance and writing down whatever came to mind. Pretty trippy, right? The meter, or total lack thereof, then reinforces the wild, dreamy nature of the poem's feverish exploration of the possibilities of what poetry might be.
There's a lot of talk about vegetation in this poem, and they end up being the central metaphor of the work. All the plants are images for poetry, and can all be traced back down to words, then syllables. Language is made out to be a living, organic thing, as natural as the dandelions growing out on your lawn. This is a move against the artificiality that can sometimes be related to poetry, with all of its strict syllable counts and rhyme schemes. Yeah, Paz is rebelling against traditional poetry by comparing it to a houseplant. Bet you didn't see that coming!
We can't be too surprised that a poem about poetry mentions writing a couple of times. Writing is the act that brings a poem into being. It's kind of like its mom. In this poem, though, writing is an extreme sport! It's catches fire, it jumps out of airplanes, it's a boat that crosses the sea and the desert—in a nutshell, it's not for sissies. Just look at all the ways that Paz animates writing, making it into something dangerous and Indiana Jones-like.
What's a good Mexican poem without some biblical imagery? Mexican culture is steeped in Catholic tradition, and, often, so is its poems. This one is no exception. All of the rebellion of poetry is against holy things and involves desecration and other profane acts. There are also some images that come straight out of Bible stories, so the echoes ringing in its readers' heads will be clearly religious.
Nothing to see here, folks. There's some talk about love in the second-to-last line, but it's all really abstract and more in love with love than with any possible lovers.