Study Guide

Proem Analysis

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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!

  • Setting

    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

    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!

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    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.

  • Calling Card

    Classical and Mexican Allusions

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    (Wild and) Free Verse

    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;

    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.

  • Plant Imagery

    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!

    • Line 2: Poetry is compared to verbena, a plant that is considered by some to have some magical powers, growing under the sea, which doesn't happen in real life. So poetry can make things happen that don't normally happen in the real world. It has magical powers!
    • Line 9: Pronouns are like flowers growing in the gardens of the philosophers and poets, and can be cut to be used whenever they're needed for decoration—or just making the place smell nice.
    • Lines 11-12: Verbs and nouns are attributed with seeds and roots, and said to be planted in language. The parts of speech grow naturally, just like plants do.
    • Line 14: Syllables, the basic building blocks of speech, are the seeds that poets can plant to make all kinds of images grow.
  • Writing Imagery

    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.

    • Line 3: This line isn't about the act of writing, but rather about demolishing something that was already written. Here poetry burns up the rules and the holy commandments (hopefully there's a stone copy somewhere around here) with its rebellious attitude.
    • Line 4: Writing is like letting little words jump out of a plane onto the desert of the blank page to fill it up with poetry.
    • Lines 5-6: Here the blank page becomes a boat that carries the poet's despair across the sea and desert of sorrow. It's as though writing were a vessel for emotions.
  • Biblical Imagery

    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.

    • Line 3: The rules that poetry breaks aren't in the civil code, they're holy commandments, which is a pretty dangerous thing to break, if you believe in hellfire and damnation.
    • Line 6: Any time you hear somebody talking about forty days and forty nights, you can bet you're dealing with a biblical reference. In the Bible, this period of time is often used for trials and tribulations, like surviving a worldwide flood or going out in the desert to eat bugs. Ew.
    • Line 7: Poetry turns worship around and, instead of pointing it at something holy like a god, it points it at the self, the poet! That's pretty blasphemous, but then it is also the desecration of the self, which means making the self profane, or bringing it down to earth.
    • Steaminess Rating


      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.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Epicurus, ancient Greek philosopher who ran a philosophy called the Garden (9)
      • Netzahualcoyotl, king of the Texcoco city-state in pre-Hispanic Mexico who was also a philosopher and poet (9)
      • Vicente Huidobro, Altazor, or A Voyage in a Parachute: This long poem is one of the most important avant-garde works in Latin American literature. In it, the poetic speaker goes on a falling journey through language, beginning with full sentences, passing through made-up words, and ending in pure vowel sounds. (4)
      • Plato, The Republic: A philosophical text that contains the allegory of the cave, in which people look at shadows dancing on a wall cast by the true forms dancing in front of a fire. This is a metaphor for the way we humans see the world in copies or imitations. (10)

      Biblical References

      • Genesis 7:12, "The rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights." (5-6)
      • Matthew 4:2, "After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, he finally became hungry." (5-6)