1939- · Writer
José Emilio Pacheco's literary production takes the form of poetry, novels, short stories, theater pieces, screenplays, chronicles, and translations that touch upon topics as diverse as urban life, politics, modernization, environmental issues, and the human condition. Pacheco explores in detail diverse aspects of modern Mexican culture; stressing throughout the importance of transmitting that experience to a broad public.
His work in the field of literary journalism, for periodicals such as México en la cultura, Novedades, La cultura en México, and Proceso, has received increasing recognition since the early 1960s. On the literary front, his critics regard him as the most important poet of his generation, and his books, particularly those written since No me preguntes cómo pasa el tiempo ( 1969), have succeeded in widening poetry's traditionally small circle of readers, reducing the distance between the language of the specialist and that of the average inhabitant of the Latin-American metropolis. The impact of his writing has been confirmed both by national journalism and literature awards.
A prominent characteristic of Pacheco's artistic production is the tendency to employ forms of communication familiar to the masses (conversational language, graffiti) as well as Western artistic forms derived from mass production and mass media (ready-made, collage). By positioning these techniques within the context of "cultured" literature—traditionally associated with obscurity, transcendence, and social prestige— Pacheco takes advantage of the efficiency with which ephemeral signs and pragmatic language (oral or written) reach their public. This blending of forms often results in acute "literary" observations originating from a vast spectrum of "nonliterary" themes (a street scene, travel, a machine, a book, a newspaper headline, the constant motion of all things, and the inevitability of their eventual disappearance, as in "Roman Conversation").
These literary devices allow Pacheco to create a cosmopolitan world recognizable to his readers because of their familiarity with radio, television, films, and the products of the consumer society. This generates a common ground upon which to exercise philosophical and social criticism.
Pacheco's prestige has given him the opportunity to visit, live in, and teach in different countries, establishing an international network of artistic and academic interchange that is evident in his poetry. Poems like "A Turner's Landscape," "D.H. Lawrence y los poetas muertos," or "Birds in the night (Vallejo y Cernuda se encuentran en Lima)" call for a communal meeting of different cultural traditions, and his Spanish versions of poetry written in other languages are regularly included in his own books under sections entitled "Approximations," "Imitation," "Reading of . . .". In his book Tarde o temprano ( 1980), Pacheco has said, "In some ways they are not, as one might believe, 'translations of translations,' but rather poems based on other poems. I consider these pieces to be part of a collective project that should be anonymous and, to me, it seems abusive to sign them."
The intertextualities found in his poems—that is, the presence of multiple writings, voices and images previously created by others—allow Pacheco to establish a variety of places and historical moments in which to situate experiences, and the reflection and analysis they provoke. Poetry is seen as a universal activity, a flowing process of continual becoming in which the writing of a single author is but one more contribution, always limited and ephemeral as graffiti or one's own life in cosmic terms. In the poem "A quien pueda interesar," Pacheco writes: "The poetry I seek / is like a journal / that has no project / nor measure."
The image of the rapid combustion of a flame embodies this idea of life/work as ephemeral, and could serve as an emblem for the unified vision underlying Pacheco's multifaceted interests. Take for example the following verse from El reposo del fuego ( 1966): "The flames burn, world and fire. / Look at / the leaf in the wind, / so sad, of the bonfire.// The poem is a bonfire / and it does not last / A leaf in the wind / too / also very sad." Pacheco's poetics understands the project of every human being as a constant beginning with no possibility for completion. Like the flame we only burn for an instant, and yet human beings suffer from a terrible illusion of immortality, even short-term human achievements are deceptively projected toward transcendence. But completion is never reached because the project disintegrates or is abandoned halfway through. The object of all existence is a constant beginning that will be taken over by another builder whose reason for being is to collaborate in the construction of a monumental building of beginnings. This idea can be found throughout the volume Miro la tierra, thus entitled in memory of the earthquake that destroyed part of Mexico City in 1985: "We all suffer the defeat,/ we are victims of the disaster./ But instead of crying let us act:// With stones from the ruins we must forge / another city, another country, another life." And also in El silencio de la luna ( 1994): "I never saw the future: / it turned into yesterday / as I was trying to reach it."
The themes and preoccupations contained in the rest of his works reappear in Pacheco's narrative. The best example of this is the novella that earned the unanimous recognition