José Emilio Pacheco, Honored Writer Who Wrote of Social Ills, Dies at 74
José Emilio Pacheco, a Mexican poet and author who achieved renown throughout the Spanish-speaking world with highly literate poems, essays and novels that used an array of styles to explore profound questions, died on Sunday in Mexico City. He was 74.
The cause was cardiorespiratory arrest, the National Council for Culture and the Arts, in Mexico, said. His wife, Cristina, told a radio audience on Monday that he had been hospitalized on Saturday after falling and hitting his head.
Mr. Pacheco was a literary lion who won numerous awards in Latin America. In 2009, Spain’s culture ministry awarded him the Miguel de Cervantes Literature Prize, the highest award given to a Spanish-language writer.
He emerged in the 1960s as one of a group of socially concerned poets and authors who addressed burning issues like pollution, poverty and governmental bureaucracy. His early poetry resonated with surrealist and symbolic imagery, but he soon turned to the simpler, more direct style that typified his more than a dozen books of poems.
The Times Literary Supplement, in London, suggested that Mr. Pacheco’s precision, restraint and balance made “the sense of evil and disaster in the poems the more striking.”
Writing about nature’s cruelty, Mr. Pacheco said of migrating fish, “Out of a thousand, 10 will reach the sea.” And humans, in his view, were the most violent creatures. “Fish don’t torture,” he wrote. “Their banks don’t ever charge interest.”
The meaning and meaninglessness of time were frequent concerns. Merlin H. Forster, who edited “Tradition and Renewal: Essays on Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature and Culture” (1975), wrote in an essay for that book, “Pacheco is painfully aware of cyclic time and transistory human experience.”
The opening line of Mr. Pacheco’s 1981 novella, “Battles in the Desert,” is, “I remember, I don’t remember.” Carlos, the novella’s narrator, later says, “I am going to keep my memory of this moment intact because everything that now exists will never be the same again.”
In “City of Memory,” published in Spanish in 1989 and in English in 1997, he wrote, “Tomorrow/ there will be no more roses/ but our gaze/ will hold their fire.”
José Emilio Pacheco was born in Mexico City on June 30, 1939, and attributed his love of letters to his grandparents. His grandmother told him Mexican legends, and his grandfather taught him to read.
He attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he studied law and literature and worked for literary publications but did not earn a degree. He made a point of not using his editorial positions to advance his work, instead publishing it elsewhere.
His collections of short stories, essays and poems were translated into German, French, English, Japanese and Russian. He translated works by Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Harold Pinter, T. S. Eliot and Albert Einstein into Spanish. He taught at universities in Canada, England and the United States, including the University of Maryland, where for many years he taught during the fall semester. He helped edit literary journals throughout his life.
Mr. Pacheco’s survivors include his wife, a well-known cultural television journalist, and his daughters, Laura and Cecilia.
In later collections, Mr. Pacheco included poems that focused on animals as a device to criticize human behavior. Another technique he favored was to include fragments from other texts in his poems, even other poets’ work, a device he called approximation. One example was his Spanish translation of the American poet Ezra Pound’s translation of a Japanese version of an ancient Chinese poem.
Ultimately, he said that only poetry mattered, not poets, and claimed to be “leery of the literary circus.” He shrugged off the many accolades he received.
Referring to his friend Juan Gelman, the vaunted Argentine poet who lived in Mexico City and who died this month, Mr. Pacheco said, “I’m not the best poet in Mexico, not even of my neighborhood.”