TOWSON — Towson. -- In ancient China, people believed that a poem united the ten thousand things that make up the universe. Today, however, a poem is thought to be useless. Its products, writes Octavio Paz, are scarcely salable in a world ruled by the logic of the marketplace.
Several years ago, Mr. Paz explains, a major publishing journal put out its list of best sellers. On the list were novels, biographies, travel books, cook books, books on current affairs, on sex and many others. But that list did not include books of poems.
''They Joy Of Sex,'' which sold in the millions that year, headed the list. Lower on the list were titles that had sold 250,000 copies. However, in that same year -- and this, Mr. Paz admits, is a highly unusual circumstance for poetry -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti sold a million copies of ''A Coney Island of the Mind,'' and around that time Allen Ginsberg's ''Howl'' had sales that easily topped a million copies. Yet this journal did not include them on its list. ''Because,'' as Mr. Paz, tells it in his latest book, ''The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry'' (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), ''these were books of poems.''
Winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for literature, Octavio Paz, 78, is Latin America's leading poet and critic. He's a brilliant and original thinker; his book merits attention at any time. National Book Week, however, seems ideal. This is the week, Jan 19-25, that the Library of Congress has set aside to raise literary awareness.
Ironically, the seven essays in ''The Other Voice'' look at our lack of literary awareness. In our technological society, Mr. Paz says, the arts and literature are merely things, noticed in so far as they can be kept, sold and sometimes put on the best-seller list. Poetry, the source of literature, is also a thing, he writes, ''but a thing that amounts to almost nothing: it is a puff of air that takes up no room. . . . It is a verbal incantation that provokes mental images.''
Yet because of those mental images, poems were once revered. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, for example, hold the history, even the soul of a people. In ancient Greece and Rome, poetry was a preparation for adult life and its two great facets: action and contemplation.
The poet, according to Socrates, is ''a winged being, light and sacred, incapable of producing unless enthusiasm draws him and makes him come out of himself. . . .'' Socrates, furthermore, calls poets ''organs of the divinity.'' The marvelous things poets say come not from themselves but from being itself. ''It speaks to us from their mouths.''
In the beginning, poetry was ''an ascending column made of verses,'' as Mr. Paz describes it. ''It was a verbal stream through which a poem flowed and disappeared into the air.'' From the earliest days, poems have been recited, sung and danced. They have been used in religion, magic, fertility and healing. The influence of poetry extended into private life too.
Here, poetry found words for the contradictions in the human soul: ''Heretical and devout, innocent and perverted, limpid and murky, aerial and subterranean, of the hermitage and of the corner bar, within hand's reach and always beyond.'' Poetry mirrored humanity, Mr. Paz writes. It was otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and of this very day.
With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of technology, the arts declined. The poetic faculty was no longer considered a gift. It the poet said marvelous things, it was because he had a way with words. Some thought he had a psychic disorder. Today, Mr. Paz comments, ''the great oddness of the poetic phenomenon still awaits a physician's diagnosis.''
Books of poetry, meanwhile, are seldom reviewed; nor do they usually become best-sellers. And poetry has no marketable value. But it has a function.
The universe, of which we are a part, is a live tissue of affinities and oppositions. And poets, because their operative mode of thinking is imagining, find affinities and unite opposites. Their poems do not provide new ideas but rather show us what we have forgotten: ''Poetry,'' as Mr. Paz describes it, ''is memory become image, and image become voice.''
Poems offer living proof of the unions and the divisions, the love affairs and the separations of atoms, cells, stars and men. And if we forget poetry, according to Mr. Paz, ''we will forget ourselves.''
With the planet threatened by poison and devastation, the function of poetry is nothing more than this reminder of our connectedness to nature and to each other, he says. And it is nothing less.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.