NEW YORK, OCT. 11 -- "I was sleeping peacefully when very early this morning I had a phone call," Octavio Paz began, facing a surging throng of journalists from several continents and still looking a bit astonished.

The call had come from Stockholm, where the Swedish Academy of Letters had awarded the celebrated Mexican poet the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, citing his work's "sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity."

Paz, 76, had been a staple of the much-floated short list of candidates in the past and acknowledged that in other years, "I was, in some way, waiting. ... But this time I didn't have the slightest idea." An associate who phoned him moments after the announcement found him "so completely taken aback that he didn't want to talk about it."

Within minutes, phone calls were backing up on the switchboard at the Drake Hotel, where Paz was staying during the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit "Mexico: Splendor of Thirty Centuries," to which he has contributed the major catalogue essay. "I wondered how he would take a shower and shave," his wife, Maria Jose, said of the breaking wave of attention. But he eventually shook free of the phone and descended for a hastily organized press conference, conducted alternately in Spanish and English.

The prize, which is worth $703,000, "means a great lot for a writer, not as a passport to immortality but for the possibility to have a wider audience," he said. His selection, he thought, was evidence that Western Europeans, having discovered Slavic and Eastern European literature, and then North American literature, had come to appreciate the literature of Latin America.

A prolific essayist, philosopher, translator and man of letters for nearly 60 years, Paz claimed membership in "a special tradition in Western literature," that of the artist-gadfly. "As a poet my only job was to write the best I could," he said. "But also, being a modern writer in the society we live in, a writer is not only a fashioner of fiction but a critic of society. I want to be, after the Nobel Prize, a poet and a critic."

There probably is no norteamericano equivalent of an Octavio Paz, a celebrity intellectual who's well enough known to be hailed on the streets of his native Mexico City, who moves between the worlds of literature and politics and served in his country's diplomatic corps, and whose collected poems fill an 800-page volume.

He speaks several languages including Hindi, a souvenir of his stint as Mexico's ambassador to India in the 1960s (a post he resigned to protest his government's violence against student demonstrators in 1968). He founded Vuelta, a literary review aimed at introducing the thoughts and writings of European intellectuals to their Latin American counterparts, in the 1970s and remains its director. He has been a visiting professor on such disparate campuses as Cambridge University, Harvard and the University of Texas; he spent yesterday reading his poetry to students at Yale. In 1981, he received the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world, the Cervantes prize. In 1982, he captured the prestigious American Neustadt Prize. His 70th birthday in 1984 occasioned a week-long hometown celebration, at which the then-president called him "the pride of Mexico."

"He's a vanguard man," said Mexico's interim consul general, Pablo Marentes, who cheered "Bravo, maestro" when Paz walked to the podium this morning. "He can be very controversial, but he's admired." In Mexico, "we expected this for such a long time, it feels like {the prize} is really won by everyone."

Determinedly anti-Marxist, anti-Castro and anti-Soviet, a position that has set him in political opposition to such Latin American writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, the new laureate fielded ceaseless questions about politics. He demurred today at hearing himself described as "a disillusioned leftist" because that meant "a pessimistic point of view. I don't think the left is dead. Some of the corruption of the left has been discarded by history." But he called the collapse of totalitarian regimes around the world "a marvelous thing."

It was this international ferment that led Paz and Vuelta to convene, in Mexico City a few weeks ago, a six-day intellectual forum addressing "Our Times: Balances and Perspectives," with televised panels featuring people like Mario Vargas Llosa, Jean-Francois Revel, Czeslaw Milosz, Irving Howe and Daniel Bell. "His private pleasure was to bring them to Mexico and let them combust," said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, who participated and who called his friend Paz "an extraterritorial man."

"I am not a political activist in the sense that I want to be senator or deputy or mayor," Paz said privately after his ordeal by press corps. "I'm not a member of any political party. But I have political opinions and I write them."

The forum and its ongoing debates remain close to Paz's heart. Collecting conferees from Eastern and Western Europe as well as this hemisphere, it featured "great diversity of opinions, continuously, about many things. I was happy because unanimity is dangerous." But there was a consensus, Paz said, that "democracy ... is fundamental for a civilized life" and that a free market is "essential," though the participants stopped short of endorsing untrammeled capitalism.

"Since we have had -- {happening} by itself in some way, by circumstances -- totalitarian socialism being destroyed, we need more than ever to be critical with our own societies," Paz added. "There is not an ideal society or country measured in terms of technological advance or material gains. There is something more in mankind."

Similarly, invoking "freedom of art and inquiry" as another essential, Paz warned against "the menace of the guidance of the state, but also the danger of commercial speculation, {which converts} the arts, painting, sculpture, even literature into objects of consumption. They are objects of consumption, but they are also something different."

Paz's own poetry has undergone continuing evolution in form, style and theme. Early on, he was influenced by surrealism. "Sun Stone," perhaps his best-known long poem, took its form from the design of the Aztec calendar. He was among the first to adapt Spanish poetry to Japanese forms such as the haiku. He has explored the contradictions of human nature and society and, in his later poetry, grown more interested in the erotic.

His poems have been read in this country for nearly 30 years, primarily in bilingual editions published by New Directions, which now plans to place a Nobel-laureate sticker on Paz's books. "Sun Stone," published in 1963, was the first. "A Tree Within" is the most recent, in 1988; 1987's "The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz" is the most elaborate. Eliot Weinberger, to whom Paz paid tribute at today's press conference, has been his most frequent translator. Most of his books of poetry have sold 5,000 or so copies unless they have been in print for decades, a common reception for even world-class poets in the U.S. market.

Books of Paz's essays, "One Earth, Four or Five Worlds" and "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature," have also been published in the United States by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which says that another hardcover printing is under consideration. "Convergences" was already scheduled for a trade paperback edition next spring; since the author's Nobelization, "One Earth" will also be reissued in paperback.

Paz's classic study of modern Mexico, "The Labyrinth of Solitude," though 40 years old, probably remains his best-known work in the United States. "He meditates about Mexico a lot," said Wieseltier. "It's a mystery that he's trying to pierce."

Paz's selection was greeted with enthusiasm today by other writers and poets. "He's long deserved it," said poet Derek Walcott from his home in Boston. "I think he contains the spirit of Mexico, modern and ancient. It's an excellent choice."

Peruvian novelist Vargas Llosa, who is visiting Washington, said: "I admire him a lot. I think it's very well deserved. He's a great poet and a great essayist. He's also defending freedom and democracy, which is important and very unusual for Latin American intellectuals."

"It's very gratifying to see Octavio Paz become the fifth Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize and especially exciting to have a writer from Mexico win it for the first time," said Alan Ryan, editor of the forthcoming "Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories" and a frequent writer on Latin American literature. Paz deserves such international recognition, Ryan said, "because his themes are as broad as the world."

Paz, who has traveled widely, does consider himself a sort of international citizen. "The Stoics were right -- they invented the word 'cosmopolitan' -- that the cosmos was truly their nation, their real country," he said today. "But I also believe in national differences." As a citizen of a country, "you speak the same language, you have the same culture, you have a bond. The prize is something collective."

From Paz's 'Draft of Shadows' Excerpt from "A Draft of Shadows," by Octavio Paz:

Pyramids of bones, rotting-places of words:

our masters are garrulous and bloodthirsty.

I built with words and their shadows

a movable house of reflections,

a walking tower, edifice of wind.

Time and its combinations:

the years and the dead and the syllables,

different accounts from the same account.

Spiral of echoes, the poem

is air that sculpts itself and dissolves,

a fleeting allegory of true names.

At times the page breathes:

the swarm of signs, the errant

republics of sounds and senses,

in magnetic rotation

link and scatter

on the page.

il,3p,1L I am where I was:

I walk behind the murmur,

footsteps within me, heard with my eyes,

the murmur is in the mind, I am my footsteps,

I hear the voices that I think,

the voices that think me as I think them.

I am the shadow my words cast. -- From "The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987" Published by New Directions, 1987 Edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger

Staff writers Jeffrey A. Frank and Jodie T. Allen contributed to this report.