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"Unique, exhilarating, and virtuosic."--Booklist
PRAISE FOR HOW TO READ A POEM
"A lovely book, full of joy and wisdom."--The Baltimore Sun
"A wise, exhilarating book; Edward Hirsch is the most endearing of guides to the ecstasies of reading poetry."--Susan Sontag
I WISH I HAD BEEN IN Buenos Aires on October 20, 1933, when Federico García Lorca delivered a lecture that he called "Juego y teoría del duende" ("Play and Theory of the Duende"). Lorca was testifying to his own poetic universe, as his biographer Ian Gibson has recognized. It would have been electrifying to hear him, because on that night, addressing the members of the Friends of Art Club, the spirit of artistic mystery entered the room. It moved at the speed of Lorca's voice and burned like incense in the rich air. It was palpable to the audience, as if Lorca had thrown open the windows so that everyone present could hear the primitive wing beats shuddering in the darkness outside. The floor shifted a little under everyone's feet. The lamps trembled. Thinking about it now, sixty-nine years later, I can see the stammering flames leaping off the typescript of Lorca's talk. I feel the ancient heat.
(One month later, at the Buenos Aires PEN Club, Lorca and Pablo Neruda staged a happening at a luncheon in their honor. The two simpatico poets-one from the Vega of Granada in southern Spain, the other from a small frontier town in rural southern Chile-used a bullfighting tradition to improvise a speech about the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, which they delivered alternately from different sides of the table. "Ladies...," Neruda began, "...and gentlemen," Lorca continued: "In bullfighting there is what is known as 'bullfighting al alimón,' in which two toreros, holding one cape between them, outwit the bull together." The virtuoso antiphonal performance at first bewildered and then delighted the audience as the visible spirit of praise started darting back and forth across the room. Darío was the enthralling inventor of Hispanic modernismo [a term he coined] who fused Continental Symbolism with Latin American subjects and themes, effecting a fresh musical synthesis-a "musical miracle"-in Spanish-language poetry. He was therefore a poet both of Spain and of the Americas, the Old and the New Worlds, and Lorca and Neruda were magically linking themselves through him, as if by electrical impulses.)
Whoever speaks or writes about the duende should begin by invoking the crucial aid and spirit of this chthonic figure, as Lorca did whenever he read aloud from the manuscript of Poet in New York. The Dionysian spirit of art needs to be invited into the room. "Only mystery enables us to live," Lorca wrote at the bottom of one of the drawings he did in Buenos Aires: "Only mystery." It behooves any of us who would meditate on the subject of artistic inspiration to open the doors wide into the night and welcome into the house the spirit of inhabitable awe.
Invoking the Duende
THE AUDIENCE'S SENSE OF expectation as Lorca invoked the duende before a homecoming reading of his New York poems must have been running high. One imagines him sitting at a small table in front of a crowded room in Madrid-confident, charismatic, yet clumsy, vulnerable, "a solitary being for whom solitude was intolerable," as Ernesto Pérez Guerra once put it. (Guerra also observed that Lorca was "social by will and solitary by nature.") He looks serenely at home, but also slightly disheveled, a bit askew. He is secretly preparing to do battle. He shuffles his notes for a talk that is sui generis-part lecture, part memoir, part recital-and then launches in: "Whenever I speak before a large group I always think I must have opened the wrong door," he begins disarmingly-
Some friendly hands have given me a shove, and here I am. Half of us wander around completely lost, among drop curtains, painted trees, and tin fountains, and just when we think we have found our room or our circle of lukewarm sun, we meet an alligator who swallows us alive, or...an audience, as I have. And today the only show I can offer you is some bitter, living poetry. Perhaps I can lash its eyes open for you.
Lorca was a jubilant hunter of joy who sometimes liked to veer sideways into performance. He knew his New York poems were a radical departure from his immensely popular Gypsy Ballads, the style of which he had left behind, and he suspected they could be notoriously difficult. He needed to conquer the audience. At heart he considered a poetry reading not an entertainment but a struggle, hand-to-hand combat with a complacent mass, an exposure of his very flesh. He was bewildered by indifference. He understood his own vulnerability, and wanted badly to communicate to strangers. "Let us agree that one of man's most beautiful postures is that of St. Sebastian," he said:
Well then, before reading poems aloud to so many people, the first thing one must do is invoke the duende. This is the only way that all of you will succeed at the hard task of understanding metaphors as soon as they arise, without depending on intelligence or on a critical apparatus, and be able to capture, as fast as it is read, the rhythmic design of the poem.
("Lecture," Poet in New York)
The poet invoked the duende in order to foster a deep and necessary intimacy with an audience. It was a connection he secretly craved, but also feared because of its radical exposure. He sometimes began his talks more frontally, with a moment of absolute purity, of concentrated focus; with a plaintive call, a visible posture of openness and vulnerability. Here is how he began one recital of his recent work:
I want to summon up all the good will, all the purity of intention I have, because like all true artists I yearn for my poems to reach your hearts and cause the communication of love among you, forming the marvelous chain of spiritual solidarity that is the chief end of any work of art.
This may introduce a poetry reading, but it has the underlying texture of sacred speech, of the quest for spiritual connection.
LORCA'S ENIGMATIC NEW POEMS were filled with what he called hecho poético (the "poetic fact" or "poetic event"), images that followed a strange inner logic "of emotion and of poetic architecture," metaphors that arose so quickly that in order to be understood they demanded a sympathetic attentiveness, a capacity for rapid association and for structured reverie, and a willing suspension of disbelief. As an example of an hecho poético, he cited his well-known love poem "Sleepwalking Ballad," with its radiant refrain: Verde que te quiero verde ("Green, how much I want you green"). He said: "If you ask me why I wrote 'a thousand glass tambourines/were wounding the dawn,' I will tell you that I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more...." Lorca's myriad crystal tambourines wounding the new day are a fresh poetic fact, an extrasensory event that strikes the reader or listener as something that has been creatively added to nature, something beyond natural or even metaphorical description, something visionary.
Lorca's mode of thinking has sometimes been confused with Surrealism, though he rejected psychic automatism as a technique and insisted on "the strictest self-awareness" in his creation of images that have an emotive poetic logic rather than a disembodied rational logic. "If it is true that I am a poet by the grace of God-or of the devil," he told Gerardo Diego in 1932, "I am also a poet by virtue of technique and effort." Lorca wanted "sharp profiles and visible mystery," and his imagery was meant as an intersecting point of contact between his inner and outer worlds. He also sought a poetry infused with emotion, with the true voice of feeling, and this further distinguished him from the French Surrealists. He said, "The great artists of the south of Spain, whether Gypsy or flamenco, whether they sing, dance, or play, know that no emotion is possible unless the duende comes" (Deep Song).
What Lorca meant by the poetic fact seems akin to what Hart Crane meant when he wrote in his essay "General Aims and Theories" of finding "a logic of metaphor" beyond the boundaries of "so-called pure logic." Crane's poems feel drunk with words. He was more interested in associational meanings than in ordinary logic, and characteristically combined unusual and highly connotative words in unexpected and musical ways. He, too, was organizing poems through the "implicit emotional dynamics" of sudden conjunctions, and a concept of duende would have helped readers to follow his associative mode of poetic thinking, his systematic disordering of the senses, his strategic verbal extravagances and collisions, his innovative methods. "Language has built towers and bridges," he concluded, "but itself is inevitably as fluid as always."
The concepts of the "poetic fact" and the "logic of metaphor" hearken back to the way that John Keats exalted poetic thinking freed from habitual trains of thought, from analytic logical procedures. "I am the more zealous in this affair," he wrote in a key letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817, "because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning." Keats favored a drifting imaginative logic in his poems, and this fascination with associative drift put him in advance of the Romantic Modernists to come. Such drifting consciousness enacted in poems can never be entirely understood through rational means. "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination," Keats famously declared. "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth." "As for me, I can explain nothing," Lorca said, "but stammer with the fire that burns inside me, and the life that has been bestowed on me" ("Lecture," Poet in New York). It was only when the duende was present, he believed, that one could be sure of being loved and understood.
Copyright © 2002 by Edward Hirsch
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Only Mystery - 1
Invoking the Duende - 3
Poetic Fact - 5
A Mysterious Power - 8
The Hidden Spirit of Disconsolate Spain - 13
An Apprenticeship - 19
Between Eros and Thanatos - 29
The Majesty of the Incomprehensible - 35
A Spectacular Meteor - 39
Swooping In - 45
Ardent Struggle, Endless Vigil - 49
The Black Paintings - 55
The Intermediary - 58
Yeats's Daimon - 65
Ars Poetica? - 72
A Passionate Ingredient - 76
The Yearning Cry of a Shade - 80
I Sing You, Wild Chasm - 85
Night Work - 91
Vegetable Life, Airy Spirit - 96
A Person Must Control His Thoughts in a Dream - 101
The Angelic World - 109
The Story of Jacob's Wrestling with an Angel - 118
Concerning the Angels - 126
The Rilkean Angel - 132
Angel, Still Groping - 141
The New Angel - 147
Three American Angels - 152
Demon or Bird! - 157
Between Two Contending Forces - 162
The Sublime Is Now - 166
In the Painting - 171
Paint It Black - 178
Motherwell's Black - 184
Deaths and Entrances - 191
Ancient Music and Fresh Forms - 196
America Heard in Rhythm - 202
Hey, I'm American, So I Played It - 207
Fending Off the Duende - 213
The Existentialist Flatfoot Floogie - 220
Poet in New York - 222
Where Is the Angel? Where Is the Duende? - 229
Notes - 231
Reading List: The Pleasure of the Text - 279
Acknowledgments - 303
Permissions Acknowledgments - 304
Index - 309