“The definitive version of Lorca’s masterpiece, in language that is as alive and molten today as was the original” (John Ashbery).
Newly translated for the first time in ten years, Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York is an astonishing depiction of a tumultuous metropolis that changed the course of poetic expression in both Spain and the Americas. Written during Lorca’s nine months at Columbia University at the beginning of the Great Depression, Poet in New York is widely considered one of the most important books Lorca produced. This influential collection portrays a New York City populated with poverty, racism, social turbulence, and solitude—a New York intoxicating in its vitality and beauty.
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, poets Pablo Medina and Mark Statman were struck by how closely this seventy-year-old work spoke to the atmosphere of New York. They were compelled to create a new English version using a contemporary poet’s eye, which upholds Lorca’s surrealistic technique, mesmerizing complexity, and fierce emotion unlike any other translation to date. A defining work of modern literature, Poet in New York is a thrilling exposition of one American city that continues to change our perspective on the world around us.
“A worthy new version of a 20th-century classic.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Mark Statman is a poet whose writing has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Tin House and The Village Voice. He is the author of Listener in the Snow and co-editor of The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing.
Cuban-born Pablo Medina is a novelist and poet. His most recent works include the novel The Cigar Roller, and the poetry collection Points of Balance/Puntos de apoyo.
Read an Excerpt
Federico García Lorca would remember his stay in New York (June 1929–March 1930) as "one of the most useful experiences" of his life, and in fact the year that he spent in New York, Vermont, and Havana changed his vision of himself and of his art.
This was his first visit to another country, his first encounter with the racial and religious diversity of a democratic society (Spain had been ruled for almost six years by the dictator Primo de Rivera), and his first, frightening glimpse of urban crowds. The importance of all this for a poet who had always been deeply interested in social problems can hardly be underestimated.
New York also served him as a great school of the theater. His own career as a playwright was just beginning: only two of his works had been staged in Spain, and a third, The Love of Don Perlimplín, was in rehearsal when it was closed down by government censors. The trip to New York gave him the opportunity to distance himself psychologically from the Spanish theater of his day and to judge it as a whole. Two important experimental works, Once Five Years Pass and The Audience, were begun in the New World. "One must think of the theater of the future," he writes to his family. "Everything that now exists in Spain is dead. Either the theater changes radically, or it dies away forever. There is no other solution." He must have been greatly interested in the way the theater was organized in New York. He had had no previous contact with a viable tradition of university or repertory theater, and it is likely that American groups like the Neighborhood Playhouse (who would later produce one of his plays), the Theatre Guild, and the Civic Repertory Theatre served as models, after his return to Spain, for the drama groups he himself founded during the first years of the Spanish Republic. He was fascinated by the black musical revue, as much perhaps by African American audiences as by the performers, and he must have remembered all this after his return to Spain as he sought to save the Spanish stage from the expectations of middle-class audiences. What plays he saw in English no one knows. The language barrier would not have prevented him from absorbing what seemed interesting or novel about the nonverbal aspects of drama.
Few critics have written about Lorca's life in New York without insisting that he felt depressed and isolated. The Spanish poet Rafael Alberti tells us that Poet in New York was written by "a lonely poet ... lost amid docks and avenues and skyscrapers, returning in nostalgia and anguish to his little room at Columbia University." This may be the impression given by the poems, but the letters that Lorca wrote to his family show that he was surrounded and affectionately cared for by Spanish-speaking friends, old and new, who were either living in the city or passing through. Because his command of English never advanced as far as syntax and grammar — he was a simple collector of "English" words, from spaghettis to shishpil (sex appeal) — his only American friends were those who already knew something of Spain and of Hispanic culture: the editor and book critic Herschel Brickell, the journalist and translator Mildred Adams, and an adventurous young writer from Vermont whom Lorca had met in Spain, Philip Cummings.
* * *
The trip to New York and Cuba took place at an extremely difficult moment in Lorca's life. In August 1928, the thirty-year-old poet confessed to a friend that he was going through "one of the worst crises" he had ever known:
I now realize what it is that the erotic poets mean by the fire of love, and I have come to this realization precisely when I need to cut it from my life in order not to go under. It is stronger than I suspected. If I had continued to nourish it, it would have done away with my heart. You [say that you] had never seen me so bitter, and it is true. I am full of despair and feel listless and crippled. This has made me feel extraordinarily humble. We'll see if I can accomplish what I want to with my poetry, and if I can finally cut these terrible bonds and return to the happiness I once felt.
He is alluding to the end of his affair — one of the most important of his life — with a Spanish sculptor, eight years younger, Emilio Aladrén. The poet's love had not been reciprocated: Aladrén seems to have played cruelly with Lorca's emotions and used him to further his own career. The affair was a subject of gossip in Madrid, and Lorca's disorganized, impulsive way of life was now a source of worry to his parents, who hoped that in New York he would learn to administer his time, and their money, more wisely.
The poet would accompany one of his former professors at the University of Granada — Fernando de los Ríos — to the New World. This was a close family friend, a distinguished liberal politician and thinker, and a mentor to Lorca; the person who had persuaded his parents, years earlier, to allow him to study in Madrid. He would leave Lorca in the hands of friends in the Spanish Department at Columbia University. In New York the poet would study English and prepare a book about his American experience.
The "emotional crisis" to which Lorca refers in several letters of 1928 had been strangely aggravated by the critical success of his third book of poems, The Gypsy Ballads. The Ballads had drawn national attention to his poetry for the first time, and had made him known as a "gypsy poet," a term that had once amused him but which he now found revolting. The contrast between his public image and his private self, both as a writer and as a man (for Spanish society could not accept his homosexuality and several of his closest friends chose to know nothing about it), was becoming ever more grotesque and painful. The beginnings of fame made it all but unbearable. As early as January 1927, more than a year before the Ballads were published, Lorca told a friend how irritated he was by "the myth of my gypsiness":
People confuse my life and character. And this is the last thing I want. The gypsies are nothing but a theme. I could just as well be the poet of sewing needles or hydraulic landscapes. Furthermore, this "gypsy" business gives me an uneducated, uncultured tone and makes me into a "savage poet," which you know I am not. I just don't want them to pigeonhole me. I feel they are trying to chain me down.
Salvador Dalí, who had been Lorca's close friend since 1925, but from whom Lorca had now become estranged, sensed the anguish the poet was feeling. Soon after the Ballads appeared in print, he wrote to reassure him:
I love you for what the book reveals you to be, which is just the opposite of the reality that has been invented by putrified people everywhere: the dark-haired gypsy lad with the heart of a child, etc.: that whole decorative, unreal, nonexistent Lorca ... who could only have been dreamed up by "artistic" swine who know nothing of the little fish and the little bears and the soft, hard, and liquid contours that surround us.
But Dalí's opinion of the Ballads themselves only deepened Lorca's depression. In the same letter he reproaches Lorca for having written a book that is "bound, hands and feet, to the old poetry," one that "cannot move us and cannot satisfy the desires of modern readers." The indictment goes cruelly on for several pages. The Ballads are filled with clichés and stereotypes, "all the usual ideas about things." The book's imagery only serves to reinforce a "traditional" view of reality, in which things are compared with one another or evoked sentimentally, but never allowed to be themselves. The minute hands of a watch, Dalí explains,
only begin to acquire real value when they stop pointing to the hour and, losing their circular rhythm and the function assigned to them arbitrarily by our intelligence, ... escape from the watch and become a new bodily joint, in the place that corresponds to the sex organs of bread crumbs.
Another old friend, Luis Buñuel, had complained, rather less eloquently, of the Ballads' traditionalism:
The book has a certain dramatic quality for those who like that sort of flamenco dramatism. It captures the spirit of the classic ballad, for those who want the classic ballad to survive from one century to the next. There are even some magnificent, extremely original images, but there aren't very many, and they are all mixed up in a plot which I find unbearable, one which has filled the beds of Spain with menstrual blood.
Buñuel was writing to Dalí, whom he had long hoped to separate from Lorca. That winter the painter invited Buñuel to Figueras, where they wrote the script of Un chien andalou, shown in Paris in the spring of 1929. Although he may not have seen it until much later, Lorca knew of the film, and believed that Dalí and Buñuel were conspiring against him. In New York he is said to have told Ángel del Río: "Buñuel has made a little shit of a film called An Andalusian Dog, and the 'Andalusian dog' is me."
All this forms part of the biographical background of Poet in New York and helps to explain Lorca's abrupt departure from the poetic manner of his earlier works. For many reasons, Poet in New York marks a turning point in his poetry. It is his first book inspired by the city, rather than the country, and the only one not tied in some way to Andalusia. The New York poems are also the first that directly address social injustice. The book is as innovative formally as it is thematically: although there are several poems in hendecasyllables, and "The Birth of Christ" is written in fourteen-syllable alexandrines, free verse is used more extensively here than previously. The major stylistic change, however, lies in the nature of Lorca's poetic imagery.
By October 1928, Lorca was aware of having entered a new stage in his development as a poet. Dalí's observations on the Ballads seem to have provided the stimulus for a lecture entitled "Imagination, Inspiration, Evasion," in which Lorca discusses two types of poetry, the first of which he thought he had now transcended. There is, he writes, a poetry that is content to discover unsuspected relations between objects and ideas: this is the poetry of "imagination," whose eternal symbol is the great baroque poet Luis de Góngora. The "imaginative" poet follows the laws of "human logic, which is controlled by, and cannot break free of, reason." It is imagination, Lorca explains, that has "discovered the four points of the compass and the intermediate causes of things." The poet uses it to explore and describe the universe, and to "construct a tower against mystery and against the elements." But there is a second type of poetry, the poetry of "inspiration," which permits poet and reader to acknowledge mystery and to "evade" reality. In "inspired" poetry, the traditional metaphor yields to the hecho poético, the "poetic event," or "poetic fact," or "poetic deed" — an image that seems as inexplicable as a miracle, for it is devoid of any analogical meaning. Based on the hecho poético, and bound together by la lógica poética, the poem becomes a "self-sufficient entity without reference to any reality outside itself." Poet in New York tries to take the reader to a place where (in Lorca's words) "things exist just because, with no explicable cause or effect."
The book has often been read as an example of surrealism. Lorca had known of that movement at least since 1925, and, like all the major Spanish poets of his generation, was familiar with André Breton's first manifesto. One of the movement's forerunners, Comte de Lautréamont, had seized his imagination at an early age, and it has often been observed that Poet in New York owes much to the hallucinatory quality of Les chants de Maldoror. It should be noted, though, that in his lecture of 1928 (repeated several times in New York and Cuba), Lorca explicitly rejects the surrealists' use of dreams and of the subconscious as a technique for "poetic evasion." Such an evasion "may be very pure, but it is not very clear. We Latins want sharp profiles and visible mystery. Form and sensuality." In Poet in New York, Lorca would avoid the automatism that Breton had advocated in 1924. The critic Derek Harris has written that Lorca "exploits the surrealist freedom from moral, aesthetic or rational constraint, but only as a means of production for his imagery. He does not seek to establish the condition of surreality where conscious and subconscious experience combine." The "surreality" of Poet in New York is not an end in itself, nor does it have much to do with the epistemological impulse that lies behind the work Dalí was doing in 1927–28: Lorca could not have shared Dalí's longing to discover "reality" by liberating things from their usual "functional" meaning and emotional charge.
In Poet in New York, as, to a lesser degree, in the Ballads, traditional metaphors appear, in a disconcerting way, among hermetic images. The windows of Wall Street, for example, are compared to a columbario (literally, a dovecote or cemetery niches). Roses bound together for shipment to the city are "manacled" flowers, and the rage of the blacks is "fire [that] slept in the flints." A "harp of living tree trunks" lines the shore of Havana, where the poet hears the "rhythm of dried seeds" (sound of the maracas). Clouds are herds of bison driven by the wind. These metaphors are not very different from those that occur in the Ballads and in earlier works. But a far greater number of images can be elucidated only after patient study of their semantic connotations throughout the entire cycle of New York poems. Much of the imagery is quite resistent to rational "explanation," and some critics have responded, perhaps a bit vengefully, by dismantling the poems one by one, charting Lorca's "poetic universe," and trying to puzzle out which images are "positive" and which are "negative." These critical approaches, which often pay lip service to the multivalency of Lorca's images, have led to wildly divergent readings of certain poems. "Abandoned Church" has been said to deal with the lost promise of the blacks of Harlem; with "the drama of Christian hypocrisy"; with sexual frustration; with the horrors of World War I; and with the loss of religious faith. Reference to other poems does not lead us much closer to knowing why that poem is included in a section of Poet in New York entitled "Los negros." The funeral service alluded to in the poem, the "dead fish beneath the ashes of the censers," are examples of the sort of poetic "evasion" mentioned earlier.
* * *
Poet in New York is both a condemnation of modern urban civilization — the spiritual emptiness epitomized by New York — and a dark cry of metaphysical loneliness. Lorca once considered entitling the book Introduction to Death, and the "death" alluded to is both spiritual and physical, both that of the poet and that of the world around him.
The central and most dramatic death is that of the poet himself; not the author of the book, but the first-person "subject" of the poems: a protean, self-conscious figure who has been aptly described as "Prometheus, prophet and priest." The difference between this figure and Lorca himself, between the "empirical author" and his poetic persona, must not be overlooked. The family letters presented in this volume will remind the reader that Poet in New York cannot be read as a lyrical autobiography. The boyish, carefree writer of those letters and the tragic "self" or "subject" of the book of poems are two of the masks, or voices, of one of the most complex spirits of modern European poetry, and one of the themes of Poet in New York — and of The Audience as well — is precisely that: the quicksand of identity and the struggle to transcend societal masks.
Lorca died without seeing the book published, but in the 1930s, as he searched for ways to organize the unpublished poems he had brought back from the United States, he presented many of them in the form of a lecture to audiences in Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay. In this reading, in which he creates an autobiographical and political framework for the poems — "that of a journey into the heart of an alien world" — Lorca does his best to identify himself with the lyrical "I." Minimizing the distance between life and art, hoping to make difficult poems easier to understand, he creates a fictitious narrative of how he wrote them and interprets his own book, rather too narrowly, as an attack on the United States, a country bereft of spiritual greatness. The title Poet in New York was meant to sound paradoxical: How could a poet survive there? Lorca's statements to the Spanish-language press in the years following his return from the United States share the anti-American tone of the lecture (an anti-Americanism quite common in the Spain of the early 1930s):
New York is something awful, something monstrous. I like to walk the streets, lost, but I recognize that New York is the world's great lie. New York is Senegal with machines. The English have taken there a civilization with no roots. They have raised more and more houses, but they haven't dug into the earth. They live upwards, upwards ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Poet in New York"
Copyright © 1988 Herederos de Federico García Lorca.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Note to the Third Edition,
Introduction by Christopher Maurer,
I. POEMS OF SOLITUDE IN COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY,
After a Walk,
Fable of Three Friends to Be Sung in Rounds,
Your Childhood in Menton,
II. THE BLACKS,
Standards and Paradise of the Blacks,
The King of Harlem,
Abandoned Church (Ballad of the Great War),
III. STREETS AND DREAMS,
Dance of Death,
Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude (Dusk at Coney Island),
Landscape of a Pissing Multitude (Battery Place Nocturne),
Murder (Two Early Morning Voices on Riverside Drive),
Christmas on the Hudson,
Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne),
Blind Panorama of New York,
The Birth of Christ,
IV. POEMS OF LAKE EDEN MILLS,
Double Poem of Lake Eden,
V. IN THE FARMER'S CABIN (IN THE NEWBURGH COUNTRYSIDE),
Little Girl Drowned in the Well (Granada and Newburgh),
VI. INTRODUCTION TO DEATH (POEMS OF SOLITUDE IN VERMONT),
Nocturne of Emptied Space,
Landscape with Two Graves and an Assyrian Dog,
Two Lovers Murdered by a Partridge,
Moon and Panorama of the Insects (Love Poem),
VII. RETURN TO THE CITY,
New York (Office and Denunciation),
VIII. TWO ODES,
Cry to Rome (From the Tower of the Chrysler Building),
Ode to Walt Whitman,
IX. FLIGHT FROM NEW YORK (TWO WALTZES TOWARD CIVILIZATION),
Little Viennese Waltz,
Waltz in the Branches,
X. THE POET ARRIVES IN HAVANA,
Blacks Dancing to Cuban Rhythms,
Lecture: A Poet in New York,
The Poet Writes to His Family from New York and Havana,
Notes on the Poems,
About the Author,