June 17, 2011

Federico Garcia Lorca & The Duende

What is the source of power in poetry?  What leads one to write it, or causes one to seek it?  Some writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin report that the writing was given to her by God; she merely wrote it down.  Is there a divine source?   

Federico Garcia Lorca has found it in the duende, a dark spirit that is neither angel or muse.   Who has duende in American culture?  Billie Holiday.  Edward Hirsch, poet and essayist, writes of several poets and artists who have a dark and arresting intensity, whose work breathes life and death, and by whom we are transfixed.   

Lorca said, "Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks, or strips Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer stark naked in the cold of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to wait for death in the wastes of Ocaña, or clothes Rimbaud’s delicate body in a saltimbanque’s costume, or gives the Comte de Lautréamont the eyes of a dead fish, at dawn, on the boulevard."

This is not a spirit who brings gifts; Lorca puts it in the terms of a battle:  

" With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work."   To read his entire text, please click here:


A wound that never heals appears in many mythic stories.  Arthurian legend, Greek myth, Russian myth, Christian stories of stigmata, and many others seem to point to a universal story of suffering.   Perhaps suffering and the writing that springs out of the attempt to heal it will evoke the duende.   The duende, says Federico Garcia Lorca, is the battle pitched between you and death.  It is a wound that won’t heal, a wind that blows over the dead, “a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.” From pain, violence or carnage, birth.

Lorca evoked the Duende whenever he did a reading; he called to the spirit for both him and the audience; often it held them with its terrible beauty.

June 16, 2011

The Task of the Poet

In an interview in the Paris Review, Adrienne Rich said, "I don’t know that poetry itself has any universal or unique obligations. It’s a great ongoing human activity of making, over different times, under different circumstances. For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference." 

One of the best American essays is Adrienne Rich's "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." In it, she writes "When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her." Let this be our task as poets. 

I think the task of the poet is to remain true to one's own experience. The poem comes from the body; the body should be reflected in the poem.  The poem comes out of a particular place in the world.   The poet needs to be cognizant of the landscape and also her own position and perspective within it.  

A good poet is aware of the underground of the subject and form of her work.This could be the history, context, connections, and language.  

A good poet is open to surprise. Is intuitive.  Sometimes in the writing of the poem, an accident of language, a juxtaposition of image, an error brings a startling insight.   In the practice of poetry, one strives for a deliberating openness.   

A collection of a poet's work reveals vision: a perspective, motivation, goal.  A poet's work provides a landscape and a story, different for each poet, and a language that reaches beyond the individual toward the community or the divine or the one lone reader somewhere in the future, paging through a book, wanting the heart, or a piercing light into the center of life.  

June 3, 2011

Why Poetry?

More than self-expression, poetry is a way of seeing.  Robert Henri, in The Art Spirit, wrote:

"The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture--however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with a brush, pen, chisel or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trance, the footprint of the state.
These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because they are to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence."

Doreen Gildroy presented this quote in an interesting essay ("Poetry and Mysticism," American Poetry Review, May/ June 2011). A "greater existence" is an experience of dissolving boundaries, meaningfulness, or a sudden perception of connectedness; a mystical experience with poetry often comes unbidden, by accident or by grace.  One can invite it, certainly. The state of flow that happens during creative work may be the state of being that Robert Henri describes. Writing is one way to enter a state of flow;  in the state of flow, perceptions shift.  Time goes by without notice.  Focus is enhanced.  The ability to see is increased. 

The poem becomes a record of an experience; it is a dual experience.  The first experience is the subject of the poem, and the second experience is the making of that particular poem.  Each poem offers a new possibility, a new way of seeing, and it engages one in "a making."  In the making of a poem, one finds images, sounds, and patterns that develop and come to fruition.  The plying of the language leads one forward into new insight or image or story.  I like this way of seeing; this is why I write.