In Search of Duende

In Search of Duende
Federico Garcia Lorca
A New Directions Bibelot
NDP858 published 1998
ISBN 0-8112-1376-5
100 pages, $7.95

In Search of Duende contains prose selections and poetry culled from many periods of Federico Garcia Lorca’s work that concern what he terms “duende”. The concept of duende is presented by Lorca as a type of inspiration forming a trinity with the muse and the angel. His identification of duende is as a vaguely demonic, vaguely pagan, but decidedly primal goad to the creative act; a visceral rather than a contemplative experience. In Lorca’s time Spanish literature was in many ways still under a Romantic influence and Lorca’s work was in some respects part of a corrective movement much like that of the French Symbolists or the British Aesthetes. But Lorca was a more intellectual person and a more traditional one. His appreciation of the deep song of Andalusia and his use of its raw materials as components of his own work show that he places a greater value upon his culture's traditions than the Symbolists or Aesthetes did. Where the Symbolists or Aesthetes made use of traditional themes or forms they generally sought a scatological end, juxtaposing coarse images with fine traditions. The Andalusian music called cante jondo, or deep song, is a body of folk tradition comparable to that of the English ballads in its scope and it was in this body of work that he found the greatest expression of duende. Lorca does not displace the folk material’s sincerity with cynicism or the faux sophisticate’s sneer. Instead it is clear that he approaches that body of folk song with something approaching reverence.

“Behind these poems lurks a terrible question that has no answer. Our people cross their arms in prayer, look at the stars, and wait in vain for a sign of salvation. The gesture is pathetic but true. And the poem either poses a deep emotional question with no answer, or solves it with death, which is the question of questions.”

It is easy to see that he felt a deep kinship with these anonymous poets, and that he felt there was an element in their work that was, for want of a better term, sacred.

Lorca accepts the notion that the ultimate origin of the Andalusian folk songs is an Oriental tradition that has been subsumed by the traditions of the European Gypsy. Indeed, many of the verses of the folk songs quoted in this book have a quality of observed fact that makes them similar in a sense to haiku. Take for example these lines:

“The moon has a halo;
my love has died.”

or these lines:

“You will knock at my door.
I will never get up to answer,
and you must hear my cry.”

But in the deep song there is a quality of lament that is thoroughly alien to the form’s supposedly Oriental origins. In these lines it is far easier to see the gypsy background that Lorca claims for the deep song:

“I was going, mother,
to cut roses,
to find death
among the roses.
In the garden
I will die,
in the roses
they will kill me.”

That has none of the detachment that is expected in the traditions of Oriental poetry, but it is highly reminiscent of the revenge ballads that feature prominently in the Gypsy tradition. Lorca’s conception of duende is sometimes confused and sometimes contradicts itself, but the central idea he presents is that of a primal force, a force of great charisma that inhabits the singer, or dancer, or even—perhaps particularly—the bullfighter:

“The bull has his orbit, and the bullfighter has his, and between these two orbits is a point of danger, the vertex of the terrible play.

“You can have muse with the muleta and angel with the banderillas and pass for a good bullfighter, but in the cape-work, when the bull is still clean of wounds, and at the moment of the kill, you need the duende’s help to achieve artistic truth.”

Throughout the book, Lorca’s conception of duende returns to the idea that of the three principal forms of inspiration as he has enumerated them, duende is the most closely associated with death:

“When the muse sees death arrive, she closes the door or raises a plinth or promenades an urn and writes an epitaph with waxen hand, but soon she is watering her laurel again in a silence that wavers between two breezes. Beneath the broken arch of the ode she joins with funeral feeling the limpid flowers of fifteenth-century Italian painters, and asks Lucretius’s trusty rooster to frighten away unforeseen shades.

“When the angel sees death come, he flies in slow circles and weaves tears of narcissus and ice into the elegy we have seen trembling in the hands of Keats, Villasandino, Herrera, Becquer, and Juan Ramon Jimenez. But how it horrifies him to feel even the tiniest spider on his tender, rosy foot!

“And the duende? The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation.”

It is easy enough to see that Lorca placed a high value upon these folk elements, but the question remains, did those qualities he admired so greatly manifest themselves in his own poetry?

I am not a student of Lorca’s poetry, and would not wish to judge his body of work based on such a small sample as is presented here, but based solely upon the handful of poems reprinted here, I would say the answer is yes. The sense of impending loss in these poems of his and of the universality of that fate are at one with the wistful lament of the deep song. Many of these poems have the plainness, the directness, that is found in so much folklore. As an example let’s take one of my favorites from this book:

Rider’s Song

Far away and alone.

Black pony, big moon,
and olives in my saddlebag.
Although I know the roads
I’ll never reach Cordoba.

Through the plain, through the wind,
black pony, red moon.
Death is looking at me
from the towers of Cordoba.

Ay! How long the road!
Ay! My valiant pony!
Ay! That death should wait for me
before I reach Cordoba.

Far away and alone.

To me this captures something that is essential in folk song, a kind of homely fatalism that nevertheless can’t defeat the human will to persist in its being. Most of this small selection of Lorca’s poems operate within similar tones and are painted from a common palette.

I recommend this book not so much for the common reader as for the collegiate poet eager to be lost in alien ideas or the young person in the first blush of creative writing.

As a side note for those of you who are interested in such things, Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain draws heavily upon cante jondo for inspiration. Reading this book while listening to the ineffable Miles Davis makes for a more than interesting combination of wistful effects.

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