Wednesday, April 04, 2012


hereunder's a revised/updated version of an essay i wrote back in 2007.


from Federico Garcia Lorca's The Duende: Theory and Divertissement:

"The duende that I speak of, shadowy, palpitating, is a descendant of that benignest demon of Socrates, he of marble and salt, who scratched the master angrily the day he drank the hemlock; and of that melancholy imp of Descartes, little as an unripe almond, who, glutted with circles and lines, went out on the canals to hear the drunken sailors singing.

Any man - any artist, as Nietzsche would say - climbs the stairway in the tower of his perfection at the cost of a struggle with a duende - not with an angel, as some have maintained, or with his muse. This fundamental distinction must be kept in mind if the root of a work of art is to be grasped."


personally, i agree that the so-called "muse" who's supposed to provide the medicine for all writerly melancholy does not exist. inspiration itself is a highly overrated construct. most people like to think a work of art is inspired or "charged" because of some thing, an image that must concretize the abstract symbols. the most common is that of the muse, or as far as Lorca's concerned, the duende.

nowadays, the reading of poetry for example, seems to be dominated by a favoring not so much of the poem's content as the poet’s style (or voice), this whole business of intellectualizing and second-guessing the poet's intentions in regard to the usage of language. it's a highly academic endeavor, and often, by implication, necessitates a certain "IQ prerequisite".

the message (or content, if you will) is often lost in the meticulous over-thinking of craft, a task most people who want to write poetry must first get a firm grasp of.

this is why an important "rite of passage" in our country for all would-be writers is the workshop. ideally, most emerging writers get accepted because their works show the so-called "potential," which loosely translates to a good understanding of, if not already a blossoming mastery, of craft. thus, subject matter seemingly isn't as crucial as the familiarity with the conventions, or conversely, the experimentations with language.

poetry is often realized through actual experiences, anyway. cliché as this may sound, writers are not born but made. the "making" of a writer, however, has everything to do with the balancing of two things: chance and intention. in a word, risk - a thorough understanding of the dictates of craft and that sublime re-presentation of the subject matter.

my little issue about this is that whenever certain poetics favor the "intellectualizing" of language, there emerges then a very constricting room for that "charge" that all poems should aspire for. it just further elevates the "artfulness" of the poetic task to ivory tower discussions among people in the academe. don't get me wrong; discourse is needed for any country's literature to progress. but if we maintain this aloofness and this wow about pulling one another down via transgressive devices, dialogue ceases.

the caveat, methinks, is that most of those who claim to be dedicated critics are poets themselves masquerading in that veil of intellect, referencing foreign "isms" left and right, lambasting and name-dropping with gusto, just to promote their "appropriation" of trending poetics.

this doesn't help anybody, given how tiny and archipelagic our literary circles are. and especially because the writing of and reading of poetry are two very different undertakings. as far as the writing aspect is concerned, i believe poetry doesn't settle for the sure; it only aspire for the possible. in a word, verisimilitude.

the reading of poetry is where the bigger problem rests. paradoxes abound here. is there really no way of "negotiating" in such a way that poets would have a "knowable reader" and not write just for the already knowledgeable ones, mostly composed of seasoned readers of poetry, "critics," and fellow poets? is it problematic to be deliberately difficult or obscure? is it not literature's ultimate duty to be generous? should the reading of poetry be about the mindful or the heartfelt?

many people hate poetry enough, as it is, if only for its heightened use of language. but that is not the problem of poetry. it is, in fact, its beauty. however, since most of our teachers since grade school have ingrained in us the idea that we must understand poetry first - like an elaborate riddle with an equally elaborate punchline - most readers don't want to read the lines. they just want to read between them, dive quickly into the meaning, as though all poems are tests of their intellect. if the students don't get it, then they feel they're just ignorant. this is sad, to say the least, and just further alienates more and more young people from poetry.

to allude to a boxing dictum, "styles make fights." the same rings true for poetry. we should be careful, though: because mistimed punches, on the other hand, allow for rushed poems banking solely on gimmickry, on "sparring". Lorca's imp is a trickster, yes, but it is not benign to the complacent.

all in all, i feel poets should admit that they began writing poetry because of that one poem that really touched them, that one poem whose meaning pierced them sharply with the sharp end of its pointed heart. maybe because of the convincing tone, the way it was read. maybe even by the mere diction, the little they know of similes and metaphors. but certainly not by the line-cutting, the indentions, the italics, etc. these are learned after. that is, if you happen to be willing enough to indulge literary criticism, take a course in creative writing, teach the craft, read. and then read some more. be a writer. or a critic.

or, you could just sit back and relax in that old chair in the backyard this holy week and read a book or two of poems, totally carefree, frolicking with the duendes, enjoying the sheer pleasure of a "felt" poem's seeming truth that passes through you like a prayer.


finally, here's an example of poem that the poet Robert Hirsch claims to be imbibed by Lorca's duende:

(Solo la muerte) Nothing But Death

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

Translated by Robert Bly

- Pablo Neruda

from Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth)