Desperately Seeking…Duende?

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Musings on Writing and Life.

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Being a person too often inclined to the melancholy and darker side of life, I was struck by this comment by Barbara LaMorticella on Dojo Poetry Editor Kirsten Rian’s recent blog post about happiness:

“In flamenco music, in Spanish poetry, there is a hard to define quality called ‘duende,’ which is a grief so deep it brings tears that feel like tears of joy, for it expands and enlarges us, it comes from the deepest living roots and unites us with our fellows in life and in suffering.”

Barbara’s words sent me back to a tiny New Directions volume called In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca((, most specifically to the essay, “Play and Theory of Duende,” a lecture he first gave in Buenos Aires in 1933. I wanted my memory refreshed even further about this hard-to-pin-down (for me, at least) idea or concept or elemental creative force, whatever it actually is. 

Federico García Lorca was a poet, dramatist, and theatre director. He wrote surrealistic, imagistic poetry and was active in the Spanish avant-garde art scene known as the Generation of ’27  that also included folks like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. García Lorca was politically outspoken as well. After the Spanish Civil War broke out, he and his brother-in-law, the socialist mayor of Granada, were arrested. García Lorca was shot by Nationalist militia in August of 1936; his body was thrown into an unmarked grave. He was thirty-eight years old. To this day, there remains controversy around the circumstances—and reason for—his death including the possibility that it had something to do with his likely homosexuality. For many years, the Franco regime banned his work.

As poet and political martyr, García Lorca’s influence has long ranged far and wide. Joan Baez has sung translations of his poems; Leonard Cohen—who idolized the poet so much that he named his daughter Lorca—translated a poem that became his song, “Take This Waltz.” In her book, Spain, the brilliant travel writer Jan Morris suggests the poet was prescient about his own death when he wrote “Then I realised [sic] I had been murdered. They looked for me in cafés, cemeteries and churches…but they did not find me. They never found me? No. They never found me.”

It’s in the short but now-famous lecture about duende that García Lorca distilled many of his theories about artistic creation into a coherent whole. He believed that the making of great art—whether song, music, theatre, poetry, or performance—depends upon a constant and vivid awareness of death, outside the realms of reason and with deep ties to a country’s very earth. In other words, as Goethe said of Paganini, “a mysterious power which everyone senses but no one explains.”

García Lorca sums it up even more profoundly than that: “The duende is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought…it climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet. Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

By the time he gave this lecture, García Lorca’s approach to his own poetics had shifted radically, moving from the traditional metaphor into the imagistic in an attempt to “catch, at the speed of the voice, the rhythmic design of the poem.” He believed that duende would be most often uncovered in music, dance, and spoken poetry, “arts that require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”

Irrationality. Earthiness. A dash of the diabolical. An alternative to style and mere virtuosity. A seizing of both performer and audience. All of these elements should be present in order to create an art that is understood spontaneously and with little (if any) conscious effort.

Pretty heady stuff.

I begin to wonder if those of us born, living, and attempting to be artists in the United States of America can even possibly get to—let alone fuse with—an elemental force like that. In many ways, it seems to me that many aspects of 21st century American culture shy away from anything as pulsing and anarchic as this. Just take a look at the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals often so cavalierly prescribed to keep many of us from feeling too deeply, whether we are depressed or hopped-up and excited, unable to sleep because the creative current is coursing through us, or just plain aware of the fact that all of us are living finite, all-too-mortal lives. Still to be able to surrender (even in baby ways) to the primal force that is duende—I wonder how many of us have the courage, the audacity, the absence of ego and vanity and desire for success—let alone the basic ability to keep going and feeling, way past the fears and the tears.

García Lorca’s quest for duende was ongoing. It continued wherever he found himself in the world—whether staging a theatre festival in Granada, seeking out song in gypsy camps in Andalusia, or listening to jazz, blues, and Negro spirituals in New York City clubs. If his life hadn’t been cut short by an assassin’s bullet, I’m sure he would have kept up his search. Instead, we are left with the gorgeousness of his (translated) words to help us on our own duende-seeking journeys:

“Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.”

There is much more in this little jewel of an essay—including a discussion of duende in the bullfight!—than I could ever do justice to here. An on-line version (different translation from the New Directions book) is here(( Olé!

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