When time machines were popular in science fiction, a frequent plot was to call up some primitive and drop him into the beehive of urban activity his old stamping grounds had become--an Iroquois in Times Square, for example. When Garcia Lorca arrived in New York in the summer of 1929 his predicament must have been similar.
Never having been outside Spain before and not knowing a word of English, the young poet was swirled down into big city life at the height of the Bull Market days. And he reacted to the city in such an elemental way that the poetry which resulted--discordant, night-marish, nearly surrealistic--was utterly unlike anything he had written before. In fact, Lorca's Poet in New York was so different from his early Canciones or the gypsy ballads in Romancero Gitano that many scholars try to consider it outside and unrelated to the course of the poet's stylistic "development."
With this new translation by Ben Belitt and a perspective of over twenty years on all Lorca's work, we can make a truer appraisal of these extraordinary poems and fit them better into the total output of his brief life.
Death and Regeneration
The Spanish peasants and gypsies Lorca celebrates in his earlier, and later, poems live in a world dominated by death, a world of knifings, bullfights, bloody night raids by Franco's falangistas, but it is death as natural and unconsciously accepted as the moon, or eating, or being born. Their death is a positive force, a feature of the primitive existence of blood and earth they are part of. Death in modern society is by fear put out of mind, that is why the inescapable fact of it is so sordid. It is the difference between regenerate and unregenerate. The poet is alarmed at this turning away from death while being surrounded by it, and in the long poem Dance of Death Lorca finds the one group in all the New York millions which has not turned away--the Negroes.
The poet and the Negroes who have never turned away from death, but lived with it, knew it, now can perform its dance since there is no discrepancy between their consciousness and the unalterable nature and climax of the world. This mutation of the primitive consciousness, is the fundamental theme of the book.
The state Lorca would have all return to is the condition that the Negroes and his gypsies share, that unabashed freedom of the instincts, the alignments with the primal emotions of all whose spirits are outside civilized society. To Lorca, these wooden people of the city are not merely estranged from a natural environment which they can reacquire by a turn in the park; the entirely of the mass of their mechanical civilization stands between them and the broken strands of their roots in Nature. They cannot operate naturally or seek the pronouncements of Nature, if they allow the city to regulate the temperature of their air, make night a flimsy daylight with electricity and fill them with synthetic food. The city is like a tottering superstructure of tin and sticks and kite paper where the most anyone can do in a life-time is add another Christmas-tree bauble onto one of its projections. Below this shaky construction, what it rests on, is the solidity of earth and the natural elements, where the poet, the gypsies and the blacks stand.
New Subject Forces New Style
What made Lorca change from his popular combinations of the old romantic meter (the lines and construction in his Romancero Gitano are very like EI Cid) with inflamed Gongorisms from the seventeenth century and scenes from contemporary Andalusian life was not the influence of Dali's artistic personality, nor the surrealist attempts of his not-so-friendly literary rival Rafael Alberti. We must recognize now with the settling effects of two decades since Lorca's death, that he took on this radically different form only as a means to express his similarly different subject matter. It should be apparent that had Lorca's arrival in America merely coincided with his abandonment of the old forms, or even if his experience in New York had set him on a new and durable bent, he would not have returned so immediately and whole-heartedly to his old way of writing poetry and to his old subjects, as soon as he got back to Spain. Of course it is impossible to be entirely unaffected by two years' writing in such a different manner: Lorca could not have produced a passage like the Cuerpo Presento in Lament for the death of Sanch Mejullas before, and traces of the New York experience can be found in the tragedies, especially Blood Wedding, but by and large Lorca did take up the old forms again. Some critics in this country and in Europe, especially those still plugging for the surrealists, are loath to admit this.
A change was necessary, and necessarily as it was. Lorca could only have put together poetical monstrosities if he had not refused to fit the turbulent, phantasmagorical sensations he took in, to the regulated, steady, time-proven forms he was used to. It is perhaps an easy task to fit a love lyric or an ingenuous little casida into the neat octosyllabic line, but that line would prove a Procrustes' bed to a poem titled Landscape of the Urinating Multitudes or the description of a Harlem Saturday night.
Very Good to Bad
Some of Lorca's poetry in Poet in New York is very bad, partly because of the strange idiom he was working in, partly on account of his often-expressed desire to say something, to picture something, in a completely new, and preferably shocking, way. It is not so much that his metaphors and imagery slip out of focus, as Roy Campbell suggests, but they are sometimes strained and absurdly disjunct, unsequential and incoherent. Some of his worst lines, such as
Dog's urine in inkwells scorned by the cockle-burr
From the other side of the moon I pulled up a chicken-claw
and knew I'd fish for a daughter. have that patently bizarre quality that Rolfe Humphries satirizes in his line about the cuspidors spitting at the neon morning.
When Lorca is successful, though, he achieves a surpassing clarity of expression through a concentrated effort to open all his senses wide and yet his impressions bypass his mind and go right to his pen; it is a clarity that a weaker spirit might have intellectualized into obscurity. His best moments come when he makes true what the soon-to-depart Mr. Honig has said of him--"(Lorca) is above all a realistic sensualist who must have the secret of light bare."
Some Bad Metaphors
None of the poems in the book is entirely satisfactory; he can, and does, clothe the finest feeling in the crudest language, and ruins the perfection of a poem, inserting some unspeakably bad metaphor, or one that has meaning only for himself. They are not his best poems, but some are very good.
And the translation is good enough for real enjoyment of this unusual book of poems; and the poems themselves are good enough to make some Americans wonder why
... the white-suited man goes his way with no thought of the corn-tassel's
with no thought of the birth cry. Their meaning may assume an increasing importance in a city and a nation grown too big too fast, and too ugly