June 5 was the 115th anniversary of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s birth. Happy birthday, Freddy! LIVE from the New York Public Library threw a fine celebration for him on June 4, with readings of his work, readings of work he influenced, a dramatic performance of a lecture he gave expounding on his experience in the U.S. and the creation of Poet in New York, and a grand finale performance by Patti Smith, who recited two Lorca poems and sang a couple songs.
It is Lorca who is credited with advancing the concept of duende as an aesthetic mode and artistic ideal. Literally speaking, a duende is a mythological creature –a goblin or a sprite – that causes mischief and disruption. The word is derived from the Spanish word for “owner” (dueno), and the implication is that the uncontrollable and out-of-hand is the true ruler of the world. Lorca’s vision of duende is that the artist needs to surrender to danger and disruption in order to get to the heart of his art. From the opening lines of his lecture:
Well then, before reading poems aloud to so many people, the first thing one must do is invoke the duende. This is the only way all of you will succeed at the hard task of understanding metaphors as soon as they arise, without depending on intelligence or on a critical apparatus… Poems like these are not likely to be understood without the cordial help of the duende.
The poets on hand this evening to pay tribute to Lorca – Philip Levine, Tracey K. Smith, Paul Muldoon, John Giorno – remarked on the danger of the duende, the risk involved in letting go of rational thought in surrender to deeper, darker forces. “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible…The duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lies a man’s work,” Muldoon quoted from Lorca’s lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende.”
The poet and musician Patti Smith has been surrendering to the duende for all 40 or so years of her remarkable career. Though her poetry hero is Arthur Rimbaud, certainly Lorca’s work is progeny of Rimbaud’s poetic call to disrupt the senses in order to find true meaning. Anyone who’s seen her perform knows that Smith channels forces from beyond and surrenders to wherever those forces take her through her performance. Likewise, the actor Will Keen, who interpreted selections from Lorca’s Poet in New York lecture, which is interspersed with poems from the book, gave a riveting performance that I’m sure convinced those new in the audience to Lorca’s work that he was worth getting to know better. An additional treat to the evening was Lorca scholar Christopher Maurer’s invitation to Lorca’s niece, Laura Garcia Lorca, to the stage to read several poems in their original Spanish.
“Lorca had no wish to see his poems dead on the page,” said the evening’s host, Paul Holdengraber. As the celebration of the poet’s life and work continue through July 21 (follow the link for more info: http://lorcanyc.com), is assurance that Lorca’s poems and legacy will live on.