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Friday, March 8, 2019

The first lecture begins...

Book series addressed to dummies and idiots have their particular niche in our culture. Without questioning the utility of such books, my aim here is a different one: to address those who might not know anything about Federico García Lorca, but with the presumption that my audience will be a highly intelligent one. Introductions to Lorca abound; I have one on my shelf in the form of a comic book. Numerous other books take on narrow aspects of his life and work, and are of interest mostly to other academic specialists. What is lacking, I have often felt, is a broad introduction for the general public that gives the author his due. A dumbed-down introduction to a complex subject will fail to convey anything essential about it, and thus will be an act of betrayal rather than of homage. At the same time, however, I believe, perhaps naively, that it is possible to present complex material without concessions to idiotsand dummies, but in a manner utterly accessible to reasonably bright non-academic readers. 

In this spirit, I am presenting this book of six lectures (or perhaps “nonlectures,” in E.E. Cummings’s coinage). For the most part they are not, literally, lectures that I have given or hope to give. All, however, are based on my experience of writing about Lorca and presenting my ideas to a variety of audiences, mostly in an academic context. Lectures have the reputation of being dull, of course, but in comparison with texts meant to be read silently they have the potential to be dynamic and performative. The lecture, not the essay or book chapter, was Lorca’s own favored genre of expository prose, and I imagine that he was able electrify his audiences. I am hoping, then, that this conceit will help me to shape my exposition in the Lorquian spirit. 

I propose, then, six chapters of six thousand words each, on subjects that I predict might be of interest to my hypothetical audience. Wherever possible I have decided to avoid cannibalizing my already published scholarship on Lorca: I am not rewriting my books, but riffing on my previous ideas and presenting them with a few new wrinkles. The title of this first lecture, “Lorca and Me,” might sound a bit narcissistic at first blush. My intention, though, is to bring my own biases to the forefront from the very beginning rather than making a pretense toward objectivity. In each of these lectures I propose an argument rather than a compilation of information. For this reason, it might be useful to begin with an explanation of the experiences and perspectives that have shaped my view of the Spanish playwright and poet over the years. The reader (or listener) deserves to know how the author of his book is positioning himself with respect to Lorca. One’s own unique relation to the subject matter can be a source both of blindness and insight. I have often been disheartened to realize how little of one’s own deep knowledge makes its way into    

I began to define myself as a poet at the age of eleven. Naïvely, perhaps, I thought that a poet should know everything there is to know about the art form itself, so I began a systematic study of it, one that I have not yet concluded, nearly fifty years later. Gradually over the years, I discovered that most poets do not share my assumption. My more scholarly attitude would lead me in another direction, away from the purely creative attitude that would have made me a poet in the professional sense. In any case, I was going to be an English major, but I began to study Spanish during the summer before my freshman year, and progressed rapidly through the courses. The opportunity to study abroad in Madrid for a year made me change my major to Comparative Literature. My PhD is also in Comp Lit, although my primary professional identification has always been as a hispanist. 

I was interested in Spanish and Latin American poetry because of the wide number of translations being produced at the time, as a consequence of the prevalence of the deep image school and the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Pablo Neruda and to Vicente Aleixandre in the 1970s. I bought into the notion that the best Spanish poetry was surrealist in the mode of Aleixandre’s books of the 1930s, Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, and, of course, Lorca’s Poet in New York. I wanted to understand and translate this poetry. This was my primary motivation for learning Spanish, in fact. I assumed, at one point, that my trajectory would have been a fairly typical one, but I have actually never met anyone else who became a professor of Spanish in order to read Lorca or Neruda in the original. This was also the period in which the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other “boom” writers was hugely popular in the US. In some sense, this concept was the equivalent, in prose, to the poetic idea of Spanish-language surrealism. Both are exoticizing lenses through which to view the cultural other.       

My main poetic interest in the English language was the New York School, a group of poets who were inspired by French, rather than Spanish poetry. (Later I would discover that Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch owed more to Lorca than most people realized, but that is getting ahead of myself.) I liked some of the deep image poetry of people like James Tate, but I didn’t necessarily like most the work of American poets inspired by the Spanish poetry I was studying. This split in my own consciousness is important to note because it explains how I took a more suspicious view when I began to write on this topic. Not only would I would never celebrate Lorca’s duendein an uncritical way, but I would actively criticize those who do. 

My first published poem, with the title “Poem,” was based on my experience of reading Kenneth Koch’s parody, “Some South American Poets,” in his book The Pleasures of Peace: “There is no need to invent imaginary / Latin American poets! Real poets exist, / Waiting to be translated!” This poem is obviously very derivative of Koch, but it provides evidence that I was already fascinated to the practice of apocryphal translation, to which I would return more than twenty years later in my first book on Lorca.    

In Spain, I took a course on Lorca, Aleixandre, and Guillén from the poet José Luis Cano. He presented these poets in a very straightforward way, emphasizing Lorca’s Andalusian origins. Carlos Bousoño, the most prominent critic of poetry in Spain at the time, gave a course on “Theory of Poetic Expression.” During the first class session, he devoted more than an hour to discussing the first line of a Lorca poem, “Romance de la guardia civil española.” His point was that this was poetry because Lorca wrote “Los caballos negros son” [the horses black are] rather than using the normal word order “Los caballos son negros.” I did not return for the second day of class. I was put off by his display of pedanticism. He expected students to take down his words verbatim in their notes, even repeating sentences so make it easier for them. Cano, or perhaps another professor, told me about a course taught by Claudio Rodríguez, perhaps the greatest Spanish poet of the time. I enrolled in that course, dropping Bousoño’s, and went on to write a dissertation on Rodríguez.

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