February 1999

David Grayson Book Review


Henry Taylor

Mark Bibbins
  Sharon Cumberland
  Philip Dacey
  Daniela Gioseffi
  Brent Goodman
  Mark Halperin
  Ben Howard
  Stellasue Lee
  Linda Lerner
  John McKernan
  DeWayne Rail
  David Rigsbee
  Peter Robinson
  Terry Savoie
  Joseph Stanton
  Mary Winters

  David Grayson

Lloyd Schwartz

Rosa Shand
  Daniela Gioseffi

Order this book

In Search of Duende
by Federico Garcia Lorca

Norman Thomas Di Giovanni (Translator)
New Directions Bibelot Series $7.00

Spanish Darkness: Lorca's Duende

Published on the hundredth year anniversary of his birth, In Search of Duende is a window into the work of Spain’s most famous modern poet, Federico García Lorca. In Search of Duende gathers together Lorca’s writings about the Duende, the idea that became the cornerstone of his philosophy on art and his view of the Spanish tradition. The book includes a seminal essay on Lorca’s conception of the Duende, and other essays on Spanish arts – where Lorca saw the Duende expressed. Of course, there is also a sampling of Lorca’s poetry, where the reader can glimpse Lorca’s efforts at bringing the Duende into his own work.

The prose pieces – including essays on flamenco music and the bullfight – will probably be new to many of Lorca’s fans. However, though dramatic and a delight to read, the essays are uneven. At places, Lorca is insightful and poetic, and at other points he is naïve and sentimental.

In the linchpin essay, "Play and Theory of the Duende," Lorca articulates his conception of the creative energy of Spain. Historically in Andalusia, the Duende was a household goblin-like spirit responsible for causing mischief. But the word was also used by Andalusians to describe artists whose music or dance was especially inspired: "This has much Duende."

Lorca begins to describe Duende by borrowing Goethe’s allusion to the "mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains." The Duende is a force that is irrational and intuitive; spiritually connected to the earth and pantheistic; and – quintessentially Spanish – aware of death. "All that has black sounds has Duende," wrote Andalusian cantaor Manuel Torre. These popular verses are characteristic:

Out in the sea
was a stone.
My girl sat down
to tell it her pains.


My love will end,
my tears will end,
my grief will end,
and all will end.

Interestingly, Lorca argues that the Duende is not simply what we call the muse, nor what he calls the "angel," religious inspiration. The Duende’s obsessions with death and so forth make it a unique force animating the artist. Lorca is unconvincing. The forces at work inside a creative artist are too intangible, indistinct, and intertwined to be split into three discrete types, and it seems like he is splitting hairs.

The other major essay in the volume, "Deep Song," introduces the reader to cante jondo – literally "deep song" – the more rustic form of flamenco music sung in the countryside. Lorca’s understanding of art, and Spanish art in particular, is displayed strongly here. He describes flamenco vocals as a "wavering emission," and likens them to the "trilling of birds." In an astute observation, he says there is no middle ground in deep song lyrics: only matters of life and death are worthy. For instance, one verse preaches:

It doesn’t matter to me
if a bird in the poplar grove
skips from tree to tree.

Beyond this, however, Lorca’s views get muddled. He makes "a special distinction" between commercial flamenco music and the more rural – in his view, more authentic – deep song. Lorca writes that commercial flamenco "suggests immoral things, the tavern, the late-night orgy, the dance floors of flamenco cafés, ridiculous whining – in short, all that is ‘typically Spanish!’." It is difficult to know what to make of Lorca’s distinction. Is he simply making the same distinction as people do today about, say, the "real" country music of yesteryear versus the commercial rubbish of today? The editor of the book, Christopher Maurer, points out that scholars today don’t make a hard distinction between flamenco and deep song, and Lorca himself later abandoned this view and focused more on the role of the Duende.

There are a few shorter pieces in the volume, and one of them, "Poem of the Bull," is absolutely beautiful. Lorca speaks of bullfighting not as a sport, but as an art form: a way of meditating (as art often is). Lorca writes: "They say that the torero goes to the ring to earn money, prestige, glory, applause … but this is not true. He goes to the ring to be alone with the bull, an animal he both fears and adores, and to whom he has much to say."

In a second evocative passage, Lorca writes:

Children know that France is shaped like an espresso pot, and Italy, a riding boot. They can see the elephant’s trunk of India giving a gentle push to Ceylon, and they know that Sweden and Norway are a curly-haired dog swimming in a sea of cold … Perhaps little children cannot imagine the shape of Spain, but we adults know – our teachers told us so – that Spain stretches out like a bull’s hide … it has the shape of an animal hide, and a sacrificial animal at that. In this geographical symbol lies the deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character.

As much as bullfighting, Lorca’s poetry has evoked this "deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character." The poems of his oeuvre closest to the Spanish tradition are highlighted in this volume. "The Guitar," the opening poem, feels like a flamenco song:

The guitar
begins its weeping.
The wineglasses of dawn
are shattered.
The guitar
begins its weeping.
It is useless
to hush it.
to hush it.

Though many of the poems of In Search of Duende are enjoyable, Lorca’s best work is not here. Because the editor limited the poems to those closest to the Spanish tradition, Lorca’s more experimental work is not included. This is unfortunate – poems like "New York," "Little Infinite Poem," and "Rundown Church," though non-traditional, are nevertheless drenched in Duende. I think Lorca would have wanted them side by side with his essays on the Duende.

The opening lines of "Rundown Church (Ballad of the First World War)" are evocative of death and are grown from rich Duende soil:

I had a son and his name was John.
I had a son.
He disappeared into the vaulted darkness one Friday of All Souls.

Translation by Robert Bly (from The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade).

The less than generous offering of poetry, coupled with the omission of his best work, makes In Search of Duende a poor introduction to Lorca’s poetry. The essays, however, will certainly interest Lorca lovers, and will provide a good addition to their library. Though not outstanding, In Search of Duende is a welcome reminder on the centenary of his birth, and a cause to return to (or to taste for the first time) the poetry of Lorca.


David Grayson: Book Review Federico Garcia Lorca
Copyright © 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review