Last spring Adelphi University’s MFA program of Creative Writing welcomed John Murillo, whose first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie was a finalist for both the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award. As well as teaching the graduate poetry workshop, John also shared his insights with the students and faculty in two brown bag presentations on craft. What follows is an excerpt of his discussion on duende. For more Murillo, visit here.
“all that has black sounds” | toward a new understanding of lorca’s duende
JM: For years, I was trying to figure out what it was about art that appealed to me most. Be it song, dance, poetry—there is something they each had in common. And it wasn’t until I read Lorca’s essay, “The Play and Theory of the Duende,” that I was able to get a bead on it. I’m talking about artists such as Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, Diane Hathaway, some of the writings of Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath. Even the Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky—something in his writing appealed to me. And when I read Lorca’s essay, it put that in perspective for me.
The reason that it has haunted me for so long is because of the nature of the essay. The way that it’s written is such that you can read it over and over again and still not really get a firm grasp on what the hell he’s talking about. As an essay, one could say that it’s terrible. It’s not very informative; it doesn’t really leave you knowing more than when you came into it. But it is intriguing, and it’s something worth coming back to. We are going to go over that same ground trying to define duende as best we can, and then to think about ways we can make practical use of it as poets.
Duende for Lorca is a theory. There is something he skates around when trying to define it. But at the end of the day, we want to know how we can make use of it ourselves, as writers.
A little about Lorca: Spanish poet and playwright, probably best known for his play, Blood Wedding. His poetry collections are A Poet in New York and Gypsy Ballads. He was a Surrealist. He was antifascist (the government at the time). He was assassinated at the age of 38 or 39, by Franco’s regime. He had very close association with Salvador Dali. I think he was friends with Neruda and a lot of other very influential poets of the time.
Perhaps the most lasting impact he’s had on world letters is this idea of duende that he popularized. In this lecture delivered in 1933, called “The Play and Theory of the Duende,” what he wanted to do was set out to identify what it is about Andalusian art in particular, and art in general, that really moves—true art. What are its sources? What are its characteristics? He doesn’t really explain it, but he tries to, knowing he won’t explain it, because he tells us, “Duende is the mysterious power that everyone senses, but no philosopher explains.”
“Duende is the mysterious power that everyone senses, but no philosopher explains.”
Then he goes on for pages not explaining. He says, “The duende is a power, not a work. It is struggle, not a thought. The duende is not in the throat, the duende climbs up inside you through the soles of your feet, meaning it is not a question of ability but true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
And here is where I have the biggest conflict with Lorca, because I think that duende is absolutely a matter of ability and skill, and the poems that I think have duende…there’s nothing spontaneous about them. They give the appearance of spontaneity, the appearance of urgency, but as we’ll come to later, they are very well worked over. He goes on to distinguish between the duende and other notions of inspiration, other sources. He says, “The angel guides, the muse dictates, but one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.” He says, “The true fight is with the duende.”
“The true fight is with the duende.”
VOC: I’m curious as to your argument with Lorca there, about it not being ability, and I’m wondering if you can talk maybe about—I’m thinking about a reconciliation between those two ideas and that maybe this skill is in trying to conjure up the duende.
JM: Absolutely. I’ll consider that later on, in terms of that whole…because that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to reconcile these two different views.
VOC: Isn’t it in contemporary (let’s say) poetry that we’re trying to present something that is supposed to sound spontaneous? So isn’t that part of the whole capture, too? Like, it’s just spur of the moment, even though we have worked on it?
JM: Absolutely. That’s what we’re going for. But how do we do that? I think the way is through craft. It’s through revision. It’s through trying to strike a balance between those tools we’ve received and the moment of creation. And it’s a difficult, difficult balance to strike. That’s one of the issues I take with Lorca on this point. This idea of spontaneity. As we find out later, for him, duende is something we see primarily in singers and musicians, dancers—something that requires a live body, and I’ll talk about that shortly. But it’s the appearance of spontaneity.
He says, “Intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him, or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.”
To get an idea of Lorca and duende, let’s back away from Lorca. There was this wonderful book by Edward Hirsch called The Demon and the Angel, where he’s exploring duende and these ideas of inspiration. And he gives us an etymology that’s useful, he says, “duende comes from the Spanish duende casa, Lord of the house. And he likens it to something like the household Yiddish dybbuk, a clinging soul. “An imp, a hobgoblin, a sly poltergeist like trickster who meddles and stirs up trouble. A maligned, unruly, anarchist spirit.”
Think about the relationship between Spain and the Philippines–there is something called the duende, and it is a creature, almost like a little gnome, that runs through the forest stirring up trouble. In Yoruba culture and religion, there’s a trickster deity an Orisha named Elegba, Eshu-Elegba. Elegba is the guardian of the crossroads. The controller of destiny. He’s the trickster—he’s the one that gets in your life, he presents you with different choices, and watches you make the wrong choice and laughs his ass off. He’s also the guardian of the crossroads between life and death, between realms. Because that’s the ultimate crossing. And a lot of times the choices you make cross you from one into the other.
In this essay, I think Lorca is playing the trickster with us. He’s dwelling in that mystery, he’s not going to give up the goods right off. He’s playing with us—there’s a playfulness there. But the truth is in there, hidden. As with any trickster, he’s revealing it by way of riddles, by way of metaphor, by way of extended metaphor, analog if you will. There’s one I think is especially useful in this concept.
So he’s talking about this scene, there’s this salon going on in this tavern. Everybody who’s anybody’s there, right? Jay-Z’s there, Beyoncé’s there, Kanye… Kardashian’s not there… But in this tavern, people are getting it on, and there’s this one lady, she gets up and starts to sing, and she’s the Beyoncé of her day—“La Niña de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius, whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya, or Raphael el Gallo”—she’s singing in this little tavern in Cádiz. She gets up to sing, her skill is there, but nobody’s impressed. This little man gets up, says something like, Long Live Paris! with his drink, as if to say…
Here, we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else.’ As though crazy, torn like medieval mourner, La Niña de los Peines leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of the sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the ‘lucumí’ rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Bárbara.
La Niña de los Peines had to tear out her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and becoming helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet blood worthy of her pain and sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed hot stormy feet of Christ by Juan de Juni. —Lorca, “Play and Theory of Duende”
And there he goes again–it’s this idea of her throwing off the scaffolding of the song, and just ripping her voice out. I showed the video in class of Janis Joplin singing “Summertime.” Think of the anguish with which she sings that, how she carries that. There’s something…torn in her voice. She’s getting it. She’s going in, as we say.
“All that has black sounds has duende.” Now, when we read this essay (it’s online, I suggest you get it, it can also be found in this book, In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca, I’ll pass it around) a lot of words keep coming up again and again. Blood, mystery, death, body, black, darkness. So here’s what we get from this, Lorca’s definition, that for him, “art that is colored by duende is fierce, is urgent, is spontaneous, is risky, it courts vulnerability.”
“Art that is colored by duende is fierce, is urgent, is spontaneous, is risky, it courts vulnerability.”
He says, “All arts are capable of duende. But where it finds greatest range naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”
You know you’re in the presence of duende when you see a dancer just going in. They’ve transcended something. They’re no longer doing choreographed steps—something else has taken over. Or a singer, where beyond the words, they’re doing these runs and they’re in that moment–they’re screaming, they’re howling, and you feel it in your bones. You need an exact present; you need a body to interpret it, which to me says something also, about pathos. I’m not sure whether it’s sympathy or empathy, but this idea of identifying with this other…
There’s something human that’s happened. But now, for the writers—where does that leave us?