Monday, July 3, 2017

for my joy in the tooth of the wheel - a glance at Lorca's poems

The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca (New Directions, 1955) was an early overview of the poems of Lorca in English, not just a look at the poet but at how he was being translated.  It is translated by many hands.  Here is Langston Hughes, doing one of the Gypsy Ballads (1928):

from Ballad of One Doomed to Die

Learn to cross your hands,
to taste the cold air
of metals and of cliffs
because within two months
you’ll lie down shrouded.

The echoes of Lorca’s murder that now ring through his poems is almost irritating.  The “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” (1935), which is about the death of a bullfighter, is almost unreadable.  “The rest was death, and death alone.”  It is a poem of great power in English and beauty in Spanish, and is not about Lorca’s murder a year later.

The variety of Lorca, in a career that lasted fifteen years, is hard to understand.  Long and small, formal and crazy, traditional and new – at some point he mastered everything.  Little fragmented imagistic lines:

The sea
smiles from far off.
Teeth of foam,
lips of sky.  (from “Ballad of the Water of the Sea,” 1921, tr. Lloyd Mallan)

Or big wild yawping:

Not for one moment, beautiful aged Walt Whitman,
have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies,
nor your shoulders of corduroy worn out by the moon,
nor your thighs of virginal Apollo,
nor your voice like a pillar of ashes:
ancient and beautiful as the mist…  (from “Ode to Walt Whitman,” 1930, tr. Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili)

Not that there is no continuity.  They’re both seashore poems.  Lorca’s years in New York City produced what looks to me like his biggest leap, though, towards (or perhaps against) Whitman and his boldest, least comprehensible imagery:

from Fable and Round of the Three Friends

I saw them despoil themselves, sobbing and singing,
for a hen’s egg,
for a night that displayed its tobacco-leaf skeleton,
for my woe full of faces and piercing moon splinters,
for my joy in the tooth of the wheel and the lash of the whip,
for my breast shaken with doves,
for my derelict dying, with a single mistaken bypasser.  (tr. Ben Belitt)

This is the Lorca invoked by so many American Beat poets.  They thought they knew what he meant.  I’m happier with Lorca the singer, the balladeer, but I hardly know his poems.

I read the 2005 edition of Selected Poems, which includes an unusually personal introduction by W. S. Merwin, who says that his undergraduate encounter with a single Lorca poem was the life-changing cause of his discovery of 1) translation and 2) “Modern poetry began for me, not in English at all, but in Spanish, which I scarcely knew, in the poems of Lorca, and even more specifically in one book of his, the Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), which Lorca had finished in the year I was born” (xi).

All right, that was some Spanish literature for Spanish Literature Month.  Now with the holiday and a little trip I’m done for the week.  Maybe I’ll have The Golden Bowl done when I get back.


  1. I didn't know the Beats were influenced by Lorca, but as soon as I read it, it made sense. Those weird, rough juxtapositions that are brilliant when they work - though I'm not sure what a 'pillar of ashes' is. I like the one that starts, 'Córdoba, lejana y sola...' The traveller on his black horse, olives in his saddlebag (now that sounds like Dylan!)

  2. I suppose I first saw Lorca's name in a Beat poem, in "A Supermarket in California," probably - "and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?"

    I don't even know anything about how Lorca influenced the Beats, but they sure do mention him a lot. He is a mythic figure for many of them.

  3. Loved the Merwin bits and the news to me that Langston Hughes even gave translating Lorca a go. Think you are right about Lorca's variety being a strong suit. Time for me to reread him.

  4. Hughes version of Gypsy Ballads, complete. I haven't read it yet, but I will. Hughes translated Blood Wedding, too. So cool.

  5. With shade up to her waist
    she's dreaming on the porch,
    green flesh, hair of green,
    and eyes like a cold frost.

    Green, green is how I want you.
    Under this gypsy moon,
    things keep looking at her,
    and yet she sees them not.

    Sounds a bit like Dylan, no?