The End of Duende

A response to Lorca’s speech on Duende

I want to start out with this concept that Lorca tosses out, almost off-handedly, towards the end of the main part of the Duende speech, of the “interpreter’s duende” making up for a lack of same in the original source material, e.g. (as he describes) a singer making something extraordinary out of a vulgar song, or an actor with duende infusing that into an inferior play. I’m not going to try to re-interpret duende, as the concept seems to invite us to do, and as poets have done from the moment it first became known, nor will I question its existence or whether it’s a good or bad thing, or the same thing as inspiration, emotion, the muse, what-have-you. For the sake of expediency I’ll take it as given that it’s this ineffable, form-altering thing that Lorca says it is. That it is there for some and not for others. That it brings “freshness,” “an almost religious enthusiasm,” that “no emotion is possible without it.” That it must be “awakened from the remotest mansions of the blood.”

Having assumed all this, I will now posit that the interesting cases Lorca described, of duende being inexplicably culled from some “vulgar trifle,” is not a freakish instance of duende but a precondition for the existence of duende itself. The cases he cites, I would argue, merely show their banal origins in a more explicit way than is usually done. And again, I don’t know how to prove this, exactly, other than to bring in all sorts of examples and endlessly elaborate on them, which really amounts to no proof at all, but then again, this is sort of the same method Lorca uses to discuss the concept of duende in the first place.

First I’ll explain why this is so. It is so because without risking the banal, the vulgar, the ordinary, there can be no tension in the poem for the depth of emotion, the freshness the duende provides, to play off of. The merely profound, the heightened thing, winds up seeming isolated and absurd. (And in my mind Lorca at his most heightened and profound is also quite absurd.) The trick is to somehow embody both, to be the poet of no duende infusing one’s own inferiorities, if you will, or vulnerabilities, fears and whatnot, with the duende that comes along from the “mansions of the blood.” This is why in the poems of Lorca, for example, the ones that seem to work best are coming out of the old folk and gypsy songs, where he infuses them with new life, a sincerity informed by the modernity of his surrealist impulses. Surrealism in itself is a sort of sickness that tends to act on a work of art or an artist’s body of work as a viral infection, performing the trick of surrealism over and over again, but the real interest in Lorca’s poems comes out of the simplest turns of phrase, the repetitions, the chorus-like effects of seemingly banal phrases they turn on.

And for some reason the question seems to keep wanting to go back to the idea of song. I think again of Creeley’s “anonymous as any song” as a standard to aspire to in his poetry. I think of picking up the rhythms of ordinary speech, which are at their most natural when discussing the most ordinary things, picking one’s son up from school, going to get the groceries, the sorts of things one says off-handedly, without any forethought whatsoever. Now Lorca might say there was duende there to begin with – in those old gypsy songs, in the unpremeditated utterance, in the immediacy of whatever sparked a sentiment or song – to which I would reply – perhaps – but it is an argument that ultimately resembles the paradox of Zeno’s arrow. You are everyone and no one at the moment you pick up the strand of speech, which perhaps comes out of the spiritus mundi or the collective unconsious or some other place that all of us can sense but no one can prove the existence of, and make a poem or a song out of it. Is that strand a gift from duende or the devil’s gumwrapper? Does it matter?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Borges that I think of Troy. What we have now is the incredible gift of the Iliad, in all of its richness, emotion, and depth of detail, its epic clashes of spirit and flesh writ large and broad as the sky; what’s there underneath all those layers of actual dirt is a dusty little town that some men struggled over with pathetic little wooden swords thousands of years ago. It doesn’t matter that the Trojan Horse was an ox-cart, that Helen was a hag, that Priam was a minor chieften. It matters that someone or several someones we now refer to as “Homer” came along and puffed duende into the tale. One couldn’t have been without the other.

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