Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, April 25, 2014

Black sounds: 5 readings

Henri Rousseau, La Muse Inspirant le poète,
1909. Guillaume Apollinaire with painter
Marie Laurencin. via Wikipedia, public domain.

from Federico Garcia Lorca, "Theory and Play of the Duende"(1933)
translation by A. S. Kline - read the full version here

   For every man, every artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step that he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende, not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse. This is a precise and fundamental distinction at the root of their work.
   The angel guides and grants, like St. Raphael: defends and spares, like St. Michael: proclaims and forewarns, like St. Gabriel.
   The angel dazzles, but flies over a man’s head, high above, shedding its grace, and the man realises his work, or his charm, or his dance effortlessly. The angel on the road to Damascus, and that which entered through the cracks in the little balcony at Assisi, or the one that followed in Heinrich Suso’s footsteps, create order, and there is no way to oppose their light, since they beat their wings of steel in an atmosphere of predestination.
   The Muse dictates, and occasionally prompts. She can do relatively little since she’s distant and so tired (I’ve seen her twice) that you’d think her heart half marble. Muse poets hear voices and don’t know where they’re from, but they’re from the Muse who inspires them and sometimes makes her meal of them, as in the case of Apollinaire, a great poet destroyed by the terrifying Muse, next to whom the divine angelic Rousseau once painted him.
   The Muse stirs the intellect, bringing a landscape of columns and an illusory taste of laurel, and intellect is often poetry’s enemy, since it limits too much, since it lifts the poet into the bondage of aristocratic fineness, where he forgets that he might be eaten, suddenly, by ants, or that a huge arsenical lobster might fall on his head – things against which the Muses who inhabit monocles, or the roses of lukewarm lacquer in a tiny salon, have no power.
   Angel and Muse come from outside us: the angel brings light, the Muse form (Hesiod learnt from her). Golden bread or fold of tunic, it is her norm that the poet receives in his laurel grove. While the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood.
   Reject the angel, and give the Muse a kick, and forget our fear of the scent of violets that eighteenth century poetry breathes out, and of the great telescope in whose lenses the Muse, made ill by limitation, sleeps.
   The true struggle is with the duende.
   The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.
   Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks, or strips Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer stark naked in the cold of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to wait for death in the wastes of Ocaña, or clothes Rimbaud’s delicate body in a saltimbanque’s costume, or gives the Comte de Lautréamont the eyes of a dead fish, at dawn, on the boulevard.
   The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco, singers dancers, musicians, know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende. They might deceive people into thinking they can communicate the sense of duende without possessing it, as authors, painters, and literary fashion-makers deceive us every day, without possessing duende: but we only have to attend a little, and not be full of indifference, to discover the fraud, and chase off that clumsy artifice.

from Edward Hirsch, A Poet's Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

uses the word duende in a special Andalusian sense as a term for the obscure power and penetrating inspiraton of art. He describes it, quoting Goethe on Paganini as "a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains." For him, the concept of duende, which could never be entirely pinned down or rationalized was associated with the spirit of earth, with visible anguish, irrational desire, demonic enthusiasm, and a fascination with death...
   Duende, then means something like artistic inspiration in the presence of death. It has an element of mortal panic and fear, the power of wild abandonment. It speaks to an art that touches and transfigures death, both wooing and evading it...
   Duende exists for readers and audiences as well as for writers and performers. Lorca states: 'The magical property of a poem is to remain possessed by duende that can baptize in dark water all who look at it, for with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood."
David Bowman Jr. for Addie Zerman

   To paraphrase “Play and Theory of the Duende,” García Lorca said that great art depends on connection with a nation’s soil, a vivid awareness of death, and an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason.
   Lorca believed that what makes a poem powerful comes from a specific orientation, one that springs from suffering and from the earth, one that privileges imagination to lead us beyond mere reason.

Nick Cave on duende and song at everything2

   The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil - the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here - so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.

Tracy K. Smith on duende at 

   I love this concept of duende because it supposes that our poems are not things we create in order that a reader might be pleased or impressed (or, if you will, delighted or instructed); we write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely. It is then that the duende beckons, promising to impart "something newly created, like a miracle," then it winks inscrutably and begins its game of feint and dodge, lunge and parry, goad and shirk; turning its back, nearly disappearing altogether, then materializing again with a bear-hug that drops you to the ground and knocks your wind out. You’ll get your miracle, but only if you can decipher the music of the battle, only if you’re willing to take risk after risk. Only, in other words, if you survive the effort. For a poet, this kind of survival is tantamount to walking, word by word, onto a ledge of your own making. You must use the tools you brought with you, but in decidedly different and dangerous ways.
   If all of this is true, and I believe it is, this struggle is not merely to write well-crafted and surprising poems so much as to survive in two worlds at once: the world we see (the one made of people, and weather, and hard fact) that, for all of its wonders and disappointments, has driven us to the page in the first place; and the world beyond or within this one that, glimpse after glimpse, we attempt to decipher and confirm. Survival in the former is predicated on balance, perspective, rehearsal, breadth of knowledge and experience. It’s possible to get by as a poet with those things alone. Many do. A healthy ego doesn’t hurt. But for someone fully convinced of the duende, it’s the latter world that matters more. The world where madness and abandon often trump reason, and where skill is only useful to the extent that it adds courage and agility to your intuition.
   Practically speaking, this dual reality translates into something very simple for the poet: talent only goes so far. Talent only leads up to the door where the real reason for writing—or continuing to write—resides. Talent will get you there and raise your hand to the knocker. After that, what pulls you inside and keeps you alive can only be need. The need for answers to unformed questions. The need for an echo back from the most distant reaches of the self. The need to stop time, to understand the undecipherable, to believe in a What or a Whom or a How. The need for a kind of magic—Lorca’s "miracle."


  1. Wonderful. The element of fear and awe, as of any worship, cannot be absent from the act of artistic creation, if it is to result in sublimity.
    The 18th century notion of instruction and delight alone is way too polite and decorous to be the truth.

    1. Delight can be very pleasing, as one arrow in the quiver... but certainly there are others, stranger and fiercer.

  2. Wow. I went and read the whole piece by Nick Cave, whose music I like a lot. Thanks for the link and the idea, Marly! And also the painting.

    1. Oh, good--pleased it was interesting for you! I just had the itch to read about Lorca's black sounds this morning.

  3. Mary, I am humbled by the beauty and the power of this post, and the comments by writers who share have shared their thoughts here on the muse, on duende, on "the primal thorns of fire" sent by God to those who seek him. As artists and writers, we sometimes forget that when we reach the darkest places in our being, and prostrate ourselves before God, we must wear those fiery thorns. Very scary, but as I writer, I can only strive and keep striving to reach this place. Thank you, thank you for posting this! I will read it again and again!

    1. Hello, spring Robin!

      He fashions a kind of trinity of poetic power... I'm glad that the readings meant something to you. Lorca is so fascinating here, and I do think the right posture before the art of those who have gone before and achieved greatly is humility.

      Now back to tweaking my little sonnet...

    2. My husband, Manny, enjoyed hearing me read the post and comments to him, and was fascinated by it, as well! Thank you again, Marly!

  4. That Nick Cave piece is terrific. Have you ever seen Wings of Desire, the German film about angels in which his band makes a cameo? His inclusion in that movie makes a bit more sense to me now.

    1. Yes, it's good. I saw the Wim Wenders movie years ago, and of course have terrible memory for such things--you make me want to see it again, as I have zero memory of the band being in it.

    2. There are so many rich things in that essay, it's hard to just leave one...

      Nick Cave: As I said earlier, my artistic life has centered around desire or more accurately, the need, to articulate the various feelings of loss and longing that have whistled through my bones and hummed in my blood, throughout my life. In the process I have written about two hundred songs, the bulk of which I would say, were love songs. Love songs, and therefore, by my definition, sad songs. Out of this considerable mass of material, a handful of them rise above the others as true examples of all I have talked about. Sad Waters, Black Hair, I Let Love In, Deanna, From her to Eternity, Nobody’s Baby Now, Into my Arms, Lime Tree Arbour, Lucy, Straight to You; I am proud of these songs. They are my gloomy, violent, dark-eyed children. They sit grimly on their own and do not play with the other songs. Mostly they were offspring of complicated pregnancies and difficult and painful births. Most of them are rooted in direct personal experience and were conceived for a variety of reasons but this rag-tag group of love songs are, at the death, all the same thing – life lines thrown into the galaxies of the divine by a drowning man.

  5. I've just learned a lot more about this 'duende' - powerful stuff - thank you!

    1. HI Marja-Leena--

      Lorca is so interesting, and I liked all these commentaries on the Andalusian duende!

  6. I would be really interested to know what your personal idea of what 'duende' would be, Marly. For me it is simply the 'life force'. It is the wonderful compulsion to change things and create things and give life to things.

    The quoted musings above are fascinating and enriching. Thank you for posting!

    1. I expect it would be impertinent of me to add to what Lorca believes, as it is an Andalusian concept! If you define it simply as "life force," you could easily argue for that as what Lorca's angel or muse brings, although tilted more to force as a gift from a power beyond--Holy Spirit or poetic "genius" or influx of Muse-born words. Life force can be argued as a piece of the divine energies of God, particularly.

      Instead, I think you have to look to earthiness and inner darkness for duende, like a wild, uncontrolled dance in a grave stained with blood.

  7. "Angel and Muse come from outside us: the angel brings light, the Muse form (Hesiod learnt from her). Golden bread or fold of tunic, it is her norm that the poet receives in his laurel grove. While the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood." Nothing I can say beats this.

    1. Lorca is so interesting, and you can really use the triune idea as a lens.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.