Sometimes it seems wrong, for me at least, to share only a brief passage from a longer, memorable piece of writing. The following essay represents one such instance. It is offered in its entirety for those who do not mind taking the time to read something of length, for those who would otherwise feel shortchanged if given only a portion of it.
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We read poems because they change us, and our reasons for writing them hover around that same fact. A poem, a good poem, speaks to and from a place that belongs to us—that elusive pitch of being some might call the soul, the psyche, the sub- or unconscious. We believe it’s there because we feel it working, but we’re powerless to tell it when, or how, or even why to work. Surely, as poets, most of us have discovered ways of “letting go” enough to embolden whatever it is that sends words and questions and inklings out from that space. And the best readers know that that place is where poems go when they hit us hard, teach us, reach home.
The Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, named the keeper of that space the duende—daemon, hobgoblin, mischief maker, guardian of “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore.” Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost. Lorca’s main point of reference in elaborating his concept of Duende was the Gypsy tradition of the “Deep Song,” a predecessor to Flamenco. During his stay in New York during 1929-30, his engagement with American folk traditions of jazz, blues, and spirituals led him to further develop and hone his theory of the “dark sounds” and their relationship to life and art. In his famous lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende,” first delivered in Argentina in 1933, he cements the connection between the duende and the poet.
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.”
It’s no accident that Lorca came to understand the duende as a result of watching and listening to Andalusian Gypsy singers, whose troubled voices defy virtuosity. The best among them drag a spirit of revelation up into the room, and when this happens, the duende has been wrested from his den. And the songs that make such revelation possible in the first place are always—always—about struggle. They are always a kind of serenade to the resilience and the resistance that struggle creates—and offers proof of its success.
Any poet who is honest with him or herself recognizes a struggle very near the impetus to write. The Gypsy struggle might be described as the struggle to subsist, to resist absorption by a larger more powerful culture. It’s a struggle, literally, not to disappear. This struggle is not exactly the case for most poets in American society. But in one way or another, there is a connection with the Gypsy’s plight. There are two worlds that exist together, and there is one that pushes against the other, that claims the other doesn’t, or need not, exist. The duende stirs as a way of saying: you will only stay whole by moving—day after day, note after note, poem after poem—from one world to the next.
—Tracy K. Smith, “Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Federico García Lorca and Duende”