the Boot to the Muse; Behold the Power of Duende
who attempt to describe the term "duende"
often cop out and use words like "incomprehensible,"
and "mythical" to avoid giving it
a firm definition. Some take this as an out
because they are using the word without really
understanding it. Throwing around a word like
"duende" in conversation usually shuts
people up because it sounds like something they
should know. Others avoid defining it because
they feel no words can truly explain what it
is or only the gypsies or Spanish can fully
grasp its meaning; that somehow the rest of
us are devoid of it. I dont agree with
this; duende is a word that undermines all self-imposed
and societal limitations so why should we limit
ourselves in trying to define it? If youre
capable of weeping, brave enough to struggle
against the force you can never overcome and
are willing to be swept away by that same force
that fits no logic, you are capable of duende.
In theory, at least.
English Dictionary defines duende as, "1.
A ghost, an evil spirit; 2. Inspiration, magic,
fire." The Random House Dictionary
gives "1. A goblin, demon, spirit; 2. Charm,
magnetism." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
gives, "the power to attract through personal
magnetism and charm." While not a bad place
to start ones search for the meaning of
duende, these definitions barely scratch the
surface for our purposes. Duende is not literally
a spirit or demon, although it is a presence
much like a spirit or demon. It is a power,
but its far more than charm or magnetism, yet
we are charmed or drawn to things and people
People use the
word "duende" like they use the word
"cool." Like duende, cool is hard
to describe, but you know it when you see it.
That is where the similarities end. If you investigate
the idea of "cool" its based
on current social trends and ideas. Poodle skirts
were once cool, but not anymore, but who knows,
maybe tomorrow. "Cool" is also based
on age, taste, and socio-economic background.
Madonnas coolness is lost on todays
generation, who prefer Britney Spears. In the
movie, The Outsiders, cool for the "Socs"
was sweaters and khaki pants, for the "Greasers"
it was leather jackets and jeans. Cool is fleeting
and a highly subjective opinion on a state mind
or fashion. Cool is sought in an effort to earn
approval from others. Through actions, ideas,
interests and dress, one proves his coolness
to earn respect from others. Without others,
coolness has no importance.
Duende is a constant
term that transcends such constraints. What
once had duende always has duende. Duende doesnt
have style, it is style. As Federico Garcia
Lorca, the Adalusian poet and playwright who
brought the term to literary popularity, said,
"They may be able to fool people into thinking
they have duende authors and painters
and literary fashionmongers do so every day
but we have only to pay a little attention
and not surrender to indifference in order to
discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy
Lorca was born
to a well-to-do family in 1899 in a small town
a few miles from Granada, Spain. As his fathers
first born and namesake, Lorca was the object
of much attention. He was an intelligent child,
yet he was a lackluster student and disliked
the routines of the classroom. Physically he
was neither athletic nor graceful. He liked
fiction best, preferring to stage elaborate
puppet shows or conduct Mass before his family
and neighbors. He would urge the makeshift congregations
to weep in response to his sermons and even
went so far as to instruct them how.
As he grew older,
he chafed at being "a little rich boy in
the village" and began to write about the
misery he witnessed as a child; often the poor
he came into contact with from his village.
He was never blind to their sufferings; often
identifying with them as he also identified
with the suffering of women. He wrote, "All
poor women die of the same thing, of giving
lives and more lives." In a way, it could
be said that these women attained duende each
time they gave birth. Death was always a very
real possibility but without accepting that
risk, women could never produce life.
obvious sympathy and reverence for those less
fortunate than himself, he never was "one
of them." He was never employed a day in
his life and never had to worry about going
hungry or providing a roof over his head. He
depended on his fathers financial support
until his mid-30s when his plays and poetry
became popular in Spain and South America.
From his youth
through his adult like, Lorca was surrounded
by death. His parents second child, Luis,
died of pneumonia several months short of his
second. Lorcas memory of his ghostly brother
in his tiny casket never left him. Lorca often
recalled the image of his dead brother in his
poetry. Leslie Stanton, Lorcas biographer
At first, the theatrics of death enthralled
him, the white casket festooned in flowers
and crepe, the candles and the cross. But
by adolescence his delight had turned to
horror, and he could not face a burial procession
without closing his eyes. Haunted by the
thought of the cold body decomposing inside
its chaste coffin, he repeatedly asked himself,
and others, what happened to people after
they died. What became of the soul after
body had dissolved into a putrid mass of
fluids? Was there, as the Church promised,
a "great beyond," or merely interminable
darkness, a void? In his struggle to reconcile
himself to the fragility of human existence,
his heightened imagination probed the very
essence of death. He envisioned the process
of decay: the stains, the pus, the "streams
of black blood" the spilled from the
nose, the glassy eyes with their unforgettable
"look of terror." . . . Lorca
learned early on that life and death were
two halves of an indecipherable whole. Barely
three months after Luiss death, [his
mother] gave birth to a third son . . .
The following year a daughter was born.
struggled with other concepts in addition to
death. As an young man, he tried to convince
himself that he was in love with women and attempted
to reconcile his erotic and spiritual selves.
He wrote, "From on high, my spirit contemplates
my bodys actions, and I become two during
the great sacrifice of semen." Despite
his attempts, he eventually accepted that his
true attraction was towards men. As he became
more comfortable with his homosexuality he tried
less to hide it. This was a big deal in early
20th century Spain; in most circles
homosexuality was not tolerated.
While he was associated
with many political figures while at college
and afterwards, Lorca himself was never particularly
interested in politics. Despite his friends
urgings, he refused to join the Communist Party.
He was always willing to voice his support for
workers rights, but he was terrified of
violence. When there was unrest on the streets,
Lorca cowered in fear inside. But his associations,
outspokenness and known homosexuality were his
downfall. When the civil war broke out, Francisco
Francos soldiers picked up Lorca for questioning.
On either August 18 or 19 1936 they shot him
and left him in an unmarked grave. For years
his works were banned in Spain. A life consumed
by death and internal adversity lead Lorca to
his ideas of duende and its importance to achieving
true art, especially poety.
Lorca stops short
of fully defining duende in his 1933 lecture,
"Play and Theory of the Duende," given
in Buenos Aires. He begins describing it by
quoting the Italian violinist, Paganini, and
explaining it as "This mysterious
power which everyone senses and no philosopher
explains is, in sum, the spirit of Nietzsche,
who searched in vain for its external forms
on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet."
This "mysterious power" is found in
art, music, poetry which must be invoked from
within the artist who fights a head-on struggle
with death. As Lorca states, "The duende,
then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle,
not a thought." The mere mention of death
is not enough to qualify for duende. Neither
is it a disrespect, belittlement or dismissal.
Its a challenge the artist accepts, a
challenge the artist cannot ever win, but one
wherein the artist risks defeat to reach the
level of duende.
In applying this
concept to a singer, the duende is not in the
throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from
the soles of the feet. Lorca interpreted this
to mean "it is not a question of ability,
but of true, living style, of blood, of the
most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation."
An example that Lorca uses to demonstrate the
shortcomings of pure ability is that of Adalusian
singer Pastora Pavon who:
was once singing in a little tavern in Cadiz.
For a while she played with her voice of
shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered
voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking
it in wine or letting it wander away to
the farthest, darkest bramble patches. No
use. Nothing. The audience remained silent
. . . When Pastora Pavon finished . . .
a tiny man . . . sarcastically murmured
Long Live Paris! As if to say:
Here we care nothing about ability,
technique, skill. Here we are after something
duende another name for the muse? Absolutely
not. Lorca is quick to point out the difference:
"When the muse sees death arrive, she closes
the door or raises a plinth or promenades an
urn and writes an epitaph with waxen hand, but
soon she is watering her laurel again in a silence
that wavers between two breezes." Neither
is it another name for the angel. "When
the angel sees death come, he flies in slow
circles and weaves tears of narcissus and ice
into the elegy we have seen trembling in the
hands of Keats. . . how it horrifies him to
feel even the tiniest spider on his tender,
duende is every mans duende; taste and
background are not issues. As an example Lorca
In all Arabic music, whether dance, song,
or elegy, the duendes arrival is greeted
with energetic cries of Allah! Allah!,
which is so close to the Ole of the
bullfight that who knows if it is not the
same thing? And in all the songs of the
south of Spain the duende is greeted with
sincere cries of !Viva Dios!
deep and tender human cry of communication
with God by means of the five senses, thanks
to the duende, who shakes the body and voice
of the dance.
further states, "Naturally, when this evasion
succeeds, everyone feels its effects, both the
initiate, who see that style has conquered a
poor material, and the unenlightened, who feel
some sort of authentic emotion." Everyone
Duende can be
found in many old Spanish ballads, such as this
you are my pretty friend,
why dont you look at me?
The eyes I looked at you with
I have given to the dark.
If you are my pretty friend,
why dont you kiss me?
The lips I kissed you with
I have given to the earth.
If you are my pretty friend,
why dont you hold me tight?
The arms I hugged you with
are covered now in worms.
same apparent combination of ease and power
can be found in the last few lines of Dean Youngs
otherwise complex poem, "Exquisite Corpse":
blue scum forms on the horizon and
in your hand is a number for the butcher.
I went to see the doctor. Theres
a hole in my heart.
power of these three lines evokes an immediate
reaction from the audience. There is a finality,
a sadness, a loss. Something changes in the
speaker and brings forth something new. Something
has been discovered, reached, at a very great
closing to Lorcas "Farewell:"
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open!
the audience gets the poem immediately which
doesnt mean there isnt much to study
and ponder. There is much. It works so effectively
for the audience because it connects with them
and they in turn and connect back with the piece.
The images can easily be visualized; an open
balcony, a boy eating oranges and a reaper harvesting
wheat. On their own, their mere images. But
together and in the context Lorca puts them
in adds the depth of life, the fear of transition
and the eerie presence of death alert and busy.
Why is duende
so difficult to define? It is for a number of
reasons. One, it is not a tangible object. Its
essence cannot be visually seen or touched.
Two, it is not something that everyone has or
is capable of achieving, like emotions. Everyone
experiences anger and happiness. Few experience
the ecstasy of reaching ones true self.
Three, its not easy or obvious to grasp.
To invoke it, one must be conscious of it. Lastly,
it appears in many forms and styles within the
singer, painter, actor, poet and bull fighter,
but their roots meet in the same place. "The
duende is at his most impressive in the bullfight,
for he must fight . . . death . . . The bull
has his orbit, and the bullfighter has his,
and between these two orbits is a point of danger,
the vortex of the terrible play."
It is easy
to understand how the bull is the matadors
drunken beastirrational, powerful and
elusive. The artist who deals with his page,
canvas, voice, clay with the same approach is
the artist in search of duende. The bull fighter
is swept away by a force that makes him play
with the bull. The true bull fighter, like the
true artist, does not go into the ring to earn
money, prestige, glory and applause. He is absorbed
in the ritual of the bullfight and when he steps
into the ring he is no longer connected with
the audience. It is just him and bull.
deal with this on some level. The singer and
her voice, the painter and his canvas, the poet
and the page. To invoke their duende, they must
confront the danger, not avoid it, ignore it
or trick it. They must step outside the bar
and fist-fight the dangerous drunken beast ten
times their size. Fighting the drunken beast
means possible death, but the act is what conjures
duende. It is a struggle you cannot win, but
fight anyhow. The desire to fight the beast
is a force from within and has no basis on how
good is your Kung Fu. Duende will only happen
if death is possible. Without it, it is another
useless exercise, its arm wrestling your
grandmother. The result of duende is always
something new. The outcome will always feel
unique. If the artist feels like he has endured
just another brutal ass-kicking without going
through any ecstasy, he was not successful.
much loved poem, "Do Not Go Gentle Into
That Goodnight," demonstrates the glory
and ecstasy of putting up the fight against
not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close
Rage, rage against the dying of the night.
Though wise men at their end know dark
Because their words had forked no lightening
Do not go gentle into that good night.
counter-example of enduring the ass-kicking
without the ecstasy can be found in Joe Boltons
poem, "American Tragedy":
Chevrolet fires past two blond children
Eating mud in the ditch by a dirt road.
Kentucky, midsummer, sun going down
Day like an empty shotgun shell, still
Fragrant with dog shit and honey suckle.
The skinny girl inside the white trailer
With a cigarette: nipples, navel, crotch.
The screen door hangs by one broken finger.
Past dark, a light comes on. Nothing
is not possible with a cigarette lighter if
it really is just a cigarette lighter. Sure,
it can do some damage, leave some scars but
it doesnt take you up against death. The
risk comes up short and, as the poem ends, "Nothing
happens." The day is like an empty shotgun
shell; there as a reminder that you ducked the
challenge and all youre left with is shit
and some nice-smelling weeds. The poem is devoid
of ecstasy and it knows it, hence its
an "American Tragedy." Its a
half attempt at duende, duende failed, duende-envy.
It is knowing that somehow youre coming
up short, not reaching your desired result.
While there may
not be a rational logic to duende, we should
be able to discuss it in tangible terms. Using
Lorca as the definitive source of duende we
know that duende:
for instance, the last stanza of Larry Levis
"Winter Stars" where a son struggles
with the lack of understanding and connection
he has with his father. Its a poem that
weeps and is grounded in mortality, but through
the struggle, something new comes from it:
a power no one can explain, but everyone
recognizes. "It is a struggle,
not a thought" as Lorca puts it. Not
a state-of-mind but a state-of-being. "An
exquisite audience is one that demands not
forms but the marrow of forms, pure music,
with a body lean enough to stay in the air."
This leads us to the next point.
is a force that drives through the work.
When duende is achieved, "everyone
feels its effects, both the initiate, who
sees that style has conquered poor material,
and the unenlightened, who feel some sort
of authentic emotion." The success
can be seen in the audience. The gasp, the
ah, the ole!
be invoked from within. It is not a
fight against society, religion or other
outside oppressive forces. That would
be bringing the "other" into the
picture. It would be reactionary. While
it is a struggle, it is not from within,
it is not a person merely confronting himself,
his personal shortcomings. The artist must
confront the forces within that he can never
control. We can never control the sorrow
that comes with death; we can control our
behavior and appearance, but never the actual
with death. Lorca states, "The
duende does not come at all unless he sees
that death is possible. The duende must
know beforehand that he can serenade deaths
house and rock those branches we all wear,
branches that do not have, will never have,
a radical change of forms, becomes something
new. The duende can never repeat himself,
just as the sea is incapable of repeating
its waves. "It brings to old planes
unknown feelings of freshness, with the
quality of something newly created, like
a miracle, and it produces an almost religious
pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final,
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, its empty
out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.
the skeptic, this may come off as nothing more
than artsy fartsy mumbo jumbo the kind
hokiness used to give merit some paint splattered
on a canvas or to excuse technically deficient
or sloppy art. Lets not confuse duende
with sentimentality dripping with genuine feelings
or convictions. As we all know, strong emotions
and beliefs do not necessarily equate true art.
Neither does superb skill and training. How
do we account for art that is technically superb,
intelligent and imaginative but fails nonetheless?
What is it that is missing? Lorca would insist
that duende is key. An example he gave was:
. . . an eighty-year-old woman won first
prize in a dance contest in Jerez de la
Frontera. She was competing against beautiful
women and young girls with waists supple
as water, but all she did was raise her
arms, throw back her head, and stamp her
foot on the floor. In that gathering of
muses and angels beautiful forms
and beautiful smiles who could have
won but her moribund duende, sweeping the
ground with its wings of rusty knives.
old woman captivated the audience because, like
all true artists, when she performed on stage,
she was fighting her duende, letting the force
of death approach and fighting it hand-to-hand.
She didnt avoid or ignore its presence,
she got close to it, dangerously close, and
the audience felt her force. Duende is not the
angel, which guides and dazzles but merely flies
high over mans head. Nor is duende related
to the muse, which dictates and prompts, but
is distant and tired. As Lorca explains:
who have muses hear voices and do not know
where they are coming from . . . The muse
awakens the intelligence, bringing a landscape
of columns and a false taste of laurel.
But 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 a great
arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his
head. . ."
muse stays still and the angel can ruffle and
both come from outside us, but the duende comes
from "the remotest mansions of the blood."
From the Dionysian spirit of man, the very real,
but irrational animal instinct of man. The artist
must harness this spirit, delve into it and
head on approach the blackness, the death. The
result is awe-inspiring and breathless. Occasionally
it appears in American poetry. Allen Ginsberg
conjured it in both "Kaddish" and
"Howl" before getting side-tracked
with his political-based poetry. Emily Dickinson
wrestled with it on a regular basis. As did
Sylvia Plath, James Wright and Theordore Roethke.
The countless imitators, incapable of duende,
are easily apparent and responsible for the
thousands of horrid confessional and pontificational
poems appearing regularly in journals. Following
their muses and angels, they replicate the same
over and over stopping before death and quitting.
Some do so beautifully and eloquently. For an
artist with duende, death is just the beginning.
To end with Lorcas
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.
In poetry this struggle for expression and
communication is sometimes fatal.
Bolton, Joe. Edited by Donald Justice. The Last
Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990: Arkansas University
Levis, Larry. Winter Stars: University of Pittsburgh
Lorca, Garcia Federico. Edited and translated
by Christopher Mauer. Deep Song and Other Prose:
New Directions, 1980.
Lorca, Garia Federico. Edited by Francisco Garcia
Lorca and Donald M. Allen. The Selected Poems
of Federico Garcia Lorca: New Directions, 1955.
Stanton, Leslie. Lorca: A Dream of a Life: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Thomas, Dylan: Collected Poems 1934-1952: New
Young, Dean: Strike Anywhere: University Press
of Colorado, 1995.
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