issue 4: spring 2002

>Reb Livingston

Give the Boot to the Muse; Behold the Power of Duende

     Those who attempt to describe the term "duende" often cop out and use words like "incomprehensible," "mysterious," "undefinable," "elusive," "untranslatable" 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 don’t 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 you’re 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.

      The Oxford 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 one’s 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 with duende.

     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" it’s 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. Madonna’s coolness is lost on today’s 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 doesn’t 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 artifice."

     Lorca was born to a well-to-do family in 1899 in a small town a few miles from Granada, Spain. As his father’s 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.

     Despite Lorca’s 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 father’s financial support until his mid-30’s 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 parent’s second child, Luis, died of pneumonia several months short of his second. Lorca’s 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, Lorca’s biographer noted:
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 Luis’s death, [his mother] gave birth to a third son . . . The following year a daughter was born.
     Lorca 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 body’s 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 worker’s 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 Franco’s 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. It’s 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 else.’
     Is 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, rosy foot!"
     One man’s duende is every man’s duende; taste and background are not issues. As an example Lorca mentions:
In all Arabic music, whether dance, song, or elegy, the duende’s 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.
     He 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 recognizes duende.
     Duende can be found in many old Spanish ballads, such as this one:
If you are my pretty friend,
why don’t you look at me?
The eyes I looked at you with
I have given to the dark.
If you are my pretty friend,
why don’t you kiss me?
The lips I kissed you with
I have given to the earth.
If you are my pretty friend,
why don’t you hold me tight?
The arms I hugged you with
are covered now in worms.
This same apparent combination of ease and power can be found in the last few lines of Dean Young’s otherwise complex poem, "Exquisite Corpse":

A blue scum forms on the horizon and
in your hand is a number for the butcher.
I went to see the doctor. There’s a hole in my heart.
     The 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 price.
     Compare Young’s closing to Lorca’s "Farewell:"
If I die,
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!
     Again, the audience gets the poem immediately which doesn’t mean there isn’t 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 one’s true self. Three, it’s 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 matador’s drunken beast—irrational, 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.

     All artists 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, it’s 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.

     Dylan Thomas’ much loved poem, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight," demonstrates the glory and ecstasy of putting up the fight against death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the night.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
    A counter-example of enduring the ass-kicking without the ecstasy can be found in Joe Bolton’s poem, "American Tragedy":
The 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 warm,
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 happens.
     Death 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 doesn’t 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 you’re left with is shit and some nice-smelling weeds. The poem is devoid of ecstasy and it knows it, hence it’s an "American Tragedy." It’s a half attempt at duende, duende failed, duende-envy. It is knowing that somehow you’re 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:
  1. Is 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.

  2. Duende 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!

  3. Must 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 sorrow.

  4. Struggles 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 death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation."

  5. Is 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 enthusiasm."
     Take 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. It’s a poem that weeps and is grounded in mortality, but through the struggle, something new comes from it:
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.
     To 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. Let’s 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.
     The 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 didn’t 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 man’s head. Nor is duende related to the muse, which dictates and prompts, but is distant and tired. As Lorca explains:
"Poets 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. . ."
     The 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 Lorca’s words:
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 Press, 1999.

Levis, Larry. Winter Stars: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

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 Directions, 1953.

Young, Dean: Strike Anywhere: University Press of Colorado, 1995.

>Reb Livingston


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