The concept of duende lies at the heart Lorca’s poetry, particularly in later works like Diván del Tamarit. However, a great deal of confusion and skepticism exists about duende. But the concept really rests on a few basic principles that Lorca outlined quite clearly, if a bit hyperbolically.
Lorca did not coin the term. For decades flamenco musicians had been using the word “duende” as a term of art to designate both excellence and authenticity. The word comes from duen de casa, which translates as “Lord of the House” (Hirsch, p.9). The duen is an impish household sprite or daemon who likes to play tricks and turn things upside down.
Lorca described duende as “the spirit of the earth” and associated it with Dionysus (Lorca, “Play and Theory of Duende,” p. 57-8). While this definition is not precise, it makes clear that duende has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian devil, a destructive being that embodies evil. Dionysus is associated with wine, ecstasy, fertility, theatre and the arts. Thus duende is an ecstatic, creative and artistic force. Its ecstatic element makes it disruptive, like the impish duen.
Personifying (or deifying) duende as a demon has caused it to be confused with the evil spirits that haunts the superstitious. Duende is not an external thing that possesses the artist, though it may feel that way. It exists as a very natural aspect of the human psyche. In particular, it represents reaching for the emotional marrow of the psyche that the conscious mind protects. This marrow, not gods or demons, is the source of art.
Duende Wants Truth
Lorca’s concept of duende centers on artistic truth and emotional authenticity. Lorca never used these terms. The word “truth” is really too abstract and “authenticity” to hackneyed to capture what Lorca meant. But these words at least approximate in familiar terms what duende is about and provide a place to start. They themselves are hard to define, but you know them when you experience them in art.
Duende Likes to Fight and Wound
Conventional wisdom tells us that the true artist must open up and let go, that artistic truth is a matter of release from the limits and strictures of civilization, particularly bourgeois civilization. Duende sees things a little differently. With duende, struggle rather than release is the operant word. “The true fight,” Lorca declared, “is with duende” (Lorca, “Play and Theory,” p.60). In other words, the artist must breech the very bone that protects the marrow of the psyche. And it becomes quite a brawl.
We only know that [Duende] smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation and makes Goya… work with his fists and knees in horrible bitumen. (Lorca, “Play and Theory,” p.60)
Duende sounds oddly like Jacob wrestling with God on the bank of the Jabbok river (Gen 32:22-32). After going at it all night, Jacob prevails and demands a blessing. He gets it, but only after getting his hip dislocated by his opponent.
Though duende does not derive from Judeo-Christian culture, Jacob’s story parallels the duende experience as Lorca described it: a long and intense struggle that leaves contender injured but “blessed.” The injury plays the critical role.
“The duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work.” (Lorca, “Play and Theory”, p.67)
Only after the struggle does Jacob’s opponent (i.e., God) name him Israel, which in Hebrew means “the one who strives with God.” God, like duende, loves a fighter. Interestingly, the injury strikes Jacob’s hip, the region of the body associated with procreation.
Blessing and injury go together. You can’t have one without the other. In the biblical story, the wound/blessing is procreative; Jacob will father a nation. With duende, it is creative in that it births art.
Whether literal or figurative, birth always involves a tearing and wounding. Physical birth tears the mother’s flesh. While her body will heal, she is left with a vulnerability that is her love for her child, a wound “which never closes.” In the same way, the struggle with duende leaves a gaping wound — a vulnerability — through which the artist sees, feels and expresses with primal honesty. What duende produces is never pretty, but it is always beautiful and real, much like childbirth.
Duende Doesn’t Care about Technique
Lorca emphasized that duende is not a matter of technique. He cited the example of the great lady of flamenco song La Niña de los Peines, known in Spain as La Reina de la Cante Flamenco (Queen of Flamenco Song).
As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Niña de los Peines leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or color, but with duende…. [She] had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one who demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music… She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! (Lorca, “Play and Theory,” p.61-2)
The marrow of forms, not forms, is that deep part of the psyche out of which emotional truth comes. The skillful artist can hide behind technique and avoid the fight with duende. Facil technique fools most people most of the time. Technique also lies at the core of professionalism in that it enables the artist to produce consistently regardless of feeling, or without any feeling at all.
Duende, however, demands real feeling. To deliver, the artist must forget all tricks of the trade. Lorca was not saying that only the unskilled and untutored can achieve great art. Duende is not for beginners. Only the experienced artist has a style and technique to “forget.” They can be forgotten because they have long ago become second nature.
Duende respects only the master who has paid heavy dues through bloody trial and error and spent endless hours studying the work of masters. La Niña de los Peines had achieved her mastery long before the night Lorca described. She could “rob herself of skill and security” because her style and technique existed in the very marrow of her psyche. Duende doesn’t have to care about technique because it can assume mastery.
Technique can try to fake duende, and with enough alcohol or drugs both artist and audience can be fooled. But the artist who has courage and is willing to fight bare-knuckled — i.e., without relying on technical virtuosity — can achieve something that might be called transcendent or holy (for lack of better words) for both artist and audience.
Of course, the artist also risks humiliating and devastating defeat. Lorca never mentioned those who failed, though he must have known them. He probably felt too embarrassed for them. Duende, like the bullfight, is not for kids or for the faint hearted.
Duende “Squeezes the Lemons of Death”
By this Lorca means that duende embraces mortality (“Play and Theory,” p.64).
He does not, however, mean that duende is obsessed with death. Duende is obsessed with truth, and death is the ultimate truth. Duende rejects the fear and denial of death that characterize neurotic modern culture.
Despite its occult associations, duende’s embrace of mortality anchor it in the physical rather than the supernatural. Lorca made the point by emphasizing that duende manifests best in the body, a perishable thing.
All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against the exact present. (Lorca, “Play and Theory,” p. 63)
Hemingway once said that all stories — by which he meant stories that expressed truth — end in death. In a sense, duende leads artist and audience to truth by compelling them to face death without turning away. Ultimately, if duende says anything about art, it is that art cannot express truth if it begins by denying death and mortality. Disney denies death. Goya has duende.
Duende and Hecho Poético
In the gacelas of Diván del Tamarit, Lorca applied a kind of raw imagery he called hecho poético, or poetic fact. Duende associates these poetic facts in compelling and startling ways. It also eschews narrative, rational and metaphorical logic. Instead, emotional truth alone makes the images and words sensible. Hecho Poético would undergird all of Lorca’s later work, Diván del Tamarit being among his last.
In his introduction to the Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, M.S. Merwin described hecho poético “as a new primal entity of words, a new presence with no analogical reference outside itself. (Or none, presumably, except some emotional experience in the reader which would allow for a degree of recognition and some kind of response.) (Lorca, Selected Poems, p.xix)”
Lorca’s images are not symbols to be decoded or metaphors whose parallels can be puzzled out. Hecho poético doesn’t live in the head. Like flamenco music, it is experienced in the body, particularly the belly and hips. The question is not “What does the poem mean?” but “What do you feel?” Or more accurately, “What does it make you want to do? Laugh? Cry? Dance? Clap? Yawp? Write a ghazal?”
Duende likes action, not talk. Though a great talker, even Lorca couldn’t analyze what he meant. In his book The Demon and the Angel, the poet and critic Edward Hirsch quotes Lorca thus:
If you ask me why I wrote “a thousand glass tambourines / were wounding the dawn, I will tell you that I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more….” (p.5)
Hirsch goes on to explain that “Lorca’s myriad crystal tambourines wounding the new day are a fresh poetic fact.” He also points out that while Lorca’s poetry is associative, it is not surrealist.
“Lorca’s mode of thinking has sometimes been confused with Surrealism, though he rejected psychic automatism as a technique and insisted on ‘the strictest self-awareness’ in his creation of images that have an emotive poetic logic rather than a disembodied rational logic” (p.5, italics mine).
The Poet in New York
According to Merwin, Lorca’s use of hecho poético first appears in Poet in New York, a collection of poems Lorca wrote on his first and only trip to the United States. He arrived in New York City in June 1929, the first year of the Great Depression, and stayed for nine months to study English at Columbia University.
In Lorca: A Dream of LIfe, biographer Leslie Stainton describes how he encountered people and places in New York that inspired him intellectually and artistically. He fell in love with Harlem, where he heard jazz for the first time. He befriended the novelist Nella Larsen, who introduced him to the writers, musicians and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The Puerto Rican writer and editor Angel Flores took him to Brooklyn to meet Hart Crane, America’s 20th Century Byron. He was invited to sparkling galas thrown by Park Avenue friends. Night after night he took over their grand piano and dazzled an international crowd that included the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. He saw his first talkies and even tried his hand at movie script writing.
But the City’s teeming crowds, frenetic pace, blatant vulgarity and brutal capitalism appalled as well as energized him. According to Stainton, it all came to a head on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed and set off the Great Depression (loc. 4542-4561). Lorca headed downtown to Wall Street with a friend and witnessed horrific despair, including the splattered remains of a window jumper. In many ways, the scene resembled downtown Manhattan on 9/11, a cataclysmic event that would also spawn years of war and genocide.
The duende emerging from Lorca’s American shock compelled this formal and well mannered Spaniard to write poems such as “Landscape of the Urinating Crowd: Nocturne to Battery Place,” “Landscape of the Vomiting Crowd: Twilight at Coney Island,” and many other poems that fill the pages of Poet in New York. Though Lorca’s Andalucía differed radically from New York City of the Roaring Twenties, duende enabled him to discover the images — the poetic facts — that captured the terrible beauty and grotesquerie he experienced.
As Merwin comments, ““The imagery is a step in the dark beyond anything in [Lorca’s] earlier writing. It leaps out of itself as it goes. It is explosive, glittering, shrill, raucous, a deliberately strident echo and nightmarish reversal of Whitman’s programmatic optimism.” (Lorca, Selected Poems, p.xv)
The New York poems lash together raw poetic facts in a way that makes them ring even truer today. Certainly America in the early twenty-first century is more Lorca than Whitman.
In Diván del Tamarit, Lorca left behind New York and modern free verse. The collection consists entirely of gacelas and casidas (ghazals and qasidas), forms practiced by poets throughout the Middle East and Indian subcontinent for over a millennium. In keeping with the forms’ tradition, they are essentially erotic love poems.
Hecho poético, however, returned with Lorca to Spain and very much informed Diván del Tamarit. As in Poet in New York, duende drove Lorca to juxtapose daring images, the poetic facts of his experience, in stark and often disturbing ways. The results were love poems more primal than sentimental or even romantic. Love poems that reach beyond gender and desire and delve into the their very marrow.
Lorca made clear that duende can manifest in the arts of all nations (“Play and Theory,” p.64), from the cante jondo (deep song) of the Spain’s Roma to Mozart, from Goya to Cezanne, from Rimbaud to Hafez. But his understanding of duende drew from two specifically Spanish sources. First was five centuries of Rom culture in his home region of Andalucía. Rom singers and dancers of the folk music generally grouped under flamenco shaped Lorca’s understanding of duende.
The second source was Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. Over eight centuries of Muslim rule formed much of Spanish culture that Lorca loved and shaped the language in which he wrote. Lorca’s home region of Adalucía was the last stronghold of Spain’s Muslim rulers. By choosing forms so deeply rooted in Muslim culture, Lorca was reaching back into the most ancient source of Spanish duende.
When our songs reach the very heights of pain and love, they become the expressive sisters of the magnificent verse of Arabian and Persian poets. The truth is that in the air of Córdoba and Granada, one still finds gestures and lines of remote Arabia, and remembrances of lost cities still arise from the murky palimpsest of the Albaicín. (Lorca, “Deep Song,” p.21)
In Divan del Tamarit, Lorca came home to Spain, though profoundly changed by America and the cataclysmic political and economic upheavals of the 1930s. He had become a world poet, but the settings of Diván del Tamarit return us to Andalucía. Lorca understood that duende and modern Spain, his Spain, both began in Al-Andalus.
Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and the Angel. Harcourt, 2003.
Lorca, Federico García. “Deep Song,” translated by Christopher Maurer. In Search of Duende, p.1-27. New Directions, 2010.
Lorca, Federico García. “Play and Theory of Duende,” translated by Christopher Maurer. In Search of Duende,, p.56-72. New Directions, 2010.
Lorca, Federico García. Poet in New York. Translated by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman, Grove Press, 2008.
Stainton, Leslie. Lorca: A Dream of LIfe. Kindle edition, Bloomsbury Reader, 2013.