The origins of Apocryphal Lorca

March 27, 2009
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Next month, the Press will publish Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch by Jonathan Mayhew. Exploring the afterlife of this legendary Spanish writer in the poetic culture of the United States, Mayhew examines how Lorca in English translation has become a specifically American poet, adapted to American cultural and ideological desiderata—one that bears little resemblance to the original corpus, or even to Lorca’s Spanish legacy. An assessment of Lorca’s considerable influence on the American literary scene of the latter half of the twentieth century, the book uncovers fundamental truths about contemporary poetry, the uses and abuses of translation, and Lorca himself.

Although Mayhew wrote the book in a single academic year, he says he’d been preparing to write it for most of his life. Here, he gives us insight into his process of conceiving, researching, and creating Apocryphal Lorca:

The beginnings of Apocryphal Lorca go back to my puzzlement over Kenneth Koch’s “Some South American Poets,” which I first read in the mid-1970s. Like many aspiring poets of my generation, I was beginning to read Lorca, Aleixandre, and Neruda in translation and to learn Spanish to read them in the original. Koch’s translations, however, were of imaginary poets—as I discovered when I looked up their names, one by one, in the card catalogue of my local university library. My first published poem referred to this episode. It began like this:

There is no need to invent imaginary
Latin American poets! Real poets exist,
Waiting to be translated!

What was the point of Koch’s literary invention? I sensed that the intent was parodic, but what, exactly, was he parodying? My book is an attempt to answer this question some thirty years later.

My desire to read these poets in their own words led me, eventually, to become a Spanish professor, specializing in twentieth century peninsular poetry. Many years later, I felt the need to go back and understand a period of American literary history that I had experienced in my late teens, but had understood only partially. The vogue for translations of Spanish language poetry, which reached its height in the 1970s, had its beginnings with the American fascination with the figure of the Spanish playwright and poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), whose death at the hands of the rebels in Granada at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War reverberated throughout the 1930s and the Cold War Period. I knew that Langston Hughes had translated the Gypsy Ballads, that Jack Spicer had written After Lorca, a book mixing translations of Lorca poems with apocryphal translations, that Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Robert Duncan had admired Lorca. I was confident that I could gather enough material for an article about Lorca in US poetry, but as I began to research the topic I realized that I needed to write a book. With the generous help of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the encouragement of the University of Chicago Press, I set to work.
The idea of apocrypha soon became central to this project: Robert Creeley’s 1952 poem “After Lorca” was not based on any extant Lorca poem, anticipating Spicer’s later project. I looked at Paul Blackburn’s posthumously published Lorca/Blackburn and noticed that he had translated songs from the popular tradition that were not written by Lorca at all. And then there were Koch’s “South American Poets.” Conversations about Koch with his long-time assistant, the poet Jordan Davis, confirmed my intuition Koch might have been parodying Lorca’s duende with the concept of the hasos.
My most difficult task was to find the story that I wanted to tell. I decided that Lorca was a key figure in the development of an alternative version of “American Exceptionalism” during the Cold War period. Lorca became a celebrated figure at the same time as Eisenhower’s State Department sent Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz musicians on good will tours to Africa and the Soviet Union. It is easy to see now that cultural vitality of this period owed more to Dizzy and Miles, to Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock, than to the mainstream conservative institutions of this period. In some sense even the political elite of the period intuited this as well. A cartoon the New Yorker carried showed officials sitting around a table with the caption: “This is a mission of utmost delicacy. The question is, who’s the best man for it—John Foster Dulles or Satchmo?” In the 1950s and 1960s, Lorca seemed to show up wherever poets and musicians were attempting to define specifically American identity at the margins of official culture. Allen Ginsberg’s “Van Gogh’s Ear,” for example, evokes the Spanish poet in connection to the Cold War (McCarthyism), the American poetic tradition (Whitman, Crane), and the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose suicide represents the lost promise of the Russian Revolution with the rise of Stalinism:

Poet is Priest
 
Money has reckoned the soul of America
Congress has broken thru to the precipice of Eternity
the President built a War machine which will vomit and rear up Russia out of Kansas
The American Century betrayed by a mad Senate which no longer sleeps with its wife
Franco has murdered Lorca the fairy son of Whitman
just as Mayakovsky committed suicide to avoid Russia
Hart Crane distinguished Platonist committed suicide to cave in the wrong America

Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti argues that translation almost always serves a domestic agenda, a set of interests specific to the cultural context of the place where the translation takes place. Because Lorca was called upon to serve a broad range of uniquely American interests, from opposition to McCarthyism and African-American identity politics to gay liberation and “deep image” poetics, Lorca himself remains elusive. But of course there is no real Lorca, no authentic version unmediated by ideology. To study the reception of Lorca in Spain in the years since death would be to come to terms with another, equally contested domestic agenda.
American poets eventually settled on a single concept that would explain Lorca’s poetics: the duende. Everyone from Harold Bloom and Edward Hirsch to Kenneth Koch, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and Hilda Morley have celebrated Lorca’s evocation of a mysterious spirit force emanating from the earth. My own instinct was to take the opposite approach from Hirsch, who in his 2002 book The Demon and the Angel deploys the concept of the duende to explain “the source of artistic inspiration.” I treat the American duende, instead, as a reduction of Lorca’s complexity into an easily digested concept. The duende, shocking to say, is the form taken by Lorquian kitsch. The more varied political and cultural appropriations of Lorca during the Cold War period maintain a certain freshness. Once the duende became to dominant concept in Lorca’s American reception, however, a certain fossilization set in.
Although I wrote most of this book in a single academic year, from August to March, I had really been preparing to write it my entire life. There are scholars like Andrew Anderson and Christopher Maurer who know a great deal more about Lorca than I do, but it is safe to say that very few professors of Spanish can match my level of engagement with contemporary American poetry. “The dead are notoriously hard to please,” as Jack Spicer has Lorca write in the preface to After Lorca, but I feel that my ultimate goal is to do justice to the Lorca’s legacy. One reader of my blog pointed out to me the word APOCRYPHAL is a perfect anagram of HAPPY LORCA. I took this as a sign that my examination of the apocryphal Lorcas of American poetry and poetics was ultimately a felicitous one. — Jonathan Mayhew

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