AG: How many know this poem? – Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman”? One, two, three, four, five, six. seven. Anybody else over there? How many do not? Oh great, great.
I think this is my idea of the greatest poem of the century, or this is my idea of what.. between this and (Guillaume) Apollinaire’s “Zone” (“Zone”, because it was original, it was the first one that invented Surrealist mind, breaking-apart, this, because it took elemental Spanish lyric passionate intensity and mixed it up with Surrealist cut-up, so to speak – the Surrealist idea of putting together opposite things, like “sphincters of dynamos”, “hydrogen jukebox”). At a certain point in Lorca’a life, when he ran into Surrealism (and Salvador Dali, who was a friend of his when he was in New York City, strangely enough), in, I think, the early (19)30’s, visiting New York, he wrote a book called The Poet In New York, (Poeta en Nueva York), which has some of the most amazing poetry of the century. I say this particular poem is the greatest (this, or the lament for a bull-fighter [“Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”] (Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias)], which is side-by-side with it, and equally long, say, about five pages each) because the mind-jumps between the words are the biggest (that) any poet ever took, that I can think of – at least, in this century – and the melody is the most beautiful. The melodiousness of the language, the passion, the heartache, passion, and drive, of it, is the most terrific. The political and anthropological scope, the view of civilization of this (the view of civilization from the bottom, the view of the ruin and collapse and falsity of the machine civilization) is among the most penetrating of any poet of the century, the most directly spoken and most brilliantly said, with images that an anthropologist could relate to great mythic American Indian symbols, or Aztec symbols, or Spanish, or Babylonian symbolism.
So it’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” [ “Oda a Walt Whitman”]. The Spanish is very beautiful, so I’ll begin with ten, fifteen lines of Spanish and then I’ll go on to the English, because the Spanish is so nice – and odd. See, it opens in English, “Along the East River and the Bronx”.
So here’s this Spaniard, in the twentieth-century, saying – “Por el East River y el Bronx/ los muchachos cantaban ensenando sus cinturas” – “Por el East River y el Bronx/ los muchachos cantaban ensenando sus cinturas,/con la rueda. el acteite, el cuero, y el martillo./Noventa mil mineros sacaban la plata de las rocas/ y los ninos dibujaban escaleras y perspectivas./Pero ninguno se dormia,/ninguno queria ser el rio, ninguno amaba las hojas grandes,/ ninguno la lengua azul de la playa/ Por el East River y el Queensborough/ los muchachos luchaban con la industria/y los judios vendian al fauno del rio/la rosa di la circumcision/y el cielo desembocaba por los puentes y los tejados/manadas de bisontes empujadas por el viento./ Pero ninguno se detenia,/ ninguno queria ser nube,/ninguno buscaba los helechos/ ni la rueda amarilla del tamboril..”
– You get some of the elegance of the mouthing in Spanish – [Allen then reads the opening stanzas in English] – “Ode to Walt Whitman” – “Along the East River and the Bronx/ the boys were singing, showing their waists,/with the wheel, the oil, the leather and the hammer./Ninety thousand miners extracted silver from rocks/and children drew stairs and perspectives./ But none would sleep/none wanted to be a river/no one loved the great leaves,/none the blue tongue of the beach/ Along the East River and the Queensborough/the boys were fighting against Industry/and the Jews were selling to the faun of the river/the rose of the Circumcision,/and the sky rushed through bridges and roofs/herds of bison pushed by the winds” – Well, the clouds – “herds of bison pushed by the winds” – It’s very uncanny and clear – “the sky rushed through bridges and roofs/herds of bison” – very American. This is a Spaniard in America, so, immediately, bisons. It’s a very European mentality that’s very charmingly displayed (or a European vision of America, which, incidentally, is one of the great Chaplin-esque fantasies of the century, (Franz) Kafka’s Amerika, or the cowboy America seen from Germany, or the “muchachos” fighting against Industry, with the wind pushing clouds over the roof like bison through bridges –
[Allen then continues with the poem, reading the rest of the poem] – “..New York of slime,/ New York of wires and death:/What angel do you carry hidden in your cheek?/What perfect voice will tell you the truths of the wheat?/ Who, the terrible dream of your stained anemones?/ Not for one moment, beautiful aged Walt Whitman/have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies,/nor your shoulders of corduroy worn out by the moon,/nor your thighs of virginal Apollo,/nor your voice like a pillar of ashes…”… “And you, beautiful Walt Whitman sleep on the Hudson’s banks,/with your beard towards the Pole and your hands open./ Bland clay or snow, your tongue is calling for/comrades that keep watch on your gazelle without a body./Sleep; nothing remains./A dance of walls agitates the meadows/and America drowns itself in machines and lament./ I want the strong air of the most profound night/to remove flowers and words from the arch where you sleep,/and a black boy to announce to the gold-minded whites/the arrival of the reign of the ear of corn.”
– Well, I think that’s a really totally tearful, sort of.. But the prophecy at the end is great – “A dance of walls agitates the meadows” – which is the skyscrapers and the cities – Agitating – actually, the Surrealist element becomes totally literal in a strange way, because it is a “dance of walls agitating meadows” if you go out on the (New) Jersey meadows – there’s a dance of walls, of concrete walls. When I first read this poem, I couldn’t understand.. I didn’t quite get what he was talking about. But it’s simply a huge attack on the Moloch of civilization – A dance of walls agitates the meadows/and America drowns itself in machines and lament”. Then, the prophecy he wants is “ a black boy to announce to the gold-minded whites/the arrival of the reign of the ear of corn.” – of nature, or husbandry – small-scale technology – “Small is Beautiful” [Allen evokes E.F.Schumacher‘s popular book of the time here] – organic gardening – the Indian corn – “the arrival of the reign”, or the return, of the Indian, the return of nature – “..the arrival of the reign of the ear of corn.” – He’s seeing Whitman’s love as larger, natural, purer, open, whereas the homosexual lust of the cities, bars (“pansies”), city-frustration as some kind of poison, as unnatural.
Actually, I never did quite figure out what he was aiming at in his giant put-down of fairies, because Lorca was shot himself, in (19)35, or (19)36, during the Spanish (Civil) War, according to recent biographers because he had fallen in love with some kid who was the brother of one ofthe right-wing Civil Guard people, and so a death squad came to get him in the middle of the night. Yeah?
Student: Also, in that final image, kind of the juxtaposition of the color of corn as natural kind of gold..
Student: …as opposed to the other.
AG: Well, the reason I say I like this (well, this and the other poem we have xeroxed for the anthology, the lament for the bullfighter) is because the jumps – like “bull and “dream” – “You searched for a nude who was like a river./Bull and dream that would join the wheel with the seaweed.” – That’s an astounding piece of mind-jump, from one thing to another. “Bull” , and, well, “Bull” is a masculine, he wanted a masculine – “Bull and dream that would join the wheel” – I suppose civilization, or land-civilization (“with the seaweed” – with the ocean) – “Bull and dream that would join the wheel with the seaweed” – that’s like trying to total it all, trying to total everything into one image.
“Father of your agony” – Then, this agony – but in Spanish – “Agonia, agonia, suena, fermento y sueno,/ Este es el mundo, amigo, agonia, agonia” – “Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream./This is the world, my friend, agony, agony” – That’s about as.. It sounds like somebody just totally down, crying, weeping, and totally truthful. It’s one of the most real lines I’ve ever heard in poetry. That is the way somebody who had just lost everything would sound, in a bughouse, or in a tragic moment – “Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream./This is the world, my friend, agony, agony”. It’s a great speech. Yeah?
Student: It isn’t as if he’s lost everything, though? Because, isn’t he crying about it.. part of Whitman’s expression of America is an expression of the freedom that it might be..
AG: Yes, sure, The boys are..those muchachos – “los muchachos luchaban con la industria” – the boys of Whitman are fighting against Industry – juvenile delinquents
Student: What does “muchachos” mean…?
AG: Boys, kids. Well, friends – “Come on, muchachos, let’s go get drunk!” – or boys (meaning young boys too), boys, street kids, yeah. Street kids playing baseball under the Queensborough Bridge… And “the sun sings along the navels” – that’s a really sexy image – the sun was “singing at their navels”- that’s amazing, Surrealist too – sun singing at their navels.. Yeah?
Student: Did he write that in the United States?
AG: He wrote that in New York
Student: In New York
AG:He was hanging around Columbia University. His friend was the father of Juan de Onis who is now the Latin American reporter for the New York Times. De Onis were an elegant Spanish family, who ran away from the Spanish Civil War, were exiled (or were radicals, so they couldn’t stay around, I forgot what the story was). And they were bilingual. And they were(he was) teaching at the head of the Spanish Department at Columbia..
Several great poets came to New York during the (19)30’s, at that time. (Vladimir) Mayakovsky visited New York and wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge. And Lorca came to New York, but nobody knew him. Nobody knew who he was. Nobody knew who Lorca was except some of the Spanish community. And he was burning and writing the greatest poetry in the world, actually, the greatest modern-esque Romantic poetry. The Americans and the English had T.S.Eliot at the time, and they had (Ezra) Pound and (William Carlos) Williams, but nobody with that torrential rhetoric and accuracy of rhetoric – “Bull and dream that would join the wheel with the seaweed.” There was nobody. Pound, Williams, Eliot never got to “Bull and dream that would join the wheel with the seaweed.” – Just totally out of its skull, and, at the same time, completely literal on some level. I don’t think you get anything like that in a way till (Jack) Kerouac, and then Kerouac doesn’t have the emotive cadence. Sometimes he gets near it. You know the emotive cadence of “Agonia, agonia, suena, fermento y sueno,/ Este es el mundo, amigo, agonia, agonia“ It’s like someone totally down in the heart talking.
Well, I think we’ve come to our time. So (we’ll) continue with more Lorca next (class), and also…
tape (and class) ends here – to be continued
[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at approximately eighty-four-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at the end]