The Poet-Historian

Federico García Lorca has often been criticized for exoticizing marginalized groups, but this translation finds new depth in his handling of race.

PHoto illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock, Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

PHoto illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock, Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

In Poet in Spain, a new volume of translations of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by Sarah Arvio, we see a wide-ranging exhibition of Lorca’s curiosity about marginalized groups—from his fascination with 14th-century Persian poetry in The Tamarit Divan to his idealization of Andalusia’s Romani history in Gypsy Ballads. “I think that being from Granada inclines me toward a sympathetic understanding of persecuted peoples. Of gypsies, of blacks, of Jews, … of Moors, which we all carry inside,” he said in an interview in 1931.

Statements like these sometimes sit uncomfortably in the minds of contemporary readers for good reason. Lorca’s earnest interest in race as a subject can sometimes seem misguided, its simultaneous fixation on the essence, victimhood, and grandeur of other racial identities troubling. Such criticisms certainly have some truth to them. But it’s also true that Lorca’s poetry turned a sharp lens on Spain’s cultural diversity at a moment when Francisco Franco’s regime would soon push for ethnic and regional identities to be subsumed under a single idea of Spanishness. Whether revisiting Lorca’s views on race was Arvio’s main intention in composing this new volume, it’s hard to say. But her selection, deliberately or not, records the beginning, middle, and end of his poetic excavation of an alternative, multiethnic Spanish history.

In the early autumn of 1921, Lorca was an emotionless wreck. “I am neither sad nor happy,” he wrote to a friend. Having returned to Granada at the insistence of his father, his boredom stemmed from no longer being on a college campus in a major metropolis. He quickly matriculated in the local university, except his course list, which, in Madrid, had included philosophy, Spanish literature, and world history, now consisted of the healthy vegetables of a legal education: canon law, penal law, mercantile law. Lorca yearned to return to Madrid. He missed the utopian intellectual landscape of the Residencia de Estudiantes, where he had befriended fellow classmates Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and other germinating figures of Spain’s artistic scene. There, his intellectual life was his coursework. No comparable intellectual milieu existed in Granada.

That is, until Lorca and his friends created it. By night, they frequented the taverns inside the walls of the city’s 9th-century Alhambra fortress. The taverns, like the Residencia, housed brilliant artists, but few in Spain knew their names, much less the mesmerizing style of music they played, called cante jondo (“deep song”). Typical of Spain’s southern Andalusia region, cante jondo sounds, to the untrained ear, identical to flamenco. But for Lorca, the old style of sung poetry, which, like much else in southern Spain, has strong associations with the Romani people, followed a different beat, historically and acoustically. It hadn’t given in to flamenco’s popularizing drive, preserving, instead, a fusion of Iberian cultures: Indian, Jewish, Byzantine, Islamic. Lorca was known to stretch his personal associations with cante jondo, perhaps to justify his time studying it. According to his biographers, he dubiously claimed that his great-grandmother had been part Gypsy. He fetishized the folkloric features of its songs, wringing images of wind, earth, sea, and moon for every last drop of meaning, despite the fact that many of the cante jondo songs he so idealized protested the difficult conditions of labor and hunger the Romani had endured in southern Spain.

But his recovery of old poetic forms from stigmatized communities aimed to push beyond simple idealism, too. On June 7, 1922, Lorca gave his first official poetry recital at the Alhambra Palace Hotel in Granada. He read from his then-incipient collection, Poem of the Cante Jondo, accompanied on the guitar by Andrés Segovia, today considered perhaps the most gifted Spanish classical guitarist of all time. Among others, he performed his “Poem of the Saeta,” which Arvio has newly rendered in a beautiful English translation for Poet in Spain:

Up the alley come
strange unicorns
From what field
—what mythical forest
At close range
they look like astronomers
fabulous Merlins
and the Ecce Homo
enchanted Durandal
and Orlando Furioso

The poem describes the famous Holy Week procession in Seville, which takes place every year in the days leading up to Easter Sunday and looks like a religious version of the Rose Parade. Part of the poem is organized by descriptions of different floats. But the poem doesn’t let the Spanish reader bask in the celebratory atmosphere. Lorca’s idea was to prevent precooked understandings from being mixed into readings of his poems. He wanted readers to come to his poems with a clean palate. His strategy, in Poem of the Cante Jondo and elsewhere, was to alienate his readers with strange depictions of familiar scenes. Instead of pointed capirote hoods—which Americans often mistake for those of the Ku Klux Klan—he wanted his readers to first see “strange unicorns,” then “astronomers,” and then “Merlins.” By the time readers reached the end of the procession, they might not be so shocked to see a “Gypsy Christ/ with his burnt tresses/ jutting cheekbones/ white pupils” riding atop the final float. This strategy of alienation summarizes Lorca’s approach to rewriting Spanish history through poetry. Why were Spaniards so comfortable with official accounts that had whitewashed hundreds of years of ethnic diversity? The only way to correct the record, as he saw it, was by making readers question where to draw the line that divided what they knew from what they thought they knew.

What had initially begun as a temporary project to recover a local rhythm, untainted by flamenco’s mainstream influence, soon became a lifelong effort to bring parts of Gypsy culture out from obscurity. Several years later, in 1928, Gypsy Ballads, also included in Poet in Spain, was published; it would eventually become one of Lorca’s most famous collections of poetry. “There are gypsies in these ballads that don’t match our notion that gypsies wear rags and travel in caravans,” Arvio explains in the introduction. The suggestion is that Lorca wasn’t just interested in romanticizing their suffering; he also admired the prosperous and elegant parts of their history, as in the poem from Gypsy Ballads, “Death of Antoñito el Camborio”:

They didn’t covet in others
what they coveted in me
Shoes red as currants
cut-ivory cameos
and skin rubbed down
with jasmine and olives
Ay Antonio el Camborio
worthy of a Queen

Lorca was fascinated by the “refined, ancient culture” of Andalusian Gypsies. Red shoes and chiseled ivory underscore the idea that Gypsy, for him, referred to “the most profound, the most aristocratic” part of Spain. Later, his American reception would zero in on his folklorism, which is why our picture of Lorca today is “based primarily on the essay ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’ along with some loose and usually unexamined ideas about flamenco, bullfighting, and ‘Spanish surrealism,’ ” as Lorca scholar Jonathan Mayhew has written.

But Arvio, herself an accomplished poet, by and large steers clear of folklorism, dedicating most of the introduction of Poet in Spain to explaining the formal aspects of Lorca’s poetry. Her selection certainly helps re-contextualize him. In works from the collection The Tamarit Divan to the play Blood Wedding, we find a Lorca much more interested in exploring the alienation strategy of the “Poem of the Saeta” than in a “salvage ethnography” of Gypsy culture. Arvio’s volume, as its title suggests, doesn’t include any of Lorca’s writings from his time in New York. It also doesn’t include the “Duende” essay or any lectures. And the volume is all the better for it. Narrowing the selection shows us a side of Lorca that is somewhat unfamiliar to American readers. We see him not as a traveler in a foreign land, as we usually do, but as a historian of his own “country,” Andalusia. Throughout Poet in Spain, we see that Lorca’s poetry challenged, however subtly and playfully, a vision of Spanish history that had erased ethnic minorities, especially those from Andalusia, from its annals.

One of these unfamiliar collections, included in Poet in Spain, is The Tamarit Divan, written during the height of Spain’s democratic Second Republic. Sometimes halfheartedly, sometimes explicitly, these poems excavate another lineage of Spanish history buried 6 feet under its national consciousness: al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries. Lorca’s historical references, Arvio tells us, are hidden in the formal aspects of the poems. Most readers, though, will gravitate toward the lyrics of sexual desire, made explicit in such poems as “Of Love With One Hundred Years”:

Four loverboys
walk up the street

Ay ay ay ay

Three loverboys
walk down the street

ay ay ay

Two loverboys
walk arm in arm

ay ay

One loverboy and the wind
turn and look back


No one walks
among the myrtle trees

Even Lorca’s seemingly modern account of homoerotic love is borrowed from medieval Arabic and Persian love poems. But his contemporaries in 1920s Granada wouldn’t have recognized this. After the 15th century, Spain embarked on a nation-building project that sought to clean its image of its supposed Jewish, Muslim, and other ethnic influences. By the beginning of the 20th century, the al-Andalus features of Spanish popular culture didn’t register as particularly Muslim. And from 1939–1975, any cultural interest in the region’s Muslim history was officially stamped out by the Franco regime.

We can’t ignore the fact that Lorca romanticized much of Andalusian culture. In 1935, he famously attempted to distance himself from the myths he’d created, but by the time he recognized the repercussions of his idealism, his work had already alarmed conservative elites. He was executed by Franco’s fascist forces in 1936, a little over a month after the start of the Spanish Civil War. Though a significant reason for his assassination was that he was gay, another reason may well have been because of his inquiries into Spain’s Romani, Muslim, and Jewish past. A Franco-era report that came to light in 2015 claimed that Lorca was “a freemason belonging to the Alhambra lodge.” That Lorca was a Freemason is rather unlikely, but that Lorca was obsessed with the Alhambra and everything about it practically goes without saying. The fascists did get one thing right: Lorca’s romanticizing was indeed a political strategy. His poems recognizing Spain’s Moorish and Gypsy heritage weren’t antiques to be kept on a mantelpiece; they were manifestos.

Poet in Spain by Federico García Lorca, translated by Sarah Arvio. Knopf.

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