Lorca Party! starring a book review and a translation by Brandon Holmquest

Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch
by Jonathan Mayhew
University of Chicago Press, 2009

Let me just cut through all the usual, boring book review preliminaries and say the following thing: Jonathan Mayhew has, in Apocryphal Lorca, written an amazing book. I justify the use of the adjective “amazing” as follows. First, as an extended case study in the uses, abuses and consequences (intended and otherwise) of the practice of translation, the book is almost without precedent or parallel and will, if the world has any sense in it, serve as a practical model to other scholars. Secondly, this examination of the American afterlife of a prominent Spanish poet is also one of the most perceptive readings of 20th century American poetry that I have ever read, refreshingly light on the kind of partisanship and weirdness that characterizes such discussion in the poetry world proper. Thirdly, throughout the book Mayhew works with a transparency that verges on suspicion of his own motives, with no claim to objectivity or ultimate truth, thereby avoiding the many traps and pitfalls that confront the professional academic Hispanist in a work of this kind.

The basic structure of Apocryphal Lorca is relatively simple. Mayhew openly declares “I resist the uncritical, hagiographical treatment to which [Lorca] has often been subjected and am skeptical of approaches that rely too heavily on the romantic idea of the 'genius' or...the duende.” He then says his goal is to examine how “Lorca in English translation and adaptation has become a specifically American poet.”

Chapter 1: Federico García Lorca: Himself. Chapter 2: The American Agenda. From there the conversation moves into specifics, as Mayhew follows Lorca's path into the center of the American canon as a central preoccupation of postwar American poetry. That this discussion requires knowledge of the relevant poetry is obvious. The impression one gets from reading the book is that Mayhew was already deeply familiar with this poetry before the idea of writing this book ever occurred to him. It does not play like he's gone and done a bunch of reading simply as research, but rather as though he's been quoting people like Robert Creeley off the top of his head since the mid 1970s. This facility with the material serves him well because, combined with his knowledge of Lorca's work, it enables him to make difficult distinctions in the evaluation of the various American uses of Lorca.

Mayhew identifies the 1950s as the beginning of Lorca's penetration into American poetry, beginning with the 1951 publication of Langston Hughes's mostly forgotten version of Romancero gitano. This was published as a chapbook on a very small press and quickly went out of print, seeming to influence or even be read by almost no one but Bob Kaufman. The fact that Hughes's translations were largely forgotten means that “the Lorca boom of the 1950s often drew its inspiration from translations of indifferent quality,” which is not intended as a general statement, far from it.

Those “translations of indifferent quality” are to be found in two books. The first was a Selected Poems edited by Lorca's brother Francisco and Donald Allen, published by New Directions in 1955. The editors assembled what they considered the best available versions of Lorca's work from a total of eighteen translators. Many of them, Mayhew says, “can still hold their own against more recent work.” The book's “most notable weakness” is the translations by Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili that make up “more than one quarter” of its length. Mayhew finds that they take a “flat-footed, literal approach,” then proceeds to back this claim up with a detailed examination of their work.

Mayhew's critiques of specific translators, here and throughout the book, are of an entirely different order than the usual armchair quarterback second guessing that translators rightfully fear and loathe. What he's doing is looking for the roots of those later “uncritical, hagiographical” versions of Lorca, for the point of departure where Lorca ceases to be himself and starts to become someone, or something, else. He does not lay all the blame for this process at the feet of Spender and Gili, or anyone else, but finds that in general there is plenty of responsibility to go around.

Some people, though, are more responsible than others. The second of the two books that, according to Mayhew, put Lorca in the American poetry mainstream is the 1955 Grove Press edition of The Poet of New York, translated by Ben Belitt. In a subsection titled “The Translator's Ego,” Mayhew thrashes Belitt, whose “infractions include verbosity, ennoblement, awkward syntax and punctuation, outright obfuscation, the erasure of poetic devices like metonymy and syntactic parallelism, wildly inappropriate shifts of register and tone, inexplicable lexical choices, and the dilution of metaphors and sensory images.” Is that all? No. Mayhew then provides six specific examples to back up these assertions. “Where Lorca has a single vaso, Belitt requires both a jigger and a tumbler. Turning a cuttlefish inside out takes Belitt thirteen words, to Lorca's six.” Mayhew is not just scoring points, his analysis of Bellit's “vandalistic approach” serves his broader argument about the distortions Lorca has undergone.

I can well imagine that it will seem, then, paradoxical to some people that Mayhew has much in the way of praise for Paul Blackburn, a notorious changer of the literal form and meaning of the texts he translated. What makes the difference for Mayhew is that Blackburn “works explicitly to translate Lorca into the Pound-Williams tradition,” which is to say that Paul openly declares his intentions and is transparent about his many, drastic alterations, as opposed to Bellit, for example. While he finds that “Blackburn's experimental translation practice produces predictably mixed results” Mayhew also affirms that such practice, when successful, leads to “high points” of “colloquialism and musicality.” It is my own opinion that these “high points” are not likely to be reached another way. In the end Mayhew's view, as well as my own, is that “the ultimate justification for the poet-translator is the creation of new poetry in the target language,” a premise which, if accepted, shifts the critical basis from which such texts can be evaluated.

Mayhew's next topic is a thorny one, the “Deep Image School”, which may in fact be two separate groups, each claiming the name for themselves and denouncing the other. Or, one of them is the true “Deep Image School” and the other is not worth even mentioning. This is the sort of territorial mess that's typical of the last fifty or sixty years of American poetry, and it's further complicated by who makes up these rival camps. On the one hand, decidedly avant-gardist poets like Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman and Robert Kelly. On the other, decidedly mainstream poets like Robert Bly and James Wright. Yeesh. Mayhew has to devote five full pages to sorting through the attempts by various partisan critics to erase one group or the other before he himself can even begin his discussion.

What finally emerges in Mayhew's telling is a two-part movement, invented by Kelly and Rothenberg, et al., and then taken over (some would say co-opted) by Bly and Wright et al. as the Kelly-Rothenberg group distanced themselves from it, both in the course of their natural poetic development and as a response to the Bly-Wright contingent. It is unfortunate for Mayhew that his subject necessitated his entry into this matter, because there's almost no way he can avoid pissing off everyone involved and thereby reducing the likelihood that any of them will listen to what he has to say specifically involving Lorca. But, given the importance of both Rothenberg and Bly to the American take on Lorca, the topic was in fact totally unavoidable. The basic conclusion Mayhew reaches as regards Rothenberg and Kelly is that they were not quite as influenced by Lorca as has been asserted. Rather, he finds that the greater portion Lorca's supposed influence on them has been one effect of Bly's efforts to link his own practice of the deep image with something that Bly calls “Spanish surrealism.”

Upon examination, this “Spanish surrealism” of Bly's turns out to be more or less chimerical. It encompasses many poets, such as Antonio Machado, who were neither proper Surrealists (in the sense of belonging to the group headed by André Breton) nor particularly “surrealistic” in their poetic practice. It also includes many poets, such as Pablo Neruda, who were not Spanish. Bly is over-generalizing, imprecise, and basically doesn't know what he's talking about, which should come as no surprise to anyone. The man is, frankly, as big a windbag as any American who ever put pen to paper, and I hope to get some other work done this afternoon, so I am moving on. Suffice it to say that Mayhew leaves little of Bly's “Spanish surrealism” standing.

The next three chapters of Mayhew's book are where the real action is anyway. First comes a brief discussion of a poem by Robert Creeley called “After Lorca,” and then 15 pages on Jack Spicer's 1957 book After Lorca. With the recent publication of his Collected Poems, Spicer is naturally enough a hot topic of discussion these days. I expect to spend the next two or three years hearing poets all over New York breathlessly recite the Spicer epigraphs they've attached to their poems. After that, I expect a backlash. This is literary fashion, all well and good but basically independent of Spicer's texts in and of themselves. Mayhew's analysis is of a different order, much more focused on the text of one book in a very specific, Lorca-centered way. As was the case with Blackburn, given the aggressive use to which Spicer subjected the idea of Lorca, Lorca's poems and translation itself, one might expect a professional Hispanist to be a bit taken aback, but that is not the case. Mayhew's reading of After Lorca is extremely interesting and far too complex to accurately summarize. Suffice it to say that since “the ultimate justification for the poet-translator is the creation of new poetry in the target language,” Mayhew has high praise for Spicer, saying that “[o]f all the U.S. poets who took inspiration from Lorca...Spicer had the deepest and broadest response.” The only reservation Mayhew has is as regards the poem “Oda a Walt Whitman,” about which more later.

Then we come to what is, to my mind, the most interesting section of Apocryphal Lorca, two chapters, one on Frank O'Hara and one on Kenneth Koch. The conventional wisdom on the “New York School” to which both are assigned by critics, is that they were primarily influenced by French modernist poets such as Pierre Reverdy. And it is indisputable that French modernists were a huge influence. That said, anyone with eyes in their head should be able to look at Poet in New York by Lorca, compare it to a great deal of New York School writing and see obvious, strong similarities. Lorca's book is prototypical of the majority of O'Hara's own poems, particularly as regards the use of the city and the role of the poet in it. I am overgeneralizing here where Mayhew goes into deep specifics, in a chapter that makes a strong case for the re-evaluation of O'Hara's relationship to Lorca and other Spanish poetry.

The following chapter on Kenneth Koch centers mainly on his poem “Some South American Poets,” originally published in 1969's The Pleasures of Peace. The poem purports to be a handful of translations from the Spanish, but is in fact a parody of, mostly, Argentine poetry in translation. Mayhew is a little more charitable as regards Koch's intentions than I myself have ever been. That poem looks for all the world like condescension to me, but Mayhew sees a “parody-homage.” The essential question here being how you take Koch's idea of hasosismo, as a parody of a perceived (by Koch) Hispanic pseudo-profundity or as a parody of the American perception of a “deep” “primitive” profundity in Hispanic culture. Basically this is eye-of-the-beholder.

But the central argument these two chapters make, for a re-evaluation of Lorca's influence on the New York School, is very strong. It is also common sense. If there should be someone out there who feels compelled to argue that a group of poets who were voraciously reading everything while at Harvard in the late 1940s would not have been likely to encounter the 1940 edition of Poet in New York translated by Rolfe Humphries, go ahead. If someone wants to deny the overwhelming similarity between Lorca's New York poems and those of O'Hara and company, feel free. But you're going to have to talk over my derisive giggling.

The final chapter, on Jerome Rothenberg's Lorca Variations, I will have to skip because I have not read Rothenberg's book, and am therefore in no position to evaluate Mayhew's criticisms of the poetry therein contained.

Mayhew's conclusion casts an eye back over the arguments and examinations made, and essentially concludes that there is little in the way of hard and fast answers. Lorca's influence has been handled in a variety of ways. Some of these have been productive of new achievements, others merely exploitative. All of them are problematic to some degree. Those who appear to respect the letter of Lorca the least get the best poetic results, while those who would appear to respect him more wind up warping him into a duende-soaked caricature. This is the natural conclusion to draw, I think, from a book which is oriented more toward a process of critical investigation than toward setting forth a programmatic theoretical scheme, based on the case of Lorca, for future approaches to translation generally or Lorca specifically. It is another point to Mayhew's credit that he avoids, in this way, anything resembling a disembodied theory.

On the the whole, Apocryphal Lorca offers anyone interested in poetry and/or translation a vast array of things to think about as well as a thorough education in the way Lorca has passed into American poetry, one project at a time. I have only two problems with the book, one of which is rather minor, the other a little less so.

The first concerns the distinction Mayhew makes between those who put the accent on the “García” in Lorca's name and those who do not, placing a [sic] after usages that lack the accent. In a note Mayhew explains that he does this “not out of a desire to be pedantic, but because Garcia represents an Americanization of Lorca's paternal surname: it is important to distinguish between poets familiar enough with the conventions of Spanish orthography to include the accent, and those who are not.” And no doubt Mayhew's desire “not to be pedantic” is completely sincere. I wonder, however, if he considered that, given the time period when most of the books he looks at were published (the 1950s and 60s) and the many, many instances of printer's errors in the more avant-garde poetry of that period, the omission of the accent might be attributable as much to the printers as the poets. In the first edition of The New American Poetry, for example, Stuart Z. Perkoff's poem about the Spanish director Luis Buñuel is titled "Flowers for Luis Bunuel" without the diacritic mark. Donald Allen edited Lorca's Selected Poems as well, and surely would have been familiar with Spanish orthography. Maybe the printers in those days just didn't have the proper type, or simply didn't think it mattered very much.

The other concern I have regards Mayhew's reading of Lorca's Oda a Walt Whitman as a “homophobic” poem. He is hardly alone in this. Reactions to this poem tend to break one of two ways, considering it to be either homophobic or celebratory of homosexual life. Neither are very convincing to me, personally. The poem is altogether too negative toward those who Lorca calls los maricas for the celebration argument to be convincing, while at the same time confining its attack exclusively to los maricas, which Lorca himself translates as “faeries” at one point in the poem.

The question here is: how to define the term los maricas? If we define it as 1: being an epithet and 2: meaning “homosexuals” in a broad sense, then the homophobic argument logically follows. If we define it as 1:being an epithet and 2: referring to a subset of homosexuals (in this case probably effeminate homosexual men) then the homophobic argument weakens considerably and the whole thing takes on the tone of in-fighting.

Of course, little is known about how the word marica was used within the gay culture of Spain in Lorca's own time, so it's difficult to say how the word ought to be defined with any certainty. And even less so when Lorca's own rather tortured relationship with his sexuality is taken into account. My point is that there's a lot of ambiguity inside the poem as well as in its backgrounds pertaining specifically to the term los maricas, and therefore to the nature of the argument in poem as a whole. Not that you would know it from reading translations of that poem, where maricas is rendered as everything from “faggots” to “cocksuckers” to “queers.” In every case, the word choice says more about the translator than it does about Lorca. With that in mind, what follows is my own version of Oda a Walt Whitman, which attempts to make some profitable poetic use of the ambiguity I find in the poem itself.

Ode to Walt Whitman

Along the East River, in the Bronx
boys sang showing their waists,
with wheel, oil, leather and hammer.
Ninety thousand miners took silver from rocks
and kids drew staircases and perspectives.

But no one slept,
no one wanted to be a river,
no one loved big leaves,
no one the beach's blue tongue.

Along the East River, in Queensborough
boys fought against industry,
and Jews sold the rose of circumcision
to river fauna
and the sky flowed through bridges and the roofs
bison herds pushed by the wind.

But no one stopped,
no one wanted to be a cloud,
no one looked for ferns
or the tamboril's yellow wheel.

When the moon comes out
pulleys will spin to shock the sky;
a needle border will besiege memory
and coffins will come for those who don't work.

Mud New York,
wire and death New York.
What angel do you carry hidden in your mouth?
What perfect voice will tell the truths of wheat?
Who the terrible dreams of your stained anemones?

Not for one single moment, beautiful old man, Walt Whitman,
have I ceased to see your beard full of butterflies,
or your shoulders of corduroy worn thin by the moon,
or your virgin Apollo thighs,
or your voice like a column of ash;
old man beautiful as fog,
you who moaned like a bird
sex pierced by a needle,
enemy of the satyr,
enemy of the vine
and lover of bodies beneath rough cloth.

Not for one single moment, virile beauty
who in coal mountains, billboards and railroads,
dreamed of being a river and sleeping like a river
with that comrade who would put a small
ignorant leopard pain in your breast.

Not for one single moment, blood Adam, Masculine,
man alone on the sea, beautiful old Walt Whitman,
because on azoteas,
gathered in bars,
coming out of sewers in bunches,
trembling between the legs of cabdrivers
or spinning on absinthe platforms,
the maricas, Walt Whitman, point to you.

Him too! Him too! And they fall
onto your luminous chaste beard,
blonds from the north, blacks from the sands,
crowd of cries and gestures,
like cats and like serpents,
the maricas, Walt Whitman, the maricas,
misty with tears, flesh for the whip,
boot or bite of masters.

Him too! Him too! Painted-nail fingers
point to your dream's shore
when that friend eats your apple
with a faint taste of gasoline
and the sun sings on the bellies
of boys playing beneath bridges.

But you didn't look for the spidered eyes,
or the darkest sunken children marsh,
or the frozen spit,
or the wounded curves like a toad's belly
that maricas wear in cars, on balconies
while the moon whips them on corners of terror.

You looked for a naked man who was like a river,
bull and dream who'd join the wheel with the weeds,
father of your agony, camellia of your death,
who would moan in your hidden equator's flames.

Because it's right that man seek not his delight
in the blood jungle of the morning after.
The sky has beaches where life can be avoided
and there are bodies that shouldn't be repeated in the dawn.

Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream.
This is the world, friend, agony, agony.
The dead decompose under clock cities,
war passes crying with a million gray rats,
the rich give their loved ones
small dying visionaries,
and life is not noble, or good, or sacred.

Man can, if he wants, drive his desire
through a coral vein or heavenly naked man.
Tomorrow loves will be rocks and Time
a breeze that comes sleeping through branches.

That's why I don't raise my voice, old Walt Whitman,
against the little boy who writes
a girl's name on his pillow,
or against the boy who dresses as a bride
in the closet's darkness,
or against the lonely men in casinos
drinking prostitution's water with disgust,
or against men with that green gaze
who love men and their lips burn in silence.
But I do against you, city maricas,
with swollen flesh and filthy thoughts.
Mud mothers. Harpies. Dreamless enemies
of Love that hands out crowns of happiness.

Against you forever, who give boys
drops of dirty death with bitter poison.
Against you forever,
Faeries of North America,
Pájaros of Havana,
Jotos of Mexico,
Sarasas of Cadiz,
Apios of Seville,
Cancos of Madrid,
Floras of Alicante,
Adelaidas of Portugal.

Maricas of the world, murderers of doves!
Slaves of woman. Their dressing table bitches.
Openly in plazas with a fever of fans
or ambushed in stiff hemlock landscapes.

No quarter! Death
pours from your eyes
and gray flowers gather on the muddy banks.
No quarter! Look out!!
May the confused, the pure,
the classical, the celebrated, the supplicants
close the orgy's doors to you.

And you, beautiful Walt Whitman, sleep on the banks of the Hudson,
with your beard toward the pole and your open hands.
Soft clay or snow, your tongue is calling
comrades to watch over your unbodied ghazal.

Sleep: nothing's left.
A dance of walls shakes the prairies
and America is flooded with machines and weeping.
I want the strong air of the deepest night
to strip flowers and letters from the arch where you sleep
and a black child to announce to the golden whites
the coming of the kingdom of wheat.


Jonathan said...

I have to say thanks for such a detailed and generous review. I just found it today by googling the title of my book, as I do once in a while.

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Lorca Party! starring a book review and a translation by Brandon Holmquest