I’m not a happy poet

John Butt

  • Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton
    Bloomsbury, 568 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 7475 4128 0

In Argentina in 1933, so Leslie Stainton tells us, Lorca ‘began wearing a white linen suit, and frequently a white cotton sailor’s shirt with a V-shaped neck and a dark sash. He took childlike delight in donning the shirt and going to the beach to “awaken” the seashells by calling out to them.’ He was obviously someone to be taken only in tiny doses. It is also clear that this poet and playwright, talented pianist, cartoonist and painter, raconteur and wit, noted reciter of verse, theatrical director, mimic, sporadic literary theorist, occasional conjuror and luminary of Madrid’s cafés, presents a classic case of the life’s work threatened with eclipse by the life itself.

In fact, this golden boy is something of a menace to the everyday trade of the Hispanist. He was not only an unforgettable, and for an impressive number of people, a lovable character. His other unfair advantages include his excellence in the one genre in which modern Hispanic literature is dismally weak: drama. His closest rival, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, puts himself out of the international contest by concentrating his interests either on local politics or on a medieval fantasy world, and also by being linguistically peculiar and thus untranslatable. Other Spanish playwrights of the first half of the 20th century, such as Benavente, Unamuno or Alberti, remain unknown, as playwrights, north of the Pyrenees; and no Spanish dramatist since the Civil War has produced anything even remotely comparable to El público (‘The Audience’ or ‘The Public’), Once Five Years Pass, Don Perlimplín, Doña Rosita the Spinster, Blood Wedding, Yerma or The House of Bernarda Alba.

Lorca was also a great poet, perhaps a better poet than dramatist, although this was not his own opinion. Poetry in Castilian enjoyed a second Golden Age between 1900 and 1936, but its successes have never been truly appreciated abroad, in part no doubt because of Lorca’s dismaying brilliance. Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads) is the most famous book of Castilian verse of all time. Poet in New York is probably one of the few radically avant-garde collections with a wide international readership. By comparison, his contemporaries among the Castilian poets laboured under diverse handicaps. Juan Ramón Jiménez’s vast output of mystical symbolist verse is often obscure and/or emotionally soppy. Antonio Machado’s poetry is old-fashioned and inclined to be repetitive. Unamuno’s poetry is obsessed with a religious problem that nowadays excites few readers. Rafael Alberti occasionally matched his rival Lorca’s metaphoric brilliance, but his work lacks an important ingredient: thought. The same could be said of the shepherd-poet Miguel Hernández, admired in Spain but ignored elsewhere. Lorca’s some-time lover Luis Cernuda could have mounted a serious poetic challenge, but he suddenly rejected Modernism, and his poetry, always lugubrious, became prosaic and discursive. Jorge Guillén, who knew Lorca well, was a fine poet, but his verse combines academic language, uncomplicated heterosexuality, a lack of interest in politics and maddening optimism in a way that makes him quite unfashionable.

Lorca’s secret was that he perfected aspects of Castilian Modernism never fully realised in the work of his fellow poets. He made the language of Modernism uniquely and brilliantly his own. Despite his intimate experience of the avant-garde he never cut his imaginative links with traditional Spanish song, poetry and music. He was also identifiably left-wing and tackled such subjects as the condition of Spanish women, sexual repression and gay love that excited audiences in his day and guarantee his interest for modern-day theorists.

Nature favoured Lorca’s later reputation in other ways. He was endowed with a flirtatious, rather attractive homosexuality which, considering the time and the place, he asserted with vigour and panache in affairs that gained him notoriety and showed him to be an entertaining and affectionate lover, however promiscuous.

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