Molly is a collection development librarian specializing in graphic novels and young adult literature. She also blogs about teen librarianship and books at Wrapped Up in Books.
She’s here today to talk about poetry in translation, specifically Federico Garcia Lorca.
I remember the first time I ever read a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. It was a cool September day my freshman year of college, and the windows to my Spanish 111 class were open to welcome a breeze. Every class had a cultural lesson to accompany whatever vocabulary and conjugations we were studying, and on that day, we were reading Lorca’s most famous poem, “Sleepwalking Ballad”:
Green I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship on the sea
and the horse upon the hill.
With her waist wrapped in shadow
she dreams on her veranda,
green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
Green I want you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
things keep watching her,
and she cannot see them.
Before I discovered Spanish poetry, studying the language had always been a burden. But as soon as I started reading Lorca, I wanted to unravel the mysteries of his words. Studying dual language editions of poetry taught me more about the importance of accent marks and verb tenses and helped me understand the subtle effects of different word choice than any drills or worksheets ever did.
I went on to read lots of poetry in translation: Lope de Vega, Miguel de Unamuno, Jorge Manrique, Pablo Neruda, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas. But Lorca remains my favorite.
Lorca was born in Granada, Spain just before the dawn of the twentieth century and came of age in Madrid, where he studied alongside men who would become some of the most influential Spanish artists of their time, such as Salvador Dali and Manuel de Falla. Though he wrote about poverty in America and traveled extensively in Latin America, he, and most of his work, embodied the south of Spain, the Mediterranean coast, and the history of his people and their connection to the land.
There’s a reason why Lorca is my favorite: most of his poetry is about sex or death, with imagery expressed with startling and private metaphors. The spine of my Collected Poems is worn because I often pause when passing my bookshelf to pull it off and read a few stanzas. His poetry is visceral, magical, haunting. It tugs at your soul and speaks of the secrets of the universe.
Lorca wrote in a variety of forms, from traditional sonnets and suites, to more experimental styles, like the prose-poem “In the Garden of Lunar Grapefruits” (“In the Forest of Lunar Grapefruits” is also great) or surrealist dramatic poetry like “Trip to the Moon.” In addition to writing poetry, Lorca produced several celebrated plays, from his first A Butterfly’s Evil Spell, to his most famous, Blood Wedding. He also wrote essays, especially on duende, the heightened emotional state where true, authentic art emerges.
Some of his most startling works are from his time in New York, where he witnessed the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. He became critical of capitalism and materialism. He advocated for the marginalized and his poems speak of race relations in New York.
In fact, in 2013 I had the chance to view an exhibit at the New York Public Library that offered an intimate glimpse into Lorca’s life and shed light on the many ways the city influenced his work. There were photographs, artifacts, drawings, and letters. The most gut-wrenching item in the collection is a handwritten note Lorca left atop the Poet in New York manuscript at his editor’s desk. “Back tomorrow,” it said. But he never did come back. He was called to the countryside, then taken from his family’s home, and murdered by Franco’s regime more because of his sexuality than his politics.
Readers interested in learning more about Lorca’s life and work should check out two definitive biographies: Federico García Lorca: A Life by by Ian Gibson and Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stanton. You could start with Selected Verse if the huge Collected Poems is intimidating, but really, it’s nice to have it all. I’d also recommend the fictionalized movie of Federico García Lorca’s relationship with Salvador Dalí in the movie Little Ashes.
Poetry is the arrangement of language where sound is as important as meaning. Learning the sounds of words through reciting poetry was the only way I ever enjoyed the process of learning a language. Even after going six semesters of Spanish in college and going to grad school for Latin American Studies, I have only a basic listening and speaking skills, but because of my time spent reading poetry, I read pretty well. But, when pouring over Lorca’s poetry, feel a kinship with him, for he never mastered English, but still appreciated the rhythm and beauty of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.
Thank you to Molly for this great post and reminding me how much I loved reading Lorca’s poetry in high school!
If you want to see more of her, be sure to check out her blog: http://wrappedupinbooks.org