In The H.D. Book, a landmark book on modernist poetry that was not published in its entirety until 2011, Robert Duncan reflected on the rise of New Criticism: “This is the age of criticism, so the critics tell us. An age that has sought to denature and exhaust its time of crisis in bringing philosophy, the arts, human psyche, historical spirit, and the inspiration of the divine world into the terms acceptable to academic aspirations” (433). This so-called “age of criticism,” however, “does not mean Pound’s Calvacanti essay, Cocteau’s ‘Call to Order,’ Dame Edith Sitwell’s notebooks or H.D.’s ‘The Guest,’ Charles Olson’s ‘Projective verse,’ or Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare,” for these are concerned with the inner nature and process of poetry itself” (434). In other words, the academic definition of criticism during the heyday of the Anglo-American New Critics excluded precisely the realm of the poetic imagination of greatest interest to Duncan. Despite the modernist influence of T.S. Eliot on John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, their conception of poetry barely overlaps at all with that proposed in The H.D. Book.
Federico García Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende” also belongs, by all rights, in Duncan’s list of excluded texts, since it inspired Duncan’s confederates, like Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Jack Spicer, but would have been unrecognizable as a work of literary criticism or theory in institutional terms during the period when he was working on The H.D. Book. Not coincidentally, the poets of the New American Poetry rebelled against both the New Criticism and the academic poetry with which it was affiliated at the same time as they were embracing the duende, Lorca’s term for an inspiration that does not fit easily into “academic aspirations.”
The duende is the nexus of the US reception of Lorca’s poetics, fascinating poets like Denise Levertov, Jerome Rothenberg, Kenneth Koch, Robert Bly, and Allen Ginsberg. Lorca’s duende lecture is also well-known to specialized critics, of course, but they, like the American poets, often oversimplify his poetic thought, viewing the duende as a unitary concept rather than an inherently unstable one. One problem is that texts that address “the inner nature and process of poetry” present special difficulties of interpretation. An initial obstacle is to recognize that these texts make a contribution to literary theory. Joan Ramón Resina, for example, begins his essay on “Spanish Theory and Criticism” for the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism with a dismissive gesture:
"To the question, Why is Spanish theory jejune and uninfluential? a possible answer would be, paraphrasing Franz Kafka, that in Spain there is theory, plenty of theory, but not for us. “Us” here refers very generally to the ad hoc category of the postmodern cognitive subject. It denotes an “us” that spurns the substantialism of an intellectual tradition pervaded by Catholic philosophy and its complementary assumption of an inborn aesthetic competence."
Resina’s survey of Spanish contributions to this field includes José Ortega y Gasset, Eugenio d’Ors, and Dámaso Alonso, but not Federico García Lorca; he discusses contemporary essayists like Eduardo Subirats, Eugenio Trías, and Xavier Rubert de Ventós, but not arguably more significant figures like María Zambrano or José Ángel Valente. In other words, Resina leaves out precisely the twentieth-century thinkers who have had the most to contribute to the portion of literary theory that Duncan terms poetics, that is, the theory developed by the poets themselves to reflect upon their art form.
It is in this neglected material, perhaps, where Resina might have found literary theory of more interest to “postmodern cognitive subjects” like himself. What is conspicuously absent from the Johns Hopkins Guide as a whole, as well as from Resina’s contribution, is the idea that modern poets themselves have made a distinctive contribution to literary theory. Despite its usefulness in other respects, this reference work does not include entries on the theory of poetry, on poetics, or on subjects like lyric, prosody, or rhythm. It does include entries on drama theory and narratology, so poetry is the only major genre that has no relevant theory associated with it. The entry on the poet-critic, predictably, emphasizes a tradition of poets working as university professors, beginning with Tate and Ransom, and includes a brief discussion of Octavio Paz, but it remains limited in scope, omitting the dense poetic essays of José Lezama Lima, Louis Zukofsky, or Robert Duncan.
The famed “poet-professors” among Lorca’s contemporaries—figures like Dámaso Alonso, Pedro Salinas, and Jorge Guillén—occupy a similar position to that of the Anglo-American poet-critics, emphasizing the autonomy of the literary text and rejecting seemingly extraneous biographical and ideological concerns. It is significant, then, that José Ángel Valente finds Alonso and his entire generation to be devoid of poetic pensamiento (thought): “La generación del 27 es más una generación de profesores que de pensadores” (The Generation of 27 is more a generation of professors than of thinkers; La experiencia abisal 144). This judgment might seem grossly unfair, given the philological accomplishments of Alsonso, but it does differentiate these poet-scholars from the mystical tradition of Zambrano, Lezama Lima, and Valente himself. The difference is that this second group approach poetry with a sense of awe, treating it as primordial way of understanding reality that rivals philosophy and religion, while drawing from both. Valente objects to Guillén and Alonso’s indifference or hostility to the mysticism of Saint John of the Cross, their attempt to create “una interpretación dualista, en suma, de una obra cuyo eje y viviente sustancia es la integración, la fusión, la unión” (a dualist interpretation, in sum, of an work whose axis and living substance is integration, fusion, union; ibid. 147).
A sneak preview of the first paragraphs of the first chapter of my book: