30 may 2012

Summary of Chapters

Chapter 1, “ Spanish Exceptionalism, Poetics, and Intellectual History,” examines the problematic legacy of Spanish “exceptionalism,” a tendency in intellectual, cultural, and literary history that emphasizes those elements that make Spain distinctively different from other European nations. Historically, Spanish modernism—from Miguel Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset to Federico García Lorca and María Zambrano—is strongly tinged with exceptionalism. The legacy of this exceptionalism is strongly present not only the late modernism of Valente and Gamoneda, but also in the critical discourses surrounding this movement. Exceptionalism, in particular the problem of Spain’s recalcitrant or uneven modernity, is also one of the central themes of the discipline of Hispanism itself. This introductory chapter, then, situates modernist poetics in relation to this wider debat.

The next four chapters, “Genealogies,” trace the legacy of historical modernism in the postmodern period. Chapter 2 addresses the work of Jorge Guillén and Luis Cernuda, poets associated with Lorca’s famous “generation of 1927” who were at one time considered to be paragons of two distinct strands of modernist poetry. Guillén has traditionally embodied the self-confident assertion of modernist plenitude, while Cernuda has represented a missing connection with the Romantic and Victorian traditions of German and British literature. The decline in the reputations of these two poets provides an indication of how late modernism has shifted away from both these models. As early as the 1950s, Guillén’s modernism began to seem outmoded, but at the same time his effort to transcend modernism was unconvincing to younger poets like Valente and Jaime Gil de Biedma. Cernuda was ascendant in this same decade, but from the vantage-point of the early twenty-first century his understanding of British and German national traditions looks much less profound than it once did.

Federico García Lorca’s “Juego y teoría del duende,” the subject of Chapter 3, is both a key text of modernist poetics and an overlooked antecedent of the late modernism of late twentieth and early twenty-first-century Spain. Like Roland Barthes in “The Grain of the Voice,” Lorca expounds a theory of cultural nationalism that emphasizes the performative dimension. This text has been relentlessly simplified by readers who view Lorca’s duende as the anti-intellectual manifesto of a poeta tonto. I view it, instead, as a constantly shifting network of references with no fixed center. Lorca’s lecture also prefigures the mysticism that is central to Spanish poetry of the late modern school. Chapter 4, “Postmodern Lorca: Motherwell, Strayhorn, García Montero,” serves as a postscript to my 2009 book Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch. Here, I view the persisent kitschiness in Lorca’s cultural afterlife as a sign of the transition between modernist and postmodernist ideas of art, examining the repetition of Lorquian motifs in the paintings of Robert Motherwell, in the music of Billy Strayhorn, and in the poetry of Luis García Montero.

It is the philosopher María Zambrano, more than any other single figure, who provided the intellectual ground for late modernism in Spain. Zambrano’s prominence during this period is ironical, given that she would not have been seen as a major modernist writer at all during the period of historical modernism itself. Chapter 5, then, traces the intellectual genealogy late modernism by following the thread of cultural exceptionalism that runs through the work of Miguel de Unamuno, Lorca, Zambrano, and José Ángel Valente.

The second section of the book, “Continuities,” is devoted to three major poets of the second half of the twentieth Century. Chapter 6, “Fragments of a Late Modernity: Samuel Beckett and José Ángel Valente,” is an exercise in comparative literature that attempts to tease out the implications of the paradoxical belatedness of Spanish modernism at the end of the twentieth century by examining Valente’s mostly unacknowledged debt to Beckett, a major figure of late modernism. Antonio Gamoneda, for many decades a relatively obscure poet, has become an increasingly dominating figure in contemporary Spanish poetry in the past few decades. His work fulfills certain expectations associated with the lingering prestige of high modernism, while also confronting the question of historical memory. Unlike Valente, whom he admires very much, Gamoneda is not primarily an ideologue or a theorist. It is interesting, then, that he identifies so closely with Valente’s poetics, benefitting directly from the institutional structures identified with Valente’s high modernism.

Claudio Rodríguez, the subject of Chapter 7, “What Claudio Knew: From Pragmaticism to Mysticism,” is a Lorquian poet ... [to be continued]

29 may 2012


While working on my writing in the morning, the rest of my days are spent doing household chores, hanging out with my daughter, and reading (memorizing) English romantic poetry. The revival of the sonnet is particularly interesting. I don't associate it with 18th century poetry or neo-classical poetry at all. No prominent sonnets by Dryden, Pope, Johnson,or even Blake or Burns, in contrast with the centrality of the form for Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, and Donne. Milton wrote few, but significant ones: "soul animating strains, alas, too few." Wordsworth really makes the form his own, in a very self-conscious way. Shelley uses the form to denounce Wordsworth, "once having been, that thou shouldst cease to be." Keats writes a very technically self-conscious sonnet, "If in dull rhymes our English must be chained." The sonnet is the perfect length to memorize easily and a kind of perfect laboratory for poetic form. Rhyme schemes, which seem fixed, are extremely variable in practice, from Keats' almost random lay-out in this sonnet, to Frost's terza rima ("Acquainted with the Night") or couplets ("A bird half wakened in the lunar moon."). The English-language sonnet is often more Italianate then Shakespearian.

28 may 2012

2nd paragraph of kitsch chapter

My 2009 book, Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, partially addressed this problem, but without reaching a satisfactory conclusion. One reason for my incomplete treatment of this critical problem was my negative view of certain North-American manifestations of Lorquismo. The word kitsch, of course, bears an unavoidably derogatory charge, and my natural tendency in this study was to privilege American versions of Lorca that side-stepped groan-inducing stereotypes: I preferred the American Lorca before he became completely identified with a cartoonish version of the duende. It was also important for me to exercise my own aesthetic judgment in order to evaluate the degree to which US poets were able to engage with Spanish culture without reducing it to a caricature. What did not occur to me, however, was that kitsch (among other things) is the perfect name for a certain kind of commodification of modernist aesthetics in the postmodern period. In this sense the kitschiness of the American reception of Lorca is not only inevitable but also revelatory of the historical relation between modernism and posmodernism.

27 may 2012

1st good paragraph I've written in a while

Federico García Lorca is one of the most influential Spanish poets of the twentieth century, and yet his ongoing legacy, both in Spain and abroad, is strongly marked by kitsch. His influence, in other words, frequently takes the form of flattened, simplified, and caricatured versions of Andalusian folklore or of other manifestations of Lorquismo, including his evocations of the urban landscape in Poeta en Nueva York. Since kitsch is, in some sense, the dialectical opposite of modernism, the persistent kitschification of Lorca has serious implications for Lorca’s place within the modernist canon.

25 may 2012

Another SR poem

Gulls in the old cloister:

light, wing, and stone together.

Who has come here, who sees them

perched on noon.

Years before he crossed these patios

under other fleeting clouds.

Who is the shadow passing now.

Who would recognize him.

23 may 2012

Sánchez Robayna Translation

“The White Street”

Your steps have brought you to the edges,

to an open place, an empty street

in the immemorial eyes of a dream.

It is a white street. Between high walls

the sky spills out, and there’s no longer anyone

in the muteness of the air. In the silence,


all shall be fulfilled.

And you flow through the dream, through the etched light.

Words grow quiet, you walk along the white street.