- Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch
Jonathan Mayhew’s new work belongs to a certain class of surprising books: those so obviously necessary once they appear that it apparently required a stroke of genius to come up with the idea for them. A quick glance at the table of contents of Apocryphal Lorca reveals an astonishing truth, all the more astonishing as it lay there in plain view for all to see, unnoticed until Mayhew made us see it: that a remarkably broad and comprehensive overview of postwar American poetry can be conducted simply by tracing how various poets and schools translated, appropriated, pastiched, copied, and learned from the single figure of Federico García Lorca. Everyone from the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and the Black Mountain poets to the more mainstream “deep image” poets of the sixties and seventies is covered. In addition, Mayhew examines a distinctive African-American tradition of reception, and among the many surprises he uncovers is Langston Hughes’s role as Lorca’s earliest American translator, and one of his best. As Mayhew’s title makes clear, the real relationship to Lorca’s work of the many poets who claimed his heritage was often tenuous at best, yet postwar American poetry has become inconceivable without him. Mayhew’s goal is to tell this extraordinary tale of Lorca’s centrality, while fully acknowledging the extent to which his privileged position has been based on stereotypes, clichés, misreading, mistranslations, mystification, and wishful thinking.
Indeed, again and again Mayhew points to the violence with which Lorca is appropriated by those who claim to write in his wake but leave him “Americanized beyond recognition” (22). In his chapter “The Deep Image,” for example, Mayhew consistently denies that the poetry of Robert Bly, James Wright, or Jerome Rothenberg owes any real debt to or represents a substantive engagement with that of Lorca; he concludes that the preeminence given to him and to “Spanish-language poetry in its surrealist vein” more generally is in fact a “retrospective interpretation” when applied to Robert Kelly or Rothenberg, and “equally difficult to pin down” for Wright and Bly (88). In the next chapter, he goes on to show that Robert Creeley’s short lyric “After Lorca” was only written following what one must call a cursory knowledge of Lorca’s work—to put it generously. His longer discussion of Jack Spicer’s post-Poundian “untranslation” project (to use one of Spicer’s own terms), also titled “After Lorca,” discusses what Spicer himself happily acknowledges within that work: that not only does he take large and deliberate liberties with his renderings, but that some lines or entire poems have no corresponding Lorca originals at all! Obviously then, for Spicer, Lorca quite openly figures as a kind of pretext upon which he can write his own poems, but Spicer’s self-critical and ironic investigation of this appropriation within “After Lorca” [End Page 576] prevents Lorca from becoming for Spicer what Mayhew feels he is to Creeley: “a blank slate onto which any cultural meme associated with the Spanish-speaking world might be written” (106). Indeed, if Spicer’s recourse to Lorca is the most obviously violent of Mayhew’s examples, Mayhew nevertheless concludes quite convincingly that it is Spicer, of all the poets he studies, who “makes the most intense and productive use of Lorca” (175). Certainly, the subsequent investigations of Lorquian moments in Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and the later, post- “deep image” Rothenberg of The Lorca Variations all reveal to different degrees a similarly unsatisfying engagement with Lorca’s work. Mayhew’s initial thesis, “The ‘American Lorca’ who is the subject of this book is not a corpus of texts, but an authorial construction with pronounced ideological effects” (7) is admirably borne out by his study.
However, to a significant degree Mayhew’s book is a victim of its own success, for if he convincingly shows how superficial or uninformed much of the interest in Lorca has been, this leaves the fact of Lorca’s recurrence as...