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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 225-255
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A Chronicle of Poetic Non-Encounter in the Americas
A POEM BY PHILIP LEVINE, "ON THE MEETING OF GARCÍA LORCA AND HART Crane," narrates the 1929 encounter in Brooklyn of these two prominent modernist poets of the English and Spanish languages. The focus of the poem is on the interpreter who mediates their conversation. At one point, suffering from a headache, he leaves the two men and walks to the window, where he experiences "a double vision of such horror that he has to clap both hands over his mouth to keep from screaming." 1 What haunts and unsettles his double vision will be the concern of the pages that follow. The discussion will linger with the story of Crane and Lorca as a way of exploring the problem of literary relations among national and linguistic traditions in the Americas, with a particular focus on what we might call a problem of non-encounter which disturbs and motivates these relations. Levine's poem will serve mostly as a loose, ongoing point of departure for the discussion, and we will consider it more closely only after some digressions which the poem seems to make possible.
Written 60 years after the event, the poem does not allude to the context of the meeting; but, according to the biographies, Crane was at the time [End Page 225] finishing up his signature work, The Bridge, a poetic cycle loosely structured as a historico-poetic hymn to America, most of which he had written during a recent long stay at his mother's vacation home in Cuba. On his part, García Lorca had just traveled from Spain to New York, where over the following months he would write much of the poetry that would later comprise one of his most critically acclaimed collections, Poeta en Nueva York. Neither poet was acquainted with the other's work but given their legendary charisma, conversational virtuosity, and poetic passion, one might expect the encounter to have been an electric one. Moreover, the two had much in common: roughly the same age, they had moved to the city after growing up in provincial settings (Garrettsville, Illinois, near Cleveland, and Fuente Vaqueros, near Granada); both were homosexuals who faced the formidable constraints on gay expression of the 1920s; and both had recently published important early collections of poetry that had met with mixed reviews. Their poetry itself had numerous parallels. Although unmistakably modernist in both cases, and although Lorca tended toward a certain kind of surrealism that Crane was never party to, their work is not characterized by the overtly combative stance toward poetic tradition common to many of their avant-garde contemporaries, but more by what we might call an open resonance (and hence perhaps a more subtle disjunction) vis-à-vis the poetic past. What Góngora and the baroque poets were to Lorca, Marlowe and the metaphysical poets were to Crane, and neither tried to hide his debt to a certain Romanticism. The two also shared a keen interest in the Hispanic Americas: in addition to the time he spent in Cuba, Crane would travel the following year to Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship with the intention of composing an epic work—never to be carried out—based on the European conquest of the Aztecs. Lorca's subsequent travels through the Americas would bring him into crucial association with many Latin American writers, and Cuba, in particular, would become an important reference point for him as well; at the time of his meeting with Crane, Lorca's own trip to Cuba was already on the horizon, and Poeta en Nueva York would conclude with a section focused on Havana.
However, as recounted in Levine's poem as well as the various biographical accounts, 2 the Brooklyn meeting proved disappointing. To put it more [End Page 226] bluntly, nothing really happened. What surrounds the event and the history of its telling seems much more interesting than the event of the encounter...