Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Critics have pointed out that Poet in New York and Other Poems in general, and “The King of Harlem” in particular, is as much about the poet’s own psychological state while he was visiting the city as it is about New York and the alienation of the black man from that city. García Lorca had come to New York hoping that the journey would distract him from a severe emotional crisis. Once he arrived, however, he slowly began not to recognize himself. Coming to New York immersed García Lorca in a culture that was as different from his native Andalusia (southern Spain) as any place could possibly be. In his personal alienation from the mechanized and dehumanized city, he identified with the black man in the poem; they were going through an identity crisis together.
Thus, the theme of alienation from one’s roots is the dominant theme of García Lorca’s poem. Harlem represents the extreme domination of culture over nature; like the poet, the city—as well as the black man—is divorced from an origin that, unlike humankind, it cannot even acknowledge. In the poem, civilization is repeatedly equated with barbarism and technological progress with physical violence and moral and spiritual regression. A general decadence, which the poet characteristically renders in imagery of violent fragmentation, disintegration, and decomposition, abounds. For García Lorca, these circumstances must be the accumulated effects of a cause; the dismembered bodies and disembodied emotions are the debris of some catastrophe or series of catastrophes. The black man is a slave to the white man; the white man is a slave to his own technological progress.
Of those of New York’s citizens still endowed with vitality, the blacks, although geographically distant from their homeland, are pictured as being the least removed from their spiritual origin. These citizens, having incorporated potentially explosive tendencies, are dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt.