The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In his “Lecture on New York,” Federico García Lorca said that he wanted to write a poem about black people in North America that would emphasize the pain that they experience for being black in a contrary world. García Lorca accomplishes his goal in his long poem entitled “The King of Harlem,” collected in the volume Poet in New York and Other Poems. This long poem (119 lines) is an ode (an elaborate lyric directed to a fixed purpose and theme); its twenty-four stanzas are divided into three sections, and it is written in free verse.

The title of the poem is ironic. The black man, who was respected as a king in his ancestral land and who was the master of his own destiny, is now the “king” of an alien land and culture: New York City’s Harlem.

Section 1 of the poem contains seven stanzas. The first stanza opens with a violent image: The black man uses the white man’s ineffectual tool, a wooden spoon, to overcome crocodiles—symbols of evil. The black man dares to gouge out the “eyes of crocodiles” with a wooden spoon.

In the next two stanzas, the natural world (exemplified by fire and water) that the black man once inhabited either lies dormant (“age-old fire slept in the flints”) or putrefies (“vats of putrid water arrived”). In the fourth stanza, the loss of feeling and identity with nature continues. Instead of children being initiated into the hunt of majestic beasts, they perversely “flattened tiny squirrels.”

In the fifth stanza of the poem, a bridge appears. The whites are exhorted to “cross the bridge” to the world of the blacks in order to understand what they have lost in the process of civilization. The descent into the underworld (classically symbolized in the works of Dante and Vergil by the crossing of a bridge) progresses in the next stanza;...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

García Lorca’s strongly negative feelings about New York—its chaos, materialism, harshness, and brutality—necessitated a form or vehicle of expression that would lend itself to those feelings. García Lorca chose the vehicle of surrealism to express his strong reaction to the city and its inhabitants. Strongly within the surrealist tradition (surrealism is a movement in art and literature emphasizing the expression of the imagination as realized in dreams and presented without conscious control), “The King of Harlem,” as well as the rest of the poems in the collection Poet in New York, relies almost exclusively on jarring rhythms, unexpected juxtapositions, and stark imagery and symbolism to convey its meaning.

The poem’s imagery clusters around two focal points that are continually juxtaposed in García Lorca’s poem: the “civilized” world of the white man and the natural world of the black man. For example, animals of Africa—such as crocodiles, monkeys, serpents, and zebras—are contrasted with animals of the city—such as squirrels and salamanders. García Lorca also contrasts the natural beauty of the African forest, with its “tattooed sun that descends the river” and “bristling flowers,” to the “civilized” ugliness of the Harlem landscape, with its “putrid water,” “rigid, descending skies in which the colonies of planets/ can wheel with the litter on the beaches,” “chemical rose,” and “black mire.” The interior landscape of Harlem is also repulsive; apartments are cluttered with “feather dusters, graters, copper pans, and kitchen/ casseroles,” “tarnished mirrors,” and “elevator shafts.”

The blood motif in the poem is connected not only with the black man’s nature, his life and vitality, but also with his rage. In the course of the poem, the primitive vitality of the blacks is symbolized by gushing, pervasive blood imagery—“blood raging under the skin”; however, phrases such as “blood shuddering with rage” and “blood wrung from hemp and subway nectars,” and the description of blood flowing “everywhere,/ and burn the blond women’s chlorophyll” are images of the blood of anger that the black man carries within him, ready to explode at any time.