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.)