The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

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.

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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; however, the powers to be fought and conquered in the wasteland of New York are not typical forces of evil but a “blood vendor of firewater” or “Jewesses” in their bubble baths. Among the absurd visions that are encountered in the descent is “the infinite beauty/ of feather dusters, graters, copper pans, and kitchen/ casseroles.”

In the final stanza of the first section, the black man is hopelessly enslaved in a doorman’s uniform by the millionaires of New York. His suppressed energy has become pent-up anguish as a result of his “red” oppression. This stanza relies heavily on red imagery to convey its mood of suppressed violence; for example, the black man’s blood shudders with rage, and his violence is “garnet.”

Section 2 of the poem contains nine stanzas. The first two stanzas describe American girls and boys in Harlem who “stretched their limbs and fainted on the cross,” Christlike sacrificial victims of white civilization. The third stanza echoes a stanza in section 1 of the poem. The king of Harlem once again digs out the crocodiles’ eyes, not with a wooden spoon this time but with “an unbreakable spoon,” a tool even more unnatural than wood.

The blood motif dominates the next six stanzas of the poem’s second section. The rage in the blood that rushes through the black man cannot be seen because of the darkness of his skin; it surges beneath the surface. Yet “There must be some way out of here,” the ninth stanza begins.

The third and last section of the poem is even more emphatic in its denial of escape from the situation and in its affirmation of an ultimate victory of sorts by the primitivism of the black man over the rational. In the first stanza of the section, blacks seek their king in the streets. In the fourth stanza, however, a wall rises in the black man’s path, blocking any creature’s escape. The poet exhorts the black man not to look to its cracks for escape but to “the great central sun” for the answer. The black man must...

(The entire section contains 1108 words.)

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