The Poem

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

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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; 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 wait in his “king’s jungle” until the tide turns against the forces that contain him and the highest rooftops are devoured by the primeval forest. Then, blacks will be able to return to their natural order and dance free of doubt. The white man’s Moses will be engulfed by flowers and put to rest before reaching the supposed promised land. The instruments of science will be relegated to the caves of squirrels, and the wheel, symbol of industry and progress, will no longer be an object of fear.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

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.