The Poem

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The Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca wrote his famous “Oda a Walt Whitman” (“Ode to Walt Whitman”) in 1930 while completing a year of study at Columbia University. The poem did not appear in its entirety, however, until it was collected in the first two editions of Poeta en Nueva York in 1940, more than three years after the poet was executed by Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. From the outset this emotionally charged piece, translated by Ben Belitt in Poet in New York (1955), subsumes the confusing onslaught of city images that bombarded the non-English-speaking García Lorca during his first ever trip abroad in the wake of the disastrous stock market crash of 1929. The irregular stanzas and varying lengths of the poem’s 137 free-verse lines accurately reflect the bustling, chaotic character of this major metropolitan center. In addition, the poem implicitly contrasts the city’s arduous striving for economic recovery through local industry with the splendors of its half-concealed natural beauty. Thus the poem’s speaker can address “filthy New York” as the city of “cables and death” while musing in the very next line, “What angel do you carry, concealed in your cheek?”

García Lorca uses the ode, a celebratory lyric form, to praise the charitable nature of the influential American poet Walt Whitman (1812-1892), a writer closely associated with New York City, where Whitman published his landmark collection of verse, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. Some see in the style and structure of “Ode to Walt Whitman” García Lorca’s attempt to emulate the lilting cadences of Whitman’s long, rhythmic lines, his spontaneous, lush diction, sincere outpouring of feeling, and fluid, highly personal voice. García Lorca undoubtedly admired Whitman’s verse for embodying America’s democratic ideals and elevating the genuine decency of the common man to a more exalted plane. Yet in all likelihood García Lorca harbored a more immediate reason for choosing Whitman as the subject of his poetic paean.

Both García Lorca and Whitman were homosexual, and both deplored their societies’ moralistic intolerance of same-sex love. “Ode to Walt Whitman” repeatedly distinguishes the (assumed) purity and sincerity of Whitman’s sexual predilections from its own cold-eyed depiction of the largely self-gratifying, sometimes violent, even depraved aspects of urban homosexual relations. To the poem’s speaker, Whitman is nothing less than a “blood-brother,” a “lone man in a sea,” a “comely old man” who is an “old friend,” while the “perverts” around him are “so much meat for the whiplash,/ for the boot or the bite of the animal-tamers.” Whitman’s easy relation to what little of nature remains visible amid the hardscrabble cityscape of New York may be viewed in stanzas such as this one:

You looked for a nude that could be like a river,the bull and the dream that could merge, like seaweed and wheel,sire of your agony, your mortality’s camellia,to cry in the flames of your secret equator.

Clearly, the speaker of the ode finds the scenario of two people sharing a love akin to transcendent bonding infinitely preferable to seeking fleeting and sordid sexual encounters, “looking for the scar on the eye,/ or the overcast swamp where the boys are submerged.”

Forms and Devices

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Throughout “Ode to Walt Whitman,” García Lorca uses the richly evocative, highly figurative, and elusively metaphorical language that is a hallmark of both his lyric and dramatic work. In writing a poem about male love during the early part of the twentieth century, García Lorca would have felt compelled to approach his subject...

(This entire section contains 417 words.)

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with linguistic indirection. So, while the ode opens with the obviously homoerotic image of young men “singing, baring their waists,/ with the wheel and the leather, the hammer, the oil,” it phrases an ensuing (imagined) sexual fantasy of Whitman’s obliquely as “your dream/ where the playfellow munches your apple.” Similarly, one of the first images describing Whitman refers to him suggestively as a “bird/ whose sex is transfixed by a needle.”

In making allusions to both classical and biblical antiquity, the poem reminds the reader of the grandeur of times past, to which the “fallen” present of New York City (as well as other European and Latin American cities) compares unfavorably. The ode mentions, for example, the “faun of the river”; Whitman is conceived as having “chaste, Apollonian thighs” and as being the “satyr’s antagonist,” an “Adam” whose authenticity in seeking a communion in love will prepare the way for greater sincerity between sexual partners in the future. Both the hopeful evocation of natural images and capitalization in the following lines attest this possibility: “Tomorrow our passion is rock, and Time,/ a wind come to sleep in the branches.” As it stands in the poem’s present, though, “life is not noble, or wholesome, or holy.”

The greatest tension in the ode concerns the opposition of human-made reality (often mechanical) and the marginalized realm of nature that survives on the outskirts of the city in animal life and, more important, in the East River mentioned in the very first line. What should be a beautiful, pristine “moon-rise” in the fifth stanza is marred: “the block and the tackle will veer and startle the sky.” The figure of Whitman, introduced in the twenty-ninth line after a lengthy preamble, promises a return to nature and the natural love lacking in grimy, industrial New York, as García Lorca’s speaker declares: “Not for one moment . . ./ have I ceased to envision your beard full of butterflies.” Throughout the poem, Whitman is associated with the natural world, especially with the eternal, purifying force of the river. The speaker wonders, using still more natural imagery, “What ineffable voice will speak the truths of the wheat?”