The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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:...

(The entire section is 417 words.)