From Dysfunction to Duende

Sage CohenThe life poeticLeave a Comment

“What is to give light must endure burning” — Viktor Frankl

More often than not, when I tell people that I write poetry, they get a wistful, faraway look in their eyes. Exhaling deeply, they admit, “I used to write poetry once, too.”

When I inquire as to why they no longer write poetry, the answer is so invariably the same that it’s almost become a cliché: “I stopped writing because I got happy.”

I admit that I came to poetry on my knees, for the same reason so many of us do: because I had no idea how else I might survive. And this can be a powerful way to get initiated into the craft and life of poetry. However, contrary to cultural stereotypes, dysfunction doesn’t make a poet, and poetry does not exist merely as a life support system to keep the dysfunctional groping along the bottom of things. Poetry at its best is a portal we write ourselves through, from the ecstasies of grief to the ecstasies of joy: two sides of the same coin.

At a recent lecture with Elizabeth Gilbert, she observed that in the television show Heroes–where each character has a supernatural power–the writer has a heroin addiction, the origin of which is never explained. In contrast, Gilbert aptly pointed out, the cheerleader on this show does not require crystal meth to effectively shake her pom-poms. Why, she wondered, do we accept without question that the life of the artist demands this kind of self-destruction?

I think our artist/writer/poet mythology is born of a kind of romance with darkness that is sustained by the general public’s avoidance of it. We look to our artists to live out the dark sides that many of us are not courageous enough to live ourselves. This is why as a culture, and as writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of misunderstanding the difference between duende and dysfunction: writing darkness, versus living it.

I’m not saying that there are no poets who live darkness. Certainly, they’re out there; Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton and John Berryman are some of our most famous poets who never emerged from their own pain and ultimately ended their own lives. Many of us inhabit darkness and write our way out of it from time to time. But I think it does a disservice to poetry and to poets to romanticize or give credence to the idea that poetry is born and bred entirely of this dark place.

I remember as a young woman worrying about what I would write if I ever got happy. Eventually, I had an “aha” moment when I learned of duende in an essay by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. In this piece, Lorca described duende as dark and potentially dangerous energy an artist is seeking to channel from within.

Wikipedia further illuminates this difficult-to-grasp concept: “Duende is a spirit of art, much the opposite of the Muse. Where the Muse brings golden inspiration, Duende brings blood. The Muse speaks of life, yet Duende sings of death. Duende is not inspiration, Duende is a struggle, a dark force, having very little to do with outer beauty, a struggle present in the artist’s soul, the struggle of knowing that death is imminent. It is this knowledge of death that awaits and the despair that stems from it that produce Duende, and Duende will then color the artist’s work with gut-wrenching authenticity, painful hues and tones that produce strong, vibrant art.”

Duende happens when we call upon the wisdom of darkness–our own or that of the universal human experience–and use it to know ourselves more completely. When we tap into duende in our poetry, the poet becomes the conductive wire through which it moves, not the well in which darkness collects.

Paradoxically, much of my poetry is quite dark. People who know me well read it and have a difficult time reconciling their experience of my sunny disposition and my cloudy poems. For me, duende is the clarifying fire that burns through observation to spark the illumination of truth. Whether I’m happy or I’m sad, the mining of what is true can go deep into the darkness. When we emerge squinting into the light with the glorious gem of a word that fits just right, this is the ecstasy of poetry.

Excerpted from the February 2011 issue of the Writing the Life Poetic zine.

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