Angels, Demons, and Edward Hirsch

demon and angel coverI just finished reading Edward Hirsch’s The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration. It’s a fascinating read – he draws from all sorts of different sources, from Poetry to Painting to Modern Dance to Jazz, with lots of other digressions along the way. He takes Lorca’s idea of the Duende as his starting point, and how theories of artistic inspiration (and the receptivity of the artist to such inspiration) have generally held true to some variation on this theme.

The book is very learned, but not off-puttingly literary, if that makes sense. You don’t need to know much about the subjects in advance. It’s very generous in that way, but for me ended up vaguely unsatisfying. It’s a style thing, I think. He’s enormously influential as a poet-critic, and I know lots of people who love his writing. But there’s just something that doesn’t quite gel for me. Maybe it’s the way he covers so much ground, and not always terribly methodically? Except there is method there too … Don’t know. He’s an author I admire and appreciate, but don’t especially enjoy. (I know, I’m being terribly technical here in my criticism.) But if you enjoyed his How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (a good book – try it!) then this is a good follow-on.

The weird thing is that I’ve just (more-or-less) finished writing a poem about angels. Well, a fallen angel. Lucifer. In the process of writing it, I’ve learned more things about Las Vegas than any sane person should, (resisting the temptation to toddle down to the Christchurch casino for some fact finding took a bit of won’t-power), and also more about tortoises than should be necessary for one not intending a career in herpetology. Then there’s the delving into the Old Testament etc for information on who Lucifer was, and why, etc.

It all began with an exercise I set one of my CPIT classes – write a poem inspired by the etymology of a word or phrase. I had a lovely long list of things for them to choose from, but ended up snagging myself. Apparently the word “tortoise” comes from the Greek, ‘tartarchos’, meaning ‘god of the underworld’. And as I read that out to my students, I suddenly had this picture in my head of Lucifer as a huge, ancient tortoise, presiding over a Las Vegas casino …

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One thought on “Angels, Demons, and Edward Hirsch

  1. Starting with Lorca’s Duende is a bad sign for me. I like Lorca’s poems but I loathe that essay. I think it’s poncy and pretentious to a degree. It takes an example of an interpretive artist, a singer, and extrapolates from that to the work of creative artists, which is nonsense to start with, a bit like suggesting that since it’s important for singers to take care of their throats, composers obviously need to do the same. Then it goes perilously close to suggesting that it isn’t what you say that matters but the mood you were in when you said it. I think the three inspirations Lorca identifies (and one might loosely reduce them to mind, soul and heart, which shows the level he’s thinking on) simply represent three different types of writing, and since he’s a heart man himself he goes all prescriptive and says this is how you have to do it. Spherical objects.

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