Review of The Demon And the Angel, by Edward Hirsch

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/15/05


  Edward Hirsch is 1 of those, at best, mediocre poets that has ensconced himself into a position of some power in the small, incestual world of poetry. The Demon And the Angel is a book that claims to query into the reason for the Muse- or, as its subtitle proclaims, Searching For The Source Of Artistic Inspiration. The problem is that someone as EH is utterly clueless as to such provenance since he’s never displayed a hint of its acquaintance in his own work. The bulk of the book probes every manner of artistic cliché available- from Federico Garcia Lorca’s duende nonsense to divine inspiration. Gander at some of his chapter’s titles & you can basically fill in the blanks: A Mysterious Power, The Hidden Spirit Of Disconsolate Spain, The Majesty Of The Incomprehensible, Ardent Struggle, Endless Vigil, & The Yearning Cry Of A Shade. If this brings to mind solipsistic gustations, & unintentionally hilarious exegesis then you’ve obviously been keeping up with art’s descent into the lowest common denominator the last few decades.
  EH’s book is rife with passages as this: ‘The angel comes with windy upward drafts, with transcendebnal longings; the duende arrives with demonic undertow, with downdrafts of emotion. Both are fundamental inner disturbances, fissures of being, ways of putting the self at risk, liberating figures. they are extremities of the human imagination.’ Such melodrama & imperative declamations make for both poor writing & worse thought. No artist risks anything in making art- art is actually fun, the flex of the imagination ameliorates regardless if another ever witnesses it. Yet, EH continues the charade of art as social change, art as truth. His cloying self-congratulations re: insights he believes no 1 else has plumbed only kyboshes the book further.
  Here he defines duende: ‘The duende offers us an entranceway. “But there are neither maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende, Lorca said, and yet he has stimulated and incited me to search out the duende in many places….He has been an initiating presence, a Virgilian guide, and I call upon him often for insight, while also daring to widen his focus and extend his ideas, to apply his vision to a variety of creative figures…from different periods of time.’ In counterpoint to this demiurge, EH thrusts up Rainer Maria Rilke’s angelic strummings. Of course, all of these angelic references, taken from religions as Sufi, Hebrew, Christian, & Islamic traditions are really just the typical New Age pabulum that dominates self-help books. Evidence of this comes from a late chapter called Fending Off The Duende. In it EH looks at several noted ‘sane’ poets who were businessmen- the most famed, of course, being Wallace Stevens. It’s a measure of just how obsessed with finding irrationality & illness in the most sane of published poets EH is that he cannot connect the fact that most art does not come from some ‘lack’ of the self, rather a vigor within- not from without- be it demon, angel, nor Muse. How that chapter ends is very telling to how utterly detached from both reality & creativity EH is: ‘The ancient demons are never far from shore. They dwell within the deeps. They move in the ghostly mists. A highly rational art is especially haunting when one feels the struggle in the thought, or even underneath the thought; when one senses something dark welling up from below, from the primordial mud; when one recognizes the powerful internal pressure of a mind defending itself against itself.’ This nonsense is so totally wrong I have to wonder if EH can be serious. In fact, 1 of the hallmarks of greatness is the sense of ineffability it leaves- that removes all thought of how it was achieved, & leaves the reader in slack-jawed awe. If 1 is left pondering the mechanics it means the art is sloppy & there is no curtain between Dorothy & the Wizard. If you feel or sense the machinations of an art it has manifestly failed.
  In short, if you can see the duende’s fangs it’s no longer so scary. EH is clearly a man who needs to 1st convince you there is a duende, then take dental impressions, then anaesthetize a reader so he can fill their heads with all sorts of garbage they’d never accept if awake. Yet, a part of him must know it’s all bullshit- why else would he try to compensate for his lack of understanding with an astounding 70+ pages of notes for a book only 230 pages long? Quantity does not equate with quality. Aside from not saying anything that has not been said & disproven before EH’s book is terribly disorganized. His small chapters don’t flesh out ideas, as much toss them & beg for critical acceptance. He marshals names of diverse artists, yet never elucidates a single 1- save for the biggies, like Lorca & Rilke, where he displays obtuseness & cluelessness. Does he mention Marlon Brando, Billie Holiday, & the Abstract Expressionists merely to show how intelligent he is? If so, he fails at that, & yet again reveals a certain sort of desperation in his theses. That is, of course, when he’s not off on banal aeries- the worst part of which is that EH takes forever in trying to define things that are rather intellectually tangible- or coherent. That he feels the constant need to bob & weave suggests that EH doesn’t really believe what he’s saying, but is trying really hard to fill out his 230 pages with an, at best- 8-10 page essay.
  EH’s definitions of the Lorcan duende & the Rilkean angel are not only problematic, at best, & false, at worst, but utterly banal. I mean, if 1 were to tell you the duende comes from below & the angel drops down from transcendence, I tend to think that even a marginally educated writer would reply, ‘Duh.’ But, this fact is a crux in the Hirschian posit. Or how about this touch of stolidity? He claims that Lorca claimed that whatever had blackness in it was the duende. EH literally takes this to mean that any mention of black, darkness, night, can only mean death. In short, he is utterly negating the possibility of undermining the cliché. The reverse is true for the angel.
  Yet, after 230 pages, we end up back where we started from- with unsupported gustations asking what is the angel & duende. The former is ‘burning on rooftops’, ‘carved in stone’, & ‘troubles your dreams’, while the latter is ‘hiding under your boot soles’, ‘the wing of a wounded hawk’, & a ‘joy that burns’. That EH is a grand tautologist is beyond question- equally so that he is utterly rent of any ideas re: creativity or its provenance. If inspiration is all around would it not have been easier to simply declaim, ‘inspiration is all around’, rather than waste whatever paper it took to make this ridiculously bad book? Instead, we get wan filigrees & reworked grandiloquent paraphrase, not to mention EH’s wonder at such marvelous & never before attempted things like a poet talking of love & death in the same poem!
  Worse, EH pretends that he has some intimate knowledge of what makes great art. I always find it amazing when bad artists claim great artists as their inspiration, yet their work is nowhere near the quality & they’ve taken none of the greatness to heart. EH’s spent some time editing the Washington Post’s poetry column Poet’s Choice, which only highlighted his ignorance in the choice of bad poems he chose to feature. Why would a publisher choose to give this clod anymore credence? EH knows nothing of art nor creativity. Wait, I said that before, I’m sure. Let me get my grandiloquent tautologizer ray gun & rewrite. ZAP! Damn, I guess 1 who has met the Muse is immune to such. Trust me, & stay away from this utter piece of garbage. This hack needs scorn, not royalty checks!

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