Between Angel and Duende. The Source of Inspiration According to Edward Hirsch

Sergej Timofejev


What is «dark inspiration» or «black sound»? You should ask American Edward Hirsch, poet and literary scholar, who has headed the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York for more than a decade. This foundation has been in existence since the 1920s and has lent active support to artists in many different fields. The Foundation receives about 3-4 thousand project applications from the USA, Canada, and Latin America, of which about 200 receive the right to be developed. The criterion, as per the website of the Foundation, is "outstanding creative potential in the area of art".  This sphere, however, is of interest to him even outside his official duties. Edward Hirsch was the author of the idea and curator of the project «Transforming Vision: Writers on Art», which resulted, in 1994, in a book of the same title. Later, he published the book «The Demon and The Angel», in which he attempted to examine the sources of artistic inspiration, taking the duende theory, presented to the world by the Spaniard Federico Garsia Lorka, as his point of departure. Edward Hirsch discusses inspiration that visits poets, artists, and musicians.  Moreover, he relates the demon of flamenco with American jazz and abstract painting. We met him in Riga, at the café in the inner courtyard of his hotel, in order to find out how he has managed to do this.

Could you please explain what “duende” is?

Since the concept and word comes from Spain and Spanish speaking countries, there is no word in English for what “duende” is. Where Lorca comes from, in Andalusia – and throughout Latin America, too – “el duende” means a little spirit, goblin, or imp; like a trickster who takes your keys and does things behind your back. In one of Lorcas' plays there are two such sprites, as in Shakespeare's sprites, and so on. But in Andalusia, where Lorca comes from, the duende is also a kind of metaphor or idea for the inspiration of art; it's not just a little figure that causes tricks, but it also means dark inspiration; or, as I would translate it, it means something like “inspiration in the presence of death”. Lorca has an essay called “Theory and Play of the Duende”, and he explains the duende as when something irrational takes over the making of a work of art, or the performance of a work of art. He saw this in flamenco, but this is not the only place he saw it, because the duende can show up in any form of art. So, he heard it in flamenco, he saw it in dance, he heard it in what he called “cante jondo”, or deep song, but it was also there in architecture, in furious architecture, in Goya's paintings. But Lorca only has one essay about it, and he's a little obscure about what it means. Duende, he says, comes up from the earth, unlike the angel, who comes from above. So, it's grounded in the physical body; but what I decided to do was see if I could locate what Lorca calls “duende” in actual works of art, and take that concept and read how that inspiration operates in poetry (which is my own field), especially in poetry, but also in music and in art. My examples in poetry come from around the world. But in music and art, I was mostly targeting an American audience, because I didn't think American culture critics had an idea of this, and so I concentrated on American music and American art.

But why is it a dark inspiration?

Lorca's is not the only theory of inspiration; there are also theories of inspiration that are completely light, and that see it all as a positive thing. But Lorca takes it out of some darker forces in the unconscious, and I think it's because of its relationship to the concept of death. When Lorca says, “all that has black sounds has duende”.

That sounds very poetic, but very abstract.

It's something like when you think of the blues, or jazz, which is where I locate it – in jazz lyrics, in jazz music.

When you say “black sound”, you mean “black culture”?

Lorca meant black sounds, but I turn it to black culture. Because I think that the idea of duende is something close to what musicians mean when they say “soul”; when they speak about “soul”. So, Lorca's is a very Spanish idea, because Spaniards are just obsessed with death, and the presence of death in daily life. But when you change this to an American concept, it's not so different than what blues and jazz musicians talk about when they talk about soul. And what I'm especially interested in are those moments in a work of art when something from the unconscious, something wild and irregular, breaks through the work of art. And something takes over and turns the work.

Lorca talks about, for example, a flamenco singer who was singing a song and then the audience politely clapped and said “Viva la Paris”, which turns out was an insult, because it meant “oh well, very nice, just like the French, which is completely rational”. So, she took this as an insult, and she took a glass of whiskey; she began to drink, and she suddenly began to sing from some other part of herself. And Lorca says “the duende took over”. We've all been at those moments, or have felt those moments in a performance, where something is going along, and then suddenly you feel the work of art change to another level.

Now, it's very hard to describe this moment. It's very hard to describe what we mean when we say that some works of art stay at the rational level; they're good, but they're not great. It's very difficult to explain this moment of what makes something great, and yet we feel it when we're in its presence. We know when we're suddenly in a performance that is beyond any other performance that we've heard before; we know when we're reading something that we haven't read before that feels, as Emily Dickinson said, “as the top of your head is taken off”.

I have written a book entitled “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry”, and this book really tries to teach people about reading poetry; it's really for readers. One of the subjects that I hadn't been able to deal with in this book – because it wasn't so relevant to my particular project – was inspiration. And I felt I had left it out. And I wanted to account for that moment in all poetry; all epic poetry begins with some singer saying, “Help me, o heavenly muse!” And I began to wonder – Why do singers call on the heavenly muse? Why does Dante call on Virgil? Why do poets invoke the angel? Why does Lorca call on the duende? And I came to believe that that is something that is not in your rational control in the making of art. There's something that cannot be willed. Shelley says in his great defense of poetry: “Not even the greatest poet can say: I will write poetry”. Because there's some aspect of it that's related to the unconscious. And when poets invoke the muse, or they speak of the collective unconscious (to take a term from Jung), or they talk of the unconscious (to borrow something from Freud), or they call on the muse, they are, in fact, invoking a force that they cannot control. And so in some way, all poets say: “Help me, o heavenly muse!” The duende is one name for this kind of inspired presence. Whether you take the muse to be something that is inside of you, as the romantic poets do, or something that's outside of you, as the epic singers do.

The muse is traditionally something beautiful and positive; it's really something different than what you said about this presence of death.

That's why Lorca uses the concept (he didn't create it – it's in Andalusian culture); that's why he used the concept of the duende – because he thought that the muse, the angel that you call on from above, cannot account for certain kinds of art. It can't account for what happens to Goya when he makes the black paintings in his house; it can't account for Picasso when, under the spell of war, he begins to paint in an entirely different way. It can't account for what happens when Charlie Parker begins a solo that takes off in another direction. Lorca doesn't use all these examples, but Lorca himself was writing at the time – when he began to expound on the idea of duende, he was writing “Poet in Nueve York”, and it was in some way taking a model from T.S. Elliot's “The Wasteland”. I think Lorca is trying to account for something very ancient and very primitive, but also very current and very modern. And as you know, the moderns often turn to very primitive art as a source. So, I think that the idea of the muse seems too sweet, too nice, too ineffectual to account for the violent terror that came into the making of some of these modern works.

Did you find examples of this kind of inspiration in modern American art?

I did. My primary examples in modern American art are in the abstract expressionist painters. And in two kinds of painters; two kinds of abstract expressionists. One were the painters like Marc Rothko and Barnett Newman, who created these rectangles that float in space. And I'm especially interested in Rothko and Newman in the way that they made black paintings, in particular. In the way that they use black space as a kind of dark presence to fill the canvas, almost as looming Newman spirits. Also, I was interested in looking at certain abstract expressionist painters of process, especially de Kooning and Pollock. And especially some of Pollock's black drip paintings. And you could see in those drip paintings, I believe, this feeling of dark inspiration taking over – as he gave himself up to the process of making paintings. And that's also true in some of de Kooning's paintings, but not necessarily so much with the color black. But in de Kooning's women paintings, you can see a kind of irrational force operating. I mean, he had tremendous painterly skills, but a irrational force starts to come into the paintings. There are other examples I could use; I refer at different moments to another tradition related to Edward Hopper, and the kind of loneliness that comes over people in Hopper's more realistic paintings, and I love Hopper myself. But in my book “The Demon and the Angel”, I'm primarily looking at certain kinds of modern art, and particularly jazz and blues, and abstract expressionist painting, which leads to a kind of minimalism. And I distinguish the abstract expressionist painters from the minimalists who come afterwards, who are much cooler painters, who are much more interested simply in geometric structures, and in certain theories of abstraction, whereas in the abstract expressionists, you feel the heat breaking through. I don't think theirs is a very cold art, I think it's a very heated art. And so, it works for my argument and for the case that I'm trying to make for a certain kind of inspiration. I mean, you could say that I'm partially influenced by Freud here, and for the darker forces of the unconscious that are operating in the making of art. And the idea of the muse is a much more beautiful, much sweeter, much more rational idea of inspiration.


Do you think that an artist needs both angels and demons in his arsenal? Or is one enough?

The book is called “The Demon and the Angel”, and I do try to write about angelic inspiration, too, and the history of the angel in art and the representation of the angel, and I argue that these are two poles, and that the duende is at one pole, and the angels, or the muse, are at the other, and various artists are in a continuum, and most of the great artists intermingle these two kinds of forces. You might say one has more to do with rational skill, which you do need as an artist; it's not just pure inspiration – it's also a craft, and artists are also making something. Even a demonic artist poet, like Rimbaud, was still writing sonnets. And when Rimbaud wrote sonnets like the great “Vowels”, he didn't suddenly just write a sonnet; he had to make it rhyme – he had to work out the structure, he had to figure out how the vowels would work, each one with a different sound.

So, there is a rational element, and I'm trying to account for the ways that the irrational and the rational come together in the making of a work of art. I'm not arguing that it's all inspiration, or that it's pure inspiration. I'm arguing that, if you account for things simply rationally, you leave out some aspect of art that's important. But the making of art, for most artists, is the combination of irrational force and conscious making. In poetry, in my field, I firmly remember that the oldest word for poetry in Greek is “poiesis”, which means “making”, and that a poet is a maker, and a poem is a made thing. So, the making of art requires conscious craft, skill, experience, and using the rational intellect. All I'm arguing for is that that's not sufficient. We also need something else.

Now, some writers, the English writers of the 18th century, for example, wrote tremendously on the side of reason, and they minimized the aspect of the irrational – of when you think of, say, a writer like Dryden, a writer like Pope. I have a theory (which I argue in the book in certain chapters) that many classical writers were completely obsessed with everything being related to consciousness, everything being controlled. The greatest example in English literature is Dr. Johnson, Samuel Johnson, a great classical intellect. These writers are almost all terrified of madness. They're very afraid of the irrational, and one of the reasons that they are so completely committed to rational art is because they are so determined to keep the irrational down, to suppress it.

But, there certainly are those writers in the classical tradition who believe more in angelic consciousness, who want to repress the unconscious as much as possible and who think that the structure of art is completely related to rational structures. And then you might say that modern and romantic artists often are committed the other way – completely to irrational forces. I think that most great art comes together in the merging of these two things.

Actually I have this theory that the poet is also like a radio – all of these ideas are already out there, everything is there, but you need an antenna, which is like your spirit, and you need a dynamic, or your talent, and you need a dial, which is like your skills, because if you don't have a spirit, or an antenna, you cannot receive a signal; if you don't have the right mix of your talent and skills, you cannot pick up the correct wavelength and you cannot transmit it out of yourself.

I think this is a very strong idea; you're not the only one to have this idea. Ezra Pound said that poets are the antennae of the race. And I think that the dadaists were also obsessed with radio waves, and the poet being a kind of radio wave. If I remember correctly, the great Russian futurist, Khlebnikov, was also very interested in radio sounds. In his case, he wanted to magically break down words beyond words, to just sounds, and he had a very strong theory, almost a shamanistic theory of sounds coming like radio waves through us to break down. As you know, many of his poems are not actually words, they are just sounds; like that tremendous poem about laughter, which is just the sounds of laughter coming through. I think it's a tremendous poem, and it borrows something, I think, from primitive or archaic poetry – to try and create an experience that is almost pre-linguistic, or that uses language in a kind of magical, incantatory way.


Jackson Pollock in his studio

Do you think that current art and culture are becoming increasingly rational?

I completely agree. I think that a lot contemporary art is driven by conceptual art, which is entirely rational; that the artist sees a problem and tries to solve the problem. A lot of it is driven by technology; some of it is random computer poetry, which randomly, but rationally, sets up certain systems of sound. The OULIPO poets were very interested, and artists and musicians were very interested in setting up dynamics where every sixth word in the dictionary would create a sound, and you get systems for making up art. I think these experiments are terrifically interesting, but they're just that – experiments. I think the dividing line here is whether you think that something like poetry is a human-centered art, whether you think art has a relationship to the body, whether you think music has a relationship to the body. If you don't, if your scale is just to create something, then I think that duende, or something like duende, doesn't come into play. But if you think art is related to the human body, the scale of the body, if you think it comes out of the body, out of us as breathing machines, then I think that the concept of the irrational begins to have some force, and some play. If you think of poetry as a series of language games – simply linguistic games to give you different effects, you do get something interesting, but you tend to get something that's rational, or systematic, and those are interesting as experiments. But to me, the greatest art, the deepest art, is still a human-centered art, and that's an art that comes out of the body, and for that, you still need the concept of the irrational. The concept of something that cannot be explained. The concept of something mysterious.

When Lorca gave his readings, he used to say that there should be a banner at the door that says: “Only mystery”. So, if you believe in mystery, which many artists do not, and there's a critique – in American poetry certainly – a critique that is against my way of thinking, which is against subjectivity. But I speak on behalf of subjectivity, on behalf of our interior lives. Some people don't think we have interior lives; they think we're entirely cultural constructions, or linguistic constructions. But I think we're also entities with souls. So, a lot of modern art, a lot of contemporary art thinks that it's just linguistic games, or visual games, or video games, or sound games. And those are interesting as experiments, and for those experiments you don't need a concept of the irrational, and you don't need a concept of duende. But for human-centered art, which I still believe in, and the old-fashioned idea that there are human beings, and that we need to express ourselves, and the old-fashioned idea that there's a human-centered art, then I think dark inspiration has a piece to play.

I think there's just a great divide about whether art still really has to do with feelings at all. And there are many artists who believe it doesn't. I don't think the divide is between those who are successful and those who are not, or between those who are able to show and those who are not able to show, because we can pick artists who have a difficult road, and we can pick artists who have an easier road, but I think – and maybe this isn't true of Latvia, but it certainly is true in the USA – most young artists are very embarrassed by feeling; they want to be cool, they want to be hip. And showing feeling exposes you; it makes you vulnerable. There's nothing more vulnerable than a sense of wonder, which is child-like, and there's nothing more embarrassing than having feelings And I think the divide is between those artists who are willing to expose their feelings, and show they have feelings and show human feelings as a part of their work, whatever medium you're working in, whether you're working in environmental sculpture, or electronic music, or advanced avant garde poetry, and those artists who are simply not willing to be emotionally present to their own work. And I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that – not in every single work of art, and not in every single piece – but overall, being emotionally present to a work of art and in a work of art, is still important. And that art is still meant to speak to human beings.

You also discuss in your book writers who write on art. How do literature and contemporary art influence each other? In the 60s and 70s, it was more like one unified field; what is the current situation?

I think this depends on the artist, but I think that maybe you have an advantage here in a smaller country, where the artists and the writers know each other. I'm extremely interested in the collaborations between the writers and artists, and I think they are mutually fruitful because there are two different ways of thinking. One through image, through visual language; and one through linguistics, through words. I think they both access different kinds of experience.

The work that I edited was called “Transforming Vision: Writers on Art”, and that was a little different. We invited writers, poets and fiction writers, especially, to write pieces about the works of art in the Art Institute of Chicago, which has just a tremendous collection. I grew up in Chicago, and this is my museum; this is the museum where I spent my youth looking at paintings and sculptures. I'm very interested in the long history of ekphrastic writing from the Greeks, which began with Homer and his description of the Shield of Achilles. And I wanted to continue that tradition of ekphrastic writing, and I wanted to point to it, and I collected examples of poems that had already been written about works of art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then we supplemented that by inviting different writers to write pieces about specific works. Not just about art in general, but about a particular Goya, or a particular Hopper, or a particular Rembrandt that was in the Art Institute. People chose all different kinds of things. Initially, I tried to pair the writers and the works of art, but that completely failed. The writers did not want to write about the works of art that I suggested, but they had other works of art that they were interested in. And the reason for that was kind of interesting. I picked writers who seemed to have an affinity for a particular work of art, or a particular painter, because they had already written something about that painter. But when I asked them, they said: Well, I already did that, I'd like to do something else. And it was extremely interesting, and we ended up with a really wonderful book, I think.

Are there new trends in literature and modern art that are heading in parallel directions? There were abstractionist paintings, and then there were also poets doing something abstract with words. Are the contemporary visual and textual cultures also heading on related paths?

It seems to me that both in painting and the visual arts, which is mostly not painting now – it's mostly video art and different kinds of technological aspects of art and installations of all different sorts – my own sense is that both poetry and the visual arts are extremely interested in fragmentation right now, and in the experience of fragmentation, and how discontinuity operates in a work of art. I'm not so confident about this because I'm not as current in contemporary art as I am in contemporary poetry, and I don't follow all the trends. I have some sense of it from what I see in galleries and what people submit to the Guggenheim Foundation (where I work), for the art competition, and it seems to me that a lot of artists are interested in fragmentation now; I know a lot of poets are.

How would you describe fragmentation?

As the breaking up of experience into things that are discontinuous. That is, things that, on the surface, don't seem related – at least not initially. And that young poets are especially interested in poems that move from one kind of diction to another kind of diction, from one kind of experience to another kind of experience. I think artists are interested in this, too. I think it's because there's a sense that everything is coming at you at the same time in culture now, and that you could … I mean, this is not my art, and I'm just trying to describe to you what it's like to be a young artist now, and a young poet.

My sense of this is that you're reading Hölderlin, and you have a two-year-old child, and the TV is on, and the computer is over here, and you hear a singer in the distance – all of these things are happening at the same time, and you're trying to account for your moving between different levels of experience, all at the same time. … Given the way how a lot of poems move, and how young writers are writing, I think a lot of aspects of experience are coming from disparate places, and they're trying not to unify them, but just trying to see what happens when you put them together.

This reminds me one our project that was also connected to the radio – two years ago at the Cēsis Art Festival, a piece called “The Radio Wall”. It was a 20 meter-long wall covered with radio sets that were transmitting a special program that was made up of various elements. Everything wasn't going on at the same time – you'd hear first one poem, then some sort of noise, then some music, then another poem, and so on. It was changing all the time, and it was both visual and auditory – this wall of radios making sound.

The idea that you're talking about, this kind of wall of sound – it strikes me as something that young poets and musicians, and artists and composers, are interested in. And it's sort of very much like what you're talking about – the experience is not singular, but fragmented and complex. A lot of different things are happening at the same time. This is a sort of post-Cage kind of art, I think; Cage was interested in poetry, in art, in music, and especially in these kinds of experiments with chance. And what happens when you put different kinds of things together to see what emerges.

I think the thing that is operative here is that the work of art is not a traditional, unified object, as it was once seen in classical times, but something that is different every time. And something that is not unified, but disparate, and changing all the time, and something that is in process. This is especially congenial to American ideas of art, which have always been organic – ever since Emerson learned from Coleridge, something about an organic idea of art that the form will take shape in relation to the content. This idea of art as what Emerson calls “a meter-making argument” – an argument that unfolds as it goes – has been crucial to ideas of American art through, say, Charles Olsen and projective poetry, and through ideas of the Black Mountain Poets, on to ideas of Cage and other followers of Cage, to the importance of chance. The thing that I'm arguing for, in relationship to this, is let's not forget that we're also human beings that are making this art, and that it also should serve human purposes. And, we also have affective lives, we also have emotional inner lives, and art should also answer to those.

When you write your poetry, which pole are you coming from?

When you're writing poetry, your not thinking at this abstract level. You're not formulating these ideas in the making of a work of art. You're struggling with the material itself.

When I'm writing a poem, I'm not thinking about where the inspiration is coming from, and I'm not trying to give a name to whether it's the duende or the angel, or what it is; I'm just grappling with how to take an experience and transform it into a work of art, and letting it take shape, and seeing if I can give it a shape, and seeing if I can be the conduit for the experience.

I like to think of art as also a form of problem solving, and the problem can be a spiritual problem, as well as a technical problem. In fact, in certain ways in the making of art, all spiritual problems are also technical problems, because you have to find a language for the experience that you're writing about. You have to find a line, a form of lineation; you have to find a shape, you have to find levels of diction, you have to find the structure, you have to find technical things that will work to enact what you're trying to write. I think that the great works of art enact what they are about, and you're trying to find a language that will enact what you're writing about.

So, your problems are much more primitive in a way – much more primal – when you are trying to make something. But you're also aware that you cannot actually entirely will it into being. There are these moments that sometimes happen, and you cannot control them, in which something inexplicable happens. And in working on a poem, you write something better than what you had initially intended. Those are great moments in the writing of poetry. They're small triumphs – where you recognize that something that you had not intended has come out; it's something that you hadn't expected, but it's better than what you had written before. And then you try and follow that “thing”, of what is was, and which is beyond your original idea. You can't control it, you can only hope for it, you can only do your work; you can't walk around just saying: “Inspiration, come to me!”. You can't just wait for inspiration. You try to do your work, but you're aware that in the making of a poem, sometimes things happen that were unexpected. And when those things happen, it's really thrilling. And you try to earn them; you try to live up to them.

Randall Jarrell, an American poet, said: “A poet is someone who stands out in rainstorms. A good poet is someone who gets struck by lightning six times. A great poet is someone who gets struck by lightning twelve times.” So, the moral of the story is, you want to get struck by lightning, but you can't get struck by lightning if you don't go out and stand in the rain. You've got to learn your craft. You have to try and make art. You have to learn about the history of your art. You have to learn the techniques and the values of your art. And then you have to hope you get hit by lightning. So, the lightning can't be controlled. But the part that can be controlled – there is some of it that is in your rational control, which is your conscious thinking about your own artistic medium, and you should learn about that medium, if you can.

Edward Hirsch. Press photo

But do you think that all ideas are already out there, in the air?

I don't think it makes a lot of sense to try and be original. And maybe they are all there, but they haven't been put together in quite the same way, all the time. Maybe everything is out there, but it hasn't always been connected. And so, your job is to connect the things in unexpected ways. Maybe they are not all out there and you can come up with something original – put it together in your own way.

If you're a poet, your language is your field, as it were, and all the words are out there, except for a few that you might coin – if you're lucky. Basically, the language is something that you inherit, so language is like your radio field that you're talking about. But, if you're writing a poem, no has ever put the words together the way that you're trying to, in order to make a new poem. So, everything is out there, but nothing has been structured in the way that you're structuring it. You're the one making the connections, charging the words in a certain way to create a new and dynamic experience.