Sunday, April 5, 2015

Poet Phil Levine and Degas Give Us an Art Lesson

We are overdue for a tribute to poet Philip Levine, who died February 14.  He grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression and worked factory jobs for Cadillac and Chevrolet. Levine didn’t publish his first volume of verse until his mid-30s, but over time he became one of the country’s most honored poets. 

He won the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards before serving as poet laureate in 2011 and 2012. Levine never really left the world of blue-collar workers, writing about a world of sweat and muscle seldom seen in American poetry since Carl Sandburg. “I believed,” he said in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.”

After teaching for many years at California State University at Fresno, he became a visiting professor at Princeton, Brown, Columbia, New York University, and other prestigious schools. His worst students, he said, were Ivy Leaguers who were shocked to learn that their poems were no good. He preferred the working-class students of Fresno State, who seemed more receptive to the notion that a poem, like a car’s transmission, sometimes needed to be rebuilt.

About the following “imaginary art lesson” Levine explained that he placed it in 1942 because that was when, as a student at Detroit’s Durfee High School, he discovered poetry. To hear him read the poem aloud, click here

Messieur Degas Teaches Art and Science 
at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit, 1942
Cafe Concert at Les Ambassadeurs
1876-77

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "what have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "you've broken a piece
of chalk." Messieur Degas did not smile.
"what have I done" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "Messieur Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
After the Bath, 1898
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this could go on for another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. Messieur Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I

knew this could go on forever.
Sunrise, 1896




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