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Friday, October 8, 2010

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School: Detroit, 1942

(Self-Portrait: Degas Lifting His Cap by Edgar
Degas, 1834-1917, French painter, sculptor, and

In April 1942, sitting in Monsieur Degas’s class in Detroit, fourteen-year-old Philip Levine learned that the possibilities of the imagination are endless. Later that year, he discovered his calling:

“That autumn I found poetry. After dark, ambling the deserted streets, I would speak to the moon and stars about the emotional revolution that was raging within me, and, true to their natures, the moon and the stars would not answer. My most intimate poems were summoned by the promise of rain in the air or the odors of its aftermath. Night after night I spun and respun these poems — if poems they were — none of which I ever committed to the page. I was learning to love solitude and to discover the power of my voice to deprive it of terror.” (from his memoirs,
The Bread of Time)


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.” M. 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. “M. 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
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on 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. M. 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.

~ Philip Levine, born 1928, American poet