Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I left the world & felt a world

Below is a poem that Major Jackson brought to his craft talk yesterday in the Honors College at U of H. These InPrint craft talks are always scheduled smack in the middle of my class on poetic forms, but yesterday's talk was partially a continuation of a discussion we'd been having in class about line length. Jackson kept using the term utterance, a word that I love for its type of stuttering sound and scoop, the implication of gravity. "It is the structure of one's utterances," said Jackson, "that elevate beyond the conventional." The Philip Levine poem below is a precise example of this. The movement of the first five lines, in contrast to the fifth & sixth. This sweeping, continuous, specified but not quite grounded action, followed by - plop - a name, a normalcy, a jeer. There's more to say but I have work to do. Anyway, here you go. Great fuckin poem.

M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School--Detroit, 1942
by Philip Levine

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.

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