The nuance of voice in Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit, 1942”

The cover of the book of poems, What Work Is by Philip Levine. (ISBN-10: 0679740589)

While this is not my favorite Phil Levine poem (that would be the titular poem, “What Work Is”), this poem grabbed me as an important example of voice as I made my way through this book. Here you can listen to Levine give his own voice to this poem.

I’ll let you do the easy work of finding the text, if you so choose (support your library, right? Right!). However, I think that experiencing the recording of the late Levine gives enough weight to this playful poem.

Within the context of a serious collection of poems that deals with the working class, this poem finds a tone that is both humorously irreverent and quotidian. This poem thumbs its nose while crafting an honest picture of the mind of a bored child or student.

Levine presents Monsieur Degas, presumably Edgar Degas, as a teacher in an “intermediate school”—”middle school” more commonly nowadays. He asks us to imagine this giant of French Impressionist painting to have lived at least another 25 or so years and then had decided to teach young adolescents in Detroit, Michigan. Levine puts himself in the shoes of a student that is caught in this lecture where Degas divides a blackboard diagonally and asks for interpretations which a precocious classmate is more than willing to give him.

This poem is not so different in its appearance on the page from the rest of the book. Levine seems to be obsessed with creating consistency in line length and composes in singular chunks of verse that form rectangles of poetic meaning. However, this poem gives a dimension that is not always present in the rest of the book.

Degas makes a line with chalk to divide the chalkboard diagonally. (Some of his work also makes this compositional choice by framing a figure in a corner, cutting the canvas in a diagonal with a dancer or a seated person that is the subject of a portrait.) He makes this move in the poem, asks what he has done, and a snide comment is unrewarded. However, the confident Gertrude Bimmler answers more to his desire and interprets this act.

The voice of the poem is aware of this exchange between teacher and eager student, but is concerned with the time and the weather outside. The voice wants to be elsewhere rather than watching the exchange between a teacher and a presumed teacher’s pet. The voice “believed/that before I knew it I’d be/swaggering to the candy store/for a Milky Way.” Time slows and Gertrude continues to interpret the act of the teacher. The observer that is the voice of the poem is in agony and “knew this could go on forever.”

Certainly the quotidian and boring notions of work, even as a child, is present. The poem is not out of place. The speaker that gives this poem a voice is disinterested in this scene that is playing out and they are held to (and time is dilated through) when they could be getting candy. But it is this childish disdain for the boring tasks and questions of adults that gives this poem its extra dimension. There is nothing life threatening about the task at hand: the speaker is not tasked with working on machines that could mangle the body or kill. The child that is held in this thing that could go on forever is annoyed and wishes to be elsewhere and has no interest in the faithful answers of a bright classmate. This exchange is a useless annoyance and exercise in meaning making that doesn’t enrich the observer in the seat.

This annoyed despair of childhood in a classroom is so relatable and funny. We can all remember being annoyed at the teacher’s pet that drags an obvious or ridiculous lesson on forever. Levine walks his own diagonal divide of humor and serious sincerity within the poem!

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