Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Edgar Degas and Philip Levine

While many of his contemporaries produced still-life paintings or landscapes, where the static image on the canvas appears natural and any passage of time is only subtly suggested by the ripeness of fruit in a bowl or the state of bloom shown by flowers in a field, Edgar Degas focuses mostly on subjects characteristically associated with quick and elegant motion. Whether delivering ballet dancers on a stage or jockeys guiding their thoroughbreds across a racecourse, Degas seems to violate the inherent nature of those objects he depicts. By halting their movements, the artist ironically creates a tension between what is seen and what is expected. Viewers are left uneasy by the frozen moments within the frame, eager to witness the agile and graceful procession of the figures, perhaps even frustrated by the lack of physical forward progress or the refusal to allow advancement that arrives with a passage of time.

Instead, Degas compels observers to participate by imagining the movement one might desire to occur; therefore, he indirectly emphasizes the energetic instances about to happen, and he invites every viewer to project a passage of time in his or her mind. This condition is especially apparent when Degas presents transitional scenes in which individuals await an upcoming event, perhaps with a sense of anxiety, and images that involve preparation for the display of forthcoming actions—the ballerinas resting backstage or donning costumes in their dressing rooms and the row of horses held in place by their riders at the starting line of a racetrack.

Sometimes Degas contrasts his moving figures with stationary individuals who are merely onlookers at a social gathering and audience members at an entertainment venue. Further, Degas frequently enhances the illusion of movement by partially concealing some of the participants in depicted incidents. For instance, one dancer may be half-hidden behind a closing curtain, or her profile could be cut off by the very edge of the canvas. Others may be partly concealed by the presence of another in the image’s foreground, or the heads of horses and their jockeys may be facing in different directions as if responding to unseen cues coming from elsewhere on the course while they ready for a sound to signal the start of a race.

Perhaps a crucial influence for the relatively novel feel in response to the way Edgar Degas imitates movement in his paintings can be attributed to the modern invention of motion photography, initiated by Eadweard Muybridge and demonstrated in the late 1870s, which Degas studied and copied to indicate specific steps by his figures in a suggested sequence of progressive movement.

Degas seemed to be a romantic painter whose primary inspiration drew from activities linked to city life rather than the natural landscapes in rural locations usually identified with Romanticism or the Impressionists. Indeed, Degas occasionally expressed disdain for landscape painting. Instead, he often offered images of lower-class workers (such as a laundress or even a prostitute) and entertainers (dancers, opera singers, musicians, acrobats, etc.), though portraits of their patrons might have been more fashionable and more profitable. The painter depicted a Paris life about which Charles Baudelaire (whose work Degas admired) wrote poetry. Like a poet, Degas also would include evocative or connotative “everyday objects” in the scenes of his art, “placed, accompanied in such a way that they have in them the life of the man or woman—corsets, which have just been removed, for example, and which retain the form of the body,” he explained.

Since today (July 19) is the birth date of Edgar Degas, born in 1834, I’d additionally like to use this day to remind readers again of Philip Levine’s humorous poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” referencing the famous painter. Philip Levine—who has expressed appreciation for the artwork of Degas despite reservations about the painter’s disagreeable personality, which included strong anti-Semitic attitudes—in interviews has confided that he regards himself as a romantic poet mostly focused upon urban living and the city’s inhabitants, including jazz musicians and members of the working class, especially in the Detroit of his upbringing.

In a commentary about Levine posted on “One Poet’s Notes” in recognition of his 80th birthday in January, I reported: “His upbringing among working-class immigrants and African Americans living under the rule of continuing racism forever shaped Levine’s view of the world. The family figures he knew as a boy in the urban landscape of Detroit and the young men he met as a worker in its automobile factories have been ever-present as personages in his poetry. Even today, his poems often read as elegant yet plain-spoken elegies giving tribute to those who were battered and scarred, who felt chronic pain suffered during everyday battles, or those outcasts and artists (particularly writers and jazz musicians) who lived on the edges of society, men and women he once knew and to whom he now has given voice, again and again.”

The text of “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School”—which appeared in Levine’s What Work Is, published by Knopf in 1991 and the winner of a National Book Award—can be viewed below, and one can listen to Levine reading the poem at the Academy of American Poets website:


Detroit, 1942

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.

In the poem, Levine revisits his Detroit school days to offer an imaginative encounter he and his classmates had with the great artist, and he inventively remembers his initial discovery of various mysteries, ambiguities, or possibilities associated with creativity and art, as well as perhaps his own introduction to an innovative and poetic vision of the world.

Indeed, Philip Levine has written about an awakening to his awareness of a poetic spirit within him in the same year cited by the poem. In his book of memoirs, The Bread of Time (Knopf, 1994), Levine reported about his state of mind in the fall of 1942, when he was fourteen years old:

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; I was learning how to become one man in a sea of men and women who by some mystery came together to form a brotherhood and sisterhood of all those things with souls. At that age I knew of almost no beings without souls; certainly trees had them, and the wildflowers that sprang up in the undeveloped lots and the tall grasses I lay down in for shelter. Even the hum of traffic on the distant Outer Drive had a kind of intelligence, as though it too spoke for some human yearning, as though each separate car were on some quest whose goal was love—for all I knew, love of me. Once the dark took over, nothing was impossible. Each night that I labored joyously at my new craft and art, I sang out to the city and the larger world beyond the city, and no one was the wiser.

Though worlds apart in time and culture, the figures of Edgar Degas and Philip Levine are now linked not only by the poetic imagination of Levine that placed Degas as an instructor at his Detroit school, but also by their focus on showing the unusual or the beautiful sometimes overlooked by others when viewing seemingly ordinary individuals in everyday situations. Moreover, in the paintings by Degas and the poems by Levine, each frozen image exists as more than memory of a past moment. Instead, every scene suggests a continuation from the time before through the time after the event depicted, and perhaps most importantly, both Degas and Levine almost always imply the figures preserved in their art deserve our further attention because they exhibit a rich or significant life, as mysterious as it sometimes might appear, that has only been stilled momentarily—held in sight by the painter or poet for closer examination, as well as a greater appreciation—and, as the closing line of the poem states, which “could go on forever.”


Anonymous said...

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; I was learning how to become one man in a sea of men and women who by some mystery came together to form a brotherhood and sisterhood of all those things with souls.

Unknown said...

I love this poem. One of my favorites by Levine. I read this to my students each semester--just to see if they "get" it.

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Unknown said...

ART QUESTION if an ART HISTORIAN TYPE should stumble onto this:
One of my favorites by Levine, along with "What Work Is." I too use it in the classroom. I put together a visual to show the students some of Degas' best known work. I am not skilled in discerning composition, etc., but it seemed to me that he was using diagonal lines to frame his works often, as the character in the poem famously does. In looking up his work and trying to digest artists' descriptions of it, many notes seemed to indicate this diagonal idea in Degas. Just wondering - is this a well known descriptor of his style and works? THANK YOU!!!