PRINT January 2014


the Detroit Institute of Arts

Edgar Degas, Dancers in the Green Room, ca. 1879, oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 34 1/2".

ONE BRIGHT AFTERNOON in the autumn of 1948, my aesthetics professor, Raymond Hoekstra, marched his seven students three blocks to the Detroit Institute of Arts so that we might come to understand how rich our cultural inheritance was. After a minute of silence, as we stood before the Degas painting Dancers in the Green Room, ca. 1879, Dr. Hoekstra, a very proper little man dressed in his usual brown tweeds, asked if anyone could hear the music of the painting. When that drew a prolonged silence, he asked what in the painting first summoned our attention. When no one spoke, he called on me. (He believed deeply in the Socratic method.) Even then I knew my answer was rather feeble: I said I was struck by the odd shape of the painting. Never a man to humiliate his students, the professor pretended I’d said something of significance. “How wide this world is,” he said, and gracefully flung out his arms, “and how low the ceiling, how powerfully it presses down on these girls.” Yes, girls was the word he used, for they are only girls, and as such, he suggested, they should be at play. Usually we think of dance as a form of play, but no one is playing in this painting. The professor drew our attention to the little cluster of figures squeezed together in the foreground, how all but one are bent over, while off to the left is unoccupied space they dare not enter—unoccupied except for the dark, commanding presence of the double bass viol. It is almost as though the weight of the world or of their lives is bearing down on the dancers as they bend over to catch their breath in anticipation of what comes next. This is clearly not play; it is work, the work that will define their lives. I recall how thrilled the professor was by the one small figure—only a child—who has the audacity to place her foot, to lean her weight, on the bass viol, the silent, brooding symbol of their commitment. Professor Hoekstra at that moment began a melodic, Wagnerian chant in the deepest voice he could muster. As the wordless song grew in volume, he slowly, very slowly, turned completely around three times with his arms held tightly to his sides. “That is the music of this Degas,” he said. “Look, off in the distance,” and he drew our attention to where twin sources of light illuminate another cluster of children waiting for the music that will summon them to work. Distracted by a guard who had hustled over to make sure the painting was not violated, I only half heard what the good professor said about the dominating figure in the painting, the dancer in the black blouse who adjusts her garments to face whatever is ahead, and about the broad back, a very womanly back, of a dancer to her left and in the distance with one arm thrust out recklessly, beautifully, for she is beginning to dance to the dark music of Degas.

Philip Levine, the eighteenth Poet Laureate of the United States, divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California. In 2013 he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.