Detroit poet, Philip Levine, has been selected as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Selected by the librarian of Congress (James Billington), Levine follows poet W. S. Merwin in the honored position. A Poet Laureate is responsible merely for giving readings in October and May but some laureates also use the position to proselytize for poetry. Here, from Levine's early collection, What Work Is (Knopf, 1992), is a poem that looks back on a math-art moment in a middle-school classroom.
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.
Click here to hear Philip Levine reading this poem.
For a poem that features seven and seventeen, see Levine's "After Leviticus." Overall, though, Levine's work makes little use of mathematical imagery; still, there are many other reasons to enjoy it -- musicality without affectation, complexity without being abstruse.