Thinking about Degas

I started out my adult life as a literature major, and eventually changed to creative writing. Now I teach both. I always loved what I gained as a lit major about books from classroom discussion and serious study. I learned how to read and how to understand the classics, new and old, and I’d always go away with a more complex understanding of the novels or poems after have researched and read seriously than when I simply allowed them to wash over me.

I’m writing ekphrastic poems now, poems about art, and I find that I’m enjoying the kind of complex understanding of the literature that I had when I first was a student of literature. After all, I have gone from a person who walks through a museum and views the painting to someone who is trying to engage with the painting. I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with either approach by the way. But I do gain something special by studying them.

I’ve also found that because I’m approaching the art from a third perspective, I’m gaining a new level of appreciating for the art. After all, when I’m done studying the art, I now engage with it, trying to make it my own by writing about it.

It’s an experience I’ve never had before, trying to get into the creative headspace of the artist. I don’t know if I accomplish that goal or not, but I do know that I see the work differently. I find that I love artists that I didn’t have much appreciation for before and that I dislike artists whom I used to love.

The biggest change was for Edward Hopper, whose work I used to absolutely love. I spent about a week with him, looking at his art and developing my understanding of what he was trying to do. Seeing all of his work together like that left me with a feeling of almost complete emptiness. The people in his paintings are universally lonely as though isolation is the natural state of a person.

I don’t say that he’s wrong, or that he’s making good and important observations about the human condition, only that I learned that I don’t like to be in his head that much. It’s an incredibly sad place, and I found myself growing depressed by the end of the week. His work is extraordinarily powerful, but that’s the problem with it for me.

At the same time, I gained an appreciation for the humanity and compassion of Degas’s work. I’d never really liked his ballerinas before, not until I really looked and saw the empathy inherent to what he was doing. I felt compassion for the ballerinas, and I felt his as well.

I wonder if this is something I should bring into my teaching. Could my literature students write poems about the novels they are reading? I wonder if maybe this is the kind of thing that can be codified into a classroom setting or if making it an assignment would remove whatever magic the exercise has.