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Friday, July 1, 2011

Museum Piece - Richard Wilbur

The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins!  The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together.
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.


The multiple layers of casual disregard for art present in this poem are, to me, its most interesting feature.  In the poem's present tense, we have the museum security guards, who are impartial to the treasures they guard. One dozes up against a chair, presumably also an art piece.  Right above his head spins a famous Degas painting.  Initial outrage at the guard's negligence and failure to appreciate the art right above his head is then superseded by the story about how Degas hung his pants on an El Greco painting.  What Wilbur presents is a cycle of people disregarding art that may have serious expressive power.  As Wilbur notes, the Degas under which the guard sleeps is full of energy, passion, and beauty.  But does that concern the guard?  Not so much.  However, this is nothing new, as Wilbur shows with the Degas anecdote.

What does this mean for those of us in the present?  Well, it makes me consider my desk, and how about it are stacked piles of books, many of them volumes of poetry.  Within each book on my desk are passages that could bring a heart of stone to tears, and yet, here they are, stacked haphazardly.  I, too, am no different than the guard, and in turn, Degas.  It's just how we are, it seems.  We can, on the one hand, appreciate beauty, and on the other, completely ignore it to suit our own needs.  Peculiar.

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