Inspired by Edward Hopper

This second post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"All I really want to do," Edward Hopper once said, "is paint light on the side of a house." The famous American realist's attention to light and the mood it creates—his work will be featured at the Whitney until the end of April—continues to influence a range of artist, poets included. Both Edward Hirsch and Eamon Grennan discussed Hopper's influence in the course of their conversations with Pearl London.

During Hirsch's visit, London comments on the imagery in his poetry and brings up, as an example, his description of Hopper as "brutal as sunlight" in the poem "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)."

[audio:|titles=Hirsch on Hopper]

Hopper, says Hirsch, uses sunlight as a metaphor for remorselessness, "exposing that which might prefer to be hidden." In the poem, the house "must have done something" to be left so alone, but that "something" is never named.

"House by the Railroad" 1925. Oil on canvas. 24 x 29 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

As the poem continues, the house "begins to suspect / That the man, too, is desolate, desolate / And even ashamed." There is a sense that the source of shame is not important, because anything scrutinized so closely will eventually offer up its own particular point of shame; what's central, in the poem, is the very ubiquity of guilt.

Grennan doesn't dwell on Hopper as long as Hirsch, only making reference to a poem he once worked on, about Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room," that ends with the line, "Tomorrow, I'll talk away the wall."

[audio:|titles=Grennan on Hopper]

"Sun in an Empty Room" 1963. Oil on canvas. 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. Private collection.

"Sun in an Empty Room" is, Grennan says, "lovely"—it's clear that Hirsch wouldn't use this adjective to describe "House by the Railroad." And yet both poets seem to point to the same Hopper-esque capacity of light to become a subject in itself. For Grennan, light has a prelapsarian quality, and this too is what Hirsch suggests—how light emphasizes the faults of the fallen man, of a fallen landscape.




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