Peter Sacks: American Perspectives
Welcome to Poetry lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars, and educators presented by poetryfoundation.org. In this program, Peter Sacks finds common themes between the paintings of Edward Hopper and the works of poets such as Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and TS Eliot.
In a career spanning much of the 20th century, Edward Hopper concentrated on two main subjects: scenes of everyday life in urban America and sea scapes, or rural landscapes. Light and shadow figure prominently in his paintings, creating geometric patterns. People in Hoppers paintings are often isolated, rarely interacting with one another. Peter Sacks is a poet, scholar and painter, and he’s the author of five collections of poetry and numerous essays and books about poetry. He was born and raised in South Africa, and currently teaches literature and creative writing at Harvard University. The talk you’re about to hear is part of American Perspectives, a collaboration of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and The Poetry Foundation. It took place on March 13th, 2008. Here’s Peter Sacks speaking on Beautiful Estrangements: Reading in the Light of Edward Hopper.
Peter Sacks: I was here 40 years ago, as an exchange student from South Africa, and was brought to this museum and could hardly believe that such places existed, and a life that has followed being so completely enthralled and inhabiting works of art. I didn’t dream at that time as a 17 year old that I might be coming back, even to Chicago, even to the United States. But to come back to this extraordinary museum, and to be speaking here, is moving and as mysterious as Hopper’s paintings themselves are in their strange relation to time. I hope it’s clear that what I’ll be doing is floating through many, many images of Harper. I’m not going to be giving a talk about the paintings, this isn’t art history or art criticism. It’s really a commentary illustrated with literary texts, and I’d like to begin my literary slant on this master of slants with a poem of Emily Dickinson’s, number 258. This of course is one of the last paintings, “Sun in an Empty Room”, and the poem as I’ll explain in a moment is written in tiny rooms of 4 line quatrains.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
So it’s not just the geometric form and content of the poem, nor the imagined slant of light that seems to go as if across these rectangles, you imagine that happening. It’s not just that that brings it to mind, this late winter or early spring afternoon in the presence of Edward Hopper. Remember that the word “stanza” in poetry derives from the word “room” in Italian, and Hopper’s rigorously self-framing and formally self-partitioning paintings, not only of rooms after rooms or rooms within rooms, are I would say themselves intensely stanzaic. He’s drawn to regularly demarcated repeating intervals. He paints in stanzas. But I’m just as interested in Dickinson’s knowing that we can find now scar for the hurt which, minute by minute, inch by inch, that blade of light, wielded by time itself, inflects. No scar other than internal difference, that is a gap or interval, a space “where the meanings, are —“, stanza break.
I think Hopper alone can paint Dickinson’s dashes, their way of keeping apart what they also miraculously connect by making us somehow undergo the interval of each dash. Just as he may be one of the only painters to show us exactly how shadows hold their breath. He does so in ways that are so rigidly defined that they make us hold our own breath. After all, you almost have to stop breathing to keep time from moving up the wall, as it would in real time. So what kind of time are we inhabiting when we look at a work like this? So, no scar, other than internal difference, this gap where the meanings are. Dickinson does not say what the meanings are, but where they are. She names their place, their site. I feel that however solidly objective his works, Hopper paints the where of internal as much as external difference. Remember, of this painting he said “I’m after me”.
These are the sites where meanings, precisely those hardest to name, take up their immovable place in us, as well as between us and other persons, between us and our surroundings. In both Dickinson and Hopper, there is brilliance, rigor, and a formally relentless dash, obliquity. I could get into putting dashes into this whole speech here, but one which also defines apartness. And this obliquity in these artists makes me think that they are somehow portraying their own peculiarly sharp angle to time and to space, to the world. A later poem of Dickinson, 1129, begins: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”. To stay with internal difference for just a minute, one of these differences within us, within each of us, and by Hopper are sensitizes to the way in which everyone here is a singularity and yet there are multiples; there are many stairs, there are many seats. Probably all we need is some tall blond woman to stand on the side there with her head down and we’ll have the movie theatre of New York 1939, but I’m aware of the strange tension between singularity and multiplicity. In each of us, there is this further difference which I would say may be between competing ways of looking. Are we an invited participant or a carefully detached and framed off passerby? A spectator for whom the very question of access to and responsibility for what we see is put literally on edge. What is the right emotional and ethical, not just visual distance between us and the painting?
His ability to pose such a question, to have it oppress and afflict us without an answer, even as it becomes an accentuating even scarring part of our aesthetic experience, is no small part of his modernity as well as his genius. Although they have given rise to much poetry and prose amongst contemporary writers, John Hollander, Mark Strand above all in both poetry and prose, the paintings of Hopper did not seem to be overtly literary in any simple way. Matter of fact, unadorned, forbiddingly laconic in designed surface lighting and overt content, they seemed to have no need of additional language. They stand on the near or the very far side of speech where speech has fallen silent. Even where they do include a verbal sign, where they may portray acts of reading, these occur in such states of empty doubt publicity on the one hand, or such privacy, isolation on the other, they appear so drastically to prevent conversation that one does not feel invited to bring yet more language into the pictorial space.
Neither the space of the painting nor that of the room or the condition in which we view it. Perhaps we should say that his paintings suppress, press flat the anecdote that the may otherwise also imply. So silence, inner and outer silence, indeed seems so absolute that it comes to govern every inch of the work, including the work of seeing. Where they do invoke narrative, that invocation is cracked away by a feeling that also every visually enforced impasse verges on impassivity. Yet such impassivity is intention with tension itself. You get this atmosphere that is at once resigned yet charged. There's a high, dry, glaring clarity, but of what exactly, if not of settings that are poised between impacted ambiguity on the one hand, and sheer vacancy on the other. I think of the poet Philip Larkin’s description in a poem simply called “Here” of “existence, facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach”. Or his mention in the same poem of “removed lives, loneliness clarifies”. It seems to me that many Hopper paintings are at states of removed where they're not just about solitude or clarity, but where they become isolating and clarifying agents themselves. They clarify the air on what remains mysterious. They clarify our sight itself but not our ability to solve or resolve what we see. Every story or commentary or softening lyrical address is usually cleaved away by Hopper. The visual fields themselves are often formally cleft or blocked by horizontal, vertical or diagonal shafts of light, or frames. It's partly why he likes to paint windows, especially large pained ones, many of them plate glass.
Plate glass about who's quote unmitigated publicity, Henry James complained at the beginning of the 20th century on his return to this country. I do recommend his great work The American Scene and I’ll be referring to it during the evening. Henry James commented with such passionate distress during the very years in which Hopper was beginning to paint about such unmitigated publicity, the proscription of privacy. Within their rigid interior frameworks, Hopper's stark lights and shadows separate rather than modulate. The dividing light itself tends to be high and dried out, or frankly unnatural, electric. This is not the mobilizing counter reformation slant light of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. Nor the warm, granular Protestant humorous light of Rembrandt, and it’s certainly not the mellow lucency of Vermeer. Absolutely it's not that vaporous changeable refractive light of Constable Turner, or indeed the impressionists.
If the severe unmodulated force and angle of Hopper’s lights do sometimes recall scenarios of possible annunciation, this is annunciation without an angel, without a saving text to lift or carry the scene beyond it's rigid state of isolation. If there are actual books in the composition, they’re closed, they're piled on each other, they even form a kind of eye rhyme with this immobilizing and trapping triangle here that keeps this woman herself on a threshold of dress and undress. The shoes her way of getting out of there, but look at all the ways in which she’s blocked in formally as well. The books are offering no real way in and no real way out, and yet Hopper himself was intensely literary. Perhaps the most literary painter of his generation.
This is a 1936 drawing he made of himself and his basket of books. I'm hoping you can make out from where you are the titles, or the names of the authors, but you will see a copy of Verlaine’s poetry. You’ll see Henry James. You’ll see Proust. You’ll see Ibsen, and you’ll see Santayana’s The Last Puritan. But other favorites include Zola, Tolstoy, Poe, Emerson, Melville, Hemingway of course, Dos Passos also of course, a friend. Robert Frost, Whitman, André Gide. Very cosmopolitan, wide ranging. Gale Levin’s biography gives a very good account of this intellectual literary side of Hopper's life. In what follows though, I’ve chosen mostly to avoid poems or prose that are explicitly about Hopper's work, so as not to simply redescribed the paintings. There is I should say a very good anthology of poems that are direct homages to Hopper that Gale Levin did edit.
It would have been very easy for me simply to page through reading those poems, but that would’ve been outrageous as well as useless since you can do that yourselves. What I’ll be doing instead is to suggest analogues and oblique illuminations of the sense and reach of Hopper’s work. Two other books that could’ve been in that basket I might mention are Jung and Freud. He read both with great interest. There is something about Hopper’s way of finding the archetypal as it collides with the modern just as there is referring to Freud a strange way in which he stretches the manifest tightly over what feels like the irretrievably latened.
His patients, Hopper's patients, are pretty silent as well as we know the analysts are silent, but these are usually quiet sessions in Hopper's rooms. But let’s begin with one of Hoppers own favorite poems. This is a Christmas card he made for his wife Jo, Mademoiselle Jo in 1923, and he's quoting a poet who's work was in that basket; the 19th century French symbolist poet Verlaine. You can see how unusual this picture is, you never see figures that intimately together in Hopper, they're always a part. This is a nostalgic fiction really since they were never together in Paris. Hopper was there from 1906 to 1910, very influential moment when TS Eliot was there, when Henri Bergson was lecturing on time and memory. You can say that what this is is a fiction of nostalgia. But let's look at the poem for a moment, and I will translate it afterward. (reading in French). Verlaine's lines rhyme, you can see this, ABAB CC. I think, while I should translate that — “A vast and tender peacefulness, or rest, or pacification, descends or seems to to descend from the heavens, which the celestial light, star light, irradiates. It is the exquisite hour”.
What I'd like to get at is that I believe Hopper had a visual equivalent for rhyme, a fascination with repetitive patterning, even rhythm and cadence, and these remain a strong formalist imperative long after he'd mixd a few gallons of American turpentine to this never quite erasable romanticism on view in this sketch. In fact, the tension between Hopper’s astringent American pragmatism on the one hand and his continued, perhaps suppressed, depth of emotion is one of the most compelling features of his work. Another European poem, and this will be the only other one in another language, but it's interesting that he liked to quote these poems in their original languages.
The famous poem of Goethe, The Wayfarer’s Nightsong. Here again you’ll see the rhyme scheme being quite important. (reads in foreign language) “Over all the hill tops, there is peace, rest. In all the tree tops you can't trace the merest breath, little birds keep silent in the forest. Only wait. Soon you too will be at rest.” So he probably liked again the strict rhyme, probably liked the short lined suspenseful emphasis on waiting. The sharply defined edges of the lineation here surrounded by silence, the blank space of the page. there's an ambivalent longing for rest, for rue, but Hopper’s own Wayfarer scenes are very different from those of Goethe. However stilled, his wayfarers almost never in a state of genuine rest. Rather they are arrested. They show not a rival but stoppage, as if en route, a state of interruption that inexplicably goes on forever.
Under such arrest, wayfaring or wandering with an “a”, may turn at best to wondering with an “o”, a zone of blank inscrutability or receding inwardness. In Hopper, there is no southing “soon you too will be at rest". IN fact, there's no such thing in Hopper as soon. We're irrevocably in the moment, cut off from genuine repose, whether in nature, in cities, between persons or within ourselves. I think of Henry James saying in The American Scene “know what you are reduced to for importance is the present, pure and simple, squaring itself between an absent future and an absent past, as solidly as it can”.
So, an almost paralyzing problem of the “what next" or the "how next”, how to move. This predicament of what I’d call stranded nomadism strikes me as characteristic of the American 20th century, for all it's apparent speed and mobility. Think of Hopper’s roads and railroads, his hotels and his motels, his bridges, his way stations, his gas stations. They all intensify this most American of truths: anomic velocity in a kind of checkmate with absolute stasis.
Every mode of transport checked by a sense of there being nowhere else genuinely to go, no real transformation or otherness down the road. He’s painting into the decades not only of increasing uniform mass production and consumption, but of increasing anonymity, the urban and suburban replaceability of what used to be individual things, moments, houses, persons. To flip a coined phrase, there's no place that doesn't feel unlike home in Hopper. No place that doesn't feel like a displacement. The traveller is as much cut off from the past as from the future. He’s a great painter of ruptured sequence, of apartness, and again I’m responding to the compositional structure, not simply the illustrative content of his paintings. Staying with instances of Hopper's explicit poetic interests, the poems that he himself loved, he paid tribute to Shakespeare in this painting of “Shakespeare at Dusk”.
It's Shakespeare, the statue off to the margin, a necessarily wordless statue marooned not only in the 1930s but in Central Park New York. It's strange the way the large public letters “US” are at this immoveable distance from the illegible “Mr. W.S” or any words of his. Hopper made this painting in 1935. He was 53. It was a year in which he lost a very close friend, a year in which his mother died, and I do think mortality was starting to press in on his consciousness. Since there's no text in the picture, it's perhaps one that we need to summon. We have fortunately the knowledge that he was placing this painting at a moment not only of autumn but of dusk, thinking of Sonnet 73 of Shakespeare.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The sonnet, the single room, frames a state of intense syntactic suspension. It’s designed to keep us and the beloved hanging like the leaves, the few leaves. The poem hangs between leaving and not leaving, which is the state of so many Hopper paintings that arrest. The interlocking subordinate clauses form a kind of trap. Once the speaker starts each four line sentence, you have to wait until he’s finished, and he does keep you hanging, clause by dependent clause, period by period, each four lines at a time until the lock up of that final couplet, the genuine emotional impasse. When Hopper locks up a painting, he tends to throw away the key.
Now Hopper’s favorite American poet not surprisingly was Robert Frost. Gale Levin quotes Hopper in an interview with Richard Lahey in which he said “Robert Frost is a real person. When he came down to deliver a speech at the Institute of Arts and Letters, and most of the members were there including myself, right after the speech he came down to greet me”. According to Lahey, the interviewer, Jo then interrupted and said “Yes, and he put his arms around you and embraced you and said ‘You, Hopper, I was really talking to you throughout that speech of mine. I like your work very much’”. Hopper often referred to his love of poems such as “Come In” or “Stopping by the Woods” and he praised Frost’s way of being “concretely pictorial”. I’m going to read “Come In”, and I suppose one could envision a scene blurrily like this if you could transpose it into dusk, nightfall coming on with the viewer brought much closer to the tree line. Instead of lingering on this, I’ll go back to imagine Edward himself reading the poem to you.
Come In — It’s a poem in which you both listen and look.
As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been.
The poem is in strict quatrains again. Almost with their ABCB rhyme scheme ballad like, though Frost’s briefer three beat lines alternating at a slant with those two beat lines creates the repeated short form of hesitation; step forward, step back. That hesitation at the edge that is the edge of light and dark, the stoppage on the threshold that bird songs allure checked by the speaker’s final disinclination to go in, a disinclination that leans on the ascent of explicit invitation. That combination of initiation / dis-invitation is something I feel on the threshold of many Hopper paintings. It’s an exact threshold poem, and you hear and see why Hopper loved it’s balance of beckoning and exclusion, it’s precise but quiet dramatization of a pause itself. Now, other poems that would go very well with Hopper would be “Home Burial” with it’s use of architectural spacial composition in order to dramatize both mortal and marital estrangement, or poem like “The Black Cottage”, which I think is an underestimated, very haunting poem. “The Black Cottage”, a poem in which the speaker enters a house that has been vacated temporarily by a widow, and when he goes into the house he sees a daguerreotype on the wall which is her dead husband who died in the Civil War. You have frame and frame, room within room of desolation. I urge you to read “The Black Cottage”; I don’t have time to do so here. Despite scenes like these, Frost may seem too purely pastoral for Hopper, and it’s true that most of Hopper’s paintings of houses or landscapes have their foregrounds starkly interrupted, crossed by un-pastoral railings, rods or railroad trains. It's a part of his estranging visual syntax, the way of making not just a divider but a divider precisely out of what might other wise function as a means of connection, that runs at a diagonal or at horizontal cross purposes to the scene. He’s the great painter of segments, like “Sections of Railway Track”. But his parts tend to remain segmented, sometimes forever severed. Well, to give you a feeling for the sense of mismatch and the unease that it provokes, I’m going to read a poem about a railway track by Elizabeth Bishop and it’s called “Chemin De Fer —Railway”. It’s not about the Hopper painting.
Alone on the railroad track
I walked with pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.
The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond
where the dirty old hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.
The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple
The pet hen went chook-chook.
"Love should be put into action!"
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.
So the poem strands us between that assertion of the need for love and it’s hollow, repeating “tried and tried to confirm it”, hollow like Dickinson’s scar of internal difference, where the meanings not only are but here accumulate as injuries. Here the meaning inhabits, if we can call it that, the impossible bypass of train track and cabin, as well as the echoing threshold and distance between isolation and lovelessness, something Hopper experienced quite deeply. “An echo tried and tried to confirm it”. Hopper’s visual equivalent of oral echoing, that phenomenon is beautiful demonstrated by this painting, “Gas”, from 1940. This filling station on an empty road, no car, only the solitary attendant putting the nozzle back into one of the pumps on it’s island after some car, perhaps the last for the night, has left. To stress the echoic device, I’ll read another Elizabeth Bishop poem which is actually called “Filling Station”. Again, she’s not writing of Hopper’s painting, though they were contemporaries. You’ll see his station is too clean. Hers is rather dirty, and hers includes a family. His is a mobile station, and hers crucially is an Esso station.
Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
This receding echoic device. Here’s the last stanza, and you can hear it in that “somebody”, beginning with the letters “so”, and somebody is “so” of course, and somebody again is “so”, and then you come to “ESSO—SO—SO—SO". “Somebody loves us all”; it’s a statement that’s hard to believe, and almost arbitrary wishful positing like a counter echo to the mere repetition of “ESSO—SO—SO--SO". But what if the aesthetic commitment in the poem to embroidery, to floral arrangement, even the arrangement of cans, what if these suggest something like love? What if that kind of aesthetic care reflects Hopper’s capacity or desire for a certain contact? The touch of the brush? The conferral of order, the care of it all, something tantamount to love however loveless the content. This is the later “Four Lane Road”. Like the visually echoic lights of “Gas”, here’s a similar track of receding lights in an equally famous painting. The paintings look so glorious the way they are disposed, there’s so much intelligence in their arrangement. Bu here is “Automat”, and you can imagine those receding lights up there echoing those of the “Gas”. But this is from 1927, and that multiplied ceiling lights receding in the glass reflection like a series of inverted hats without bodies. By this time, Automats restaurants were serving up to 10,000 people a day. You simply went in, there was no human exchange, you put in the coins, you got what you wanted. So this woman’s singularity is intensified not just by the huge plate glass wall behind her, but by her being one of what we assume to be 10,000 like her, and yet she is alone. Henry James wrote not only of plate glass but of what he called “merciless multiplication”. Think of Hopper’s hotel rooms, each guest about to be replaced by the next. But with “Automat”, I hear the last three lines of T.S. Eliot’s strange poem, very seldom read, from the same decade called “A Cooking Egg”. It’s set in England, where tea rooms called ABCs were amongst the first of these repeated multiple chain-like restaurants, in which individuality was so compromised by sheer multiplicity, and the last three lines read: “over buttered scones and crumpets, weeping, weeping multitudes droop in a hundred ABCs”. Robert Lowell has a poem which I won’t read, it’s called “Eating Out Alone”. But he does have a line, “the loneliness inside me is a place”. Instead, I’m going to read a piece of prose that I feel has great intimacy with this painting, again not aware of the painting, but it’s from Virginia Wolf’s novel The Waves of 1931, in which a protagonist sits alone in a public dining place. “I am alone now. That almost unknown person is gone to catch some train to take some cab to go to some place or person whom I do not know. The face looking at me has gone. The pressure is removed. Here are empty coffee cups. Here are chairs turned, but nobody sits on them. Here are empty tables and nobody anymore coming to dine at them tonight. Let me be alone. Let me cast and throw away this veil of being, this cloud that changes with the least breath, night and day, and all night and all day. While I sat here, I have been changing. I have watched the sky change. Now, I look at the changing no more. Now, no one sees me, and I change no more.” No one, that is, but you and I. I quoted Virginia Wolf’s friend T.S. Eliot a moment ago, and while posing for Jo, it might interest you to know that Hopper was reading Eliot’s essays. He often read when he was posing. He liked Eliot’s essays very much. You can imagine the resonance between Hoppers work and such ideas as the objective correlative, or impersonality, or tradition in the individual talent. They all seem right for him, not to mention the lines from the Waste Land: “Speak. Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” But I’m thinking of Eliot’s earlier “Preludes”. The essence of routinized urban solitude, the entrapment of transient lodges in furnished rooms. I’ll read just two painting like panels of this sectioned poem.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
Then this is panel three of “Preludes”.
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
There’s no shortage in Hopper of immobilized scenes of isolation, not just in states of exposure or undress. But there without regress, and now I’m going to break my rule about not reading poems that are in direct homage to Hopper by reading a poem that you might not yet know, because it was one of the very last poems before he died that Czeslaw Milosz wrote. It only appeared after his death in the translation by Robert Hass in Robert Hass’s latest book of poems. It’s called “A Hotel Room, 1931” and it’s a kind of direct homage to Hopper.
O what sadness unaware that it's sadness!
What despair that doesn't know it's despair!
A businesswoman, her unpacked suitcase on the floor, sits on a bed half undressed, in red underwear, her hairdo irreproachable; she has a piece of paper in her hand, probably with numbers.
Who are you? Nobody will l ask. She doesn't know either.
The second exception to my rule is another poem about the same painting, which you can actually find in that anthology I mentioned. It’s by Larry Levis. I won’t read the whole poem. Just the beginning and the end.
The young woman is just sitting on the bed,
Looking down. The room is so narrow she keeps
Her elbows tucked in, resting, on her bare thighs,
As if that could help.
And then Levis continues with a projected back story: the woman has come west to Kansas to put her mother in an insane asylum and to sell the family house. Maybe she’s looking at some piece of document that has to do with that. Then he turns to address the figure who began in the poem as a “she”, and has now become a “you”, almost like Eliot’s “you tossed a blanket from the bed”. Dress somehow charging, making implicit the distance, the in notability that servers us from the one that’s being address. Levis says, having speculated that she might move on to California:
But you never moved, never roused yourself
To go down Grain Street to the sobering station,
Never gazed out at the raw tracks, and waited
For the train that pushed its black smoke up
Into the sky like something important…
And now it is too late for you.
Now no one,
Turning his collar up against the cold
To walk past the first, full sunlight flooding
The white sides of houses, knows why
You’ve kept on sitting here for forty years—alone,
Almost left out of the picture, half undressed.
Hopper is a master of these scenes of particularly women in states of isolation, and the poet who most comes to mind as a correspondent voice for me is Randall Jarrell. I’m going to read his great poem called “Next Day”. In some ways I think this poem might be the center piece of what I’ll be presenting. It begins a woman shopping alone in a supermarket having to chose from rows and rows of identical brand name commodities — detergents, things like that — and the issue of identity is itself in jeopardy with sheer unexceptionally, ordinariness. Jarrell wrote the poem in very carefully rhymed 6 line stanzas. They’re slant shaped. The poem takes about four minutes to read, but they’ll be four of sort of Hopper minutes.
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.
When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
That the boy putting groceries in my car
See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile
Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind
Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water—
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,
My husband away at work—I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:
I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: “You’re old.” That’s all, I’m old.
And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her and I hear her telling me
How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
I can think of few painters so driven as well as so able to apprehend the jarring conflict this intolerable co-sensation, even within one person, of exceptionality on the one hand and the commonplace and solitary on the other. I could take a moment and refer to many other writers, prose writers included, and the poets with whom I think there are interesting affinities even though their verse might not be as a regularly formal as some of the poems I’ve quoted. I think of William Carlos Williams, “So much depends on the red wheelbarrow”, or his beautiful poem “Light in March”, or the objectivist Zukofsky, or George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and the original master of projective verse who is the fellow portraitist of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Charles Olsen. Among the prose writers, apart from Proust and others mentioned at the beginning, I’d stress again Henry James, not only for his novels but for that great work The American Scene. I’ll skip some marvelous quotes from that in order to move forward to this painting which is not exactly avoidable. It’s waiting for us all at the corner. Of course, he loved Dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser and Raymond Chandler and Phil Noire. We probably all remember Chandler’s Philip Marlowe saying, walking in to a coffee counter and saying “Give us two coffees, black, strong, made this year”. But the text that most haunts me behind this painting is a text that Hopper himself loved so much that he wrote a letter to the editor when he read it in 1927. It was Hemingway’s The Killers. I’m sure you’re all familiar with that story, but you might want to reread it not just for the content but for the style. It has Hopper’s flatness of tone, the abrupt formal structure with it’s intricate sentence by sentence checks and balances, it’s acts of looking at people who are themselves looking intently, who are waiting, who are trapped. This is Hemingway’s way of stylistically creating the kind of suspense and absolute impasse that one gets with Hopper. Notice the plate glass window again, doubling air excluded spectator hood while setting a maximum paradoxical stylistic transparency. That ordinary yet eerie exposed luminosity, corner within corner cast out into the night. All with this wedged construction of a literally tight set of corners from which there’s no escape. Instead of reading, since I think I’m going to move toward a close from The Killers, except perhaps this one sentence which suggests how aware Hemingway was of visual composition, he says, one of the killers speaks, “‘I can hear you alright’, Al says from the kitchen. He had propped open the slit that dishes pass through into the kitchen with a ketchup bottle. ‘Listen bright boy’ he said from the kitchen to George, ‘stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Max’. He was like a photographer, arranging for a group picture. ‘Talk to me bright boy’ Max said, ‘what do you think is going to happen?’ George did not say anything. ‘I’ll tell you’ Max said, ‘we’re going to kill a Swede’.” So, there’s this brief description of moving out to the outside, the arch light shown through the bare branches of tree. Nick, center of consciousness, “walked up the street beside the car tracks, turned at the next arch light down a side street. Three houses up the street was Hirsch’s rooming house. Nick walked up the two steps and pushed the bell. A woman came to the door. And of course he’s gone to warn the Swede who has catatonically given up, turned his face to the wall, absolute impasse. Nick walked back up the dark street to the corner under the arch light, and then along the car tracks to Henry’s eating house. George was inside, back of the counter”. Instead of ending with this dark note, I’m going to end with bright light of “Lighthouses”. I’ve got about five minutes here at most. I could quote Virginia Wolf again, her beautiful description of the lighthouse in her novel To The Lighthouse 1925, or even more that astonishing account in the middle of the novel Time Passes in which you have light moving through an empty room. Remember the Ramsey family has vacated their summer house for the duration of the first World War. The description of the light moving up the wall and stealing over everything is exceptionally Hopperesque. I’m going back to perhaps the poet of the evening, Elizabeth Bishop, and before I read the last ten lines of poetry for the night, I would like to notice that Hopper almost never paints -- and there's that beautiful room of his lighthouses — he never paints the beam at night. So it’s not the light cast by the lighthouse, but the light cast on the lighthouse. Some critics said that it was as if Hopper had to invent, as if they’d been invented by him, lighthouses. They seem to be so talismanic of him. Of course behind the sunlight, there's the light of painting itself, whether in water color or in oil, a light that is cast therefore from a different kind of lighthouse. The lighthouse of artistic making. Perhaps the only house or room that Hopper could truly inhabit. His many lighthouses may be metaphorical self portraits. Each one singular, tall, outpost resolute source who’s implied outward projections, like Hopper's creations, both luminous and yet warning, we can resist at the dry shoreline of every Hopper painting. here, there is always more to say. Something which keeps us coming back and back, back to our opening slant of light. But also which keeps us coming back to the poems and literature we love. As well as to a truly great world museum such as this one, a place of the muses. A place where we can look as if also to listen to something as yet incompletely remembered. Something that is forever about to be not only re-illuminated, but about to be said. I’ll close with these ten lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem called “Seascape”.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.
That was Peter Sacks speaking at the Art Institute of Chicago on March 13th, 2008, as part of American Perspectives, a collaboration of the Art Institute, the Chicago Symphony and The Poetry Foundation. You can read some of the poems Peter Sacks discussed by going to poetryfoundation.org. You’ll also find articles about poetry, reading guides, and other audio programs to download. This has been Poetry Lectures from poetryfoundation.org.