“Lights are burningIn quiet rooms
Where lives go on
“The quiet livesThat follow us—
These lives we lead
But do not own—
“Stand in the rainSo quietly
When we are gone,
So quietly . . .
“And the last busComes letting dark
Black flowers, black flowers.
“And lives go on.And lives go on
Like sudden lights
At street corners
“Or like the lightsIn quiet rooms
Left on for hours,
Now look at Hotel Room (1931) and Room in New York (1932). Hopper often paints people reading, the most benignly solitary of occupations. Both paintings glow with yellows and reds, and neither is funereal though the latter is framed in black. Neither scene is heightened for gothic effect. The sense of sadness and solitude is not melodramatic but familiar and almost comforting, something all of us know. As Justice writes: “And lives go on.”
In a 1983 essay about the poem, “`Bus Stop’: Or Fear and Loneliness on Potrero Hill” (Platonic Scripts, 1984), Justice recalls the time in 1964 when he and his wife rented a house in San Francisco. Among the poems he wrote around the same time and which, he says, “share the same moods,” is “Poem to Be Read at 3 a.m.” Much of the essay recounts the technical challenge Justice set for himself in the poem – “the possibility of keeping the number of accents and the number of syllables the same from line to line, but without letting them fall together into the regular foot-patterns, iambs and the like, too often and too familiarly.” It’s revealing of Justice’s manner that he treats the poem as a formal challenge, a sort of puzzle to be solved, in a poem that evokes such strong emotions. Hopper was similarly formal-minded. On the view of Oakland from the back porch, Justice writes:
“It was an exemplary view, but in a dark mood it could leave you feeling remote and isolated. We seemed to be perched insecurely on the top of an unfamiliar new world, teetering on the continent’s very edge.”
Edward Hopper, born in 1882, died on this date forty-five years ago.
[Later, in a 1980 interview included in Platonic Scripts, I found a revealing mention of Hopper by Justice. The interviewers ask about the influence of William Carlos Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) on his Walker Evans poem, and Justice replies: “I once tried writing a series of poems on Hopper paintings and they sounded like Williams’ Brueghel poems, but defective somehow.”]