Tuesday, May 15, 2012

`And Lives Go On'

According to my fallible memory, Donald Justice never wrote about Edward Hopper but his poems are suffused with Hopper’s mood of quiet melancholy and solitude even in company. With Walker Evans and Sherwood Anderson, they form a quartet of twentieth-century American artists who gave form to an indelibly American loneliness that shares little with the stylized alienation of the existentialists or the bittersweet comedy of Chekhov. Justice published “Bus Stop” in Night Light (1967), a title Hopper might have used:

“Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
Resembling ours.

“The quiet lives
That follow us—
These lives we lead
But do not own—

“Stand in the rain
So quietly
When we are gone,
So quietly . . .

“And the last bus
Comes letting dark
Umbrellas out—
Black flowers, black flowers.

“And lives go on.
And lives go on
Like sudden lights
At street corners

“Or like the lights
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,
Burning, burning.”

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.”]


Gary, now in Kenya said...

I like the way you have been weaving Wilbur, Justice and Hecht into your blog entries from time to time. They seem to have been the Big 3 in the past generation of American poets, each different. I'm glad that we still have Wilbur with us, as you pointed out not long ago.

Helen Pinkerton said...

Your link to the Hopper painting "Hotel Room" (1931) sent me to a poem by Diane Bonds on it published in Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of First Things" (2010), In a review of the anthology I noted that Bonds develops in her poem a theory that "any woman reading / is an annunciation." Alluding to Vermeer's "Girl Reading at an Open Window, (1659), she surmises that "Vermeer knew this: / reading is parthenogenetic, magic / doubling of the self fertilized by words." She cites details in his paintiing that support a comparison of Hopper's scene to the iconography of Annunciation scenes in art, concluding: "consider whom / she resembles most: Mary clinging to her book / as she withholds her gaze from Gabriel." I thought Bonds's interpretation interesting, but I questioned the truth that reading words "doubles the self"? Isn't reading rather an opening of the self to the experience of other selves--an addition of difference not a doubling of the self? And wasn't the meaning of the Annunciation paintings that show Mary closing her book or turning from it that she is acknowledging and accepting the angel's infusion
of grace?

Any way, the Hopper painting is a haunting one.