Closer Readings Commentary

Visual Literacy for ELA: House by the Railroad ~ A Painting and Poem

The arts have a central and essential role in achieving the finest aspects of the common core…The great news is that the standards call on so many things the arts do well. The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards. —David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, Americans for the Arts

EDSITEment has heard and answered this clarion call for the visual arts to be integrated into English Language Arts via College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Our newest CCSS lesson application, House by the Railroad: Painting and Poem for the Common Core, invites a comparative close reading of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” to explore how form affects content in both painting and poem.

These two views tell the story of a particular time and place in American history: the tail end of the industrial revolution in the United States, when the traffic of industry aggressively reconfigured the American landscape. Even as that traffic brought work and culture to some parts of the country, it ravished others and compelled their abandonment. What for some was progress was for others decline. Both works address additional subjects, including the role and impact of the artist.

The Painter

The American landscape painter, Edward Hopper’s (1882–1967) approach is consistent with his classification as a realist painter of modern American life in the early to mid-20th century. His subjects include street corners, theaters, and gas stations—wherever common Americans lived out their lives—as well as land- and seascapes. Desolation is a common theme identified by critics, but so are intimacy and human sensuality. On the Picturing America website, go to the English language Resource Book (Image 16a) for basic biographical and contextual information about Hopper and House by the Railroad.

The Poet

Edward Hirsch (b. 1950) is a contemporary poet known for his advocacy of poetry who writes in a range of genres and addresses many themes, making him difficult to classify; he has published free verse and formal odes; and his primary preoccupations include emotional life, history, politics, and most recently, “the divine.” Biographical information is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website (where you can also access his brief essay “How to Read a Poem”). His “House by the Railroad” poem belongs to the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, which the Academy of American Poets defines as poetry that “confronts” art.

Common Core Applications

Activity 1 engages students in detailed description of a painting to facilitate supported artistic analysis. Using the Worksheet 1: Basic Elements of Art handout and the Worksheet 2: Looking Closely graphic organizer to begin looking closely at the artist’s use of his medium. Students should build or add to their list in the first column of the graphic organizer and then, in the third column, note everything they can about line, form, space, color, shape, and contrast, eventually sharing out their observations with the rest of the class. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Activity 2 uses the Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizer to capture a detailed description of the poem, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" (1925). Figurative and connotative meanings are carefully considered in order to uncover the cumulative impact of Hirsch’s specific word choices on meaning and tone in the poem. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Guiding questions in Activity 3 form the basis for a cumulative discussion on how the painter and poet treat their subjects differently. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

Such a media-rich lesson connecting visual images to poetic ones will imprint students and stay with them long after the signal to move on to another subject. More information on the American painter Edward Hopper can be found at the MoMA website. Additional background on Edward Hirsch and his poetry can also be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation website.