Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia
The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design.—Edward Hopper
When we look at visual art, we can readily see the interplay of form and content, but it may be less easy to see that interplay in literature. We learn to identify poetic devices and listen for rhyme, but we don’t always explore how those elements shape meaning. This lesson begins by encouraging students to observe how certain basic formal elements in the visual arts help a painter to represent a complex emotional response to the subject. The lesson then parallels this artistic analysis with literary analysis, foregrounding for students that writers also use form to shape their content with devices such as diction, metaphor, repetition, and imagery that magnify certain moments, for example, by framing them in a jarring metaphor or echoing them in a rhyme.
This lesson invites a comparative close reading of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s ekphrastic poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” to explore how form affects content. (An ekphrastic poem comments or reflects upon paintings or other pieces of visual art.) Throughout the lesson, students learn to use formal description to provide textual support for their analyses. The summative assessment asks them to demonstrate their comprehension in a final pastiche in which they analyze and imitate Hirsch’s poetic technique in their own creative writing.
Critics tend to note that Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” (1925) offer two views of a particular time and place in American history: the tail end of the main industrial movement 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 and compelled the abandonment of others. What for some was progress was for others decline. Both works address additional subjects, including the role and impact of the artist.
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.
Edward Hirsch (b. 1950) is a contemporary poet known for his advocacy of poetry (and his bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry). He 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 and bibliographical information on Hirsch, as well as samples of his prose and poetry and a recording of him reciting his poem,“The Widening Sky,” is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website (where you can also access his brief essay “How to Read a Poem”). More information and more links to Hirsch and his poetry can also be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation website.
Hirsch’s poem belongs to the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, which the Academy of American Poets defines as poetry that “confronts” art. The Academy offers a brief history of ekphrastic poetry here.
Some familiarity with the essential formal elements of art and their contributions to meaning will be helpful. The “Basic Elements of Art” handout offers students the vocabulary they need for this lesson, and the “Looking Closely” graphic organizer can help guide the process from description to analysis. Read more about how to do a formal analysis of painting on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary provides basic poetic terms and devices. The poem invites the reader to “listen” for elements such as rhyme, repetition, euphony, and cacophony; and asks the reader to “see,” by focusing on diction (particularly connotation), metaphor (including personification and simile), and imagery. Here, the Worksheet 3: Reading Closely graphic organizer helps the transition from description to analysis. Keep in mind that there are no hard rules about the impact of these elements on a painting’s or a poem’s content; the trick is always to ask: to what effect?
With some classes, it might be better to terminate the lesson with the assessment at the end of the third activity. The summative lesson assessment would be especially useful with honors advanced placement classes.
Have students engage in detailed description of a painting to facilitate supported artistic analysis. Students will cite strong and thorough evidence to support analysis of what the painting conveys explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the painting.
Exit ticket: Ask students to complete the following (if they can, with an example of their own rather than from class discussion): “Hopper uses [choose a formal element] in relation to [choose an object] to produce [describe an effect].” If there’s time, ask for a few of these statements.
Have students engage in detailed description of the poem, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" (1925) to facilitate supported literary analysis. They will analyze the meanings of words and phrases as they are used in the poem including figurative and connotative meanings to uncover the cumulative impact of Hirsch’s specific word choices on meaning and tone in the poem.
Perform an analysis of Hirsch’s poem as you did with Hopper’s painting. In the same way students were allowed time to look at the painting, have a few students to read the poem aloud and give them a few extra minutes to read it to themselves. (A sample approach follows, keeping in mind that this is not meant to be the final word.)
Exit ticket: Ask students to complete the following (ideally with examples of their own, rather than from class discussion): “Hirsch used [choose a device] in relation to [choose a subject] to produce [describe an effect].” As above, if there’s time, let them do a few of these.
Activities 1 and 2 involved an analysis of the representation of House by the Railroad in two different artistic mediums, painting and poetry. That analysis included having students identify what was emphasized or absent in each treatment.
In this Activity, students are now ready to synthesize their new knowledge and skills by articulating their evolving comprehension of the painting and poem.
Come back together to discuss class-wide what the effects of the artists' uses of these elements of art and poetry have on their responses to the subjects of the painting and poem they identified earlier.
Guiding questions for discussion should include:
Exit ticket: Ask students to write a paragraph that provides an answer in their own words to one of the guiding questions above. Remind them that they must refer to the sources to support their answers and be persuasive.
Students write an explicated pastiche—i.e., a poem or prose passage that utilizes some of Hirsch’s formal techniques to comment on another painting. To clarify, explain that a pastiche is a piece of writing or other kind of work that includes both others’ thoughts and original ideas. (EDSITEment-reviewed American Academy of Poets offers a number of examples of ekphrastic poetry here: Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art.) Their work should be in two parts:
Share Worksheet 4: Explicated Pastiche Rubric with students before they embark on their writing. If there’s time for them to go through drafts, let them use the rubric to self- or peer-critique and guide revision.
3 class periods