I first met Joseph Stanton in the Conference Rooms at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in October of 2004 during a series of discussions related to both the fine and liberal arts.[i] Speaking as both a poet and art historian, Stanton approached Edward Hopper’s work from a critical point of view, while not forgetting the narrative lyricism contained therein.
Stanton’s collection of poems titled “Imaginary Museum” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition. He has created a museum of sorts that includes several ‘wings’ housing the various collections. Both, Eastern and Western cultures, as well as references to Pieter Brueghel and Edward Hopper are featured amongst the galleries of this museum.
Approaching a City
“The way into the city is a darkness
that opens to a shadowed underground.
There are thoughts we approach but do not express.
With so much ahead we try to think of less,
knowing how clocks will turn us round and round.
The way into the city is a darkness
that remembers what we cannot confess:
that shadows shape what our lives have found.
A thought we can approach but not express
suggests that the future must be a guess –
a lie we must pass through or go around.
Yet the city’s inclination to darkness
should come as no surprise and no distress.
The light that strikes against wall and ground
is a thought we approach without express
prospects for joy or grief or tenderness,
keeping in mind the sky’s pale-blue surround.
There is no way into the city’s darkness,
which we have approached but not expressed.”[ii]
There are many examples of ekphrastic writing that are inspired by, but not necessarily literal descriptions of works of art. For example, many works by Agnes Martin have inspired writers over the years, however this is in a very general sense, and often not related to any one specific work. On the other hand, Edward Hopper’s painting of the “Nighthawks” has been the source for a great deal of writing, very specifically. So, I recently asked Joseph Stanton about this and about his personal writing process. Here is his reply:
“To answer your question, I focus very intensely on specific artworks, but I do not force myself to write about them in any particular way. Often I spend many months looking at reproductions of artworks to which I would like to respond without writing much of anything. Also, because I teach art history, I live with my thoughts about the artworks in multiple ways. My procedure in such a case is to read and/or reread everything I can find about the artworks and the artist . . . . Sometimes I come up with a poem, sometimes I don’t . . . . Most of the research of course does not end up in the poem; sometimes none of it does . . . . The excesses that do not end up in poems or articles are enrichments to my teaching. In my role as an art historian, no amount of information or reflection on artworks is wasted. It is all grist for the mill.”[iii]
New York Corner
“This saloon faces
a murderous expanse
Above and below are selections from the Hopper Collection of the Imaginary Museum. We will be saving the “Night Hawks” and “The House by the Railroad Tracks” amongst others for later installments. These current examples are indeed a set of whispers, less popular works perhaps, but clearly ones where the voices of both the poet and the painter are coming into focus.
“A drugstore window
jarred red light and blue
islanded in the silent street –
one war ahead, one war behind.”[v]
Rooms for Tourists
all we need to know about
cozy, bright rooms is
that we have been
Cape Cod Evening
“The moment’s center
sees a dog poised in tall grass,
ears tuned to autumn’s
stiff breeze: he sniffs bitter air
as if it were just weather.”[vii]
“The sadness of horizon
is a matter of perspective,
the point being the vanishing
where lines converge
only because we see them to.
That vision is delusion
saves us from nothing.
conceals a truth:
though there is no point
we will all vanish anyway.”[viii]
[i] The Eighteenth Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, sponsored by the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York. The topic of Stanton’s paper was “Retrospection on a Gallery of Hopper Poems” and looked especially at Hopper’s paintings as narratives. 20-22 October 2004.
[ii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 93.
[iii] Stanton, Joseph; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail communication with this writer on 27 November 2018.
[iv] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 94.
[v] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 97.
[vi] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 107.
[vii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 109.
[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 110.