On "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"
[Gunn notes that the poem has excited attention among British and American critics who have cited it and then stated that they have "been rendered speechless by the newness of what they quote." Gunn then cites the entire poem, but continues.]
First, maybe, one should discuss the question of newness, which I certainly dont consider much of a virtue in itself. The technique in this poem is not really very new; Kenneth Rexroth has been using it for years with great accomplishment, and the critics so impressed with the novelty of Wrights work should take a look at Rexroths selected poems, Natural Numbers, just issued by New Directions, and in particular at a poem like "The Great Nebula of Andromeda." In any case, though the poets of The Sixties [a semi-annual edited by Robert Bly that polemicized for a free verse of "deep imagery" that touched emotions beyond the rational mind] are very sensitive to the accusation of Imagism and rebut it with great heat, there is a clear similarity between the early practice of Pound and their tender descriptions of blades of grass, etc. Pound claimed that the image "presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." This, I imagine, is the only conceivable justification for a poem like the above, from which the operation of the discursive reason is deliberately excluded. Even the feeling of inexplicability is similar to the feeling of some of Pounds poems, for example "Fish and the Shadow" [see below for "Fish and the Shadow"].
We are presented in Wrights poem with several images which are actually distinct, though they are loosely connected by situation, followed by a general observation that may well have occurred to the poet after he had perceived the images, but is for us connected with them by neither logic nor association. There is a form of juxtaposition here in which neither image nor general statement gains much from each other. We may imagine a connection between the two, or a contrast, if we wish, but it is entirely up to us, since neither connection nor contrast is present in the poem, and what we imagine is going to be arbitrary. The poem, therefore, must depend on the strength of the expression in the isolated parts. The bronze butterfly is maybe a bit pretentious (Wright, like Bly, is fond of metals and jewels), the image of the cowbells is admirably plain, and the image of the droppings is remarkably vivid and very beautiful in itself. The two following images also succeed very well in isolation. The final line is perhaps exciting because we are surprised to encounter something so different from the rest of the poem, but it is certainly meaningless. The more one searches for an explicit meaning in it, the vaguer it becomes. Other general statements of different import could well be substituted for it and the poem would neither gain nor lose strength.
[H]is so emphasizing one aspect of the poem the image has led to a weakening of all the other elements. The canceling out of interest in morality has led to a kind of dilettantism of attitude that he shares with [Robert] Bly, in their preoccupation with the results of fantasy, dreaming, laziness, etc. [The Branch Will Not Break] seems to me, whatever its virtues, a lightweight compared with his two others.
from Thom Gunn, "Modes of Control," a review of The Branch Will Not Break in The Yale Review (1964), rep. in Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, eds. James Wright: The Heart of the Light (Ann Arbor, U Michigan P, 1990), p. 160
"Fish and the Shadow"
[collected in Lustra (1915)]
The salmon-trout drifts in the stream,
The soul of the salmon-trout floats over the stream
Like a little wafer of light.
The salmon moves in the sun-shot, bright shallow sea . . . .
As light as the shadow of the fish that falls
through the water,
She came into the large room by the stair,
Yawning a little she came with sleep still upon her.
"I am just from bed. The sleep is still in
Come. I have had a long dream."
And I: "That wood?
And two springs have passed us."
"Not so far, no, not so far now,
There is a place but no one else knows it
A field in a valley . . .
Quieu sui avinen,
Ieu lo sai."
She must speak of the time
Of Arnaut de Mareuil, I thought, "quieu sui avinen."
Light as the shadow of the fish
That falls through the pale green water.
Notes. Quieu sui avinen, / Ieu lo sai: "That I am handsome, / I know" (Provencal French).
Arnaut de Mareuil, a medieval troubador, described himself as "handsome" ("avinen"). "The shadow is possibly the memory of an earlier life, a memory stirred only in dreams. In her sleep a girl has experienced an incident which took place in medieval Provence," explains K. K. Ruthven in A Guide to Ezra Pounds Personae (1926) (Berkeley: U California P, 1969), p. 69.
[pseudonym of Robert Bly]
[Bly cites the entire poem.] The mind here seems unnaturally, preternaturally, wake. It sees everything in delicate detail. The cowbells are like magic caravans, the dung of horses blazes up like alchemical stones. The poet leans back, goes deeper into himself. A glimpse of a chicken hawk reminds him that he has found nothing in his life to be sure of, that he has arrived nowhere, that he is still floating. The question the poem never asks directly is this: how is it possible for there to be so many spiritual emblems, signs, reminders of the path, everywhere, and yet for the man who sees them to have gotten nowhere, to have achieved none of the spiritual tasks that those emblems suggest?
It is clear Gunn does not understand the poem, or rather, it is not the poem he doesnt understand but the emotion. He cant bring himself to understand how an intelligent man would have such an emotion. After all, too, Gunn is an educated man; he has trained his intelligence; other people, chaotic ones, may have wasted their lives, but not he. What prevents Gunn from understanding is his habit of discursive reasoning, his rationalism. In poems the deepest thoughts are often the most painful thoughts, and they come to consciousness only despite the rationalist road-blocks, by slipping past the defenses of the ego. In most men, the inner thoughts are never able to slip by these defenses of the ego. The ordinary mind has pickets everywhere, who make an impregnable ring.
From Crunk [pseudonym of Robert Bly], "The Work of James Wright," originally published in The Sixties no, 8 (1966), rep. in Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982), pp. 90-91.
Henricksen: I wanted to ask you about one specific poem that you read the other night You talked about the final line, "I have wasted my life," as being, perhaps, a realization that more time ought to be spent lying in a hammock, as I remember.
Wright: Yes, I think that I didnt realize it at the moment, but looking back on that poem I think that final line "I have wasted my life" is a religious statement, that is to say, here I am and Im not straining myself and yet Im happy at this moment, and perhaps Ive been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I havent allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, "I have wasted my life." Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You cant win.
from Bruce Henricksen, "Poetry Must Think" (an interview with James Wright published in 1978), rep. in Annie Wright, ed. James Wright: Collected Prose (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1983), p. 184
Smith: When people speak of the change in your poems after your first two books they speak of the surrealism and often refer to "Lying in a Hammock " as not untypical of your change. You have said of this poem: "All I did was describe what I felt and what I saw, lying on the hammock. Shouldnt this be enough? But no, theres your American every time, goddamnit, somebodys got to draw a moral." Would you comment further?
Wright: Well, I think that the poem is a description of a mood and this kind of poem is the kind of poem that has been written for thousands of years by the Chinese poets. I cant read Chinese but I certainly can read Soames Jennings and Robert Paine and Witter Bynner and Arthur Wailey [these are all translators of Chinese poetry]. And that poem, although I hope it is a description of my mood as I lay in that hammock, is clearly an imitation of that Chinese manner. It is not surrealistic. Is aid, at the end of that poem, "I have wasted my life" because it was what I happened to feel at that moment and as part of the mood I had while lying in the hammock. This poem made English critics angry. I have never understood what would have so infuriated them. They could say the poem was limp or that it did not have enough intellectual content. I can see that. But I hope that it did not pretend to. It just said, I am lying here in this hammock and this and that is happening.
American critics think that last line is a moral, that it is a comment which says I have wasted my life by writing iambics, or that I have wasted my life by lying in the hammock. Actually, behind everything in my general thoughts and feelings was the idea that one of the worst things in American life is waste. I think that our tendency to waste is a truly dreadful one. I have told my students that one of the most horrifying things to me is to stand, being my age, and look at a class of nineteen- and twenty-year old people who are trying to read a passage of, say, Milton or Shakespeare and to see their faces saying it is a waste of time. They dont see how precious their lives are.
from Dave Smith, "James Wright: The Pure, Clear Word, an Interview" rep. from American Poetry Review (1980) in Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982), p. 29.
[Williamson cites the entire poem.] The relation of the "I" to this poem of almost pure sensation is self-evidently problematic: two quite impersoanl occurrences, followed by a statement so deep as to seem nearly universal all the more so, perhaps, because it is a quotation from another poem [Arthur] Rimbauds "Song of the Highest Tower" ("Jai perdu ma vie" [French: "I have lost my life"}). The critic A. Poulin [in Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1975), p. 464] has misidentified the source of as the last line of [Rainer Maria] Rilkes "Archaic Torso of Apollo" ("Du must dein Leben šndern"[German: "You must change your life"]), but there is reason in his error: Wrights last line, like Rilkes. forces the reader to go back and relive the previous, the apparently objective, part of the poem in order to come to terms with it.
The image of the horse droppings offers a far more complicated, but still serene, sense of temporal process one involving continuity ("last years), transmutation into mineral permanence ("golden stones") but also beautiful consumption ("Blaze up"). Insofar as one can paraphrase at all, the poem sees in a process even a decay that is continually productive of new beauty, the kind of visionary perfection we habitually associate with permanence alone. I suspect a Freudian undercurrent, too, in the fact that such an important position in the poem is given to dung; Wright could hardly help being aware of the theories which associate our early feelings about our own feces with the development of the categories so crucial to our sense of being a part, or not apart, of the physical world of subject and object, beauty and ugliness, saving and losing.
It is the evening and the chicken hawk that toll Wright back to his sole self. The verb "floats," with its strong sense of indefinite location in time and space, itself contrasts strongly with the harmonious centrality of everything else in the poem; then, we are told that the hawk is "looking for home." But the hawk, presumably, will find its home easily (perhaps this is why "floats" suggests buoyancy, as well as indefiniteness); whereas the human consciousness the hawk brings to mind can know the feeling of being fully at home in the physical world, fully alive, only at such brief and special moments as the poem records. Such moments seem possible, too, only when the human world is remote; the house in the poem is empty. Thus, it is the very specialness of the moment that gives birth to the sense of a surrounding waste.
from Alan Williamson, "Language Against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (Chapter 4) in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard U P, 1984), pp. 70-71
The horse droppings are changed from dung to "golden stones" by the natural alchemy of sunlight, much as the butterfly turned to "bronze." The mention of "Last years horses" gently disturbs the illusion of temporal suspension, but time remains a benign force; it has taken away the odor of the horse droppings, cleansing them of their rankness and preparing them for their transformation into "golden stones."
It is the last line of "Lying in a Hammock " that everyone remembers, but a close look at the two lines preceding it reveals that Wright very skillfully turns the poem toward its ending; the last line has a subtle but convincing connection with them: [Breslin cites the last three lines of the poem]. As if prompted by the reminder of time in the words "last years horses," the poet notices that the day approaches its end. He is finished looking about a leans back, passively waiting for the evening, which quite actively "darkens and comes on." With the arrival of the chicken hawk, "looking for home," the poet realizes that he too must go home; it is time to rise from the hammock and return to the "empty house." It is this impending return that prompts him to compare reality as seen from the hammock with the quotidian reality awaiting him in the house. After his experience of solitary plenitude, his usual pursuits seem a waste of time; the hammock seems more truly "home" than the house does.
from Paul Breslin, "Ohio and the Collective Unconscious: The Dilemma of James Wright" (chapter 8) in The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1987), p. 171
In "Lying in a Hammock" every pronoun (until the final one) emphasizes not the seer but the object seen. For example, the physical beauty of the sleeping butterfly is no less important than the human act of seeing it; natural beauty and the perception of beauty are equals.
The speakers attention to the seemingly spiritual orderliness of the natural world brings him, then, to a discomfiting realization. The butterfly which seems made of precious bronze and the horse droppings which "blaze up like golden stones" appear capable of marvelous transformations that elude the speaqker. Unlike the hawk "looking for home" (not "a home," but simply "home," implying one exists), the speaker has no emotionally secure center, only a swinging hammock at someone elses farm. In the face of such natural almost spiritual order, the speaker journeys to what [Robert} Bly calls a "wounded area" [in "The Work of James Wright"]. In a world of apparent order and meaning, a speaker who feels bereft of both could painfully conclude, "I have wasted my life."
From Kevin Stein, "A Poetics of Vulnerability: The Branch Will Not Break" (Chapter 4) in James Wright, The Poetry of a Grown Man: Constancy and Transition in the Work of James Wright (Athens, Ohio: Ohio I P, 1989), p. 56.
"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" is Wright's most brilliant dramatization of Narcissus sous rature; that is, of the achievement of an integrated self at the moment of recognition that to conceive of the self as a proprietary form is a costly mistake. It immediately (and significantly) follows Wright's critique of heroism, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" in Collected Poems. . . .
"Over my head" I see the butterfly, its metallic character recalling Yeats's emblem of high art. But while Yeats's golden "artifice of eternity" sings, its song a monument "of its own magnificence," Wright's butterfly is silent and asleep, dead to the worldyet unself-consciously alive and participating in the constant vitality of being in a way that no monument can. "Blowing like a leaf in green shadow," the butterfly, beautiful and ephemeral, has no more stability or durability than a leaf. Yet it blows in "green shadow." Life may be short, but it is cyclic; and here, death itself is already green, suggesting the rich regenerative potency of nature and the unconscious.
Descending through a "ravine"a breach in the sphericity of the earthbehind an empty structure, some metonymic bells "follow one another / Into" spatio-temporal oblivion ("the distances of the afternoon"). "To my right," in a field of light between two emblems of psychic growth, "The droppings of last year's horses"the coeliac effusions of the individual unconscioustransmute themselves into "golden stones." These elemental refinements, hardly the work of Grecian goldsmiths, forge themselves only when the ego-consciousness lets go its obsessions with control and freely acknowledges the primordial, and feculent, contents of the unconsciouswhen "artifice" gives way to "eternity," so to speak. When these contents are duly recognized, accomodated and integrated, they take on new value.
I "lean back" toward darkness (as in "Beginning") as it "comes on." "A chicken hawk floats over"but here a studiedly false note is struck. The hawk is not "looking for home" any more than are the "cowbells" or "last year's horses." That this hawk-eyed predator should be drifting, perplexedthat she should in any sense be at a loss to know where she belongsis a pure projection on the part of a speaker who has experienced his own life as precisely such a dubious peregrination. The final line is the speaker's expression of the wordless recognition that takes place between the final two linesthat the hawk is fully at home in hir floating, and that the speaker has himself been always at home, even as he sought some purely illusory Byzantium.
Consistent with Frobenius's myth, a bird helps the "hero"here at sundown rather than sunrisemake an intuitive jointure of conscious and unconscious as he (the unheroic speaker) "floats over" the earth, suspended "between " two trees. He can now join the people of the house, the cows, the horses (none of which appear in the poem) and the butterfly (absent in another sense) as conditional beings who, strictly considered, are always elsewhere, always outside, always exceeding the names within which language seeks to enclose them.
The immemorial anxiety of the prophet is that "I have wasted my life": that I have not prophesied, that I have prophesied and not been heard, that I have prophesied falsely. Jonah fails to prophesy for fear that his speech will be in vain, until his night sea journey returns him to his calling. The poet's anxiety is analogous: that his speech/writing will go unheard, or that his poetry is somehow false. There is an implication here that Wright himself, to the extent that his early attention ran toward singing artifacts, too much in the mold of modernist sages, has prophesied falsely. But the poet stands at one remove from the speaker of his poem, and here the echo of regret for the poet's false prophecy is more than compensated for by the exhilaration, relief, serenity, and strength that come to the speaker from the certain knowledge that he is where he has so desperately striven to be, a place where ownershipof hammocks, of farms, of selvesis no longer an issue. The metaphoric transmutation of ordure into gold, then, is not, as R. J . Spendal argues, "false alchemy"for the "waste" of a life is ultimately the invaluable ground of its (re)generation. Without the fertile dirt of the unconscious, no breaking "into blossom" can take place.
* * *
The name is the home of the egoits property, its investment, from which the Other must be safely distanced. Narcissus's compulsion to secure himself within his own embrace is a wish to call his reflected image into synonymity with himselfto name himself as his own property, in other words. His wish is doomed to perpetual, and ironic, frustration by the very pureness of the exclusivity within which that image is constituted. In "Lying," Wright's speaker is at last able to lean back and look up from that spurious image; and when he does, the being in being that he has pursued with such misguided intensity becomes effortlessly his. Now, like the hawk, he can be both homeless and at peace, knowing nothing of property, knowing nothing of far and near.
In a certain sense, the closing line of "Lying" is quite obviously a lie, and is content to be so: a particular life, after all, can only be considered to have been wasted if life in the abstract is conceived as properly possessing a teleological orientationif "quest," that is, is after all an appropriate metaphor for self-exploration. Wright's insight is the simplealmost banalrecognition that being is becoming, that the self can never be reduced to an autograph, or essential nomination, which can then be assigned the timeless efficacy of scripture.
As in the case of Snyder's ta-chang-fu, then, the true hero is s/he who is acute enough to recognize the circularity of quests: the grail is a ghost story, one motivated more by fear than desire. When the fear is resolved, through bold spiritual action, the ghosts are exorcised along with it. Wright's speakers come to see that to conceive of oneself as fully knowable, fully present to oneself or as oneself, is to exist under an illusion; and that to quest after such a miraculous individuality is merely to chase one's tailfor in reaching for ones self, one can never grasp more than one is.
from Judy Norton, Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Poetry. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Associated University Presses, Inc.
We might begin by remarking the title, which is, at first sight, so long and unwieldy. Why didn't Wright just call his poem "Hammock," or "Lying in a Hammock"? Does it matter to us that the hammock was hung at William Duffy's farm, or that the farm was in Pine Island, Minnesota? No. We can only suppose that if the location does not matter to us, it did to the poet. And if we then suppose that the last line was hammered out in full seriousness (to decide otherwise is to render the poem irrelevant), then the titling confirms us. The precise location is given not to inform, but to memorialize a place and a time. The title is raised over the body of the poem like a marking stone: The scene that is described and enacted has assumed a great importance in the poet's life. . . .
On the surface of it, [the] first three lines are straightforward enoughno oblique meanings or gnarled syntactic patches. The speaking voice has established a calm, descriptive tone. Repose is implicit, not least for the psychological reason that one does not remark details like the blowing of a butterfly when one is agitated or upset. A clear picture begins to emerge. Indeed it is as though we were watching a painter at work. "Over my head"the vertical axis is drawn; "the bronze butterfly" dabs in the first color, which, with the wide brushstroke of "black trunk" in the next line, is brightened by contrast. Nor is it only a contrast of colors; fragility and massive solidity are immediately put into opposition. "Green shadow" then softens the contrast of bronze and black through chromatic mediation. What's more, it brings dimension in, reminds us that we are not, in fact, looking at a simplified color composition. And as the impression of environment begins to take hold, we realize that it is by way of word-by-word widening of focus: A single butterfly is on a black trunk; the black trunk is bathed in green shadow. . . .
Color and scale apart, there are a few vital, though in some cases subliminal, linguistic effects to note. First, Wright is using the definite article, "the"not "a"with the butterfly. What we expect to, and perhaps do, read is the latter. The distinction seems minor, but it is not. With the definite article, as with the specificity of the title, the poet is preparing us for the "moment of truth." By saying "the," he has excerpted the moment of observation from temporal flow; he has weighted it. It is "the bronze butterfly" rather than "a bronze butterfly" because the perception represents the first step in what will be an unspoken internal movementthe beginning of a psychic dilation that will culminate in the words "I have wasted my life."
There are other details. For instance, the mimetic rightness of both the sound and positioning of "Asleep." "A-sleep" sketches in the ear the motion of a butterfly closing its wings. In addition, the sound of the word both suggests the whispery fragility of the insect and carries the hint of something sealed. The sticky / sound distinctly echoes its function in a word like "cling," where it contributes the phonic sense of adhesiveness. This is not arbitrary: The tongue has to adhere briefly to the roof of the mouth in order to make the sound.
So, we have the bronze butterfly asleep on the "black trunk." The latter is solidified by its strong double stress. (We may remark, too, a neighborly nod to Pound's famous "wet black bough.") Resting against that trunk, its wings closed, sealed, the butterfly not only blows like a leaf, it looks like one. That might be obvious. Less obvious is the back-and-forth motion that is set up by the reversed accents of "Asleep" ( ) and "Blowing" ( ); the rhythmic pacing tells us that there is the merest hint of a breeze. Last, we cannot ignore the heraldic significance of the butterfly. The poem is, after all, the record of an existential transformation. How natural that the glance should be arrested first by those folded bronze wings.
[Birkerts compares Wright's phrase "green shadow with Andrew Marvell's "green shade."]
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
Observe how the stress distribution in "Down the ravine" . . . neatly enacts the descending movement while the even, plodding iambs of the next line . . . give us the frank, four-footed progress of the cows. "Into the distances of the afternoon" . . . , with its long stretch of unaccented syllables, rounds out the effect. The cows have gradually wandered out of hearing; a long time has passed. A subtle play of stresses has done the work of condensing time. The march of iambs in the second line disintegrates in the third-just as clear sounds are broken up by distance. A half hour, maybe more, has elapsed. Our vestigial nature clock, activated by rhythm, tells us that. The condensation is further secured by the combined metonymy/synesthesia: Cowbells are made to stand for cows, and the cowbell sounds are transposed from the auditory into the spatial sequence. The result is an almost imperceptible blurring of the space/time distinction and an enhancement of the subjective sense of reverie. . . . it feels as though we are taking forever to get through the syllables. "Down the ravine"the two stresses . . . crowd us with the impressions of slow, laboring animal life. We read through the whole next line under this retarding influenceit is stress-enforced. But as we work through "Into the distances of the afternoon," we are conscious of a sudden rhythmic liberation. "In-"changes the pitch. The heaviness is turned into lightness and transparency, the plodding sensations are undone, rendered into the abstraction of "distances." Eighteen words, but the psychic shift we go through is considerable. It contributes to our feeling that time has elapsed.
We are six lines into the poem and we have come to a lull. The music is diminuendo. Rhythmic liberation notwithstanding, we are conscious of a waning, a tapering-off that threatens to bear the contemplative voice into the realm of Morpheus. "Into the distances of the afternoon" has entirely attenuated the rhythmic tension. But just as we are about to join the speaker for a nap in the hammock, the poem jerks us back:
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
Three rapid-fire syllables ring out against the long pauses of the preceding line. The speaker has roused himself, and us, into a renewed, and changed, attentiveness. The switch endsand thereby emphasizesthe lull that went before.
The sounds and stresses in the second line work topographically: The long open vowel of "field" is phonically wedged between the two t soundsby proxy, as it were. In fact, it is the open "-ween"the chime soundthat is wedged, but we automatically transfer the pictorial effect. We see the brightness of the field framed by the two pines. The shady darkness of the point of vantage is conveyed by implied contrast.
The quick succession of stresses in "last year's horses" has a double function. On the one hand, it hints at the dropping action of a horse; on the other, it tenses the ear to receive the full magnificence of "blaze," that brassy yellow verb. Note, though, that Wright does not speak of last year's droppings, but "last year's horses." The emphasis shift is almost inconspicuous. But it tells us a great deal about the subliminal activity of the speaker. It tells us, for one thing, that he is preoccupied with change and irrevocability. His perception is the result of an instant inner associationfrom the sight of the droppings, to the recognition that they are old, to a summoning-up of horses that, in Heraclitean flux, are no longer the same. Implicit, of course, is the awareness that he is no longer the same either. In this light, "Blaze up into golden stones" carries an interesting double sense. Literally, it presents the gleaming of sunlight on dung. But the usage of "stones" is just curious enoughhow can droppings blaze up into stones?to prompt a metaphoric secondary reading. The stones can be understood to be grave markers or memorialsthe glowing dung is all that remains to remind us of the horses as they were last year. We can more or less chart the unconscious drift of the reverie.
"Blaze up into golden stones" signals a surge of the psyche. It is the first direct metaphoric transformation in the poem and it has several effects. First, it introduces new energies and reorganizes the circuits. Until now the procedure has been one of notation. A change in linguistic pattern marks a change in the speaker: He has moved from passivity to activity; he is, imaginatively, at least, exerting himself upon his surroundings. Not dramatically, it's true, but the change of state is indicated. By shaking himself out of the self-containment of disinterested observation, he has taken the firstand for the poem, necessarystep toward self-assessment.
But there is an even more obvious function to the phrase. The metaphor, coupled with the directional "To my right" recalls the "I" to the reader and reminds him that the outward notations of the, preceding lines have perhaps paralleledor initiateda psychic progression in the speaker. And, indeed, the "It" is now ready to claim the stage:
I lean back, as evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
There is a steady escalation of momentum in these final lines. The caesura moves from initial to medial, tightening the tension. At the same time, we feel a vertical impetus; literally, through the placement of a hawk, and phonically, through the release from the slow, drawn-out vowels of "evening darkens and comes on." We are still on an upward cant when the horizontal punch is delivered: "I have wasted my life." . . .
What, finally, is the sense of the poem? How are we to understand the shock of the last line? Is it intended to be a surprise slap, or has the poem been subtly tending toward that moment? . . .
Excerpted from a longer essay in "James Wright's 'Hammock': A Sounding," in The Electric Life: Essays on Modern poetry. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Return to James Wright