James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a free-verse lyric of only thirteen lines, yet it manages to encapsulate many of the concerns and tactics of much longer poems in both the British and American traditions. On one hand, the poem has a commonplace matter-of-factness that can be taken at face value with no further exploration necessary. On the other hand, the poem moves with the sparse intensity of a haiku through a subtle but limited accumulation of imagery.
As he unfolds the poem, the poet positions himself in a hammock, not at a desk, which might seem more conducive for writing, lazing away a late summer afternoon. The utterance of the poem is one with the moment in the hammock. Many poets have used the device of positioning themselves in the natural world as if to suggest that the poet is “writing to the moment,” that is, that the poet in this case is writing the poem in the hammock at William Duffy’s farm in Minnesota. Thomas Gray, the eighteenth century British poet, used the same device, as suggested by his title “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Other poems by Wright that suggest a particular positioning of the poet are “As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor” and “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me.” To heighten the effect of positioning, there are rarely past participles or past-tense verbs in such titles.
It was William Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800) that moved the whole notion of poetry away from product, as words written on paper, to process, as “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotionsrecollected in tranquility.” Wright’s tranquil moment in a hammock, however, requires no recollection. Unlike William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” this poem appears to be a moment experienced more than a moment remembered. The poem unfolds a series of epiphanies as the poet observes the world from his hammock on a summer day.
Just as Thomas Gray chose the close of day for his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Wright chooses a moment “as the evening darkens and comes on.” Whereas Gray met a droning beetle as he was walking in the Stoke Poges churchyard, Wright, suspended in a hammock between heaven and earth, says, “Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,/ Asleep on the black trunk.” The assumption that butterflies can sleep is a bit of poetic license, even a bit of personification.
The alliteration of “bronze butterflyblack branch” serves to tie the opening imagery together in a very pleasant way. Just as Gray’s droning beetle has been overanalyzed into a portent of death, a deathwatch beetle, so Wright’s butterfly is likely to be overanalyzed for its symbolism of metamorphosis and immortality. It is enough to accept the butterfly for exactly what it is, nothing more, and to take delight in its “Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.” Initially, what the poet sees is significant. Wordsworth called sight “the most despotic of the senses” because it controls so much of poetry. Indeed, for someone to say “I see” is to say “I comprehend.”
Very quickly, Wright varies his imagery, his deep sensory experiences. Next, through his sense of hearing, the poet becomes aware that “Down the ravine behind the empty house,/ The cowbells follow one another/ Into the distances of the...
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afternoon.” Wright lets the metonymy of “cowbells” stand for the cattle plodding in a line; he knows cows habitually “follow one another.” Comfortable in his hammock, the poet can hear and imaginatively see without even turning his head.
When the poet does choose to look, “To [his] right,/ In a field of sunlight between two pines,/ The droppings of last year’s horses/ Blaze up into golden stones.” Through a certain slant of light, framed by “two pines,” piles of dried dung become precious and valuable. The poet suggests that such metaphors lie all around. If people would just look, or wait patiently for the propitious angle of light, or just be lucky to be in a hammock at the right time and place, they would see them. Wordsworth declared that it is the poet’s job to direct readers so that they discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. Line by line, Wright fulfills his role as seer, one who understands.
Because the poem is so bound up in imagery of the natural world, the reader may forget that a poem is a “made thing,” in itself quite unnatural. Wright may be telling a lie, for in a sense every poem is a lie. After all, he says he is “lying in a hammock.” The poet is totally in control of what is made. If he says the butterfly sleeps, it sleeps. If he says cowbells ring in the distance, they ring. If he says horse dung becomes golden stones, then it must be so. Whatever world the poet, the maker, sings into being is the only world there is for the space of a few lines.
Dougherty, David. James Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Dougherty, David. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Roberson, William. James Wright: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Smith, Dave. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Stein, Kevin. James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.