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.
Forms and Devices
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 afternoon.” Wright lets the metonymy of “cowbells” stand for the cattle...
(The entire section is 940 words.)