Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.
Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.
So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?
But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:
‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t 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 can’t win.’
Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:
‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’
The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:
‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.
For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.
We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’
For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.
Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts, photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.