Excerpted Criticism

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Sven Birkerts: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

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 enough—no 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 movement—the 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 influence—it 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 ends—and thereby emphasizes—the 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 sounds—by proxy, as it were. In fact, it is the open "-ween"—the chime sound—that 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 association—from 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 enough—how can droppings blaze up into stones?—to prompt a metaphoric secondary reading. The stones can be understood to be grave markers or memorials—the 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 first—and for the poem, necessary—step 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 paralleled—or initiated—a 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? . . .

Judy Norton: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

"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 world—yet 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 earth—behind 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 unconscious—transmute 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 unconscious—when "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, perplexed—that she should in any sense be at a loss to know where she belongs—is 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 lines—that 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 sunrise—make 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 ownership—of hammocks, of farms, of selves—is 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 ego—its 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 himself—to 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 orientation—if "quest," that is, is after all an appropriate metaphor for self-exploration. Wright's insight is the simple—almost banal—recognition 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 tail—for in reaching for one’s self, one can never grasp more than one is.

Kevin Stein: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

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 speaker’s 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 else’s 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."

Paul Breslin: On "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

… 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 year’s 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 year’s 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.

Alan Williamson: On "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

[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] Rimbaud’s "Song of the Highest Tower" ("J’ai 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] Rilke’s "Archaic Torso of Apollo" ("Du must dein Leben ändern"[German: "You must change your life"]), but there is reason in his error: Wright’s last line, like Rilke’s. 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 year’s), 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.

K.K. Ruthven: On Ezra Pound's "Fish and the Shadow"

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 my eyes.

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 . . .

Qu’ieu sui avinen,

Ieu lo sai."

She must speak of the time

Of Arnaut de Mareuil, I thought, "qu’ieu sui 

avinen."

Light as the shadow of the fish

That falls through the pale green water.

Notes. Qu’ieu 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

A. Elkins: On "St. Judas"

… Redemption is impossible in Wright’s world, "a world where God has ceased to exist," as [Jerome] Mazzaro characterizes it [in "Dark Water: James Wright’s Early Poetry" in the Centennial Review, 27:2 (1983), p. 143]. However, "consolation," again using Mazzaro’s term, is possible, and that in the figure of Judas. …

[The entire poem is quoted.]

Once again this day, Judas must decide between giving and withholding his love. Now the man who needs his help is a simple man like himself whose only power over Judas, unlike Christ’s or the Roman soldiers’, is his humanity, his human "suffering." Under these altered circumstances, when the one needing Judas is neither God or soldier, a man Judas neither loves, respects nor fears because of his power, he emerges from himself. Judas, "for nothing," for no promise of silver, security or heaven, holds, loves and comforts a fellow man for the sheer sake of that person’s suffering humanity. It is an act of true selfless compassion, a model for us all, "a good and humane action."

Judas emerges as the archetypal symbol of the isolated individual – the "I alone" – romantically defiant to the end, and, in Wright’s inverted theology, replaces Christ as our spiritual exemplar. Wright canonizes Judas, as Peter Stitt notes [in The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty (Athens, Georgia: U Georgia P, 19850, p. 169], "not because he has lived a pure life away from the harsh demands and temptations of reality, but because, like all men, he has redeemed his unspeakable act of human betrayal through an act of love. …Judas … is thus a kind of hero for Wright, representing the most that man can achieve (endurance and love) within the fallen world."

Robert Bly: On "St. Judas"

The poem is moving; at the same time it is clear it is not a good poem. The transformation of Judas from a criminal who did something despicable into a saint is too quickly done – it is as if a man were to claim he dug a hole for one day and immediately comes out on the other side of the earth. Kierkegaard and others have defended awareness of guilt as one of the most valuable sensitivities. To say, however, that taking acts which increase guilt is a way toward sainthood is to give impossible directions. The poem is really an attempt to bend together, with his imagination, two ends of an iron bar – Wright’s conviction that he is in some sense a criminal, and his conviction that he is somehow a man of good will.

Andrew Elkins: On "St. Judas"

… Redemption is impossible in Wright’s world, "a world where God has ceased to exist," as [Jerome] Mazzaro characterizes it [in "Dark Water: James Wright’s Early Poetry" in the Centennial Review, 27:2 (1983), p. 143]. However, "consolation," again using Mazzaro’s term, is possible, and that in the figure of Judas. …

[The entire poem is quoted.]

Once again this day, Judas must decide between giving and withholding his love. Now the man who needs his help is a simple man like himself whose only power over Judas, unlike Christ’s or the Roman soldiers’, is his humanity, his human "suffering." Under these altered circumstances, when the one needing Judas is neither God or soldier, a man Judas neither loves, respects nor fears because of his power, he emerges from himself. Judas, "for nothing," for no promise of silver, security or heaven, holds, loves and comforts a fellow man for the sheer sake of that person’s suffering humanity. It is an act of true selfless compassion, a model for us all, "a good and humane action."

Judas emerges as the archetypal symbol of the isolated individual – the "I alone" – romantically defiant to the end, and, in Wright’s inverted theology, replaces Christ as our spiritual exemplar. Wright canonizes Judas, as Peter Stitt notes [in The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty (Athens, Georgia: U Georgia P, 19850, p. 169], "not because he has lived a pure life away from the harsh demands and temptations of reality, but because, like all men, he has redeemed his unspeakable act of human betrayal through an act of love. …Judas … is thus a kind of hero for Wright, representing the most that man can achieve (endurance and love) within the fallen world."

Peter Stitt: On "St. Judas"

[Wright is answering a question about influences on his early work.] When I wrote [The Green Wall, 1957] I was twenty-seven years old. I could tell you the kind of thing I had in mind. I wrote a sonnet called "Saint Judas" and in that sonnet I was trying to do two things technically: to write a sonnet that would be a genuine Petrarchan sonnet and at the same time be a dramatic monologue. I got that idea from [Edwin Arlington] Robinson, who has a sonnet called "How Annandale Went Out." Do you know what went out means? Well, this is conventional hospital parlance for dying. So and so went out last night. Annandale is a character Robinson had written about before, but in this particular sonnet the doctor is speaking. And, as usual in a dramatic monologue, he is speaking to another person, so that what you are doing is overhearing a conversation in which one person speaks and the other is listening. The doctor was a friend pf George Annandale. George Annandale was an alcoholic who was suffering terribly with his death, and so the doctor gave him an injection. That’s what the word engine means in this poem. He gave him an injection which killed him; that is, he administered euthanasia. Then he gets drunk, and in the poem he is talking to another friend of George Annandale’s. What is he trying to do? And Robinson – great Robinson! -- leaves you hanging there saying, yes, what was he trying to do? Here is the sonnet:

"They called it Annandale – and I was there

To flourish, to find words and to attend:

Liar physician, hypocrite, and friend,

I watched him; and the sight was not so fair

As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:

An apparatus not for me to mend –

A wreck, with hell between him and the end,

Remained of Annandale; and I was there.

"I knew the ruin as I knew the man;

So put the two together, if you can,

Remembering the worst you know of me.

Now view yourself as I was, on the spot –"

With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?

Like this … You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not."

Then we have my poem on Judas, who is, I suppose, the ultimate lost betrayer. It is a – well, I wouldn’t call it a literal imitation of Robinson, but if I hadn’t read Robinson’s sonnets I know that I wouldn’t have tried to write that poem.

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