James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

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.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?


Now back to Dickens.








Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]


OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.