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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

  1. I thought at once of T S Eliot’s “Alfred Prufrock” and “measuring out my life with coffee spoons.” That is, the same regrets but in a rural setting as opposed to Eliot’s urban one. Here in America, we still idealize places like Minnesota but one hundred years ago–and, yes, it has really been that long–writers like Sinclair Lewis were exploring misspent or wasted lives in the same region

    • Thanks for that, Howard. Oddly enough I nearly mentioned the coffee spoons quotation in my piece – I can see the connection as you suggest. But Prufrock arrives at that conclusion as a result of most of what’s gone before in the poem – and presumably the mermaids he hears singing were at the seaside, away from the city (unless they swam up the Thames! JW’s closing line comes out of the blue. Thanks too for the insight into rural Minnesota. I’ve yet to read Sinclair Lewis.

  2. I think he use the definite article to denote the things that are always there, unchanging. But the indefinite article signals something remote and far away that only passes by occasionally or perhaps even just once, on its way to do something purposeful.
    And in rejoinder: William Henry Davies
    “What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare”.

    • Lisa: that makes sense, especially as the hawk is so remote. Maybe, if we accept the suggestion by Davies, that last line is just ironic: spending time lying (not standing) staring is enriching, but some would say it’s a waste of time, unproductive

  3. Wasting one’s life. What a very occidental phrase. In North Africa there is nothing wrong about sitting and looking about, observing life for hours. Why do we, western people, want to live dazzling lives ?

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