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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gatsby, Boswell & Johnson, Hemingway

We’re going to see the new Baz Luhrman film ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight (there’s a Guardian review of its opening screening at Cannes here, so finding myself in Waterstone’s this morning (I believe they’ve dropped the apostrophe, but never mind) I thought I’d buy another copy of the Fitzgerald novel, having lost, lent or mislaid my own some years ago; must be fifteen years or more since I read it, so it’s time for a revisit.  On display was a range of editions: the Penguin Modern Classics edition looked good, with fairly useful notes and a pleasant cover; then I noticed a bright paperback by Alma Classics (who have the uplifting motto on their website ‘clari in tenebris’; they announced on Tues. I think that they’d won the Booksellers Independent Publishers of the year award); they publish some out-of-the-way and non-mainstream literary work and I thought deserved preference, especially as the store had put one of those ‘buy one get one half-price’ stickers on the front – which also has an attractive design and nice old-fashioned folded-in covers (there must be a technical trade name for this: sort of like the dust jacket tuck of a hardback).  This posed a new selection problem: what to buy as a second book?  The contenders narrowed down to three: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (a fictional account of Hemingway’s life in 20s Paris with his then wife, Hadley Richardson, and of their crumbling marriage) – there’s an interview with her by Random House here; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which we saw a couple of weeks ago at the cinema, and quite enjoyed (but too ambitiously long, perhaps); and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident – review of the hardback edition in the Guardian last year here.  I ruled out the last one because I’m just finishing Javier Marias’s Dance and Dream, vol. 2 of his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy, which although compelling and beautifully written is quite a challenge stylistically, structurally and in terms of content, and it moves at a glacial pace; will post more on him another time.  I thought one novel-film hookup was enough, so opted for the McClain, also on the basis that it looks to be a fairly light, not too demanding read – ideal for the long train journey I undertake next week to travel up-country to visit friends and go to see Colm Toibin talk about opera at a King’s College, London symposium on 22 May in their The Joy of Influence symposium (curated by Andrew O’Hagan), one of three such events on the theme of writers discussing other media of artistic inspiration – they all look intriguing: Sarah Hall on painting and Alan Warner on pop; apart from the Johnson-Boswell event noted below, there are others on Marx and one on ‘Literary Identities’.  Pity I shan’t be able to make it to them all.

Finally for today, I’m going to crave your indulgence as I experiment with something new: I’m attempting to embed a tweet about the 250th anniversary of the first meeting (in London) of Dr Johnson and the young Scotsman who became his close friend and biographer, James Boswell.  The TLS article from which it derives (ie the tweet; sorry about the tortuous syntax here – been reading too much Marias) points out, with an illustrative photo of John Sessions in period dress, that those literary heroes at King’s College, London are also behind an event today in their ‘Telling Lives’ series about this literary pair.  So here goes: let’s try to embed this tweet.  Apologies if goes pear-shaped…

http://t.co/renqCTY8rA

Hmm.  Don’t think that’s worked out as I anticipated.  Must try again, perhaps; fail better…But maybe it’ll be ok