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Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota -- James Wright

Guest poem sent in by Ron Pullins
(Poem #616) 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.
-- James Wright
When I was in college in the midwest, I was fortunate to stumble into a
course taught by a visiting professor, David Ignatow, who -- as a poet
himself -- felt the absence of recognition for those who were alive and
writing the best poetry there was. It was all too easy to read the dead
poets who had of course no way to contradict all the meaning we imputed to
them. Consequently we students were required to find and read deeply of a
living poet. I was fortunate to find James Wright, known but not widely
known at the time, hiding out as he was mostly in Minnesota.

Wright's poetry, like his life, always seemed to me to be ominously cast. He
always perceived the detail, and rejoiced in it, but the details also
carried -- as they do in this portrait of a lazy afternoon in a hammock in
Minnesota -- all the forebodings of death and decay. This poem in particular
leads to its devasting and quite unforgettable last line.

Yet what struck me most -- and maybe it was my youth that buoyed me so --
was the gloriousness of it. The poem is so strong up to that final line,
that how could you not be swept along to see that only in stopping, pausing,
wasting your life, could you be allowed to see the bronze butterfly, hear
the cowbells, yearn for home. In such a way Wright's poem, for me, became
this bittersweet but deeply felt affirmation for living, relishing that
short interval we have before we head back home.

- Ron Pulins


  James Wright

  James Arlington Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on December 13,
  1927. His father worked for fifty years at a glass factory, and his mother
  left school at fourteen to work in a laundry; neither attended school
  beyond the eighth grade. While in high school in 1943 Wright suffered a
  nervous breakdown and missed a year of school. When he graduated in 1946,
  a year late, he joined the army and was stationed in Japan during the
  American occupation. He then attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, and
  studied under John Crowe Ransom. He graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa
  in 1952, then married another Martins Ferry native, Liberty Kardules. The
  two traveled to Austria, where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, Wright studied
  the works of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. He
  returned to the U.S. and earned master's and doctoral degrees at the
  University of Washington, studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley
  Kunitz. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota, Macalester
  College, and New York City's Hunter College.

  The poverty and human suffering Wright witnessed as a child profoundly
  influenced his writing and he used his poetry as a mode to discuss his
  political and social concerns. He modeled his work after Thomas Hardy and
  Robert Frost, whose engagement with profound human issues and emotions he
  admired. The subjects of Wright's earlier books, The Green Wall (winner of
  the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1957) and Saint Judas (1959),
  include men and women who have lost love or have been marginalized from
  society for such reasons as poverty and sexual orientation, and they
  invite the reader to step in and experience the pain of their isolation.
  Wright possessed the ability to reinvent his writing style at will, moving
  easily from stage to stage. His earlier work adheres to conventional
  systems of meter and stanza, while his later work exhibits more open,
  looser forms, as with The Branch Will Not Break (1963). James Wright was
  elected a fellow of The Academy of American Poets in 1971, and the
  following year his Collected Poems received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
  He died in New York City in 1980.

        -- [broken link]

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