Oct 19, 2011

"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffys Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" by James Wright

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola
Here's a revised version of an earlier post about James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock."  Several works about fall, directly or indirectly, are just too good not to post twice, or more.

After I read the poem for the first time, I threw the book across the room and stayed away from Wright for over a year. How dare he spring that last line out of nowhere. Yes, a poem is a journey, a discovery, for the poet, or at least his speaker; but there's discovery and there's snake oil.

On the other hand, does that last line come out of nowhere?

Peer pressure—in the form of anthologies that insisted on including the poem—kept me going back to it. Finally, I used it in a class to see what would happen. Of course, some students are all too happy to hate any poem, especially work that seems dishonest, interested in tricking a reader or leaving him in the dust for no reason better than illustrating the poet's intellectual superiority.

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola

But soon enough students and I began to see the earlier lines more or less prepping for the final boom (or is it a thud? a whimper? a flash?).

“Lying in a Hammock . . . “ is now among my favorites, and in my most reckless moments of outrageous bravado, I exclaim that no work better illustrates the nature of epiphany. Take that, James Joyce.

My experience with "Lying in a Hammock" also illustrates a great line from E.M. Forester, who said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Near Jonesville, Michigan
When I risked sharing "Lying in a Hammock" with students before I was sure what I thought about it myself, I had to say things and let them say things that eventually led us as individuals and groups to what we thought about a significant poem with a compelling idea (or a few) at its core.

No, we did not all agree about every part or the whole; some conversations and some individuals were animated, yet we didn't kill each other and no one shouted, "You lie!" (I was glad I'd kept my book-throwing to myself).

Off Indiana Rt. 1, near Angola
Pedagogy: experiences like those class discussions amount to one more reason I blast off about rigid adherence to rigid lesson plans, which lead to rigid, stultifying classes, aimed at mere coverage, not inspiration, discovery, pleasure, or meaningful interaction with others. Clocks and calendars must bend; coverage has to happen, but we don't need to be its whipping boy. 

I propose that calendars and clocks and A.P. exams and admission to any of the several Harvards out there must take a back seat to the enjoyment of learning, which includes polite but frank discussion and debate, in which "You lie!" will usually be an unacceptable comment, and "Let me re-think that" or "Maybe I was wrong" are essential statements that every student and every teacher (and every Congressman) must learn to embrace.

I've probably already bitten off too much for one post, but let me add this link to a Warren Buffet idea about Congress, which connects to my point about honesty informed by civility:


Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation



Brenda's Arizona said...

I was worried about the last line. You had my senses in high gear, expecting a shot gun to come out and be used in an awful way.

Why does he give us that last line? Do you have a clue why? Why did you throw your book? Did it strike home or did you feel Wright had wasted a poem?
Inquiring minds want to know!

RuneE said...

I'm not one to comment too much on poetry, but that last line indicates to me an intended ironic twist - he wanted to waste his life in the hammock in the sense that there are other values than work, work work 24/7 (I hope you get my meaning, English is obviously not my native language).

As to teaching, schedules etc etc, I'm all with you.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda and RuneE, as foolish as it MAY have been for me to throw the book, my first response was to distrust the poem's honesty. Did the speaker REALLY feel that way, or was it just a very clever and seemingly deep thing to say? Even now, I'm not entirely sure my skepticism was wrong-headed. However . . .

RuneE, I think your take on irony is interesting and plausible. (Also, your English seems fine to me!). If that moment amounts to WASTING a life, then let's all get busy wasting ours.

To me, a more obvious irony is that all those pretty images and his ability to appreciate them only make him depressed.

HOWEVER, once I looked more closely, I saw that most or all of the images were double-edged: pretty, yes, but also lonely and/or passing, transient, suggestive of the mortality in the organic world. So he is wasting his life in at least a couple of ways--he is not completely at one with all that beauty and maybe peace in nature; BUT it's all passing, moving toward death, and so is he, so what's the point of seeing its glory? Or its loneliness? Or its decay? And in any case, what has he been doing with his life prior to this moment of awareness? He concludes he's been wasting it.

Does that make any sense?

The poem is, or demonstrates, an epiphany, which is (by definition?) an awakening, an Aha! moment, and those are not necessarily rational. The cause or stimulus for the epiphany might have little to do what's realized in--the content of--the epiphany itself. (Here, I think of James Joyce's famous story, "Araby," and others in Dubliners).

In that non-rational spirit, it seems to me that more than one "truth" might be present in the epiphany, and those multiple truths might not be mutually exclusive. Aren't we all both living and dying at any given moment?

So Wright's speaker might simultaneously be living his life to its fullest as he perceives all that imagery, and feels all that relaxation, but that simultaneously tells him how much of his life was NOT spent so fully, in such heightened awareness. And on top of that (to repeat) what's being perceived is both exquisite and dying.

Clear as mud, right? If I'm way off, I hope someone will say something.

somewords said...

Great, great poem. Against all the rules, I tend to place James Wright's narrators as Ohio natives. In this poem, then, the narrator might be visiting Minnesota, admiring the blazing poop, and wishing he had lived elsewhere. Unrequited geography.

I do really love how his eye roams across the scene. And he doesn't exert a muscle, or an assertion, until the last line when he drops the bomb.

Banjo52 said...

Somewords, well said, esp. "blazing poop" and "unrequited geography." Thanks.

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