Poetry Review: “Lying in a Hammock” by James Wright

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.”  ~Soren Kierkegaard


"Lake Superior Cairn" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Lake Superior Cairn” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

When I read James Wright, Kierkegaard’s quote comes quickly to mind. I can think of few poets whose suffering is as palpable and language as beautiful as his. He is the archetype of the suffering artist.

As a poet, Wright was an innovator and counter-cultural. By  ”counter-cutural,” I mean he wrote a kind of poetry that rancounter to the kind of poetry that was most in fashion with his generation… and his generation of critics. All poets suffer, the overlooked poet only suffers more.

Wright spent much time in the North Country and many of his best poems, like this one, center on either the urban bleakness of the Twin Cites or the rich beauty of the Minnesota countryside. One of his gifts was to the ability to see and write about both.

On a bleak, November morning in the North Country. James Wright seems like just the thing.



Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minn
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.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life


As I have written a number of times before at MontanaWriter, James Wright writes some of the mostluminous lines I know. The first lines of this poem, and of these lines I have highlighted, are an example of this.

Wright seems to be coming into fashion. In the 30-plus years since his death, it seems to me that I have seen his name mentioned more and more often by poets and critics. The weight of his work will insure that his poetry will never be forgotten. In time, I suspect his fame will eclipse that of many of those were much more celebrated and famous during his lifetime. At least it most certainly should.


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