One poem I've never managed to persuade my wife to like is James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota'. Our point of contention is not the twelve lines describing what the poet sees from that hammock: a bronze butterfly asleep on a black trunk, a field of sunlight between two pines, a chicken hawk floating over, looking for home. It is the concluding sentence, 'I have wasted my life.' Now I don't really feel that this is true of myself, but that doesn't mean the thought doesn't occasionally occur, particularly when I'm alone in a landscape. It is an inversion of Rilke's rousing final sentence in 'Archaic Torso of Apollo': 'you must change your life' (Rimbaud is another possible source). James Wright said to David Smith, 'I think that the poem is a description of a mood and this kind of poem is the kind of poem that has been written for thousands of years by the Chinese poets ... It is not surrealistic. I said, at the end of that poem, "I have wasted my life" because it was what I happened to feel at that moment and as part of the mood I had while lying in the hammock. This poem made English critics angry. I have never understood what would have so infuriated them. They could say the poem was limp or that it did not have enough intellectual content. I can see that. But I hope that it did not pretend to. It just said, I am lying here in this hammock and this and that is happening.'
This poem appeared in Wright's 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break, named after a line in 'Two Hangovers' in which he emerges from sleep to laugh at a blue jay springing up and down, up and down, on a branch in a pine tree. In 'A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place' Wright says he wants to 'renounce the blindness of magazines' and 'lie down under a tree'. In 'Today I Was Happy So I Made This Poem' he finds solace in the permanence of the moon. 'Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me' finds him closing his eyes to listen to the sound of a cricket in the maple trees. And in the anthology favourite 'A Blessing', the sight and feel of two horses in a field just off the highway make him realise 'that if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom.' However, that branch can sometimes seem fragile and Wright also describes his darker moods in poems like 'I Was Afraid of Dying', 'In the Cold House' and 'A Dream of Burial'. The book opens with Wright thinking of Po Chü-i, the great Chinese poet 'uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-tze', and of the tall rocks of Minneapolis building 'my own black twilight.' Where, he asks 'is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing / But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.'