The narrator of “Yancey,” Ann Beattie’s story in our new Summer issue, is an aging poet; she tells of her encounter with an IRS agent who shows up to audit her. Toward the end, she recites a poem to him—James Wright’s famous “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.
As it turns out, that poem first appeared in The Paris Review; it was published some fifty-four years ago alongside his “How My Fever Left” in our Summer-Fall 1961 issue. Since then, that last line has inspired reams of analysis and debate—is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose “Archaic Torso of Apollo” concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”? Beattie’s IRS agent isn’t sure what to make of it:
“Is that really a poem?” he finally said.
“What else would it be?”
“I’ve never heard anything like that. The last line comes out of nowhere.”
“I don’t think so. He could have said that from the beginning, but he gave us the scene so that we’d be seduced, the way he’d been, and then he changed the game on us—on himself—at the last moment.”
“That’s the kind of guy who’d stick a pin in a balloon!” he said.
But David Mitchell, who keeps the poem above his desk and wrote about it last year for The Atlantic, begs to differ. Reading that last line, he hears the narrator “exhale it with a wry laugh”:
I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.
Thom Gunn took a dimmer view of it. “The final line is perhaps exciting because we are surprised to encounter something so different from the rest of the poem,” he wrote in The Yale Review in 1964, “but it is certainly meaningless. The more one searches for an explicit meaning in it, the vaguer it becomes. Other general statements of different import could well be substituted for it and the poem would neither gain nor lose strength.”
Two years later, Wright’s friend Robert Bly retorted: “It is clear Gunn does not understand the poem, or rather, it is not the poem he doesn’t understand but the emotion.” Gunn’s ego, he thinks, has erected too many compartments:
Other people, chaotic ones, may have wasted their lives, but not he. What prevents Gunn from understanding is his habit of discursive reasoning, his rationalism … In poems the deepest thoughts are often the most painful thoughts, and they come to consciousness only despite the rationalist road-blocks, by slipping past the defenses of the ego. In most men, the inner thoughts are never able to slip by these defenses of the ego. The ordinary mind has pickets everywhere, who make an impregnable ring.
But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:
here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.
I’m tempted, in a somewhat narrower vein, to read the line as a quip on poetry itself, a means of expanding the poem’s reach by subverting what I guess would have to be called its very poem-ness. In the latest LRB, Ben Lerner writes about the popular disdain for poems, and the surprising varieties of this disdain. “What if we dislike or despise or hate poems,” he asks, “because they are—every single one of them—failures?” He takes Marianne Moore’s self-abnegating “I, too, dislike it” as a starting point, but “I have wasted my life” could serve just as easily—as could Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” or any number of despondencies that have shrugged their way into verse. Citing the poet and critic Allen Grossman, Lerner notes that “the poem is always a record of failure”:
There’s an “undecidable conflict” between the poet’s desire to make an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, “resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed” … actual poems are foredoomed by a “bitter logic” that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity.
Some of that bitter logic infects Wright’s final line. Even if, as Mitchell writes, “the poem’s pastoral scene is timeless, universal,” one that carefully defies any attempt to date it, and even if its images are impeccably realized, the poem is still a limited thing, composed of the ungainly materials of language and so destined, as Lerner puts it, to be “compromised by the finitude of its terms.” The narrator, in his hammock, seems achingly aware of that: his attempt to transcend, to put a scene of plain timelessness into words, is, perforce, a miscarriage. Understandably, by the end he’s grown contemptuous, or at least weary, of the whole damn project. The best he can do, as Lerner writes, is to “clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.” And so—why not?—he sticks a pin into the balloon.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.