“I vant to be alone,” my mother used to say distractedly, channeling Greta Garbo, when my brother and I were wrecking havoc at home. In fact, though Garbo’s character said the line in the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Garbo herself never said it. What she said, when faced with a scrum of journalists at a press conference a few years later, was “I want to be let alone.”
But in our culture, the distinction between the two statements has been conflated. For us, “I vant to be alone” means I want to be off the grid, no iPhone, no email, the 24-7 connectivity of our lot. I want to be let alone to be alone. No wonder that, to a writer—to readers, to all overwhelmed people now—solitude suggests not loneliness but serenity, that kissing cousin of sanity. We speak of being alone to recharge our batteries—even in our reach for solitude, we seem unable to unplug from the metaphor of our connectivity.
Yet here’s the greater paradox: writing, though performed alone, is also the only absolutely declarative, meaning-beset art form we have. Its purpose is to communicate. With others. More than a painter, much more than a composer, a writer can never “be alone.”
We are crowded on all sides with words—in emails, text messages, news stories, late-night conversations. It is why people will blithely say to a writer who has spent six or eight years sweating out a work of fiction, You know, if I had the time, I’d write a novel too. Not something a music lover is likely to tell a composer: If I had the time, I’d write a symphony. We know we all own language, this habit of naming, expressing, connecting the narrative dots.
“Yes,” Samuel Beckett, Mr. Minimal, said of his work, “in my life, since we must call it so, there were three things, the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of.”
“My life, since we must call it so.” Beckett would really rather not have his three attributes gathered into anything as repellently autobiographical as “my life.” Yet there it is—a writer is composed, perhaps in equal parts, of silence, articulation, and isolation. That’s the job. That’s the life. Communicating with others from within the solitude of the mind.
The longing for solitude is a deeply romantic passion. But then writing is a romantic thing to do, predicated on desire, urgency, and an ideal of human relation, rarely available in what we wistfully call real life. Maybe especially when we are not living alone, when our circumstances deny privacy, when we are swept up by the demands of family or a job—whatever it is that outlaws solitude—perhaps it is especially then that we are most in love with what solitude seems to provide, what it promises. It promises freedom.
I find myself back again with the first contemporary poem I loved, a poem whose simplicity overwhelmed me—still overwhelms me. It’s the first poem I taught to a group of students, when I was hardly older than they, in my hot little miniskirt and Frye boots, at the University of Iowa in 1968. I have never stopped loving this poem, but I may only have just begun to understand it. Maybe.
It’s a simple poem. I have it by heart, as the phrase goes: James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” which was originally published in The Paris Review’s Summer-Fall 1961 issue.
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 like 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.
That’s it. That’s all. That’s the poem that has beguiled and vexed me all these years. It was only many years after my first reading that I discovered Wright’s startling final line—“I have wasted my life”—was an homage to Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Rilke’s poem is also built as a description—in his case of a fragment of a Greek statue. It ends, similarly, with a final line that seems to have no logical or even associative connection with the preceding description. Rilke’s is the stern “You must change your life.” Wright knew Rilke’s poem in the original German. He must have been dazzled by it.
When, much later, I discovered the Rilke poem, it seemed to me that it had been influenced by Wright, not the other way around. Wright’s poem had riveted me, describing a landscape I knew intimately, the landscape of my flyover state, a town barely an hour from my hometown. Just to see its name in a book of poetry thrilled me. Pine Island! In a poem! And then, years later, driving my husband, who was then in his final illness, going past Pine Island time and again on the freeway to the Mayo Clinic, that Lourdes we visited so faithfully, for a while a place of miracles.
In my early readings, I thought the final line was a statement of defeat. Brave, if sad. I imagined the defeat was that he was just describing a butterfly, a wizened horse turd, a this, a that. I thought he was ashamed of his aimlessness and that he was valiantly articulating his failure.
Some years later, when I read it again in the ambition of my own first poems, I decided that it wasn’t a poem of failure. “I have wasted my life” is a cry of triumph—I’m lying here in this hammock doing nothing, and ha ha on you out there working your lives away. I thought he was thumbing his arty nose at all the worker bees out there, that he was proudly claiming to be a free spirit who doesn’t labor. He was a vainglorious lily of the field. I have the nerve to waste my life.
Much later still, very much later, with various betrayals and deaths and my own failures behind me and yet also, as ever, before me, I realized that Wright was attesting to failure, but a very different failure than I had understood as a young poet.
Here’s how I’ve come to understand this apparently simple poem (as if I can trust this to be my final take on it): Lying in the hammock, the poet is alone, empty-minded. That is, he is living in solitude, the solitude of his mind. The world in its homely detail—sleeping butterfly, horse droppings—enters this solitude that is his consciousness. He realizes this has never happened to him before—he has never truly seen the world, its reality and detail. He is stunned to realize this. He has wasted his life precisely because he sees he has not wasted his life enough. Or really at all until this moment. That was his mistake. He has not failed.
He was acknowledging the waste of his life—that is, of his mind. But not for the reason I had thought. Rather, that final line—“I have wasted my life”—is suffused with wonder, the wonder of revelation that his experience in the hammock has given him. He is finally wasting his life. It’s a conversion moment, I suppose. Not a smug ha ha but an exultant aha!
He sees that this emptiness of self—this alone—is what makes a life worth living, a life worth writing. He has been rinsed of ambition, of pride in himself, rinsed of shame over his failures, emptied of his grudges. He has even let go of time, of history—the sources of regret. When that sweet pain does leave you, when you are free, then only the realization remains. It happened, and it, not your ego, is your true self. Alone, outside time but paradoxically within the moment.
There he is, the poet suspended in that most ephemeral piece of furniture, the hammock, swinging there in the eternity of the moment, and he is empty of himself at last. That’s when the whole world surges in.
It’s wildly ordinary, this moment of horse dung and cowbells. And yet it’s beautiful. My husband offered me this thought, in his last intelligence on the subject of the life of the mind, the two of us in the kitchen his final week, he frail but still fierce, watching me in dismay as I went about my manic multitasking to-do list life. He was holding the warm coffee mug I had handed him and said oddly, apropos of nothing (I thought), “You must always keep a part of your mind separate.” Said this to the back of my head as I rushed around the room, taken up with tasks. Something essential had been said—that I understood. And later I reclaimed it like a lost jewel, held now to consider as I sat alone in that same kitchen: the poet’s mind must be separate. It’s a mind that achieves my mother’s desire—“I vant to be alone.” But to be alone in this way is not to be insular but to open finally, fully to the in-rushing reality of the world.
Patricia Hampl is the author, most recently, of The Art of the Wasted Day.