Self-Quarantine Poem Number One: Walt Whitman’s Hammock on Pine Island

April 7, 2020

Self-Quarantine Poem Number One: Walt Whitman’s Hammock on Pine Island

At some point in the past quarter century, I acquired a used copy of the second edition of THE DISCOVERY OF POETRY by Frances Mayes (Harcourt College Publishers). According to a handwritten note on the inside of the front cover, it was previously owned by Caryn Bergquist, who had locker #193. Otherwise, I have no details on its provenance.

Frances Mayes (born 1940) earned her M.A. at San Francisco State University and taught there for at least two decades. She has had over a half-dozen books of poems published and has primarily focused on fiction and non-fiction in the past quarter-century. I gather from her website that she prospered considerably. Among her best-selling books is an account of restoring a farm in Tuscany, Italy. I wonder if she has a hammock there and ever thinks about the poem she led off Chapter 10 of THE DISCOVERY OF POETRY, James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock….” In reading this reprinting of the poem, which was followed by a piece of student commentary, I realized that I had never taught the poem, and I began making notes on it, and today I will share some of them. In “survey of poetry” courses, I usually focus on Wright’s “A Blessing” and “Autumn Begins…”

At a moment in which we’re all instructed to “self-quarantine” as much as possible, Wright’s poem is exemplary. There doesn’t seem to be a person within a mile of his hammock. Not that there were a lot of people on Pine Island in 1960 to interrupt Wright’s idyll. Its total population back then was about 1300 in a little less than six square miles.

Wright doesn’t say what kind of farm William Duffy operates. In fact, we don’t learn much more about Duffy other than his house is empty. Perhaps the family has gone away for a day to visit relatives; or perhaps he is a bachelor and has no family. One might think it is a dairy, but the cows that are alluded to could just as well be part of a contiguous farm. The ravine could form the boundary line between Duffy’s farm and his neighbor. Perhaps the key implicit image is one of friendship. Wright might be alone, but he is at rest in saturated acceptance. He is not there as an employee, nor has he been asked to help out during some crisis. He is not needed by William Duffy to do anything but be there and enjoy a respite from his ordinary tasks.

If Wright is by himself, and quite content in being so, Wright’s poem has plenty of company. About six pages after reprinting Wright’s poem, Mayes quotes Robert Frost about noticing the presence of others in the poem: “A poem is best read in the light of all other poems ever written.” Our personal comparative search engines don’t have to work very Long, however, to come up with obvious matches: If any American poem is present in Wright’s brief free verse lyric, it is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which contributes both an opening motif and closing trope. If Whitman has fulfilled his promise to stop somewhere, it is at William Duffy’s farm.

“I lean and loafe…” says Whitman, and Wright’s title indicates he has renewed his subscription to the Quarterly Journal of Imaginative Dalliance. Nor is the narrator the only one at rest or balanced without seeming effort. The poem opens with a butterfly in repose, and by the end of its quick local survey (cows and horses) circles back to another air-borne creature, a hawk, which also happens to be the final animal in “Song of Myself” (“A spotted hawk swoops by…). In contrast, Wright’s hawk “floats,” even as the speaker does. One could say that the extension of the titular image is implicit. The thermal is a hammock, in which the hawk rests, both at ease in the instant but engaged with the outer world. “I think I could turn and live with animals,” Whitman says, and Wright in his hammock savors self-acceptance as no more or less a part of this domain than any other inhabitant.

If Wright’s poem is an instance of transcendental satori, it also reveals the brushstrokes of other poets. The “green shadow” in which the butterfly is compared to a leaf is an obvious steal from Andrew Marvell (“annihilating all that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade”); and the “off-screen” image of the cows has strong echoes of the kind of sentence that William Wordsworth might have found, and appropriated, in the journals of his sister, Dorothy.

The last line of the poem is the one that has provoked the most commentary in the decades since it first appeared in the Paris Review (Spring-Summer, 1961). In addition to Wright’s own understanding of the poem as a conversion narrative, I myself have come to regard the moment as a counterfactual framing; there is a hidden “if” before the poem’s final sentence. “*(If) I have wasted my life, it was for this moment — and it is worth it,” is Wright’s assessment. “Yes, I could have been the go-getter who became rich and famous, but instead I have lived in a manner that has given this extraordinary, other-worldly equilibrium: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…..’ ”

Indeed, Wright is already, in this moment, in one of the mansions of heaven.

Acknowledging the transformative aspects at work in the poem should not completely distract us from being aware of the specificity of the poem’s details. “The bronze butterfly” is not a case of Wright playing at the coloring book of nature and deciding that he will use the bronze crayon. It is “lycaena hyllus,” which you can find described on Wikipedia. The pines are not meant to be generic either. Most likely, it is an Eastern white pine.

Finally, I would urge readers to revise the poem for themselves. Type out a copy in which any use of the first person pronoun is eliminated from the poem until the final line. Focus entirely on the images. The only hint of a subjective viewpoint would be the initial word: “Overhead,….” This would suggest that an individual is speaking and has started to report on their surroundings by pointing upwards. After that first eidetic note, let the “self” vanish from the poem until its wry, final declaration of independence from the foolishness of self-imposition.

I have typed out such a version, but would probably be infringing on copyright if I were to include it in this post. I will mention, however, that my version divides the poem up into three-line stanzas, which only goes to show that my presumptuousness will never cease to leave me abashed.

I am equally abashed to admit that as much as I enjoy Wright’s poem and look forward to reading it many times, I am even more of a fan of James Schuyler’s “Korean Mums,” and if you don’t know that poem, you owe to itself to become familiar.