Thom Gunn: On "Lying in a hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

[Gunn notes that the poem has excited attention among British and American critics who have cited it and then stated that they have "been rendered speechless by the newness of what they quote." Gunn then cites the entire poem, but continues.]

First, maybe, one should discuss the question of newness, which I certainly don’t consider much of a virtue in itself. The technique in this poem is not really very new; Kenneth Rexroth has been using it for years with great accomplishment, and the critics so impressed with the novelty of Wright’s work should take a look at Rexroth’s selected poems, Natural Numbers, just issued by New Directions, and in particular at a poem like "The Great Nebula of Andromeda." In any case, though the poets of The Sixties [a semi-annual edited by Robert Bly that polemicized for a free verse of "deep imagery" that touched emotions beyond the rational mind] are very sensitive to the accusation of Imagism and rebut it with great heat, there is a clear similarity between the early practice of Pound and their tender descriptions of blades of grass, etc. Pound claimed that the image "presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." This, I imagine, is the only conceivable justification for a poem like the above, from which the operation of the discursive reason is deliberately excluded. Even the feeling of inexplicability is similar to the feeling of some of Pound’s poems, for example "Fish and the Shadow" [see below for "Fish and the Shadow"].

We are presented in Wright’s poem with several images which are actually distinct, though they are loosely connected by situation, followed by a general observation that may well have occurred to the poet after he had perceived the images, but is for us connected with them by neither logic nor association. There is a form of juxtaposition here in which neither image nor general statement gains much from each other. We may imagine a connection between the two, or a contrast, if we wish, but it is entirely up to us, since neither connection nor contrast is present in the poem, and what we imagine is going to be arbitrary. The poem, therefore, must depend on the strength of the expression in the isolated parts. The bronze butterfly is maybe a bit pretentious (Wright, like Bly, is fond of metals and jewels), the image of the cowbells is admirably plain, and the image of the droppings is remarkably vivid and very beautiful in itself. The two following images also succeed very well in isolation. The final line is perhaps exciting because we are surprised to encounter something so different from the rest of the poem, 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.

… [H]is so emphasizing one aspect of the poem – the image – has led to a weakening of all the other elements. The canceling out of interest in morality has led to a kind of dilettantism of attitude that he shares with [Robert] Bly, in their preoccupation with the results of fantasy, dreaming, laziness, etc. [The Branch Will Not Break] seems to me, whatever its virtues, a lightweight compared with his two others.

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Title Thom Gunn: On "Lying in a hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Stitt, Frank Graziano Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication James Wright: The Heart of the Light
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