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.
Pulitzer Prize winner James Wright was one of the most important American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. While not formally a Buddhist, in “Lying in a Hammock” he offers an example of awakening in everyday life. This poem, with its surprising ending, presents us with two apparently contradictory epiphanies—both suggesting Buddhist teachings. Most readers encountering the poem for the first time see the last line as a statement of defeat and hopelessness, something to the tune of: “Having spent my life doing nothing, lying around, mooching off others, crashing at their houses, I’ve grown older and now realize I have wasted my life.”
Such a bleak epiphany might, of course, be a stroke of good fortune. Clear seeing is always the beginning of wisdom, of personal transformation. This reading’s stark statement of hopelessness reminds me of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s comment that life is like getting into a boat, rowing out onto the middle of a lake, and sinking. When we give up hope and expectation, we have the opportunity of living fully in the moment.
But there is the other way of reading the poem—the last line bursting in a shout of sudden enlightenment. Wright once said this is the way he intended the poem to be read, and it goes more like this: “Here I am, lying in a hammock, not doing much of anything, just looking around. I see a bronze butterfly on a black trunk, hear cowbells, see the droppings of last year’s horses blazing like gold, a chicken hawk floating over. Suddenly, I see I’ve never really looked at the world before. I’ve walked around like someone asleep. Up until this moment, I have wasted my life. Now, my eyes are open!”
One of the most compassionate of American poets (see his poem, “Saint Judas”), Wright shows us here the close affinity between Buddhism and poetry: both share the practice of paying attention, of keeping the heart open, of seeing the luminous in the everyday things of the world. Wright studied classical Chinese poetry, especially the poets of the T’ang Dynasty (ninth to eleventh centuries), who were Daoists and Buddhists, such as Du Fu and Li Bo. Wright once said that this poem was written under their inspiration. Apparently, he absorbed their wisdom along with their artistry.