Recently, I listened to a reading by James Wright at the Guggenheim Museum on March 20th, 1964. On this occasion, he read two of well-known poems from The Branch Will Not Break: "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" and "Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join me."
He introduces "Lying in a Hammock ..." in this manner:
"Robert [Bly] and I were down there [at William Duffy's farm] and I was trying to write a review of a bad book. One thing led to another and I finally wrote a bad poem about not being able to write the review and got drunk and hungover and then wrote this, or part of it, on the back of it:"
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 a home.
I have wasted my life.
He then says, by way of introducing the next poem:
"That really was a bad book because it was full of screams and exclamation points. I think I'll read the poem about being unable to review it:"
Depressed By A Book Of Bad Poetry, I Walk
Toward An Unused Pasture And Invite
The Insects to Join Me
Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone,
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment, and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.
There is a pause, and then he says, with more than a hint of sarcasm:
"I saw the best crickets of my generation
starving hysterical naked ..."
Followed by brief, sporadic laughter.
This, I believe, says a lot about the state of American poetry at that time; as in society, there was a deep contentious divide between the old and the new; so too with poetry. Ironically, Wright himself had been considered, justifiably, a departure from the old. But things were changing at lightning speed.
As anyone who has read this blog for any period of time knows, I love the work of both Wright and Ginsberg. This reading, however, gives a little context to the cultural history of "Howl" and how very courageous and revolutionary Ginsberg was with the publication of his work in general and "Howl" in particular.
Since it would be hardly fair to leave it there, representing one point of view, let's finish with this:
The feature poem this week is by one of the best kept secrets in the Pittsburgh poetry world: Bart Solarcyzk. I've published more of his straightforward, resonating short poems than most anyone I can think and intend to keep doing just that till he runs dry or screams uncle. This one, from Lilliput Review #126, July 2002, is a gem of miniature narrative, re-imagining only slightly a scene familiar to many a devotee of Chinese lyrics in general and Li Po, in particular. Enjoy.
A hat full
by the river
in my hand.
hazy moon in the pine--