On "A Blessing"
From Robert Bly, "James Wright and the Slender Woman," in James Wright: A Profile, ed. Frank Graziano and Peter Stitt (Durango, Colorado: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1988), 125-127.
[This excerpt from a memoir by Robert Bly recalls the occasion on which Wright composed "A Blessing." Bly had graduated from Harvard then attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, but he was not satisfied with the poetry he was writing in the 1950s historical verse with a setting in factual documentaries. (An example appears in New Poets of England and America, first series, 1957.) At the time he lived on his familys farm in Madison, Minnesota.]
One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, "Lets stop." So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called "A Blessing."
[Bly cites the entire poem.]
The munching of the young tufts is wonderful, and many other images and sentences. In a few passages we feel too much idealization. The two ponies are just ponies, and probably would have bit one of us if we had stayed much longer without giving them sugar. We notice that one of the ponies is declared to be female, even though there was no evidence of that in the dusk. The feminine nature is insisted on: "she has walked over to me" "her mane" "her long ear"; and it is interesting to me that the whole scene takes place in the aura of the young feminine: "her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girls wrist."
Among those thoughts, in that mood, surrounded with that feminine presence, his anxiety over death is once more relieved. [Bly quotes the last three lines.] The abrupt conclusion suggests two separate realizations: when he dies, he will not simply vanish or disappear, because the human body contains something invisible and strong that the reductive scientists do not speak of. Secondly, the Pauline and Augustinian view that the body is corrupt, sinful and utterly impure does not fit the experience. The image of stepping out of the body is complicated, stereoscopic and ascensionist. At one moment the image seems brilliant and sound; at another moment too hopeful and somehow ungrounded.
From Kevin Stein, "A Poetics of Vulnerability: The Branch Will Not Break" (Chapter 4) in James Wright, The Poetry of a Grown Man: Constancy and Transition in the Work of James Wright (Athens, Ohio: Ohio I P, 1989), 86-87, 89-90.
In late 1960 John Frederick Nims accepted "A Blessing," under the title "The Blessing," for Poetry magazine. Wright had, in the meantime, decided to revise [what Norman Friedman characterized in a 1966 Chicago Review essay as] his "nearly perfect" poem. The following us the revision that Wright sent to Poetry for Nimss approval:
JUST OFF THE HIGHWAY TO ROCHESTER, MINNESOTA
Twilight bounds softly out on the grass.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
[Stein proceeds through the poem, discussing in detail several of the changes.]
Both versions further present the ponies as figures of unification. They partake of a spiritual communion, "munching the young tufts" of a revenant spring enveloped, again, in "darkness." One pony in particular represents a merging of the opposites discussed earlier, for she is "black and white." A composite of light and dark, she has "nuzzled" the speakers hand, and for her part, has eliminated a portion of the subject-object distance.
In "Just off the Highway," however, this encounter is somewhat incomplete, for the speaker does not, in turn, touch the pony. In the following lines which were deleted from the revision, the speaker of "The Blessing" remarks: "And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is as delicate as the skin over a girls wrist." Compelled by a "light" wind in darkness, subject and object interact, as equals, in a world made intensely alive. There is no arrogant insistence on rational and intellectual detachment from nature. The speaker, in fact, collapses all distinctions when he calls upon a human element, the skin of a girls wrist, to describe the softness of the ponys ear.
As a result of this brief touch with the natural, the speaker of "The Blessing" suddenly accepts the possibility of transcendence. This realization evokes both terror he would certainly "break" if he did so and wonder he would become pure, natural "blossom": [Stein cites the last three lines of "A Blessing."]
Such a moment of insight informs the speaker of both the risk and the potential reward inherent in numinous experience. Manuscript evidence would have it that Wright does believe an individual can experience these revelations immanent in nature. Wrights handwritten notation on the manuscript of "Just off the Highway" indicates as much. To the right of the poems final three lines its moment of epiphany he writes simply, "It is possible."
Note, though, how the phrasing of "Just off the Highway" clouds the aura of possibility: "I think / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." The phrase "I think" lacks the suddenness o insight shown in "The Blessing," and betrays a sense of uncertainty. Or worse, the final lines seem prompted by the bland and wholly out-of-place action of rational thought in a moment of arational and intuitive knowledge. Thus, the imagination seems shackled by the ruminative.
from James E. B. Breslin, "James Wright" (chapter 7) in From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1984), 208-209
After beginning with literal simplicity "Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota" the poem immediately begins to metaphorize experience and to subvert distinctions, by identifying the movement of the light with that of the horses in the second line. This interplay between fact and metaphor continues throughout the poem, allowing Wright to present a precisely rendered, realistic scene, a process which ultimately becomes the means to a leap of visionary insight, a "corridor" to the "other world." Similarly, Wright at first remains realistically aware of separation and self-boundaries, though he feels an increasingly powerful wish to transcend them as the poem proceeds. [I]n "A Blessing" Wright feels a kind of mystical union with the horses; literal contact becomes more intimate as one of the horses nuzzles his hand and he caresses its ear so lightly that his hand seems no different from the breeze. In many respects the poem resembles one of Robert Frosts meditations, partly romantic, partly skeptical, on the boundaries between human and natural worlds, boundaries that Frost is characteristically concerned to maintain. But when Wright touches the horse and feels the thin delicacy of its skin, he can hardly contain himself: [Breslin quotes the last 3 lines]. When we reach the phrase "I would break," we expect to find something like "apart" in the next line; instead, in an image reminiscent of the poem in [Wrights poem] "Beginning" when the "slender woman" "steps into the air," we get a blossoming, a flowering of the spirit. The startling power of the poems conclusion thus derives from the way the breaking of the next-to-last line coincides with the unexpected turn of thought (an act of discovery) which tightens into the abrupt brevity of the final line. Wright does not actually make the "step he hypothesizes, however; "A Blessing" does not move toward a moment of transcendence but toward an intuited confidence in the surrounding environment, both visible and invisible, as a supportive context. Slow in movement, precise in detail, the poem builds a passageway into the external world and then beyond it but without annihilating the physical moment of visionary insight.
"A Blessing" is perhaps James Wright's best known poem. It certainly embodies his greatest strength: the poet evoking nature as an inroad to the metaphysical or numinous. Wright is, in general and in this poem in particular, a poet of epiphany in the grand Yeatsian tradition. "A Blessing" culminates with the poet's wish to step out of his body and "break into blossom." There can be no doubt, given the poet's spoken wish for natural communication with an Indian pony, "I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms," that he is seeking transcendence through nature into a new connection with nature.
Although the speaker of the poem is wistfully serious, the poem is touched by situational irony. The metaphysical or religious communion between human and horse occurs "just off the highway," a manmade avenue of high-speed commerce. The encounter between the poet and nature must take place "just off" that highway, to amplify the gulf between man and nature. Furthermore, the horses are enclosed in "barbed wire"; the poet and his friend must transgress an unnatural boundary to enter into the natural setting. The artificial boundary of the fence, but more important, the limits of being - of otherness - between the horses, "they can hardly contain their happiness," and the poet who wants to transcend himself almost dissolve. It is a credit to Wright's poetic sensibility that they do not.
The persona of "A Blessing" is an interloper. By crossing the boundary of the fence, desiring to cross the boundaries of being, and also by calling the ponies "Indian," he seeks to cross the boundaries of difference, ownership, authorship, and time. Many of these definitions are relative to the history of relations between Whites and Indians. The poet is a white man crossing the ultimate symbol of usurpation of Indian lands and crucifactory emblem of ownership, the barbed wire fence, hoping to re-encounter, (regain?) the imagined/supposed/hoped-for bond that the Indian peoples had with nature.
It is difficult for the reader not to hear the wheels spinning on the highway as background for the poet's desire to shut out the world even as he soulfully embraces it, by becoming something usually regarded as beautiful yet mindless - a blossom. What the poet desires is beauty untainted by consciousness.
Such a desire for reincarnation is in a sense (especially considering Richard Hugo's reminiscences about Wright's alcoholism) painful. It is fabulous to think of Indian ponies as being "hardly [able to] contain their happiness / That we have come" and even more so to equate or metaphorize the "slenderer one" as a girl: "Her mane falls wild on her forehead . . . her long ear . . . delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist." But Wright's poem is about the will to love - to love most of all himself, waging the same battle that we all must wage.
Much of Wright's work, with this poem as a particular example, figures importantly as poetry of place. He will be forever linked with Martin's Ferry, Ohio; but as a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and as a traveller, he moved about. Many of his poems name a place. In this one he names Rochester, Minnesota, a incongruous mixture of a small-town, Sinclair Lewisian main street, the Mayo clinic, and a few whorehouses. Rochester is a family town, and its primary industry revolves around cures for the incurable.
Outside of the poem, the lights from operating rooms and the dining room lights of marriage are a distant, unspoken tableau for boundaries and history-light defining the limits of intercourse and the wish for transcendence: "There is no loneliness like theirs."
from The Explicator 54.1 (Fall 1995)
Though unquestionably among James Wright's most memorable poems, "A Blessing" seems an uneven performance. Its emotional force, as it dramatizes a mind apprehending its own unconscious, has been construed as bordering on sentimentality (Wiman 166-67; Dickey 435) or degenerating into escapism (Pink 44). But the last three lines of the poem--a sentence that startlingly fuses the mimetic and the metaphoric--enact an experience whose intertextual import has gone unnoticed. In effect, the climactic epiphany constitutes a decisive stage in an imaginative process that structures the thought and feeling in the entire poem.
From the start, a dual perspective engages the reader. With the immediacy of a live, on-the-spot report, the opening sentence first sets the scene in plain actualities, and then evokes a pastoral idyllic world: "Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,/Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass" (1-2). Acting as a foil to fast, mechanized movement, and to offset the impersonality of inter-city commuting, the naturally graceful character of the day's fading light draws us into a fairylike realm of experience and relationship. The "And" which begins the next line enforces the fiction of simultaneous commentary, in which the demonstrative adjective ("those") and the close-up of the ponies' eyes vividly dramatize the speaker's objective yet sympathetic identification of the displaced ponies. The identification is spiritual and communing and not merely physical.
The section of the poem between the speaker's trespass, "step[ping] over the barbed wire into the pasture" (7), and his epiphany emphasizes the paradox inherent in this type of rapport: His act of compassionate protest, of "step[ping] over the barbed wire," brings unexpected solace. The texture of the verse--short sentences, simile, metaphor--highlights not only the uncomplicated, edenic quality of the "home" the animals inhabit, but also the speaker's delighted fascination with their spontaneity, elegance, and mutual affection. They may seem isolated and to want company, but their "loneliness" (12) is no less wondrous for that. The paradisial intimacy that the poet attributes to the ponies is a natural togetherness, as of "wet swans" (11). They are "[a]t home" (13). By contrast, it is implied, a tormenting, post-Iapsarian loneliness plagues relationships on the other side of the barbed wire. Not "at home" in the universe, fallen mankind is the only creature stricken with awareness of his own aloneness. Hence, when through the responsiveness of the female pony the speaker communes with nature, his feminization of the pony ("the slenderer one" ) expresses his sense of an affinity discovered. Simultaneously, their sensuous rapport prepares us for his exultant rejuvenation and self-affirmation. In their reciprocal gestures of greeting, that which is gentle and courteous in him is given to the pony, while that which is natural and vital in her draws afresh into him.
Spiritual regeneration and enablement awakening the mind to a new mode of consciousness has a distinctly Wordsworthian quality. Consider the unexpected shift from the quotidian to the visionary in the opening line. The shift represents Wright's imagination as it turns a world of deadening production-line rigidity and entrapment into one of vitality and harmonious change. His imagination transforms the field adjacent to the road into a "pasture" (7) that comes alive with organic forces. What the poem offers is not mere factual description, but imaginative and intellectual delineation, something central to Wordsworth's poems ostensibly about birds, butterflies, and flowers. Progression, arrest, intense experience, restorative vision--"I wandered," "I saw," "I gazed--and gazed"("The Daffodils")--serve as the underlying structure of sensibility in Wordsworthian poetry and organize and heighten the emotional force of Wright's poem.
The sensibility in "A Blessing" is typically Wordsworthian in a further sense. In his daffodil poem, Wordsworth's image of the breeze has an iconic function; that is, the breeze "somehow shares the properties of, or resembles" the activity of the poet's imagination as he collaborates in the work of creation (Wimsatt x). The Romantic poet's mind, "by the desultory breeze caress'd,/Like some coy Maid half yielding to her Lover" (Coleridge, lines 15-16), seeks communion with the creative spirit in the universe. Similarly, as the "breeze moves [Wright's visitor] to caress" the pony's ear (20), so it inspires the poet to write his poem. The breeze correlates to the movement of the poet's mind: It images the visitor's rapture of human tenderness, and it symbolizes the creative activity of the poet's imagination. The image of the breeze is the point of intersection between the two structures of experience the poem interlaces, the dramatic and the poetic. The alliterative sequence ("body"--"break"--"blossom") gives an allusion of sound to this process of spiritual regeneration, pivoting as it does on the pun "break":
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Before the context is extended by "Into blossom," the momentary ambiguity, syntactical as well as lexical, suggests both the danger involved in self-affirmation and the shock in crossing to a new level of being. That magnificent enjambment marks the boundary between the risk of disaster and the gain of inward wealth for the visitor-poet. An emblem of regeneration, "blossom" relates the "Blessing" of the title to the poet's creative ability to organize, enhance, and transform experience verbally. Both in the natural efflorescence of the verse form, and in the exhilarating joy of discovering a new life and significance in the commonplace, mundane world, the closing lines affirm for Wright that having a poetic imagination is itself a blessing.
Finally, "A Blessing" resonates with more than a Romantic sensibility. Its themes of rapport and regeneration, which involve personal growth and identity, are at a liminal stage where Wright is then enabled to move on ("to Rochester") to do new things and redefine himself as a poet. The closing lines denote the entire poem as embodying a transitional stage in the growth of creative potentiality, an artistic rite of passage. Within this metaphoric closure is an autobiographical "match cut" (Monaco 185), a thematic parallel between the journey poem and a representative point in Wright's career as a poet.
Wright's career sustains the notion of a rite-of-passage poem, if one thinks of his stylistic progression from Saint Judas (1959), through The Branch Will Not Break (1963), to To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977). On such a map, "A Blessing" (from The Branch Will Not Break) stands for a period of withdrawal from convention, both social and artistic, to examine his institutionalized role as a poet. It also looks ahead to his re-emergence, renewed and able "to step lightly, lightly / All the way through [his own] ruins" ("The Journey"). In this sense, "A Blessing" represents the evolution of Wright's entire career as a poet of rank.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Eolian Harp." Coleridge's Poems Ed. J. B. Beer. Everyman Library. 1043. London: Dent, 1963.
Dickey, James. "Give-Down and Outrage: The Poetry of the Last Straw." Southern Review 27 (1991): 430-37.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
Pink, David. "Wright's 'A Blessing.'" Explicator 54 (1995): 44-45.
Wiman, Christian. "Fragments of a Hammer: James Wright." Sewanee Review 106 (1998): 164-72.
Wimsatt, W. K., Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. 1954. London: Methuen, 1970.
Wordsworth, William. "The Daffodils." William Wordsworth: Selected Poems. Ed. Walford Davies. Everyman Library. 1203. London: Dent, 1975.
Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1992.
from The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000)
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