James Wright 1963
“A Blessing,” which was first published in James Wright’s third poetry collection, The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and again in his Collected Poems (1971), is one of the most popular and highly regarded poems of his free-verse period. Prior to the 1960s, Wright had largely written poems in traditional closed form, and The Branch Will Not Break marked a radical stylistic departure for him. Gone were the meter, end rhyme, and structured stanzas of his earlier poems, and in their place stood a deeper focus on image, intuition, and simplicity of language.
Like many other Wright poems from this period, “A Blessing” grew out of Wright’s friendship and association with poet-translator Robert Bly. Around the time that Wright’s second book, Saint Judas (1959), was published, he struck up a correspondence with Bly, who invited him out to his farm in Madison, Minnesota, where the two worked together on translating foreign poets and where Wright underwent a crucial rejuvenation of his creative spirit. Together, Wright and Bly played key roles in the development of the so-called deep-image school of poetry, which gained prominence throughout the 1960s and which reached its height of popularity in the early 1970s. Deep-image poets eschewed rational explanation and discourse in their poems, preferring instead to develop images that, rather than merely paint pretty pictures, would unleash hidden wells of emotion in readers and spark associations in their imagination. The last three lines of “A Blessing” constitute one of the most powerful and memorable deep images ever devised.
In “A Blessing,” the landscape of the Midwest reveals itself as a positive, embracing force in the form of “two Indian ponies” that Wright and a friend (Bly, perhaps?) encounter in a pasture. This near fusion with unbridled nature generates such joy in Wright’s heart that he experiences a spiritual epiphany.
James Wright, the middle son of Dudley and Jesse Wright, was born on December 13, 1927, and was raised in Martins Ferry, Ohio, an industrial town located on the Ohio River across from Wheeling, West Virginia. Inspired by the poems of James Whitcomb Riley and Lord Byron, Wright began composing verse at an early age. In 1946 he joined the army and continued to write poems while working as a typist in Occupied Japan. After two years in the army, he enrolled in Kenyon College, where one of his teachers happened to be influential poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, founder of the quarterly Kenyon Review. Later, Wright received a Ful-bright fellowship to the University of Vienna. While there, he first encountered the work of Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914), who was to have a major influence on Wright in the years to come.
When Wright returned to the United States, he enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he studied under poets Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz and where he received both his master’s and doctorate degrees. In 1957, Wright’s first book of poems, The Green Wall, was published. Selected by prestigious poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the book introduced a favorite theme of Wright’s: empathy for society’s outcasts. This theme would also be a prevalent force in his second collection, Saint Judas (1959). A more mature work than The Green Wall, Saint Judas nevertheless marked a terminus for Wright’s earlier poetic style, with its reliance on traditional rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms. Wright even vowed in a letter to his editor that he could not and would not write poetry in the same way ever again.
Suffering from bouts of depression and alcoholism, Wright fell into spiritual despair and silence. An extended stay with fellow poet Robert Bly, however, reawakened Wright to the possibilities
of poetic expression, and together, at Bly’s farm in Minnesota, they worked on translating foreign poets such as the aforementioned Trakl and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) of Chile. The influence of Bly and these foreign poets on Wright showed up in The Branch Will Not Break (1963), a book in which Wright abandoned received notions of meter and structure in favor of free-verse experiments with image and form.
In 1965 Wright received the first of two Guggenheim fellowships. A year later, he moved to New York City and joined the faculty at Hunter College, with which he would be associated for many years to come. His next volume, Shall We Gather at the River (1968), displayed an obsession with the past, and, like earlier volumes, it teemed with society’s outsiders.
The next few years were highly successful ones for Wright. In 1969 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and a fellowship from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and in 1972 he won the Brandeis University Creative Arts Citation in Poetry, the fellowship of The Academy of American Poets, and the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems, which had been published the year before. Throughout the 1970s, Wright spent many happy months traveling abroad with his second wife, Annie. During that same decade, he published two more collections, Two Citizens (1973) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), and garnered his second Guggenheim fellowship in 1978. Later, while traveling in Europe, Wright fell ill, and not long after his return to New York, he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. On March 25, 1980, Wright died in a New York hospital. Before passing away, he tried to construct a new collection of his recent poems, and with the help of several of his fellow poets, This Journey appeared posthumously in 1982.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows 5
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their
That we have come. 10
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, 15
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long 20
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
The poem begins in medias res (i.e., in the middle of things), and the poet wastes no time in letting the reader know exactly where the poem is set. The effect is one of immediacy—that the event is happening now. This effect is bolstered by the present-tense verb usage throughout the poem. The word “highway” in line 1 is important in its suggestion that people are always passing by without truly connecting to the place. In line 2, one finds masterful use of metonymy, which is the substitution of one thing for another to appeal to a reader’s senses. Of course, it is not twilight but the ponies that are bounding on the grass. Still, the substitution seems right, describing not only the advance of dusk (in poetry, a time of day traditionally associated with intimacy) but also the dark, yet un-menacing, color of the ponies themselves.
A paradox of sorts is at work here in that the eyes of the ponies darken with kindness rather than brighten, as one might expect. On one level, the use of “Darken” reinforces the poem’s setting of advancing nightfall. On another, deeper level, it suggests something within the ponies that is ultimately unknowable to man—perhaps a secret connection with the natural world that mankind has lost. The adjective “Indian” in line 3 is also significant, connoting wildness, freedom, and unity with nature. Already, the reader gets the sense that nature is friendly, good, and timeless in its purity.
Notice that the ponies make the first move toward the poem’s human figures rather than the other way around. Although this could be a conditioned response to being fed, the poet seems to imply that they do so more out of sheer joy and innocence—“gladly”—with no ulterior motive. Notice, too, that the poet has a companion as well. One might ask why the poem doesn’t focus on one person’s contact with one pony, just for the sake of simplicity. Perhaps the poet sought some balance in matching two ponies with two people. Or perhaps, as is more likely, the experience in the poem happened just the way it is described, and the poet wanted to remain true to that experience.
The objective tone and the proselike style of the writing in these lines (and, in fact, the entire poem) add to—rather than subtract from—the purity of the experience being recounted. The poet is clearly intent on interpreting the poem’s content in minimal fashion, so that the experience is communicated as purely as possible and so that the reader doesn’t get bogged down with a lot of cumbersome embellishment that could conceivably give the person doing the writing more attention than the subject being written about (i.e., the two ponies).
The word “tensely” in line 9 is effective because it is not being used in its normal sense; that is, the tenseness does not refer to the animals’ nervousness but rather to the tension in their muscles, the force that contributes to their supple power. Presumably, the horses are eager to be ridden, to release the tension in their muscles, and to fulfill their innate nature.
At first, the comparison of the ponies to swans may be difficult to comprehend, given the size difference of the two species. Under closer inspection, however, the figure of speech is apt for several reasons. First, horses do bow like swans in a physical sense, with their heads lowered, supple necks extended, and backs arched highly. Second, the poet is concerned with the idea of companionship (between animals but also between man and animal), and the love between the ponies is so pure and natural that one can almost see them entwining their long necks as mating swans are known to do. Ultimately, the image is one of grace and beauty.
The use of the word “loneliness” in this line is odd, because it usually carries a negative connotation. In addition, it has already been established that the ponies are a pair and, thus, should not be strictly in a state of loneliness. The poet suggests that he is envious of the ponies’ loneliness, or solitude—that it is superior in some way to the existence of an average person. The poet implies that the ponies’ aloneness, or separation from mankind, is something to be coveted, not avoided.
Metonymy is at work once again in line 14, with the word “spring” effectively substituting for “grass.” The word is important not only for its contribution to a memorable figure of speech, but also for the way it clarifies the time of the year in which the experience is happening. Until this point, the reader has been unsure about the season in which the poem is set. Spring, of course, carries associations of awakening, rebirth of the natural world, spiritual growth, youthful exuberance, and budding sexuality. The word “spring” also helps set up the poem’s final, astounding image.
At last the poem’s speaker consummates what has been sought all along: direct contact with the
- Wright can be heard reading “A Blessing” on Vol. 3 of the 4-CD compilation A Century of Recorded Poetry, released on the Rhino/World Beat label in 1996.
- The Poetry & Voice of James Wright, an audio cassette on which Wright reads “A Blessing” and many other poems, was released in 1977 by Caedmon.
- Along with several other poets, Wright can be heard reading on the record album Today’s Poets 3 (Folkways).
natural world in the wild and beautiful form of the ponies. Given the speaker’s presumed male gender, it bears mention that the contact is made with the female half of the equine pair rather than her (presumably) male counterpart. In one way, the mare can be seen as an emissary of “Mother” Nature, representing the feminine, nurturing, nourishing side of life. There is, however, something vaguely sensuous about the man’s encounter with the mare. Without trying to read too much into this idea, one can sense tender affection—an attraction that, if not sexual in nature, is surely profound and loving.
This male-female dynamic is further bolstered by the comparison of the delicate feel of the pony’s ear to the skin over a girl’s wrist. This simile does double duty, for along with adding to the sensuality of the encounter, it also suggests the fragile nature of that encounter. The choice of “wrist” also seems appropriate in that the wrist is where one’s pulse is felt, and by touching the natural world so directly, the poet, in a sense, has placed his hand on the very pulse of the world itself.
The poem ends with one of contemporary poetry’s most powerful, memorable examples of “deep image,” a label affixed to certain types of images that often defy logical interpretation and work on a deeply intuitive level. The deep image appeals to emotion rather than logic, and so it is usually more difficult to explicate. Suffice it to say, the poem’s final image suggests the potential for a breakthrough—a spiritual transformation of limitless joy, a leap of faith into the alchemical power of nature. It is important to realize, however, that only the potential for such a metamorphosis exists, not that an actual transformation has taken place. This is why the poem ends on such a hopeful, joyous note. The choice of “blossom” is crucial, for unlike a full-grown flower, the blossom is itself a symbol of potential—the start of a journey through life rather than a completion. With so many youthful references (ponies, young tufts, spring, a girl’s wrist, blossom), the poem as a whole can be seen as a quest for regeneration, for both body and soul.
Man and Nature
“A Blessing” can be read as one man’s quest for reunification with nature. Immediately, we find mention of man-made objects (a highway; the city of Rochester, Minnesota), and, later, there is a boundary of barbed wire that the speaker and his friend must traverse before the process of reunification can begin. One gets the feeling that the speaker (perhaps his “friend,” too) has been separated from pure, unadulterated nature for far too long and that he (a city dweller by nature, it might be assumed) can barely contain his ecstasy over encountering the two Indian ponies in such a natural setting. The ponies are, indeed, two beautiful and benevolent emissaries of nature. When the speaker makes direct contact with the mare (she nuzzles his hand, and he strokes her ear), the meeting is sensuous and almost charged with eroticism. The speaker is so moved that he would like to fully embrace the pony in his arms. Thus the poet’s reunification with nature is consummated, leading him to speculate that if he could leave his humanity behind, he would achieve a unity with nature so complete that he would flower into a new—possibly superior—form of life.
Although it is very much set in the empirical world, “A Blessing” features a strong undercurrent of longing for spiritual growth. In stepping over the barbed wire and into the pasture, the speaker and his friend enter a kind of Garden of Eden, unsullied by the sins of man, where the two ponies frolic and bound in a state of innocence and grace. Throughout the poem, the speaker feels totally at
Topics for Further Study
- “A Blessing” is “just a description,” James Wright once said in an interview. Discuss why the poem does more than just describe a scene or paint a picture. Refer to specific lines in the poem to support your assertions.
- Pretend that you have stumbled upon a new pasture—a “Garden of Eden,” if you will—that no one has ever seen before. What animals and plants do you see? What time of the day is it? Do you hear or smell anything unusual? Compose a list of sensory impressions from your imaginary pasture, then write a poem that focuses on these impressions.
- Explain how someone can be in the company of others and still feel lonely. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that before? What made you feel that way, and how did you overcome the feeling?
ease with this new (for him) place, and he implies that only in such a pasture, far from the trappings of society and its distractions, can he ever hope to connect with that natural grace—to receive the seed of its transformative power within his soul, where it can flower and grow. Seen in this light, the poet seeks an unusual form of resurrection in which he can step out of his own body (as various religions believe that people do at the moment of their death or during an “out-of-body” experience), “break / Into blossom,” and ascend heavenward like the long stem of some flower arching toward the sun. The poem’s title also needs to be considered in this context, for what kind of resurrection is ever possible without the “blessing” of some higher power, such as God or Mother Nature?
Prevalent in so much of Wright’s poetry, the theme of loneliness is present in “A Blessing” as well, though not in its usual sense. Although the two ponies are “alone” in the pasture in the sense that they are apart from mankind, they presumably have each other so that they don’t suffer pangs of loneliness. If so, why does Wright use “alone” and “loneliness” to describe the horses’ condition? In the human world, “loneliness” is a word that carries negative connotations of sadness and misery, defining a state that most people would like to avoid. “Solitude” is a word that also defines the state of being apart from others, yet it doesn’t carry the negative connotations that “loneliness” does. On the contrary, it is often considered a good thing. So why didn’t Wright write, “There is no solitude like theirs” instead of “There is no loneliness like theirs”? Such loneliness, Wright suggests, is admirable. But does the loneliness belong to the ponies? Isn’t Wright, in fact, projecting his own feelings of loneliness onto the two animals? Perhaps, but consider how eagerly the ponies come looking for human companionship. Haven’t they, then, been lonely in a sense for the human touch? And as for Wright, hasn’t he been lonely as well for the companionship of creatures in the natural world?
Composed of one 24-line stanza, “A Blessing” is a free-verse poem of varying line lengths. Despite its “formless” appearance, the poem possesses a formal tension in its construction. While “free” in its movement from line to line, it nevertheless exhibits a tightness—a cohesive energy. This formal energy is arrived at through a variety of means. One is a highly consistent use of active verbs, such as “bounds” in line 2, “step” in line 7, “ripple” in line 9, “bow” in line 11, “begin munching” in line 14, “walked” in line 16, “nuzzled” in line 17, and “caress” in line 20. Another technique that produces formal tension is the use of repetition, most evident in the short, declarative statements in lines 9 through 12: “They ripple ...,” “they can hardly contain ...,” “They bow ...,” “They love....” Such subject-verb constructs bring emphasis and tension to what is otherwise meant to be a placid, serene moment in time.
At first glance, the writing in “A Blessing” seems almost prosaic in its declarative simplicity, but several poetic devices are at work in the poem. It abounds, for example, in clever, imaginative figures of speech: metonymy in line 2 (“Twilight bounds”) and in line 14 (“tufts of spring”); simile in line 11 (“shyly as wet swans”) and in line 21 (“delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist”); and paradox in line 4 (“Darken with kindness”). Wright also demonstrates a subtle musicality in the poem. Assonance is at work in lines 14 (the soft “u” tone in “munching the young tufts”) and in line 21 (the soft “i” tone in “is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist”); alliteration in lines 5 through 8 (the initial “w” in “willows,” “welcome,” “We,” “wire,” and “where”) and in lines 23 and 24 (the initial “b” in “body,” “break,” and “blossom”); and consonance in lines 4-6 (Darken with kindness. / They have come gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me”).
Another key factor in the poem’s overall cohesion is the first-person point of view that binds “A Blessing.” Interestingly enough, Wright tries to keep this point of view as low-key as possible, in part by focusing as much as he can on the ponies, and in part by maintaining a highly objective tone throughout the bulk of the poem. Only in the last three lines do the focus and tone shift from the objective to the subjective—at the moment when Wright reaches his epiphany.
In 1963, when “A Blessing” was published, America stood on the cusp of a revolution that would encompass all aspects of life, including culture, politics, social mores, religion, and the sciences. The year 1963 itself was a dark one in U.S. history, for on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His death unleashed a tremendous outpouring of grief and the start of a new period of self-examination for all Americans. Other “negative” forces in evidence that year were the violence directed at participants of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South and the early buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam aimed at stopping the spread of communism there. The war in Vietnam would be a critical component of the social strife that would consume America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Wright’s “A Blessing,” of course, sits squarely outside of this turmoil, occurring blissfully in a kind of Edenic vacuum far removed from the distant gunshots of battle. The poem’s pastoral setting bespeaks a timelessness that contrasts dramatically with such daily violence. Nevertheless, a quiet revolution of sorts bubbles beneath its lines. This revolution is the aesthetic one in which Wright—along with several other poets, such as Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, and Galway Kinnell—took part in during
Compare & Contrast
- 1963: American fear of communism reaches a fever pitch in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22,1963. Rumors swirl that Lee Harvey Oswald, who is killed two days after the assassination and whom the Warren Commission later would conclude acted alone in the assassination, is an agent trained by and working for the Soviet Union. While Oswald did spend time in the Soviet Union, no proof is ever produced that he was a Soviet agent or was trained specifically by the Soviets to assassinate Kennedy.
1998: Still struggling after eight years as a nascent democracy, Russia pleads for international assistance when its economy comes close to collapsing in June, unleashing a volatile period for the global economy. A month later, the International Monetary Fund lends Russia $4.8 billion to help bolster its economy, but critics view the loan as just a stopgap measure. Though ill, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia maintains a firm grip on power and continues to pursue free enterprise and democracy at a heavy economic cost.
- 1963: The same month in which President Kennedy is assassinated, Meet the Beatles is released in the United Kingdom, and hysteria over the “Fab Four”—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—builds throughout the British Isles. When Meet the Beatles is released in America in January of 1964, “Beatlemania” builds to a fever pitch in the States, reaching a climax on February 9, 1964, when the Beatles make their first U.S. appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
1995: Twenty-five years after the Beatles broke up, and fifteen years after Lennon was assassinated in New York City, the remaining Beatles (McCartney, Harrison, and Starr) re-form and release The Beatles Anthology I album. The collection contains a song, “Free as a Bird,” in which an old studio recording of Lennon singing is combined with newly composed music. The song is widely panned by critics.
- 1963: The United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations sign a treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water.
1998: The United States and other nations impose sanctions on India and Pakistan for performing underground nuclear tests within weeks of each other.
the late 1950s and early 1960s. During that time, many poets began breaking free of the traditional, closed-form verse that had ruled the American literary landscape for many years. Tired especially of the rampaging iambic foot and the end-rhyme schemes that they felt were suffocating the individual voice, Wright and others began looking elsewhere for their literary models and found them in the works of foreign poets such as Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) of Chile and Georg Trakl (1887-1914) of Austria. In fact, Wright and Bly worked together in the years immediately preceding 1963 to translate the works of Neruda, Trakl, and others. These translations, in turn, had a huge effect on the American poetry that was to follow, alerting budding young poets to the possibility of other aesthetics and other voices.
“A Blessing” also reflects the revolution of thought that was beginning to take hold in the early 1960s. Poets such as Wright, and especially Bly, had had their fill of the U.S. social and economic establishment in which man (that is, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man) was calling the shots and sublimating all else (e.g., women, minorities, animals, the natural world itself) to his military-industrial complex. Before the 1960s, few Americans questioned the effect that human development (i.e., “progress”) was having on the environment and the country’s soul, but by the end of the decade, a high percentage of Americans would be expressing great doubt with regard to the direction their nation was pursuing. A “get back to the land” ethos would gain momentum throughout the decade, leading to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the establishment of the Endangered Species Act, and much more. In “A Blessing,” Wright was expressing his own need to “get back to the land,” to connect with the natural world—a world ostensibly more pure and innocent than that of Western man. In such a world, Wright and others came to believe, man should be considered no better than the dumbest animal; if anything, they believed, man was a corrupting agent and thus inferior to other species, in the sense that, unlike animals, he was doing more harm than good in the grand scheme of things.
So, in a sense, “A Blessing,” which displays a timelessness in setting and subject matter, is a poem ahead of its time. It calls into question the barbed-wire boundaries separating man from nature; looks ahead to the type of environmental awareness in which man would seek to work with nature, not against it; and suggests that, by reconnecting with the natural world, all men can undergo the kind of spiritual growth that could see a man “break / Into blossom.”
When The Branch Will Not Break, the book in which “A Blessing” first appeared, came out in 1963, many critics were, at the very least, befuddled by the new direction in which Wright had taken his poetry; some were outright hostile to it. Writing in the Nation, critic Louis D. Rubin, Jr. accused Wright of going “way off on a tangent” and called his new poems “arbitrary,” “disorganized,” and full of “static” images. And in the Yale Review, poet-critic Thom Gunn expressed his belief that The Branch was “a lightweight” book compared with Wright’s earlier two collections.
Essentially, these critics and others longed for the traditional, structured, “logical” poems Wright formerly composed; they just didn’t “get” his new approach. Widespread resistance to free verse was still in force back then throughout academia and elsewhere, and the cultural revolution that America was to undergo in the 1960s had yet to explode. The outburst of freedom that “A Blessing,” in hindsight, seems to foreshadow can be encapsulated in the following way: In 1959, everyone “knew” their place; in 1969, everyone was looking for a “new” place.
By 1971, the cultural revolution had swept up the nation into a new way of thinking that affected all aspects of life. That year, Wright published his Collected Poems, a book that would win a Pulitzer Prize and expose many new readers to “A Blessing” and the other poems of The Branch Will Not Break. Judging by the outpouring of praise in the early 1970s for “A Blessing” and other Branch poems, the critical and academic establishments had finally caught up with Wright and what he had been trying to achieve back in the early 1960s. Critic Peter A. Stitt, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called “A Blessing” the “key poem” to understanding Wright’s attitude toward nature, concluding that the experience conveyed in the poem is “important,” “transcendent,” and startling in its “deepness.” Poet-critic Paul Zweig noted in the Partisan Review that “A Blessing” ranks “among the most beautiful [poems] to be written during the past decade.” And in the Sewanee Review, critic Thomas H. Landless asserted that, back in 1963, Wright was deeply alive to the spirit of the times and seemed “to affirm the rediscovery of mystery in the universe.”
Over the years, “A Blessing” has taken on a critical life of its own as one of Wright’s very best poems ever and as one of the truly breakthrough poems of the 1960s. In his essay “In the Mode of Robinson and Frost: James Wright’s Early Poetry,” Henry Taylor acknowledges “A Blessing” as one of the Wright poems that still stands up very successfully. Bonnie Taylor, in her essay “James Wright: Returning to the Heartland,” argues that “A Blessing” delivers “a more permanent kind of grace than the paltry beauty” of Wright’s later work. And in the critical study The Poetry of James Wright, author Andrew Elkins calls the poem the “climax” of The Branch Will Not Break, a “rare flowering.”
Emily Archer, a freelance writer who has taught at colleges in the South and the Northeast, has published many articles on contemporary American writers and currently leads poetry workshops
What Do I Read Next?
- Of all of Wright’s contemporaries, fellow poet and friend Robert Bly arguably had the most effect on Wright’s stylistic development, largely through the work the two did together translating the poems of foreign writers into English. Several of these translations are included in Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Bly.
- A key influence on the early poetic style of Wright was poet John Crowe Ransom, Wright’s mentor at Kenyon College in the late 1940s. For an informative, engaging foray into the kind of formal poetry Wright first loved but later decided to abandon in favor of a free-verse approach, Ransom’s poetry is widely available and anthologized.
- Another key influence on Wright was Theodore Roethke, a highly regarded and versatile poet whom Wright had as a teacher at the University of Washington in Seattle. Like Ransom’s poetry, Roethke’s is also widely available and anthologized. A good place to start might be The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke.
- Yet another crucial influence on Wright was Austrian poet Georg Trakl, whose poetry, in look and style, very much approximates what Wright was doing around the time “A Blessing” was published. Wright included several of his translations of Trakl’s poetry in his Collected Poems. Other valuable Trakl translations, by Michael Hamburger, are included in German Poetry 1910-1975.
- In the mid 1970s, Wright began corresponding regularly with Native-American poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. Many of their letters have been collected in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright, edited by Anne Wright.
and book discussions for reading groups in New Hampshire. In the following essay, Archer reads “A Blessing” in light of James Wright’s aesthetic of courage.
“My stuff stinks, and you know it,” James Wright wrote in a letter to poet Theodore Roethke in August of 1958, not long after the publication of Wright’s prize-winning first book, The Green Wall. Despite long years of learning the craft of poetry, Wright confessed he found it “ironically depressing” that
I work like hell chipping away perhaps one tiny pebble per day on the ten-mile-thick granite wall of formal and facile ‘technique’ which I myself erected, and which stands ominously between me and whatever poetry may be in me.
Five years later, Wright encountered another kind of boundary, the barbed wire “just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” but this he stepped over easily into a place of kindness and blessing. Whether it was dismantling a self-made wall or crossing a barbed threshold, both required of Wright a certain kind of courage and risk. It took one kind of courage to chip away, painfully and persistently, at what others perceived as an accomplished poetic. It took another kind of courage to explore what lay “just off” the main route with its solid yellow line, the road’s edge dividing human and nature, self and other, ordinary and sublime.
Much attention has been given to Wright’s perceived “sudden” shift in style from his first two books to his third, The Branch Will Not Break. “A Blessing” is the best-known poem in The Branch Will Not Break, not only for what critic Norman Friedman calls its “nearly perfect” lyric beauty, but because it is considered by many to represent Wright’s dramatic change in poetics. In James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, critic Kevin Stein categorizes “A Blessing” as “exemplary of Wright’s transformation from a poetry of ... or thodoxy to a poetry of attention.” In his short literary biography of Wright, Andrew Elkins represents those who find Wright’s “truly transitional volume” elsewhere in his career. For Elkins, it occurs ten years later, in Two Citizens (1973), where Wright’s “poetry of attention” extends into a sustained “sympathetic extending beyond oneself to another.” Few would dispute, however, that the seeds of that sympathy are present in “A Blessing.” There, Stein says, the poet “notices the ponies as more than objects, when he comes to see them as creatures with whom he shares both a physical and emotional landscape.” And most would agree that the departure of the poem’s disciplined free verse from the traditional forms in his earlier books was not simply a matter of changing poetic “dress.” It is a change that began, imperceptibly, in the marrow of Wright’s art years before The Branch Will Not Break was published. Nevertheless, much about “A Blessing” looks “new.”
What is not new is Wright’s “poetics of courage.” What is not “sudden” is his praise for those who, with brave intent, abandon the comfort of illusions for the sake of truth and integrity. The essays and reviews in Wright’s Collected Prose harbor language for the kind of poet he admires and wants to be—“courageous,” “risking,” “noble,” “truthful”—and whose greatest battle is against “distraction from reality.” Wright had evidently come to believe that his practice of craft was just such a distraction, and that technique had become one of those noisy “ideas” that Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset insists can “hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer.” In his essay “A Master of Silence,” Wright says Ortega “faces [distraction] most helpfully” in his description of the “sleep-walker” and the “shipwrecked.” The “sleep-walker” uses ideas, aesthetic or otherwise, as “trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.” In contrast is the “shipwrecked man” who, Ortega explains,
... looks life in the face, realizes that everything is problematic, and feels himself lost....These are the only genuine ideas: the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posture, farce.
Wright would not rest until he had looked both life and art “in the face” and found those genuine ideas. Thus shipwrecked, it took courage for Wright to change his aesthetic strategies to the degree he did, and at the time he did. Wright’s admission to Roethke of self-defeat came a scant year after his first book, The Green Wall, was selected by W. H. Auden to receive the Yale Series of
“Once Wright was done dismantling the wall between the external rules for poetry and his own inner necessity, he was ready to practice an organic free verse whose images, lines, and voice more truthfully revealed the poetry ‘in’ him.”
Younger Poets Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in American letters. Praise for The Green Wall was far-reaching, and in many minds, Wright had entered the ranks of poets deserving serious attention and respect. “Here is one of the elect,” pronounced reviewer J. E. Palmer, “a young poet of great gifts by whose labors the living body of poetry will be sustained.”
The disjunction between Wright’s perception of his own work, prior to The Branch Will Not Break, and that of most readers is painfully clear. But here was no “imposter syndrome” or false humility. Wright’s confession to Roethke is full of an authentic sense of self-betrayal. It implies that in the very effort to master the tools of his trade, the poet has acquired a shop full, only to have locked himself out, somehow, and thrown away the key. Little wonder that the second volume, where that “facile ‘technique’” is even more masterfully at work, he called Saint Judas (1959). Not only do many of its poems daringly empathize with the social outcasts in Wright’s Ohio and Minnesota, but with Judas Iscariot himself, the very incarnation of betrayal. Yet, says Andrew Elkins, Wright’s murderers and prostitutes,
... whatever else they may be, they are innocent of self-betrayal.... They have at least listened to their instincts, the dark murmurings of the heart that bring news of their real identity to exist somehow beyond, below, above, or behind society’s prescriptions for good behavior.
Perhaps his dark heroes are not guilty of self-betrayal, but Wright certainly believes he is. He had learned his craft well by 1958, but had not yet practiced an art that “flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” in the words of Galway Kinnell’s poem “St. Francis and the Sow.” Wright needed a particular kind of courage to listen to his own instincts and risk their imperatives for change, for he was convinced that “you cannot bear this vision by staying as you are.” He took to heart poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s dictum, “Du musst dein Leben ändern” (“You must change your life”).
In his prose “Meditations on René Char” (1956), Wright acknowledges that this art is hard-won, for, in the first place, “a poet is a man to whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” even though “that difficulty is blessed.” In many ways, Wright comprehends the poet’s task in the language of “bravery” and “trial,” and his poet emerges as a kind of hero whose work is marked by difficulty, suffering, and, often, despair. When Wright admires the work of other poets in his essays and reviews, it is often for their courage. Walt Whitman, Cesar Vallejo, and Denise Levertov are among those whom Wright praises for their brave attention to the things of the world and for their ability to walk the narrow paths between aesthetic extremes and competing dogmas. Vallejo refused the partisanships of a “century-old formalism on the one hand and a vandalism of antipoetry on the other,” says Wright, by living “neither in formalism nor in violence, but in imagination. He had the courage and stamina to bring his poetic imagination to bear on many different kinds of reality.” Whitman’s revolutionary genius was rooted, Wright believes, in form, in a “principle of growth” that is also a “principle of imagination: the proliferating of images out of one unifying vision” spurred by an “enormously courageous willingness to leap from one image into the unknown.” Wright’s contemporary, Denise Levertov, “suggests Whitman in several ways,” he says in another essay, not least in her “spiritual courage” and a “willingness to discover the new forms of her imagination.”
But it was Austrian poet Georg Trakl, that “supreme example of patience and bravery,” whose work planted the seeds of an aesthetic that would ultimately flower into Wright’s own “courage of the imagination.” Once Wright was done dismantling the wall between the external rules for poetry and his own inner necessity, he was ready to practice an organic free verse whose images, lines, and voice more truthfully revealed the poetry “in” him. As Elkins reminds us, Wright’s reformation was neither sudden nor entirely distinct from earlier work, but was, instead, “part of an evolution” that began when Wright stumbled, by fortunate accident, into a reading by Trakl in the early 1950s at the University of Vienna. Wright’s “Note on Trakl” describes the day he was ushered into a new world where
... the poet, at a sign from the evening bells, followed the wings of birds that became a train of pious pilgrims who were continually vanishing into the clear autumn of distances; beyond the distances there were black horses leaping in red maple trees, in a world where seeing and hearing are one.
Wright found in Trakl a courage different from muscular heroics or self-denying asceticism. Though no less difficult, Trakl’s courage suggested tasks much more inward, accepting, and quiet. Its demands are not only on the poet, Wright notes, but also on the reader, who becomes vulnerable in the act of listening:
A single red maple leaf in a poem by Trakl is an in-exhaustibly rich and wonderful thing, simply because he has had the patience to look at it and the bravery to resist all distraction from it. It is so with all of his small animals, his trees, his human names. Each one contains an interior universe of shapes and sounds that have never been touched or heard before, and before a reader can explore these universes he must do as this courageous and happy poet did: he must learn to open his eyes, to listen, to be silent, and to wait patiently for the inward bodies of things to emerge, for the inward voices to whisper. I cannot imagine any more difficult tasks than these, either for a poet or for a reader of poetry. They are, ultimately, attempts to enter and to recognize one’s very self.
Thus, Wright’s most difficult task in the late 1950s and early 1960s was in learning to exercise this “courage of the imagination,” and his transformations have everything to do with facing the distractions to that challenge with patience and attention.
“A Blessing” poetically enacts this sort of courage. The poem begins grounded in attention to a particular, ordinary time and place: “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” at dusk on a spring day. It ends in epiphany and luminous possibility. Between the first lines and the last, Wright tells a story whose images seamlessly prepare us for the penultimate vision of breaking “into blossom.” Every line commingles some observation of concrete reality with a seeing-into its inward nature. It is twilight, for instance; that is a narrative fact. But this twilight “bounds softly forth on the grass,” and the personification animates the image with something that is both “other” than light and, yet, inextricably part of it. There are two ponies, specifically, Indian ponies. That detail adds both fact and connotations to the emerging scene. These animals are hardy and obviously gentle, but that “fact,” too, is expanded into their unspoken connection with an ancient lineage and land in which they are “at home.” The color of their eyes could well be dark brown, but Wright’s facility for yoking ordinary with extraordinary offers us, instead, eyes that “darken with kindness.”
It takes the courage of the imagination to go beyond the external, “provable” givens into the “inward body” of the world, without abandoning the actual in the process. The ponies are eating new grass; the fact is both grounded and grounding. But the language that offers that fact also offers more, in an imaginative leap that sees all of spring, not just tender grass, in those “young tufts” at dusk. The simple, confident, observations at the poem’s middle also offer intuitions that can’t be rationally proved, but which the imagination honors: the ponies’ love for each other is not distinct from their profound loneliness. Lest we try to puzzle out this odd juxtaposition of love and loneliness with psychology or reasoning of any sort, the poem protects the paradox by declaring, “There is no loneliness like theirs.” Nothing in your experience or understanding, it implies, can penetrate this mystery. The closest one may come, perhaps, is the relationship of solitude to love that Rainer Maria Rilke expressed in Letters to a Young Poet: “this more human love ... consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”
This paradox of love and loneliness occupies both the graphic middle and imaginal heart of the poem. Having found itself, as it were, “at home once more,” its energy then radiates back out into the poem’s emotional textures and images, preparing for the possibility of transcendence. In the immediacy of present-tense verbs and short, declarative diction, we learn that the slender pony “is black and white.” But not so simple is the way “Her mane falls wild on her forehead,” keeping alive the sense that in this pastoral world anything can happen. From the first line on, the poem rebels quietly against the illusion of order—against all of those containments that prevent the imagination from exercising its courage. It prepares us all along for the near-breaking of boundaries that creates the final ecstatic tension. There is little distance, for instance, between the reader and the quiet eroticism of these lines:
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
The speaker of the poem is, in turn, moved “to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” The metaphor is grounded in the sensory realities of the animal’s body. But it is a metaphor, after all, and in making the comparison between the soft ear and a girl’s wrist, it also transcends sensory realities and dramatically closes the distance between human and nature.
Vulnerability to one experience of numinous desire leads to another and to the ecstatic revelation at the poem’s end. Wright has already described the rewards of transgressing certain literal boundaries—the straight path down the highway, the barbed wire—as well as the metaphorical boundaries between human and nature. Those trespasses, both physical and imaginative, lead the poet to the brink of the ultimate one: “stepping out” of the body itself, into a mystical flowering of divine union. But Wright’s greatest “courage of the imagination” in this poem is, ultimately, in leaving such union in the realm of the penultimate: “if I stepped out of my body,” the poem reads. The poet doesn’t, finally, “break / Into blossom.” But Wright does believe “It is possible,” according to the note he scrawled just to the right of these lines in his revised version of the poem.
It takes courage to walk off the main route and its worn surfaces of half-awake encounters between self and other. It takes courage to “step over the barbed wire” and greet two animals with human sympathy. It takes courage to open oneself to the possibilities created by metaphors of desire. And it takes courage to remain in the body while filled with longing for utter transformation. Like the beatitudes of the Gospel according to Matthew, the “blessing” of this poem is full of paradox. It overturns the expectations that would have been met by staying squarely on the highway to Rochester. However dark and self-defeated Wright would otherwise remain until his death in 1980, he had at least looked life in the face for a few moments on a spring evening in Minnesota. And there, just off the highway, he had discovered for all of us the exquisite truth of being shipwrecked in human limitations and possibilities.
Source: Emily Archer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Sharon Kraus is a poet who teaches creative writing, literature, and poetry at Queens College, CUNY. In the following essay, Kraus characterizes
“‘A Blessing’ is an apparently simple poem about transformation, yet it is complicated by the speaker’s plainspoken presence and turns out to be more about that speaker—and his wish for transformation—than about any actual change.”
“A Blessing” as a complex portrait of a speaker who longs for transformation.
Imagine a young girl alone in the woods. A powerful man is chasing after her, because he has spotted her in the distance and finds her beautiful; in fact, he has fallen in love with her. He wants to embrace her, perhaps convince her to marry him, perhaps force her to share his bed. She wants only to escape him, however, and to never have intimacy with a man, let alone marry; she prefers to live on her own. She runs as fast as she can, tripping over branches in her path, and is so breathless that she cannot cry, even through she is afraid.
He begins to catch up to her—he is, after all, the god Apollo—and Daphne sees that she won’t be able to outrun him or fight him off. In her fear, she beings to pray, desperately, that someone will rescue her. Behind her, Apollo’s footsteps thud heavily in the weeds. Then the impossible happens: her limbs grow cumbersome and too weighty to move; a fine brown bark begins to gird her body; her hair changes to leaves, her arms to boughs, and her head becomes a treetop; her feet are fixed to the earth with tenacious roots. Her wish to be saved is granted. One of the Roman gods has transformed Daphne into the laurel tree, and she is forever protected from human contact. In her flight, she has crossed over from the human to the natural world.
The myth of Daphne and Apollo is powerful enough to have survived two millennia; the Classical poet Ovid recorded it in his famous collection The Metamorphoses sometime before his death in 17 a.d. Daphne’s story is resonant because it reveals how intense a person’s wish to escape danger and unhappiness can be. The desire to be changed (The American Heritage Dictionary defines “metamorphosis” as “change of form”), to be saved even from oneself, is a potent desire. Poet James Wright understood that wish, and, more important, his poem “A Blessing” acknowledges how terrifying it is to be changed, even when transformation is what you pray for.
“A Blessing” is an apparently simple poem about transformation, yet it is complicated by the speaker’s plainspoken presence and turns out to be more about that speaker—and his wish for transformation—than about any actual change. The poem has a longing for magic in it, and the speaker’s sudden insight, at the close of the poem, into what he can allow himself to hope for, is what makes the poem emotionally affecting.
It is important to notice that the poem contains specific, prosaic details alongside rather mystical ones: the poem’s setting is “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” and in this mundane locale, enchantment can take place (“Twilight bounds softly forth”). In fact, the magical inspiriting of an anthropomorphized twilight could only occur in such an ordinary, precisely situated place. The poem’s first two lines thus prepare us for the ponies, who do change (from loneliness [line 12] to happiness). The speaker seems to assert that it is he and his friend who have effected the ponies’ emotional change (“[the ponies] can hardly contain their happiness / that we have come” [lines 9-10]), yet, unlike the Roman god in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they have caused change not by performing any action but merely by being present. Really, the speaker and his friend are in the presence of love.
The most distinct action in the poem is the encounter, narrated in the central lines, between the ponies and the humans. The ponies’ expression of love seems to precipitate the speaker’s stepping over a boundary (the barbed wire fence)—quite literally and physically a transition—and moving from a human society that implicitly lacks such lovingness, toward the natural world on the fence’s other side. The natural world is perceived by the speaker to be an innocent one, full of emotions not hidden by a veneer of (human) “civilization.” The poem’s language is deliberately simple; our speaker wants to speak plainly and without artifice as he recounts his story. Nevertheless, “A Blessing” does use startling and appealingly sensuous details, such as “they ripple tensely” (line 9), “They bow shyly as wet swans” (line 11), and “They being munching the young tufts of spring” (line 14), to convey the joyousness of this other world.
Clearly, the speaker would like to be a part of this world of pleasure and affection. Why? We are allowed to infer that the speaker longs for just these qualities and that he finds them lacking in the human world outside the fence. The suggestion is that the speaker suffers from deep unhappiness in his “real” life. As he interacts with the female pony, giving and receiving affection and care, he realizes that release from his unhappiness might, in fact, be possible. Significantly, we readers can understand that, throughout this encounter, the speaker has become increasingly conscious of his ever-present grief. Although we do not hear him pray as Daphne prayed for rescue, he suddenly recognizes that, like her, he longs desperately for the magical, divine intervention that, in Wright’s intellectual universe, could be granted only by the physical, factual world. He wants to be saved, not from a threatening pursuer but from his own emotional bereavement and dissastisfaction.
Like Daphne’s transformation, the speaker imagines, his would be frightening as well as comforting. The poem’s penultimate line carefully ends at a syntactically unusual place: the emphasis on “break” underscores the violence of any metamorphosis, even a welcomed one. The natural world is, the image reminds us, full of these startling changes of form, and we should accept this inherent violence because it is not malevolent. Rather, it brings generation of new life.
Wright’s line break instructs us to pay attention to this distinction. It is a terrifying thought to “step out of [one’s] body—as though spiritually naked and vulnerable—and more terrifying to “break.” The last line, however, transforms the speaker’s terror, in the only actually credible way, into joy: he will be joined profoundly to this place of natural beauty and innocence in the way that a crocus breaks open into a burst of vibrant red at the first manifestations of another spring. The joyousness of the imagined transformation is complicated and deepened by its melancholy underpinnings. In fact, the closing image, the only one to depict the speaker’s feelings (rather than the ponies’), requires that we understand the speaker to be grieving before we can fully grasp the image’s ecstatic quality. The poem tells us much more about the speaker’s consciousness than it does about the poet’s philosophical concerns regarding death, grief, and life.
“A Blessing” seems to focus on the imagined or perceived emotions of the ponies, and we are only allowed to infer the speaker’s emotions. In other words, the speaker never says to us, “I felt loved, and, for once, happy—just like the pony.” Instead, as poet William Matthews has observed in his essay “The Continuity of James Wright’s Poems,” Wright does something far more remarkable: he uses an image (in the last three lines) “to refer directly to intense emotions, indeed to create those emotions in the reader, rather than refer the reader to those emotions [by naming instead of showing them].”
In the speaker’s description of the ponies, however, he certainly reveals himself to us, in divulging what he has chosen to see. Poet Robert Bly, who, coincidentally, is the “friend” of line 6, has remarked in his essay “James Wright and the Slender Woman,” “The two ponies are just ponies, and probably would have bit one of us if we had stayed much longer without giving them sugar.... [O]ne of the ponies is declared to be female, even though there was no evidence of that in the dusk [and ‘darkness,’ in line 14]. The feminine nature is insisted on.” For Wright, the feminine nature is the element that might transform the speaker’s grief into joy; it has the power to make him long for a death—perhaps physical, perhaps spiritual—so that he might leave his present life and be reborn. Moreover, this speaker wills himself to see the ponies as benign and kind. One criticism of the speaker is that he may be choosing to idealize the natural world on the fence’s far side; he glosses over the creatures’ other equally legitimate, if still innocent, reactions.
The speaker’s lapses and flaws may further open up the poem to our understanding, though. The poem is moving because it connects the representation of emotions with the authentically imperfect human speaker who has those emotions. Emotions seldom come in disembodied form outside of literature, and this poem, largely rejecting literature’s conventions, presents a speaker struggling to make a discovery and managing only to let himself feel hopefulness. Although the speaker finds himself suddenly capable of imagining that an Ovidian transformation could overtake him, in “fact” none does. Nothing supernatural (literally, “beyond nature”) actually happens, as the poet is careful to say in the penultimate line’s “if.” The transcendence is “only” imaginary, therefore, as critic John Martone has noted. The poem’s emphasis is not on the transformation to the speaker’s body, after all; it is on the speaker’s emotional situation, as he is moved to imagine that ecstasy is possible. The metamorphosis in “A Blessing” “combin[es] the fantastic and the prosaic,” observes Martone. Perhaps even more significantly, it finds the magical within the prosaic.
Source: Sharon Kraus, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer deems “A Blessing” “the embodiment of the Oriental poetic ideal that Wright sought to emulate.”
James Wright’s 1963 poem “A Blessing” is one of the most deceptive poems written by one of the most deceptive poets. Throughout Wright’s poetry, in verses such as “Having Lost My Sons I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas 1960,” he has the habit of paring down and simplifying his images and perceptions to the point that they leave the reader, on first reading, with either a feeling of complete inconsequentiality or with a disturbing sense that something important has been missed—like an image that suddenly flies by in the corner of the eye when one is driving. The latter is the case. Wright is a poet of insight. His images are packed with emotion. He uses his word pictures with such economy and such precision that they only reveal their full impact when they are slowed down, considered, and read deeply. Reading Wright’s poetry is like revisiting a dream, considering every flashing image in depth and with great concern. His images are not iconographic or symbolic as much as they are archetypal in a very deep, mysterious, and almost inexplicable sense.
“A Blessing” is deceptive in that it appears to be a rather commonplace surface observation of two people stopping on “the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” to examine “two Indian ponies” in a field. The creatures saunter up to their observers, “gladly out of the willows” to welcome “my friend and me.” This observation is followed by a short description of the horses as the two people enter the pasture. What ensues is a moment of connection between the horses and the humans, a moment so powerful that only a metaphor, “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom,” can express the persona’s feeling of joy.
Wright, quite consciously, patterned the poem on Oriental poetry. The language is very spare and direct. It is devoid of complicated figures of speech, almost as if it is an extended haiku. The natural setting, the connection between an observer/persona and nature, his juxtaposing of two very distinct worlds, all suggest a poem that is much akin to Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” But what separates this poem from imagistic verse and saves it from being just a prolonged imagist lyric is the sense of the miraculous that floods the poem in the final two lines. After creating a very Oriental structure, Wright uses metaphor, out-of-body experience, and imaginative miracle to suddenly relocate the poem in the Western mentality. It is this sudden shift that takes the reader by surprise, because it carries the message that the observer is not just watching nature but is a part of it. The miracle of nature is, ultimately, the miracle of empathy. The final lines transform the poem from mere image into feeling.
In a 1970 interview with William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro, Wright was asked to read a poem from his collection The Branch Will Not Break. He chose “A Blessing,” explaining that, “This poem does not have any particular moral to it as far as I can tell. It’s just a description.” The absence of a moral message, of a statement that would conclude by offering some sort of purposeful and lasting truth, is a preoccupation of Western poetry and one that Wright is trying consciously to avoid in “A Blessing.” Wright’s comments on “A Blessing” are misleading, however; the poem is more than just “description.” It is a detailed examination of the minute movement from observation to epiphany—a process that goes beyond the rather reserved boundaries of Eastern poetry.
In the interview with Wright, Heyen revealed that he had typed out the entire poem because “I wanted to get the sense of its movement.” Heyen realized that “A Blessing” is more process than picture. The question, then, is how does that process work? The dynamics of the poem suggest that the subject, the ponies, is approached gradually. Contact and relationship are established as a beachhead for feeling. The “light breeze moves” the persona to “caress” the pony’s “long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” In this moment of sensuality, the poem suddenly departs from detachment and picture and becomes both a physical and emotional experience. The sudden realization on the persona’s part is that artifice alone cannot sustain one’s existence, even as an observer; the result of any process of examination is a “eureka!” no matter how hard one may strive to maintain that detachment.
Heyen comments to Wright that the poem “is an example of what Eliot meant when he said that no verse is ever really free. It’s a very tight poem. I think that it is a perfect example of how the discipline you subjected yourself to in your early works became almost second nature to you. Because of that discipline you could deal with a form like that of ‘A Blessing.’” Heyen is slightly off the mark in calling “A Blessing” a formal poem. It displays none of the prosody essential to the definition of a formal poem. But what Heyen may be acknowledging is the poem’s meter. The opening three lines of the poem are almost regular in the usage of iambic pentameter (the first line, oddly enough, has an extra light stress to accommodate “Minnesota” on the heels of “Rochester”). This underlying attempt at sonic regularity gives the poem an initial organizing principle that works, if not metrically, at least cadentially, to form a consistent yet gentle music. These three lines are followed with the “falling” line “Darken with kindness,” before the five-foot pattern returns in line 5, a line that opens with an anapest foot that sounds, cadentially, very like an extra iamb in the music of the line. Throughout the remainder of the poem, the voice literally rises and falls with groups of two or three long lines followed by shorter, more abrupt lines. The effect of this series of sonic variations is a haltingness, almost as if the voice is approaching its subject gradually, or tentatively, and easing itself into a relationship. What Heyen seems to have spotted, though not articulated, is that the poem is organized around its subject matter in that it strives for a unity of form and content. Wright responded to Heyen’s comments about “A Blessing” by noting that “Writing so-called free verse is tremendously difficult because it is so easy for the language to fall apart, into banalities. It can also easily fall into bad prose.”
Wright is alluding to the distinction between prose and vers libre and the issue of what makes a poem a poem. Wright seems to be conscious of the fact that a poem must have heightened, or at least engaging, language. The reality, however, is that Wright’s diction is profoundly direct, unadorned, and seemingly unpoetic. Herein lies one of the levels of deception that Wright practices so well. Granted, his diction is precise and common. What give the poem its heightened sense of language, though, is its power of narrative. “A Blessing” tells a little story. Like Frost, who practiced the discourse of common experience on both the external and internal levels of narration, Wright has chosen to intersperse his narration of the event with small,
“The absence of a moral message, of a statement that would conclude by offering some sort of purposeful and lasting truth, is a preoccupation of Western poetry and one that Wright is trying consciously to avoid in ‘A Blessing.’”
elegantly crafted details, such as “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass,” “They bow shyly as swans,” and “delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” These figure of speech, mostly similes, add to the narration and work on the reader’s mind on a level quite apart from either that of the narration or the common diction. The Oriental quality of the poem may come from the tableaux, the almost static action of the poem’s story; but the Western attractiveness of the poem, the appeal and the seduction of its language, comes from these figures of speech. And, true to the poem’s very subtle formal leanings, they occur at regular intervals throughout the verse, usually every five lines.
This begs the question as to what are the elements that make a poem. Language is certainly one. The frequency of repeated patterns is surely another element. The sudden revelation or transformation of seeing through a guided process is yet another recognizable element. Wright’s comments that no poem is totally composed of free verse suggest that one of the constituent principles a poem must abide by is structure—be it structure in language, thought, or sound. But where the poem exceeds the idea of being merely a formal construct is in Wright’s use of feeling.
In his essay “Some Notes on Chinese Poetry,” Wright admitted that his deep admiration for Oriental verse came from its ability to articulate feelings and emotions in subtle yet pictorially poetic ways: “the deeper appeal of the Chinese poets rests on something more general and more particular. I would call it the capacity to feel—to experience human emotion, whether the occasion of that emotion be a great public event, a disaster, or the most intimate private event or scene. Living as we do in a time when our imaginations have been threatened with numbness and our moral beings nearly shattered by the moral ghastliness of public events and private corruptions, we turn naturally—and necessarily, I believe—to a tradition of poetry like the Chinese. However they differ in time and place, they share an abiding radiance, a tenderness for places and persons and other living creatures.” “A Blessing” is, in many ways, the embodiment of the Oriental poetic ideal that Wright sought to emulate. Unlike the pursuit of Western “innocence,” a return to a lost state of moral grace and naivete, the mentality offered up by the Chinese poem allows for an easing of the soul into that “tenderness” of harmony with nature rather than simply a retreat from the nature of a fallen world that is so much a part of Blakean or Rousseaunian innocence. In this light, the blessing of the poem’s title is that of an awakening of perception—the realization that Man, as Wright so often viewed him in his early poetry, is not “apart.” It is a realization that beneath the suffering of the world there is still a connection with something meaningful in nature that offers solace, peace of mind, and the opportunity to “break / Into blossom” with a joy that the world would otherwise deny.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Cor van den Heuvel
In the following excerpt, van den Heuvel examines several of Wright’s volumes of poetry included in his Collected Poems, with special emphasis given to The Branch Will Not Break, in which “A Blessing” appeared.
James Wright is not a man to rest on his laurels—of which he has received many. Prizes, fellowships, and praise have been deservedly showered upon him ever since his first book, The Green Wall, was selected in 1957 for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. His most recent honor has been the 1972 $10,000 Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. Yet he has always gone on to still higher levels of craftsmanship and artistic achievement. In his Collected Poems it is possible to see the growth and development of this versatile and accomplished poet. It includes most of The Green Wall, and all of his next three books, Saint Judas (1959), The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and Shall We Gather at the River (1968), plus thirty translations from modern Spanish and German poets, and thirty-three new poems.
There is a universality in Wright’s work not only in subject matter but in form and technique as well. He is a classicist in the broad sense of the word. A craftsman who can put to use the traditional elements of his art while at the same time exploring new means of expression. In subject matter, his work encompasses both the outer world of planets and horses, grass and stars, and the inner world of the mind and heart which seeks to relate to the inner worlds of others.
His first book was devoted mostly to groundwork—mastering traditional forms. It appealed mainly to academic critics. Though the poems revealed some awareness of the human condition, the doorway to the human heart was opened only a crack—and the wonders of existence were barely tapped. The demands of the traditional forms in some cases resulted in an awkwardly elaborate facade of rhyme and meter through which a stilted sentimentality came on stage to talk of dead hounds and whores. But in many of the poems the language was expertly handled and in some cases the form began to take a less restricted shape—though the iambics might still drum their tum-te-tums too insistently upon the ear.
In his second book, Saint Judas, the forms retained a strictness, but there seemed to be a freedom of language within them—a more natural speech—so that the rhymes and meter did not obtrude on the senses but rather provided a subtle music to the sense. And, too, Wright began to express in earnest his concern for the downtrodden—the rejected and suffering members of humanity—which some of his friends and critics feel is the most important and characteristic element in his work....
In his next book, The Branch Will Not Break, the outer universe poured into Wright’s poetry with a magic immediacy that led many to think the poet had undergone a violent metamorphosis. The language became simpler and more natural—with a haunting beauty....
The words and images work like a magic incantation to dispel, if only for a moment, the fear of death. Death appears (or fades) in the perspective of a vivid sense of continuing life and the round of the seasons, and seems almost desirable—transformed by the wonder of the world of which it is an essential part. The language and the images have that simple beauty characteristic of Japanese haiku, somehow becoming an actual presence on the page.
Robert Bly, who was then close to him, wrote about Wright in his magazine The Sixties shortly after Branch appeared. According to Bly, Wright found a new tone and direction in Branch that was partly due to a dissatisfaction with his earlier work and a renewed interest in modern European and South American poetry. At the same time, says Bly, Wright was rereading the work of Georg Trakl, the German poet of strange surrealistic imagery and silences, whose magical poems seem to derive from a combination of heightened sensory perception and deep dream-like visions.
And it is true that before Branch was published Wright started his “association” with The Fifties (later The Sixties). Some of the enigmatically beautiful new poems later to appear in Branch first appeared in that magazine. About this time, the magazine also began its series of translations of modern European and South American poets, which, when the time of assessment comes around, will be seen to have had a profound effect on the direction poetry is now taking in this country. Bly and Wright have done much of the work of translation themselves, including the hauntingly radiant Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (1961) which finally introduced this great poet to America nearly fifty years after his death. The influence of these foreign poets (especially Trakl), practically unknown in the United States though they are leaders in modern world literature, seemed to bring a new tone to Wright’s work, a simplicity and depth of language and image—and cryptic silences where, “far off, the shopping centers empty and darken,” or “flash-lights drift over dark trees.”
Whatever the influences (for one can see where the poet feels a kinship with ancient Chinese poets as well as modern Spanish or German ones), Wright has used them to find his own individual voice.
But it is a voice that grew out of his earlier books also—it was not a veering off into a totally new direction. For Wright was always moving in the direction of a more simple and immediate language. Even the imagery had its precursors. It awaited enrichment or fruition, of course, but the seedlings can be found here and there even in The Green Wall. For example, in that book there are these two lines from “She Hid in the Trees From the Nurses”:
Now far away the evening folds
Around the siloes and the hill.
“... [This volume] constituted an important development in Wright’s work ....There was a great advance in technical proficiency as well as a dazzling blossoming of images.”
In Branch this “basic” image is enriched (by the distillation of simplicity—which even extends to the spelling), and touched with new magic:
A long sundown. Silos creep away toward the west.
(“In Memory of a Spanish Poet”)
Two of the poems in this book are already widely known and anthologized—“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and “A Blessing”—and seem destined to become modern “classics.”...
In his next book, Shall We Gather at the River, Wright returned from the infinite spaces to be found in leaves and stones to stand with the hurt and downtrodden of humanity again. This is not to say that the experience of Branch was not valid or important—but rather that it was, perhaps crucially so. It was, however, a voyage beyond the human. Wright can return, for he knows, paradoxically, that his humanness helped take him there. The experience, I believe, enabled him to come back with deeper powers of compassion and love—a new intensity of feeling for that mortal life which struggles to catch a glimpse of the eternal—and a greater skill in his craft.
It is revealing that when Wright recently gave a reading of his poetry (on the occasion of his election to the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets)—he didn’t read a single poem from Branch, though it is probably his most praised book. And after the reading, when I spoke to him about the Bly essay which celebrated the special strangeness and freer forms of the Branch poems, he appeared irritated and expressed disagreement with Bly’s assessment of his work. “I consider myself a classicist,” he said, and moodily retreated to his many friends who were gathering about him. He instantly lit up and smiled warmly amidst these more “human” people. They approached him as a person rather than as a “poet.” And so I retreated like an intruder with my passion for the cool beauties of Branch, and my cold questions, to reassess this man’s work and my own reactions to it.
I still agree with Bly that Branch constituted an important development in Wright’s work (and it is still my favorite). There was a great advance in technical proficiency as well as a dazzling blossoming of images. Before Branch the lines would sometimes gurgle and choke on their syntax as they were squeezed into the molds of rhyme and meter. With Branch there was a “sea change” in language, speech pattern, imagery, and tone—it was now plain American speech heightened to a strange beauty by the imaginative powers and craftsmanship of a man who had worked long and hard to learn the secrets of his art. The rhythms were balanced to fit their images, thoughts, and feelings—and the poems rounded into a complete form of their own with neither a word too little or too much. While the language had become sharp and clean as sunlight in a mountain stream, the images presented startling shapes from a shadowy primeval mist, or the mysteriously clear and tangible presences of simple existence like the breathing of horses.
I now feel that this was a further development of Wright’s art and experience of life, rather than a sudden freakish change of character. It was another dimension of human experience, and it will continue to enrich his work, but it is not the primary concern of his art (as, for example, it seems to have been with some of the Japanese haiku masters—what I mean is the infinite in a grain of sand, eternity in a grass blade’s moment of dawn and dew). His primary concerns—and I think in these two things his work has been consistent—is to achieve a superhuman facility with speech in order to embody the human spirit.
Source: Cor van den Heuvel, “The Poetry of James Wright,” Mosaic, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1974, pp. 163–68.
Austin, David Craig, “James Wright,” in American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement III, Part 2, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991, pp. 589-607.
Bly, Robert, “James Wright and the Slender Woman,” in James Wright: A Profile, edited by Frank Graziano and Peter Stitt, Durango, CO: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1988.
Costello, Bonnie, “James Wright: Returning to the Heartland,” from The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 224-6.
Daugherty, David C., James Wright, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 49-68.
Elkins, Andrew, The Poetry of James Wright, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991, pp. 67-109.
Friedman, Norman, “The Wesleyan Poets III: The Experimental Poets,” Chicago Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1966, p. 73.
Gunn, Thorn, “Modes of Control,” Yale Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, spring 1964, pp. 447-58.
Landless, Thomas H., “New Urns for Old: A Look at Six Recent Volumes of Verse,” Sewanee Review, Vol. 81, No. 1, winter 1973, pp. 137-57.
Martone, John, “‘I Would Break / Into Blossom’: Neediness and Transformation in the Poetry of James Wright,” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association, Vol. 9, No. 1, spring 1983.
Matthews, William, “The Continuity of James Wright’s Poems,” in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Palmer, J. E., “The Poetry of James Wright: A First Collection,” James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 26.
Rubin, Jr., Louis D., “Revelations of What Is Present,” The Nation, Vol. 197, No. 2, July 13, 1963, pp. 38-9.
Stein, Kevin, James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.
Stitt, Peter, “James Wright Knows Something about the Pure Clear Word,” New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1971, p. 7.
Taylor, Henry, “In the Mode of Robinson and Frost: James Wright’s Early Poetry,” from The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 62-64.
Wright, James, from a letter to Theodore Roethke, in Breslin, James E., “James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break,” American Poetry Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, March/April, 1982, p. 39.
Zweig, Paul, “Making and Unmaking,” Partisan Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1973, pp. 269-79.
Butscher, Edward, “The Rise and Fall of James Wright,” Georgia Review, spring 1974.
Butscher takes Wright to task for much of his poetry, arguing that Wright’s later work in particular contains many embarrassing failures. Still, Butscher views Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break (the collection where “A Blessing” first appeared) as his best book and proceeds to explain why this collection succeeds where other Wright collections ostensibly fail.
Smith, Dave, Local Assays, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Smith’s chapter entitled “James Wright: That Halting, Stammering Movement” contains some of the finest material on Wright’s poetry ever written. Smith is a probing, insightful critic, and virtually anything he’s written on Wright and on the art of poetry is worth reading.
Smith, Dave, ed., The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
This book remains the definitive collection of critical essays on Wright and his poetry. Among the many well-written and informative essays collected in this anthology are “James Wright” by Robert Hass, “A World Immeasurably Alive and Good: A Look at James Wright’s Collected Poems” by James Seay, and “The Work of James Wright” by Robert Bly. Also of great value are Smith’s introduction to the collection and “James Wright: The Pure Clear Word,” his interview with Wright.
Stitt, Peter, The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Stitt may be too much of a Wright booster for his own good, but his material on Wright in this book, though somewhat disorganized, does contain a few insights into Wright’s style and oeuvre. This book also contains Stitt’s 1975 Paris Review interview with Wright that sheds some light on certain aspects of his writing process.