Peter Stitt

Robert Bly: On "A Blessing"

[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 family’s 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, "Let’s 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 girl’s 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.

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Stitt: On "St. Judas"

[Wright is answering a question about influences on his early work.] When I wrote [The Green Wall, 1957] I was twenty-seven years old. I could tell you the kind of thing I had in mind. I wrote a sonnet called "Saint Judas" and in that sonnet I was trying to do two things technically: to write a sonnet that would be a genuine Petrarchan sonnet and at the same time be a dramatic monologue. I got that idea from [Edwin Arlington] Robinson, who has a sonnet called "How Annandale Went Out." Do you know what went out means? Well, this is conventional hospital parlance for dying. So and so went out last night. Annandale is a character Robinson had written about before, but in this particular sonnet the doctor is speaking. And, as usual in a dramatic monologue, he is speaking to another person, so that what you are doing is overhearing a conversation in which one person speaks and the other is listening. The doctor was a friend pf George Annandale. George Annandale was an alcoholic who was suffering terribly with his death, and so the doctor gave him an injection. That’s what the word engine means in this poem. He gave him an injection which killed him; that is, he administered euthanasia. Then he gets drunk, and in the poem he is talking to another friend of George Annandale’s. What is he trying to do? And Robinson – great Robinson! -- leaves you hanging there saying, yes, what was he trying to do? Here is the sonnet:

"They called it Annandale – and I was there

To flourish, to find words and to attend:

Liar physician, hypocrite, and friend,

I watched him; and the sight was not so fair

As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:

An apparatus not for me to mend –

A wreck, with hell between him and the end,

Remained of Annandale; and I was there.

"I knew the ruin as I knew the man;

So put the two together, if you can,

Remembering the worst you know of me.

Now view yourself as I was, on the spot –"

With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?

Like this … You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not."

Then we have my poem on Judas, who is, I suppose, the ultimate lost betrayer. It is a – well, I wouldn’t call it a literal imitation of Robinson, but if I hadn’t read Robinson’s sonnets I know that I wouldn’t have tried to write that poem.