Brian Green: On "A Blessing"

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" [15]) 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

Into blossom


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.


Title Brian Green: On "A Blessing" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Brian Green Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Explicator, 58.3
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