Kevin Stein: On "A Blessing"

In late 1960 John Frederick Nims accepted "A Blessing," under the title "The Blessing," for Poetry magazine. … Wright had, in the meantime, decided to revise [what Norman Friedman characterized in a 1966 Chicago Review essay as] his "nearly perfect" poem. The following us the revision that Wright sent to Poetry for Nims’s approval:

 

JUST OFF THE HIGHWAY TO ROCHESTER, MINNESOTA

 

Twilight bounds softly out on the grass.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I think

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

 

[Stein proceeds through the poem, discussing in detail several of the changes.]

… Both versions further present the ponies as figures of unification. They partake of a spiritual communion, "munching the young tufts" of a revenant spring enveloped, again, in "darkness." One pony in particular represents a merging of the opposites discussed earlier, for she is "black and white." A composite of light and dark, she has "nuzzled" the speaker’s hand, and for her part, has eliminated a portion of the subject-object distance.

In "Just off the Highway," however, this encounter is somewhat incomplete, for the speaker does not, in turn, touch the pony. In the following lines which were deleted from the revision, the speaker of "The Blessing" remarks: "And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is as delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist." Compelled by a "light" wind in darkness, subject and object interact, as equals, in a world made intensely alive. There is no arrogant insistence on rational and intellectual detachment from nature. The speaker, in fact, collapses all distinctions when he calls upon a human element, the skin of a girl’s wrist, to describe the softness of the pony’s ear.

As a result of this brief touch with the natural, the speaker of "The Blessing" suddenly accepts the possibility of transcendence. This realization evokes both terror – he would certainly "break" if he did so – and wonder – he would become pure, natural "blossom": [Stein cites the last three lines of "A Blessing."]

Such a moment of insight informs the speaker of both the risk and the potential reward inherent in numinous experience. Manuscript evidence would have it that Wright does believe an individual can experience these revelations immanent in nature. Wright’s handwritten notation on the manuscript of "Just off the Highway" indicates as much. To the right of the poem’s final three lines – its moment of epiphany – he writes simply, "It is possible."

Note, though, how the phrasing of "Just off the Highway" clouds the aura of possibility: "I think / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." The phrase "I think" lacks the suddenness o insight shown in "The Blessing," and betrays a sense of uncertainty. Or worse, the final lines seem prompted by the bland and wholly out-of-place action of rational thought in a moment of arational and intuitive knowledge. Thus, the imagination seems shackled by the ruminative.

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Title Kevin Stein: On "A Blessing" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kevin Stein Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Poetics of Vulnerability: The Branch Will Not Break
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