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Life is full of surprises—some pleasant, some not so much. Surprises of both types often pop up during travel, as new places bring fresh perceptions (as well as lost luggage). Some trips are especially memorable, even life-changing. Think, for example, of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." In this instance, a traveler chooses a road "less traveled" and concludes, "It made all the difference."
James Wright's poem "A Blessing" begins with a well-traveled "highway," not a wooded path, but this speaker, too, decides to get off the main drag, at least for a few minutes. Pulling off the highway, the speaker steps over a fence and approaches two ponies grazing in a pasture. A mysteriously serene encounter ensues.
"A Blessing" was first published in 1963, and in 1972 Wright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry as well as the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. Though grateful for the recognition, Wright pooh-poohed his achievement, predicting that his work would end as a "footnote" in American poetry. But the American public begged to differ, and Wright's poems remain popular more than twenty years after his death.
Despite his professional success, Wright's personal life was not easy. During his high school years, he suffered a mental breakdown, and he was hospitalized repeatedly for psychiatric problems throughout his adult life. Suffering is a prominent theme in many of his poems.
Though the overall mood of "A Blessing" is one of reverential awe and "happiness," a current of longing and "loneliness" in the poem hints that this gift of momentary joy is all too rare. And the gift itself requires a measure of courage, as the speaker must first leave the beaten path and embark on a journey into unfamiliar territory.
"It's hard to explain." At one time or another, we all resort to this plaintive refrain. Sometimes things are hard to explain because the subject involves complicated information. (Could you please explain again exactly how recombinant DNA works?)
But at other times words fail because the subject itself is mysterious. Emotional or spiritual experiences are especially hard to capture in words. Why did you break up with your significant other? Why do you listen to a particular Bob Marley song over and over? Why do you practice yoga? Why do you own a dog? Why is the view from a mountaintop worth all the sweat and blisters it took to hike there? It's hard to explain.
From this point of view, poets have one of the most challenging jobs in the world: finding words to explain the unexplainable. In "A Blessing," James Wright begins by telling a simple story about a couple of ponies. As the poem progresses, figurative language helps convey the speaker's depth of emotion (one pony's ear is "delicate" as a "girl's wrist"), but the story is still easy to follow.
In the final lines, however, the poem abruptly switches to a breathtakingly surreal image: "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." It turns out that what really happened in that pasture is hard to explain—so hard that the poet had to use words in an unusual and unexpected way to express the speaker's feelings about the experience.
Whenever a poet hits it out of the ballpark like this, he or she scores one for the home team, because all of us, as readers, benefit. Granted, you may never find yourself in a pasture at twilight, admiring a beautiful Indian pony. But everyone has special moments, moments of mysterious, inexpressible joy. And James Wright has already honored and validated those moments for you by explaining how it feels to break into blossom.
Wright on Poets.org
This website provides a great introduction to James Wright and his poems. It includes a brief bio, bibliography, links to a nice sampler of his poems, and audio files of the poet reading some of his poems aloud.
Here's another good website about Wright. It includes links to 50 of his poems.
Modern American Wright
Here's yet another great clearinghouse of information on Wright's life and work.
Name. That. Pony!
Check out this video of an "Indian Pony" with markings similar to those described in "A Blessing."
Beautiful Horses Spring Pasture Romp
In this video, the two horses look like good buddies, and they look happy to be in the pasture. Notice that the pasture is located next to a road, like the pasture in "A Blessing" (split-rail fence instead of barbed wire, though).
Dance of the Swan
Remember that line in "A Blessing" about the ponies bowing "shyly as wet swans"? This video of the courting ritual of two swans shows why we tend to associate swans with romantic love (their heads and necks really do form a valentine shape!). Stevie Nicks fans will enjoy the soundtrack.
This is not the strongest reading, but it's an interesting mash-up of "A Blessing" and the Viggo Mortenson film.
James Wright Reads "A Blessing"
Listen to the poet's reading of "A Blessing." Do his inflections or tone of voice influence your interpretation of the poem?
More Wright Reading
This website includes audio files of the poet reading aloud his and others' poems.
He looked tough when he was younger.
Here he's rockin' the bearded look.
The Branch Will Not Break
Here's the cover image of a new edition of the book of poetry in which "A Blessing" was originally published.
Above the River: The Complete Poems
This is the cover image of Wright's collected poems, published in 1992. It includes poems published from 1957 through 1977.
"James Wright, the Art of Poetry"
Make sure to check out this wonderful interview with Wright published in The Paris Review in 1975. It's full of juicy tidbits and thought-provoking reflections.
"James Wright: 1927-1980"
This article offers some intriguing commentary about the style and themes of Wright's poems.
"Pulitzer Prize Poet in Seattle"
During this interview with a writer for The Seattle Times, Wright states, "I don't believe in God. He hurts too much."
"Wright—Definitely Not Tongue-in-Cheek"
In this interview published by the University of Washington Daily, Wright reflects on the intersection "between time and eternity" and muses on the difference between "making love to someone and with someone." He also describes his reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize ("frightened").
This website gathers several articles about Wright and his poetry, including Robert Bly's description of the circumstances surrounding Wright's composition of "A Blessing."
The Branch Will Not Break
This is the book of poetry in which "A Blessing" was originally published in 1963. The link below describes a new edition of the book published in 1992.
Above the River: The Complete Poems
If you're curious about how "A Blessing" fits in the larger context of Wright's work, check out a copy of this book, which collects all of his poems, published from 1957 through 1977. (Notice how frequently horses are mentioned!)
Donald Hall, Kicking the Leaves
This book was not written by James Wright; it's a collection of poetry by poet Donald Hall. Included in this volume is another memorable poem about horses, called "Names of Horses" (you can read the poem online here). Make sure to have a hanky handy, because the poem is a real tearjerker.