Reevaluating James Wright’s “A Blessing”

There is a poem in my second book that channels Wright's voice so effectively that even someone who knew Wright's work fairly well might mistake it for the real thing. James Wright's poetry was once tremendously important to me, but these days, when I go back to it, the work feels sentimental to me. I'm teaching Intro to Creative Writing this semester & the anthology I'm using includes what is probably Wright's second most famous poem, "A Blessing."
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 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 happiness That we have come. They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. There is no loneliness like theirs. At home once more, They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness. 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, And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear 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 Into blossom.
As I was reading this poem to my creative writing students a couple of weeks ago, about a third of the way through the thought occurred to me -- actually articulated itself as a silent editorial comment -- This is really pretty awful. The thing that bothers me the most is a kind of self-congratulatory celebration of the speaker's own sensitivity. I guess, to be honest, the last couple of times I'd read the poem it had fallen a little flat for me, but as in a dying love affair, I had used my powers of self-deception in order to speak the lines with something like conviction. This last time, though, it was all over between us. The piece seems to ask a great deal more than it gives back, which is the standard definition of sentimentality, formulated admirably here in a Wikipedia entry:
Sentimentality is on one hand a literary device that is used to induce an emotional response disproportionate to the situation, and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments, and on the other it is a heightened reader response that is willing to invest previously prepared emotions to respond disproportionately to a literary situation.
________________________ This is probably Wright's most famous poem. I like it better than "A Blessing," but not as much as I used to. Golden stones? My favorite Wright poem is probably "The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martin's Ferry, Ohio." Some further comments of mine regarding Wright on Robert Peake's weblog.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

19 thoughts on “Reevaluating James Wright’s “A Blessing””

  1. Good post. Yeah, Wright has not aged well. What must have seemed so fresh to readers in the 1960s… I am struck by how literary some of the language is: “Twilight bounds softly…” How those short declarative sentences are so far from the way anyone really speaks.

  2. SENTIMENTALITY

    Finding the closeness of days
    alarming at times that speed we
    sharpen and then dull one another
    each worn down by night

    every poem tries to get past poetry
    to swim over the threshold but must
    fail to do so thrown into the back of a truck
    taken fishing gene pools

    we digress we undress
    someone comes to get us
    since we were waiting for them

    worlds go up in smoke
    color and sound take back
    what they spoke.

  3. Hey Joe, here’s where I stopped reading — lines three through four: “the eyes of those two Indian ponies / Darken with kindness.” I stopped and I thought to myself, “self, James Wright is trying to induce an emotional response in me by using the word ‘kindness’ — and the kind eyes of a pony are too cliché for my modern taste.” Maybe this is a sign that language was not so “late” even as far back as the 1960s. I see it in Frost, in James Hearst — the telling instead of the showing, discursive instead of descriptive — and back then, somehow, they got away with it. Maybe Wright was manipulative and slushy — but to me, this points out how far we have come in forty years trying to reinvent language through poetry.

  4. Poets are always killing their parents. I long ago knifed Robert Lowell.

    I’ve always read A Blessing as self-recriminating. The sentimentality is a surrender to the ephemeral Wright can feel but not inhabit. There’s that “if” in the last sentence that rules the world.

    It is a great poem to use in an intro class, though I’d argue it’s a great poem too.

  5. You can’t get away from the adverbs, can you? Softly, gladly, tensely, shyly…I basically tell my students never to use adverbs, although like all my rules they can break it, but they’d better have a good reason why.

    I’ve come to have a hard time with poems that recount a touching or ironic or even horrendous personal anecdote, although oddly enough, the king of that genre, Frank O’Hara, still reads pretty well to me. But here…I start to mentally thrust it away with the first adverb, but the urge to thrust grows exponentially when I get to “my friend and me.” Why do I care? The friend doesn’t add anything to the poetic experience.

    Funny, I’m just in the process of revisiting another poem from the past on my blog. This one from Donald Justice, and this one does hold up. Come over and take a look, but not right away, because I’m still in the middle of writing the entry, and it keeps expanding, so it may take a while.

  6. Telling someone not to use adverbs, or any other part of speech, is BASICALLY a bad idea, because ODDLY enough, they are REALLY useful, like any other part of speech. I hope you don’t mean SERIOUSLY that you think that is some sort of legitimate “rule.” At best it could be a short hand way of saying “don’t overuse them.” I doubt you could find a page of any good writer that didn’t contain several adverbs.

  7. Sorry, that was a little harsh. This is what I meant:

    They BETTER have a good reason to break that rule.

    (better is an adverb in this sentence)

    STILL reads PRETTY WELL to me

    (three more)

    I’m JUST in the process of…

    (there’s another one)

    I’m STILL in the middle of …

    (another one)

    No, you can’t get away from the adverbs. That’s the funny thing about them. Humble adverbs like TOO, ONLY, STILL, RATHER, JUST, WELL have their necessary place, along with all the descriptive adverbs ending in -ly which Wright happens to overuse in this particular poem, as you so astutely point out.

  8. I don’t make any rules that can’t be broken, and I always let my students know that they may want, at some point or other, to break any rule or guideline I ever give them. And I tell them that every word, and every construction, and every part of speech in the language is there for a reason, and all of them have their place.

    But I do think that beginning poetry students use too many modifiers. I give them this handout, which breaks down some poems by part of speech:

    http://www.opus40.org/tadrichards/tiredworking.htm

    And you’ll notice that at the end of the handout, I point out that Allen Ginsberg broke every rule I ever established, and wrote superb poetry.

    And I still think Wright’s adverbs are flaccid and unnecessary, and contribute mightily (aha!) to the sentimentality of the poem.

  9. Tad, I haven’t had time to go through that handout, but a quick once-over suggests it’s very interesting & just the sort of thing some of my students might respond to.

  10. A lot of people don’t like Billy Collins. Probably fewer don’t like Shelley. But I think both of them are writing on a sufficiently professional level to be used as examples, for beginning poets.

    I used Collins because I happened to have one of his books close to hand at the time I started musing on this, and made up the concordance to the two student poems.

  11. Probably the worst thing that could be said about a poet is that he/she is being sentimental. Yet it’s also the emotional boundary line that has to be approached boldly, and maybe even crossed, if you’re going to write poetry that is important to people other than specialists.

  12. In July 2004 I attended an ecology meeting that discussed Washington’s Growth Management Act’s Best Available Science policy – information can be produced only by a valid scientific process, work conducted by qualified individuals using documented methodologies. The moderator specified that works of art would not be admissable as testimony. Since then I have noticed the subject of art reevaluated – for example, in the Focus The Nation project, 50+ instructors are included under Obstacles to Change, their suggested panel should contain an artist who talks about what makes a polar bear such a powerful iconic image. My experience with the dismissal of art had begun there, my experience with poetry had included a lot of works with nature as the topic. Maybe James Wright has been considered the Best Available Art on such a topic as two horses and the different approach concerns the idea of sentimentality. Are the horses an icon or a sentiment?

  13. I think the horses are horses, Laura, and Wright should have satisfied himself with having the experience and recording it rather than celebrating his own sensitivity, which is how the poem reads to me now. WCW & Chas. Reznikoff created an “objective” poetry in reaction to the emotional slush of a previous generation. I’ll take my stand with those guys.

    Jim, I couldn’t agree more that the artist has to come up to the line & maybe even slip across sometimes. I’d even argue that the main reason for poetry’s existence in our culture is to enable educated emotion — what Flaubert called “sentiment” as in A Sentimental Education.

    And I think there should be an artist on every planning board in the country. Science does not have an exclusive claim on the truth, obviously.

  14. This certainly isn’t my favorite Wright poem, by a long shot, but it seems like a love poem, and I’d rather expect a love poem to be “sentimental,” right?

    There’s certainly nothing “sentimental” in a better poem like “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway” or “Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake”

    Wright is too formal for my taste, but his early poetry seems more depressing than “sentimental.” So I can forgive a little sentimentality in his later poems.

Comments are closed.