A letter from my student, Lucas Denzler to his former teacher Bruce Weigl. –Theresa Williams
I have spent the last several hours furiously typing and even more furiously deleting (what an easy thing it is to do; I must remember never to succumb to the urge to type first drafts of my fiction and poetry) what was meant to be heartfelt correspondence centered around the corpus of James Wright and ended up being yet another academic essay. I doubt you want to read my overwrought analysis of Wright’s decision to include a specific place in his poem “A Blessing”, and I don’t really want to write that either. But that is what was coming out from my fingertips after long stretches of planning and care, so I will try another tact. To hell with calm reason! First instinct it is. Perhaps I will at least get some poetry out of the exercise, if nothing else.
In a letter to Donald Hall in July of 1958, Wright gives up poetry. One of the last lines of the letter is “For me to try to write poetry is in bad taste.” But just a few lines beforehand, he writes an incredibly interesting string of sentences: “Whatever it was in me that got poems started looks and feels like a large, defenseless, blanket-bombed city. The sewer-rats march with tubas and bass drums through the soccer field, and cathedrals are pitched headfirst, like unfrocked saints dizzy with bay rum and canned heat, into the garbage dumps, and devalued coins of finance darken the gutters of the black market of my self, and have like a rain of artificial blood.” This is unlike any of the poetry I have read by the man, a crazed roil of surrealist imagery that I do not think is reached even in his 1968 poem “The Minneapolis Poem” (sidebar: the man was either brilliant or horrible at naming poems; I cannot decide), with its “…beggars…carried away/By white birds.” There is something raw in the letter-poem-thing, and I think, with him at his basest, his most depressed, which has to be the basis for his multipage letter to Hall (he is denouncing his great ambition, for goodness sake!) that this brief glimpse of the pure emotion from within the man can really give a good lens through which to view the his poetry. They are very contained, very simple, very unassuming, I would say, at first glance.
So we come to “A Blessing”, which, on a cursory reading, is a really boring, trite poem. A couple of guys hang out with some ponies and think it’s pretty cool. It only needs a kaleidoscope or a rainbow. But, thinking about it in the aforementioned way, it becomes something else entirely. Or, I should say, the reaction to it changes. It is still the same poem, of course.
To start, let’s look at the last three lines: “Suddenly I realize/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.” That last line break just kills me. It goes from complete isolation, fear of the other, a thought that anything out of the norm might annihilate the speaker to transcendence. I actually naively said to myself that the rest of the poem was not needed, that the last three lines could be a poem on their own. I still think maybe they could, but not as nearly a good a poem as what there is now. This part is so powerful because of the preceding lines. The journey from the road to the moment with the one pony is slight, but there is a progression to that final moment of revelation.
To stop a moment and talk about the moment with the pony: first of all, the choice of “…delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist” is one of those brilliant moments of poetry that I would not have thought of except if Wright had given it to me. My first thought is an erotic one, imagined the soft brush of a hand as it slides up a woman’s arm to clasp her hand in the moment of passion. My second is a completely different one, the image of a father holding his daughter’s hand as they walk somewhere. Now, they seem to me to both apply and mesh together in my mind in a single sweet, soft moment, because there is the deep passion, the deep emotion that comes from this moment (he immediately notices he might break, remember) but there is the softness of the shy pony that grounds the poem, keeping the moment from becoming too overdone.
Secondly, to bring us back to the breaking, the speaker pets the pony because “…the light breeze moves [him]…” He is on a tipping point at this moment, in between two states. Throughout the poem, there are very blatant dichotomies: between the road and the field, between the men and the ponies, between the light and dark of twilight, between loneliness and union. There is even the very stark image of the men stepping over a barbed wire fence to reach the ponies. I cannot think of many symbols of division more potent than that.
I feel as if I am drifting dangerously close to the academic side of things, so I want to take a step back for a moment and talk about one of the first things you taught us last semester, before beats and meters and all that technical stuff. You told us “a poem means what it says it means”, and, while it has taken some time for me to accept that fact, the more I go in with that mindset, the better poems seem to get (at least the good ones!). I bring this up because this is actually the reason I thought of writing to you. In class, we were broken up into small groups of three or four to talk about Wright’s work, and I overheard several groups discussing “A Blessing” in a way that shocked me. I was reading the poem as a visit with some ponies, and they were reading it as some kind of metaphor for Wright’s love life. Let us even put aside for a moment the fact that, in a speech at the inaugural James Wright Poetry Festival in 1981, Robert Bly describes a trip him and Wright took where they stopped on the side of the road and hung out with some ponies. To look at the poem as having so many layers dilutes its power, I think. The reader is immediately overworked, spending far too much time parsing out what is a symbol for what and then you have to decide who each of the ponies and the friend stand for and then the reader has lost sight of the beauty of the poem. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness” ceases to describe the sinew beneath a wondrous beast’s fur, “They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other./There is no loneliness like theirs” ceases to evoke that breath-taking image of a pair of horses standing in a vast field, munching on grass that I have seen many times traveling across the farmlands of Ohio. Instead of celebrating the ponies, instead of celebrating nature, reading it all as metaphor makes it a worse poem. And, thankfully, I had you to teach me that before I got to this point, or I would have been baffled as to why the teacher had assigned such a boring poem.
One last thought: I find it interesting that, after thinking so much about the poem, I still find it to be sad. The title is “A Blessing”. The ponies give the speaker a great gift of transcendental knowledge. The ponies are kind, their eyes “Darken with kindness.” The speaker is with a friend. Perhaps the sticking point is that the speaker does not step out of his body, that he does not blossom. I wonder where Wright is coming from, to recognize this gift but not act. There is nothing in his letters that I have read that seem to address this. It strikes me particularly hard because the poem above it in the anthology we are reading out of is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”, another poem that deals with the beauty of nature, and ends with the sobering “I have wasted my life.” If he knows that his life is being wasted, and has been given the gift of knowledge of how to achieve something greater by the ponies, why does he not take it? Perhaps this is me over analyzing again.
I hope all is well with you. Again, I would be most gracious to be able to see what James Wright wrote to you back in the day, and also what the circumstances of the letter were. Did you write to him, or did he notice a poem of yours somewhere? My professor here almost had a heart attack when she heard that I might get to see a letter from Wright to a young poet (and to you no less! I forget occasionally what a stroke of luck I had in having someone of your talent as my instructor into the realm of poetry), and, if it is alright with you, wondered if she might be able to see the letter as well.
Bruce Weigl is an American poet born in Lorain, Ohio in 1949. Enlisting in the US on his eighteenth birthday, he spent 3 years in the service, one of which he served in the Vietnam War, during which he earned the Bronze Star. Returning home, he received a BA from Oberlin College, an MA from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied under Charles Simic, and a PhD from the University of Utah.