Dec. 13, 2003

A Blessing

by James Wright

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Poem: "A Blessing," by James Wright, from Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press).

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
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
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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). He's famous for his series of detective novels about the private investigator Lew Archer, novels such as Moving Target (1949), The Drowning Pool (1950), and The Way People Die (1951). Most of his novels are about corruption in Southern California. Ross Macdonald said, "Nothing is wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure."

It's the birthday of football player and novelist Tim Green, born near Syracuse, New York (1963). He is possibly the first professional athlete ever to publish a novel while he was still an active player. While in college on a football scholarship, he studied writing with the authors Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. They encouraged him to write about what he knew, and what he knew was football. While playing as a defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, he published his first novel, Ruffians (1993), a thriller about professional football. He has gone on to write several other novels about the seamy side of the football business, including The Red Zone (1998) and Double Reverse (1999). His most recent novel is The Fourth Perimeter (2003).

It's the birthday of German poet Heinrich Heine, born in Dusseldorf, Germany (1797). He's one of the most popular German poets of the nineteenth century. He wrote a series of love poems, each one of which ended with an ironic, witty twist. These poems were collected in The Book of Songs (1827), but they didn't sell well. He spent the next decade struggling to find work, writing for various newspapers, and hoping that he wouldn't get in trouble for his unpopular political views. He wrote many more poems and dramas, but late in his life his early poems were rediscovered, and they made him rich and famous. Many of them were set to music by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

Heine wrote, "There are more fools in the world than there are people." And he wrote, "The Romans would never have found time to conquer the world if they had been obliged first to learn Latin."

It's the birthday of rock critic Lester Bangs, born in Escondido, California (1948). His father was an alcoholic and an ex-convict who disappeared when Bangs was nine years old. His mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and he grew up going door to door with her, evangelizing, holding signs that said, "What Is Your Destiny?"

After he heard The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he fell in love with rock 'n roll, ran away from home and got involved with the Hell's Angels. He tried to go to college to study journalism but dropped out just before his twentieth birthday. He wanted to join a rock band, but the only instrument he could play was the harmonica. Then, in 1969, he wrote his first music review and sent it to Rolling Stone magazine with a note that said, "Look . . . I'm as good as any writer you've got in there. You'd better print this or give me the reason why!" He was shocked when they actually accepted it.

Bangs went on to write for a variety of different magazines, but instead of just writing about the music, he used music as the starting point for long, rambling essays about American life and culture. He wanted to write serious literature, and hated the fact that people considered him a hack journalist. He tried to write a book throughout the 1970s, but he struggled with alcoholism and drug addition, and in 1982 he died of a drug overdose. After his death, much of his work was collected in the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), and he is now considered one of the greatest rock critics of all time.

It's the birthday of American poet James Wright, born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's hometown was located in a heavily industrialized area of the state that Wright called "my back-broken beloved Ohio." There was a coal mine and a steel mill near his house, and he grew up surrounded by blast furnaces and smoke stacks. During the winter, all the snowdrifts in his town turned black from soot. In the summer, he swam with other boys in the Ohio River, which was full of runoff from the factories that lined the banks. He called the Ohio, "[that] beautiful river, that black ditch of horror."

He started writing poetry when he was eleven years old. His father worked at the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, and Wright took a job at the same factory when he got out of high school. After working there for a few months, he decided that he had to get out of his hometown. He later said, "I knew musicians and possible poets and even ordinary lovable human beings, and saw them with brutal regularity going into [factories], and turning into stupid and resigned slobs with beer bellies and glassy eyes."

He served in World War II and used the G.I. Bill to study at Kenyon College. He got a job teaching English at the University of Minnesota, and published two books of poetry, but he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and he lost his teaching job for missing classes. His poetry hadn't attracted any attention, his marriage had broken up, and he wasn't sure what to do next when, one day, he read an issue of Robert Bly's literary magazine The Fifties. It impressed him so much that he wrote Bly a sixteen page single-spaced letter. Bly wrote back and invited him to a farm in western Minnesota, and the two became great friends.

Wright had been writing all of his poetry with formal meter and rhyme, but Bly encouraged him to write free verse, and the result was his first important book of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break (1962). It got great reviews and contained many of his most famous poems, including "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," "A Blessing," and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." He went on to write many more books of poetry, including Two Citizens (1973) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977). Throughout his work, he kept coming back to the subject of his hometown. He wrote, "The one tongue I can write in / Is my Ohioan."

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