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.