Music was important to James Wright. "You can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it," he said. The music in "A Blessing" is subtle but powerful, created in part through the rhythms of the lines (see "Form and Meter" section). As free verse, the poem doesn't wear its sounds on its sleeve. There are no obvious rhymes, and other sound devices work their magic almost invisibly within and across the lines of the poem.
There are only two instances of rhyme in the poem, and both are inconspicuous internal rhymes. Line 8 contains the exact rhyme "they" and "day," while line 12 contains the slant rhyme (or "almost" rhyme) of "there" and "theirs." Shmoop admits to missing both of these rhymes the first couple of times we read the poem. And even after we noticed them, they seemed pretty inconsequential at first. But when we paid closer attention, some interesting effects emerged.
In line 8, the long A sound in the rhyming words "they" and "day" recurs in the word "grazing." Is there any connection between this repeated sound and the meaning of the line ("Where they have been grazing all day")? Grazing is a pretty repetitive activity: if you're a pony, you use your lips and teeth to gather one tuft of grass, then another and another, while you slowly stroll across the pasture.
Line 12 is about "loneliness," and the slant rhyme in this line reinforces the idea of being closed off or self-contained. Almost identical in sound, the words at the beginning and end of the line ("There" and "theirs") form a kind of closed circle. Just another example of how this poet's super-sonic devices fly under the reader's radar!
Once you're sensitized to Wright's subtle use of sound, you start hearing musical effects throughout the poem. The first two lines of the poem are woven together with short O sounds ("off," "Rochester," "softly") and long I sounds ("highway" and "Twilight"). In lines 3 and 4, repetition of the long I sound emphasizes the "kindness" in the ponies' "eyes." Alliteration links the next two lines ("willows" and "welcome"). Line 20 is tightly stitched together with both alliteration ("light […] long," "moves […] me") and assonance ("breeze […] me").
In lines 21 and 22, the poem switches abruptly from physical description to abstract imagery. Notice how Wright uses alliteration to ease this conceptual transition. Bridging the gap are the repeated S sounds in "skin" and "Suddenly" and the repeated R sounds in "wrist" and realize."
Midway through "A Blessing," and again at the end, alliteration amplifies key themes of the poem. In lines 11 and 12, the L sound in "loneliness" carries a melancholy echo of the L sound in "love" (for more on this, check out the "Calling Card" and "Themes" sections). In the last two lines of the poem, the triple alliteration of "body […] break […] blossom" just might blow your mind or make your brain explode! (For more on this, see "Transformation" in the "Themes" section.)
The title of Wright's poem has strong religious connotations. As a verb, the word "blessing" means "the act of making something holy." As a noun, it most often refers to a religious act involving God's help. The word "blessing" can also refer to a prayer of gratitude before a meal. But the poem itself seems to be about ponies, not churches. Plus, Wright has publicly stated, "I don't believe in God." So what's up with the religious title?
Many folks who don't go to church or don't even believe in traditional concepts of God still describe themselves as spiritual, and they often use religious terms such as "blessing" in non-churchy ways. For example, James Wright once described an experience he had while visiting the farm of fellow poet Robert Bly. Wright spent much of the day quietly hanging out with a swaybacked palomino horse named David. Later, Wright commented that he "felt blessed" by the experience.
Based on this anecdote, it's tempting to conclude that the title of "A Blessing" similarly refers to the spiritual effect of the ponies on the speaker. But, of course, we all know not to equate the writer of a poem with the speaker of a poem, right (Wright?)? Check out the "Speaker" section to refresh your memory on how tricky this issue can be.
So we should probably keep an open mind about this title. Yes, the speaker may feel blessed by the ponies. But couldn't the blessing travel in the opposite direction? After all, the ponies seem awfully happy to see these human visitors: maybe the ponies feel blessed by the people. Or maybe some larger, loving force in the universe is blessing both the ponies and the people. Like all good titles of all good poems, this title just gets more interesting the more you think about it.
In one sense, there's no great mystery about the setting of "The Blessing." We know exactly where and when the action occurs: in a "pasture" along "the highway to Rochester, Minnesota" at "twilight" in the "spring." The highway reference clearly suggests a modern setting. The pasture, too, seems unexceptional; enclosed in "barbed wire," it supplies grazing land for two ponies.
But in another sense, the setting is suffused with mystery. For the speaker, this random pasture becomes a place of "happiness" and "love" and "loneliness." Why does the speaker experience this simple horse pasture as such an emotionally charged, almost dream-like environment? How does the presence of the ponies transport the speaker to the threshold of an out-of-body experience? Throughout the poem, the speaker is attuned to the mysterious magic of the setting, which by the end seem to have figuratively inspired him: "if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom" (23-24).
Though all poets write from their own experience, it's important to distinguish the poet from the speaker in the poem. That said, the desire to seek out possible connections between a poet's personal life and the words on the page can be irresistible. In the case of "A Blessing," there's an interesting biographical backstory, but, before we get to that, let's try to make an unbiased assessment of the poem's speaker.
So what do we know about the speaker? Well, we don't find out until line 6 that the poem is narrated in the first person ("my friend and me"). Who these people are we don't know, though we may suspect that they are taking a road trip together. There is no indication of their gender.
Even before the speaker self-identifies in line 6, the earlier descriptions suggest that he or she is a sensitive soul, someone who reflects on the quality of twilight and who notices the kindness in a pony's eyes. Clearly an animal lover, the speaker closely observes and interprets the ponies' behavior. The speaker appears deeply touched by one pony's willingness to make direct contact, responding with a "caress." In the final lines of the poem, the speaker's emotions intensify, culminating in a kind of mystical vision.
So, back to that backstory: in his memoirs, Robert Bly, a fellow poet and close friend of James Wright, gives the following account of the events surrounding Wright's composition of "A Blessing."
One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, "Let's stop." So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called "A Blessing."
Interesting, yes? But does this account change your perception of the poem's speaker at all? Speaking just for ourselves, Shmoop has to admit that from now on we may visualize "my friend and me" as two men.
Here's another, possibly more revealing, biographical tidbit for you. In an interview, James Wright once referred to the imagination as "that mysterious and frightening thing." During the same interview, he offered the following comment.
Sometimes there is a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it to take shape, and this is frightening, it is terribly frightening. It has happened maybe a few times to me—times when I've been able to get the poem finished in almost nothing flat.
When the interviewer asked which poem Wright was referring to, the poet cited "A Blessing" and one other poem. "Where did they [the poems] come from?" mused Wright. "If you were to ask me that question, I would have to say, how should I know?"
In these remarks, Wright seems to suggest that the process of writing a poem sometimes involves a mysterious external power that operates through his own imagination. He seems to find this power frightening because he does not understand its source and, perhaps, feels out of control. Since he specifically cites "A Blessing" in this context, it could be intriguing to consider whether the speaker of this poem itself reflects any of those ideas (and fears). For more thoughts along these lines, check out "Transformation" in the "Themes" section.
"A Blessing" is set in Minnesota, and most of Minnesota consists of flat prairie. Not surprisingly, there are no mountains featured in the poem, and there are no huge obstacles to comprehending the poem, either. Using familiar, conversational language, the speaker leads readers along the path of a simple story. Still, when you turn the final corner and reach the end of the path, an unexpected sight awaits you. That final vision just might lead you to reconsider everything else you saw along the way.
James Wright is widely admired for his brilliant use of free verse. Early in his career, he relied on conventional rhyme schemes and metrical systems, but when he switched to free verse, he really came into his own as a poet.
Yet the essence of a great Wright poem lies as much in its themes as its style. It is no coincidence that the words "loneliness" and "love" both appear in "A Blessing," for his calling card arguably lies in the conjunction of these two themes. In Wright's poems, nature often offers the antidote to loneliness, momentarily healing the suffering caused by isolation and offering a glimpse of love. For example, check out his Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio or Northern Pike (And for more on these themes, see the discussion in the "Themes" section.)
When James Wright first started writing poetry, he often used conventional metrical systems, but in his later work, including "A Blessing," he switched to free verse, which lacks consistent patterns of meter or rhyme. But the rhythm of poetry remained important to him. In fact, he explained that, for him, the process of writing a poem typically began with "a rhythm and not an idea."
In "A Blessing," Wright varies line lengths (ranging from two to eleven words) to achieve a natural, conversational rhythm, using straightforward vocabulary. It's easy to imagine yourself hanging out with the speaker, as he quietly shares this personal story. Some lines are end-stopped and others are enjambed, further supporting the music and meaning of the poem. The use of a single stanza provides unity of thought, reinforcing the speaker's single-minded focus on the ponies.
In several instances, Wright's use of punctuation plays an important role in conveying meaning. In line 8, for example, the word "alone" is isolated at the end of the line, tightly bracketed by a comma and a period. This technique highlights concepts of solitude and loneliness that are thematically relevant to the poem. (For more on this, see "Isolation" in the "Themes" section.)
In line 9, Wright uses a run-on sentence to enhance the impression of anxious anticipation conveyed by the phrases "ripple tensely" and "hardly contain." Hastily linked by a comma splice, the two clauses in line 9 create a run-on sentence that runs right off the end of the enjambed line, landing softly in line 10's comforting clause, "we have come."
Line 11 is a verbal dance, complete with a formal "bow." The two periods produce two full stops, dividing the line, almost symmetrically, into two formal clauses that mirror each other like the mirrored image of two wet swans or the mirrored love of two Indian ponies.
Lines 22 through 24 display a final, brilliant use of poetic form. The lines comprise a single sentence, punctuated only by a final period. The distribution of words across the three lines plays a crucial role in conveying meaning. By limiting line 22 to three words ("Suddenly I realize"), the poet builds drama and suspense. We can't wait to hear what's coming next!
Line 23 doesn't disappoint, as it presents two genuinely startling ideas: the unexpected notion of stepping "out of my body" and the alarming suggestion that "I would break." But the enjambed line doesn't leave us dangling for long, as line 24 trickily reconstitutes "break" into the expression "break into blossom." In this way, the poet handily maneuvers his unsuspecting readers into the great mystery that ends the poem.
As symbols, darkness and light should be old friends to you by now. You've probably encountered them in any number of poems. Often, light has positive associations—life, hope, love—while the absence of light symbolizes all kinds of bad stuff, such as fear, despair, and death. Like almost every other poet in the history of the world, James Wright uses darkness and light as symbols, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of assigning clearly positive or negative values to light and darkness, he blends images of darkness and light to convey an "in-between" state of mind, setting the stage for a mysterious shift in awareness.
When Shmoop was little, we begged Santa to bring us a pony. Even though we never got one, we still dream about ponies sometimes. Many people who don't own, or even ride, horses are still fascinated by these beautiful animals. How about you? Would you pull off a busy highway just to observe some ponies in a pasture? Even if you didn't know the biographical backstory of "A Blessing" (see the "Speaker" section), you could probably tell that the writer of this poem had some first-hand knowledge of horses, based on the realistic details in the poem. But these ponies are still poetic ponies, and they also play a symbolic role in the poem.
It's a well-known fact that many people (including you?) talk to their plants. Why is that? Talking to a pet makes sense because the words generally elicit some response; but houseplants, unlike dogs, are typically unresponsive to phrases such as "walkie walkies" or "bacon snax." Still, plants, like poodles and people, are living creatures, essential partners in this precious blue biosphere we call Earth. In "A Blessing," plants are just as important as ponies, functioning both as realistic details and symbols.
What's your favorite thing about spring? The Easter egg colors of tiny crocuses shouldering aside the chilly soil? The warmth of sunshine on your bare arms for the first time in months? The faint, insistent cheeping of baby birds in well-hidden nests? During winter, life seems to shut down, so when spring arrives, we naturally think of rebirth. James Wright once said that, "there is something about poetry in the human imagination that is like the spring." He also referred to "a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it." (For more on this, see the "Speaker" section.) Though the word "spring" appears only once in "A Blessing," the idea of spring as a creative force informs the entire poem.
Approved for general audiences, this poem doesn't contain any racy references. But it does include sensual imagery ("delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist"). The poem also uses language and symbols associated with romantic love (the two ponies are like "swans" that "love each other").
Why are the ponies in "A Blessing" referred to specifically as "Indian ponies"? The term refers to a particular breed—a small hardy horse of North America that sometimes has black and white markings (like those of the pony in the poem). This may be the only meaning the poet intended.
But as soon as the word "Indian" enters the poem, it's kind of hard to get the word out of your mind, and James Wright must have known that. So he probably wouldn't hold it against us if we explore the possibility of an historical allusion to Native Americans in this poem. Plus, a number of his other poems, such as "I Am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis," do contain explicit references to Native American culture.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, expanding European-American populations forced Native American tribes from their homelands. In this context, "barbed wire" (7) suggests the imposition of European notions of privately-owned land, as the western prairies were carved up into private farms and ranches. The sharpness of the barbed wire also connotes pain and violence, bringing to mind armed conflicts, brutal confinement, and forced relocation of Native Americans.
In line 19, the speaker refers to the "wild" mane of the Indian pony. In this context, the word "wild" may remind you not only of the Wild West, but also of positive ideas associated with wilderness, such as the beauty of a pristine landscape. Wilderness can also imply freedom from the constraints of urban society—the kind of freedom, perhaps, that we often associate with the Native Americans' traditional way of life.
So are you buying any of this? Maybe you think these shout-outs to Native Americans are plausible. But what does any of this have to do with the situation described in the poem?
Let's not forget that this poem is called "A Blessing" (see the "Title" section for more on this). In the poem, the speaker moves from an urban world (the highway) to the more "wild" setting of the pasture, where contact with an Indian pony appears to trigger a mystical vision. Native American traditions include belief in a spiritual power that connects all things, including people, ponies, and plants. From this perspective, breaking into blossom might make perfect sense!