Penman No. 168: A Lesson in Poetry

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2015

WE’VE BEEN talking about poetry in my Literature and Society class this past month, and it’s been an interesting journey, taking us everywhere from the Japanese haiku master Issa Kobayashi to the American modernist e. e. cummings and the Filipino early feminist Angela Manalang Gloria, with a bit of Sylvia Plath and Ricky de Ungria thrown in. There are many more important poets we could have taken up—in another class I might have discussed TS Eliot, Jose Garcia Villa, Denise Levertov, Edith Tiempo, and Pablo Neruda, among others—but this course is just a peek into poetry for non-Literature majors, so we’re taking examples that are sufficiently challenging and instructive but also fairly accessible, pieces that speak to common experience wherever in the world the poem may come from.

A few meetings ago we took up one of my personal favorites, a poem titled “The Blessing” (originally “A Blessing”) written by the late American poet James Wright in 1963. It’s not a very long poem, and pretty easy to visualize. As it opens, the persona (what we call the speaker in the poem, the “I”) is traveling on the road with a companion, bound for a city in Minnesota.

The mood is set with the descriptive line “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” Two ponies emerge from the woods and greet the visitors. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness / That we have come. / They bow shyly as wet swans.” The persona feels a strong and strange attraction between himself and one of the ponies. “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, / For she has walked over to me / And nuzzled my left hand.” The contact is electric, and the poem ends with the persona achieving a kind of apotheosis (a word I don’t use in class—let’s just say a climactic moment): “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

It’s a lovely poem because of its consistency of tone and of its return to a Romanticism that seemed lost in an age of machines and pragmatism. (By Romanticism with the big R, we mean here an embrace of Nature as the source of all good things, and of the imagination over reason as the way to wisdom.) Indeed there’s a poignant optimism if not innocence in the poem that’s about to be shattered; in 1963, America stood on the verge of the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo. A darkening of the national mood—eventually affecting us half the world away—was imminent, if not inevitable.

That’s what I guide my students toward in the poem. It’s good to appreciate that glorious burst of ecstasy in the end, when the persona feels so in communion with Nature that he sees himself as a flower, but a couple of references earlier in the poem hint at another world—the “highway to Rochester, Minnesota” in the first line, and the “barbed wire” that the persona steps over to meet the ponies. Whatever “Rochester, Minnesota” might be (I’ve been to Minnesota but never to Rochester), it’s a city at the end of a long cross-country journey.

It’s the persona’s and his companion’s real destination, and the roadside encounter with the horses—as pleasant and as ennobling as it it—is just a stop. When the magical moment fades, the travelers will have to hit the road again, and lose themselves in the maw of the city.

At this point I pause to introduce a big word to my students, one of the few they’ll learn from me over the semester (as a rule, I hate big, showy words, and urge my students to do as much as they can with short, simple ones, but sometimes there’s nothing like a polysyllabic monster to wake people up). In this case, my word for the day was “prelapsarian,” referring to “the human state or time before the Fall,” in Christian belief.

The Christianity’s beside the point (we’re in UP, after all), but what’s important is the idea of a place of innocence we sometimes find ourselves wishing to go back to, especially when we feel overcome by the grime and the corruption of the modern world. We talk about the relationship (“dichotomy” would be another big word) between city and country, between a place we associate with sin and guile, and one we like to imagine as a refuge, a haven of peace and purity.

We then spend a bit of time on the image of the fence, which separates the road from the pasture. What are fences for, I ask? They keep some things out, and some things in, they’ll say. If Nature is as benign as the poem suggests, shouldn’t we knock all fences down? Let’s not be naïve, someone will say—not everything in Nature is so kind, and neither are many humans; we need to protect ourselves from each other. I bring in a quote from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do they, really?

We talk about the Pinoy penchant for building tall walls, topped by bubog and barbed wire, to ward off the presumptive manunungkit. Whatever happened to neighborly trust? We’re laughing, but when we go back to James Wright’s poem, everyone now understands why he gave it the title he did. Class is over, and we all step out to another late afrernoon in Diliman, finding our way home beneath the acacias and the bamboo.

PS / I don’t bring this up in class, because I don’t want “what really happened” muddling up anyone’s interpretation, but it’s interesting from a writing point of view to read what the poet Robert Bly noted down about a trip he took with his friend James (from the book James Wright: A Profile, quoted in english.illinois.edu):

“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.’”

[Image from mcleodcreek.farm.com]

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