Sunday Dec. 13, 2015

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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 happiness
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 darkness.
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.

“A Blessing” by James Wright from The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. © Wesleyan Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Sir Francis Drake set off on a trip around the world on this date in 1577. As a privateer of Queen Elizabeth I, Drake was, in essence, a royally sanctioned pirate. By the time he left on this voyage, he was already infamous for raiding Caribbean ports and commandeering Spanish gold ships, and the Spaniards hated and feared him; some even believed he was a dark wizard. The queen commissioned him to sail the Atlantic Ocean in search of Terra Australis Incognita — a continent that was believed to lie south of South America — and if he happened to pick up some Spanish gold or silver on the way, so much the better. He left Plymouth in command of a fleet of five ships; in the end, only his ship, the Golden Hind, completed the circumnavigation. His journey took him from England to the Atlantic coast of North and South America, and through the Strait of Magellan. Then he made his way up the Pacific coast, where he raided and pillaged for five and a half months. He went about his piracy in a gentlemanly fashion; violence was kept to a minimum and no one was intentionally harmed in his raids. He went as far as northern California, which he named “Nova Albion” and claimed for Elizabeth. From there, he sailed through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and home to Plymouth once more, his ship heavy-laden with gold, silver, and spices.

It's the birthday of German poet Heinrich Heine (books by this author), born in Düsseldorf, Germany (1797). He's one of the most popular German poets of the 19th century. His father wanted him to become a businessman and got him a job at a bank, but he lost the job when his father tried to involve him in an embezzlement scheme. He set out to study law instead, but he was the victim of rampant anti-Semitism. He eventually had to convert to Protestantism in order to complete his law degree.

Around the same time, he started writing a series of love poems, each one of which ended with an ironic twist. These poems were collected in The Book of Songs (1827), and they became extremely popular. Many of them were set to music by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

He's considered one of the wittiest German writers of all time. He once said, "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 poet James Wright (books by this author), born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). He grew up in a working-class community; both of his parents dropped out of high school, and most of his classmates planned to spend their lives working for the mines or the steel mills. He had some very fine high school teachers — he said later that those teachers “fixed once and for all in my mind the overwhelmingly powerful traditional fact that the use of the mind is not a mere luxury, but rather is itself an exercise of strength even greater than the strength required to drive a coal-truck or flop tin from a steel-stove.”

Wright graduated from high school, fought in the Army, and then went to Kenyon College on the GI Bill. He married his high-school sweetheart and they moved to Austria, where Wright had received a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Vienna. He went on to the University of Washington for graduate work, and while he was there he submitted his first collection of poetry, The Green Wall, to the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In July of 1956, W.H. Auden wrote Wright from Italy to give him the news that he had won. Wright went to work on a second book, Saint Judas (1959). He said: “I tried to come to terms in that book with what I felt to be the truth of my own life, which is that of a man who wants very much to be happy, but who is not happy.” By the time it was finished he was depressed, his marriage was falling apart, and he felt uneasy in his new job teaching at the University of Minnesota.

Finally, he was so depressed that he decided to quit writing altogether. One morning, he wrote a final poem, a “Farewell to Poetry,” and declared officially that he would never write poetry again. That same afternoon, he found in his mailbox a copy of a new literary magazine called The Fifties, edited by a couple of young Minnesota poets, Robert Bly and William Duffy. Wright was delighted to find a poem in translation by a German poet he had studied at the University of Vienna. Wright sent Bly a 16-page letter; partway through he wrote: “Mr. Bly, I’ve looked over the previous two pages, and I see how hysterical and profane I’ve been — and of course I have absolutely no right to send you this letter. However, I am going to risk it, in the hope that perhaps its very tone of nervous instability might convey to you the gratitude with which I read the first issue of your magazine.” The two poets began corresponding, and before long, Bly asked Wright to come visit his farm in western Minnesota. Wright loved the farm, and he loved his hosts, Robert and Carol Bly. He wrote to Robert: “I think your farm is the first such place I have ever really liked — it is beautifully mysterious and very much its own secret place.” He began taking the train out there every Friday after classes, and staying for the weekend, sleeping in an old converted chicken coop, which was heated by an oil stove. On Saturday mornings, he would come into the farmhouse for breakfast, go back out, and return at lunch with a poem. He said of the Blys: “They loved me and they saved my life. I don’t mean the life of my poetry, either.”

One day Bly and Wright were driving home from another friend’s farm when they passed two horses in a pasture. They stopped and got out to see the horses, and in the car Wright began writing a poem in a spiral notebook. That became one of his most beloved poems, “The Blessing.”

Wright’s books include The Branch Will Not Break (1963), Shall We Gather at the River (1967), To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), and This Journey (1982).

He said: “Oh, how I would love to be a chickadee! But I can’t be a chickadee; all I can be is what I am. I love the natural world and I’m conscious of the pain in it. So I’m a nature poet who writes about human beings in nature.”

And, “I’ve wanted to make the poems say something humanly important instead of just showing off with language.”

The United States Army National Guard was formed on this date in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1636. It's the oldest branch of the country's military: 139 years older than the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps; and 311 years older than the Air Force. Individual towns in other colonies had formed their own militias, but the Massachusetts Bay was the only region whose population density was great enough to warrant the formation of more than one regiment. Towns around Boston were grouped into the North, South, and East regiments. Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony still considered itself British, the General Court ordered the formation of a traditional English militia: all able-bodied men were obligated to own arms and participate in the defense of the colony, whether by upholding its laws or defending against attack. Militiamen took turns serving in nightly guard details, and drilled weekly. The Army National Guard has participated in every American war or conflict since the Pequot War of 1637.

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