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This report is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Sleuthing John Clegg
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.

These lines open James Wright’s ‘A Blessing’, his second most famous poem after the one in the hammock: this is the one which ends ‘Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.’ Quite a lot is known about the circumstances of the poems’ composition. The friend travelling with Wright was Robert Bly. The particular place ‘just off the highway’ is known and marked – since 1998, there’s been a plaque containing the text of ‘A Blessing’ at the High Forest rest area on Interstate 90, erected by Garrison Keillor, a pupil of Wright’s. The willows are still there, and visible on Google Street View, allowing you to pinpoint the particular field. But there’s one mystery remaining about the poem into which I’ve made no headway whatsoever.

Here is Wright’s biographer, Jonathan Blunk, describing the circumstances of the poem’s composition: ‘Returning from Duffy’s farm that afternoon the same week in September (1960), as Bly relocated The Sixties magazine to Odin House in Madison, he had Wright’s company driving back to Minneapolis. Wright insisted they pull off the highway and cross a barbed-wire fence into a field where he saw two horses in the shade of some willow trees.’ After which, Wright drafts the poem in ...

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