Blessings: Five Poems of James Wright (Song cycle for tenor)
Song cycle for tenor or high voice, piano
Text: James Wright, from Above the River: the Complete Poems, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Commissioned by The Schubert Club.
Premiere-2000, by Vern Sutton and Sonja Thompson, Mpls., MN.
Voice range: B–a1
Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio to a glass factory worker and a laundress, James Wright (1927-1980) was one of a group of influential American poets who came of age after the second World War. Wright studied at Kenyon College and the University of Washington, receiving the Ph.D., and later Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships. A close personal friend of Donald Hall and Robert Bly, Wright taught literature at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s, then, after the UM denied him tenure, at Hunter College.
I’ve chosen five unrelated poems from various stages of Wright’s oeuvre to build a cycle, imposing a sequence of suggested events. An arching musical phrase, “There they are, the moon’s young, / Trying their wings” provides unity, and is echoed in the last song’s “Some of the vast, the vacant stars” which provides a final, ecstatic climax. Otherwise, the music is driven by the text.
Between beginning and the good night, we begin to know an intensely private person. In “The Jewel,” he hides his essence like a geode. We view his comic fumblings in “This and That,” from Wright’s last volume, The Journey. Through his sympathy with a pair of ponies, we see a preference for the intimacies of the natural world over the human. “A Blessing” comes from The Branch Will Not Break, which was so significant for poets in the 1960s. As perhaps Wright’s best-known poem, it deserves special attention, and is given pride of place as the penultimate song. Robert Bly recalls the poem’s origin:
“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. Just south of Rochester, 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.'”
That poem, and others in Branch influenced a generation of poets. Several years ago Garrison Keillor arranged to have a roadside plaque erected on the highway where the encounter took place. James Wright’s Collected Poems was awarded the 1972 Pulitzer Prize. His complete poems, Above the River, are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.