For the first time…

  • IV. “For the first time…I can call myself a poet.” (10/11/1980 – 12/1/1981)

    NEA Acceptance Letter, Wesley McNair

    A central narrative in this section of the letters is my growing sense of myself as a poet. Returning to Colby-Sawyer College from my NEA fellowship to teach in the fall, I am committed to organizing my life around poetry. So I write to Don in the first letter of this section about applying for a new college position as a poet, against the odds of obtaining one. (“I plan finally to adjust my teaching assignment to my real self, kept secret for so long!”) Shortly afterward, I report my decision to resign as coordinator of the American studies program I founded, and my intention to apply for a full-year sabbatical in the ensuing year in case my job search doesn’t pan out. My NEA grant has allowed me to create enough poems for part of a second book, I tell Don on December 5, 1980, and I want to continue the momentum. “For the first time in my life,” I write, “I can call myself a poet, without misgivings.”

    Yet events conspire to limit my output of poems. A mid-life crisis, brought on by the death of Diane’s father, family struggles, and an up-welling of regrets — leaves me “crying a lot,” as I tell Don on January 17, reluctant to spend time with poetry and its reminders of my “inner life.” By opening up my emotional life in this period, poetry has itself no doubt contributed to my situation.

    One exception to my inactivity as a poet in early 1981 is the poem I write for Diane in sympathy for her grief , “A Dream of Herman.” Fussing over its final line with Don occupies a series of our early letters in the section. Otherwise, I try to hold myself together, using my spare time to teach in the night school at a nearby business college so I can pay some bills and send Diane to a summer session in pottery at the Haystack School in Maine. In one letter, I toy with the idea of writing a textbook for a new source of income.

    In May, however, spurred on by acceptances by both Poetry magazine and The Atlantic, I tell Don I’m ready to start writing once more. And I do, sporadically, though my personal struggles continue. They include Diane’s two back operations that have resulted from her work in the state liquor store and prevent her from attending Haystack. All summer, our lost summer, she must recuperate, and I must serve as a house-husband, summer-school teacher, and occasional assistant for carpenters renovating our house. Dealing with such troubles and distractions, I send only three letters to Don in the summer of 1981, one of them composed in September.

    Barn across the road from McNair’s farmhouse
    McNair's farmhouse in North Sutton, at twilight
    McNair’s farmhouse in North Sutton, at twilight

    Don’s correspondence in this section, like mine, is more personal than it has been before. It tells of his own sorrows – his son’s car accident, the dire health and eventual death of Jane’s father in Michigan, and Jane’s difficulties with depression. But by the fall of 1981 Diane is on the mend, and though Don is often on the road with an author tour and visits with Jane to Michigan, the two of us are back to active discussions about poems in progress and the revision of my still unpublished book, which the editor of Carnegie Mellon University Press has invited me to submit during his 1982 round of submissions. My year-long sabbatical, with its promise of new poems, has begun.

    [This section has 60 letters]

  • McNair to Hall: October 11, 1980


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    October 11, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Well, I was hoping the poem was better than you appear to think.
    I will just have to wait for awhile and then look at it again to see
    what can be done. Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

    I write to ask for still another favor. Would you be willing
    to send a recommendation for me to the placement office of Associated
    Writing Programs?

    The reason I need the recommendation is that I want to leave
    Colby-Sawyer. I need a place that is more stimulating, and which
    takes up less of my writing time. I have been hoping to leave for some
    years, actually, but it has taken me a long time, as you know, to get
    degrees and publications in order. For an extra advantage in job-hunting
    it would be nice, of course, to have the book placed. But who knows?
    Maybe the book will be published soon enough to give my applications
    a push. In the meantime, I will just have to hope that my publications,
    grants and recommendations will serve well enough.

    I would not be asking for the recommendation at all if I were
    planning to apply for a position in American studies. As it happens,
    I have a fairly complete dossier (at Middlebury) in those areas. But
    I’ve decided to apply for jobs in creative writing (an area in which
    I’ve done some teaching in the past), or in a combination of creative
    writing and literature. That is, I plan finally to adjust my teaching
    assignment to my real self, kept secret for so long! And for that I need
    a different sort of statement.

    I do know how painful recommendation-writing can be. If it is too
    painful at the moment—because you are busy with poems, textbook
    revisions, or freshman themes—please feel free to wait. The AWP dossier
    will have at least two other recommendations in it by the end of next
    week. Yours can come along later if you wish.

    The jobs I’m interested in right now, by the way, come from the
    most recent AWP job notice. One is at Arizona State; the other, at
    Loyola University of Chicago. As I say, I am a little nervous about
    not having placed my book before applying to these places, or to any others.
    Under the circumstances, a comment from you about the manuscript I now
    have probably wouldn’t hurt, if you wouldn’t mind furnishing one.

    Incidentally, I did get a bit of good news the other day. Alan
    Pater, editor of the Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of Am. Poetry,


    wrote to ask me for permission to reprint “The Bald Spot” in the 1981
    volume of his anthology, going shortly to press. All hail to Joey
    for placing the poem in Poetry in the first place!

    Thanks again for your comments on my poem. I hope you are enjoying
    the foliage around Eagle Pond Farm.



    P.S.—I enclose an addressed, stamped envelope for your convenience.

    Editorial note about this letter: The poem referred to in the first paragraph is “Waving Goodbye,” which Hall assesses in his final letter of Section III.

    Read Waving Goodbye (published version)

    See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Waving Goodbye.”

  • Hall to McNair: October 17, 1980


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    17 October 1980

    Wesley McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to hear from you. I fully understand your wish
    to leave Colby-Sawyer. I think you may have picked a very
    difficult time to move. Do not burn any bridges! …I do
    not mean that you should not be looking, and my recommendation
    will go out today.

    Still, I have a number of observations. I suspect that
    most other places would be no more stimulating then Colby-Sawyer.
    Colby-Sawyer has a pleasing sort of faculty. You would have
    better students at many other places – but of course you would
    virtually never, in twenty years of teaching, have what we
    might reasonably call a “good poet.” And you would surround
    yourself with a whole lot of bogus professionalism, the wretched
    hustlers of the academy – who prevail at Dartmouth, Michigan,
    Arizona State, etc.… But not nearly so much at Colby-Sawyer.

    Second, it is well known that it is virtually impossible
    to get a job in writing right now, unless you have three or
    four books, and preferably a Pulitzer Prize. I am almost
    serious. Everybody looking for work now has an M.F.A. I
    don’t think you need an M.F.A.! I don’t think an M.F.A. means
    anything. But probably it means something to Deans.

    And then, because there are so many small presses and
    small publishers, lots of people apply for jobs saying that
    they have published nine books, seven, thirteen… And in a
    sense they have.

    There are also good people, with books, with M.F.A.’s,
    looking for work. It is really a terrible time. It is also
    a terrible time in mathematics, physics, etc. But creative
    writing is one of the worst areas right now, because of the
    frantic overproduction of M.F.A.’s in the last fifteen years.

    Third, or fourth or whatever it is…do try, if you are
    looking for a new job, to get something that includes the
    teaching of literature. The swamp of the creative writing
    industry, in this country, consists mainly of illiterate
    lizards who cannot teach literature at all because they
    haven’t read anything. To be isolated with them in a “creative
    writing department” is a fate worse than teaching in a room full
    of sub-literate young ladies, which is what you are used to.


    [X] I was at Arizona State last autumn and I think it is
    in the swamp all right. Still, anything might be welcome
    relief, and a good change, so I would not try to argue with
    you about taking the job if you’ve got it. But I suspect
    that there will be two or three hundred applications for it,
    and that most of them will list books, and that some of them
    will really have published two, three, or four books.

    I am being discouraging! I don’t want you to expect
    too much… But I am not trying to get you not to try –
    much as I would prefer it if you stayed in North Sutton!

    That is nice news about the Magazine Verse book. Jane
    had a letter from them too. In the letter to her, the man
    offered no money at all. Did he offer any to you? She is
    going to ask him for some. And then if he won’t give her
    any, she will probably let him have it for free.

    I have learned to ask: does the ink-manufacturer donate
    the ink? Does the paper-manufacturer donate the paper? Is
    there absolutely no sum whatsoever to the secretaries typing
    these letters? To the editor himself?

    There will be more poems in more places before very
    long, I do believe. Peter Davison wrote a very sweet letter
    of rejection – and I would predict that he would take something
    within a year. I don’t suppose I should make such predictions!
    But I wouldn’t be surprised…

    Oh my goodness, the foliage is fantastic.

    Love as ever,


    Editorial note about this letter: Included with this letter is Hall’s letter of recommendation for McNair’s job search, accompanied by other letters written by professors from Bread Loaf, and from Dartmouth College, where McNair took courses in American literature, history and art during 1971-72, sponsored by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    See the letter of recommendation Hall wrote for McNair here.

  • McNair to Hall: October 22, 1980


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    October 22, 1980
    Dear Don,

    How do you like my new note paper? I’m not sure
    I do, but Diane bought it for me, and here, we waste

    You were good to take the time to warn me about the
    Teaching of Creative Writing in America. I am so often
    idealistic about the teaching of anything. Though I
    should certainly know better by now, I still imagine the
    perfect class, the perfect approach, the perfect colleagues.
    I fear my mind is clouded (so to speak) with such thoughts
    as I dream of a job as an instructor of writing.

    You may be right in questioning my move from
    Colby-Sawyer. Here, in any event, is my case against
    Colby: Enrollment there is declining. In the past year,
    the decline has been quite serious. Though I have
    tenure, I am not certain whether the College itself
    does. I do not relish the fight which may be
    coming for the dry end of the deck dock. And I worry
    that if I don’t try to move now, before I am 40,
    I may face an even tougher time later, with
    employers who are looking for a prettier, and younger

    Of course, those “sub-literate” girls do get me
    down occasionally – as do some of the less visionary
    faculty members I have to deal with in the maintenance


    and development of the American Studies program.
    And I am not at all happy with the pay scale at
    the College, which is not likely to improve any time soon.

    [Written in margin: But this seems ungrateful as I reread
    and I should add that I have made a few good friends at CSC, have
    had some very good students, and have often been treated generously by the institution —]

    Yet I am torn. I have a sabbatical coming up
    next year. If I were to leave this year, I would
    miss that – and more time off for writing. (However,
    staying for the sabbatical would mean staying for one
    year beyond the sabbatical year…two years in all.)
    Also, I would miss northern New England in the (likely)
    event I had to leave the area. Needless to say, I
    would also miss the proximity to you at Eagle Pond Farm.

    Since receiving your letter, I have decided to try for
    jobs combining literature and writing, and emphasizing
    the former. My credentials are better for that sort
    of position anyway, and I certainly would not want
    to end up in the lizard-infested swamp you describe.
    Besides, I would miss teaching literature. I am glad
    for your guidance there.

    It could always happen that after all my efforts,
    I wouldn’t land a job. That would settle the whole
    thing for me – I would stay two more years, period.
    Anyway, I will keep you posted, and should this letter
    occasion new thoughts on the matter, I’d be happy to
    hear what they are.

    I was happy to learn of the reading you and
    Jane will give at Carl’s next Monday. Of course
    I will be there. It will be good to hear Jane read


    (I’ve never heard her before) and to hear some of her
    new work. And I look forward to hearing again
    some of the wonderful poems of Kicking the leaves.
    Do you take requests? Would you consider reading
    “Flies,” one of my favorites, which I’ve never
    heard you read? I would also love to hear an
    earlier, shorter poem – one whose title I never can
    recall – about the public urinals. That poem, too,
    is a particular favorite.

    But these may not fit your format for the evening,
    and I will be most grateful to hear whatever you
    may decide to read. (Believe it or not, I can still
    hear whole passages of poems you read during that
    wonderful evening at Colby three years ago!) I
    shall be sorry to miss the trumpeting, bowing
    and flugling you do to “tune up” before the
    reading. I can picture the chipmunks and other
    poor dumb animals fleeing deep into the woods
    as you prepare yourself on the way over!

    Anyway, Diane and I are glad to be beginning
    next in this week in this most positive way. We will
    see you Monday!



    P.S. Wanted to tell you that I will not be sending the
    revision of the “fat” poem I just completed or
    anything else I have worked on – for a long time.
    This time I mean it. You are right that
    finished poems should be kept for awhile.
    Certainly all poems should be given time. And
    when one is writing during a grant or sabbatical
    period, there is a tendency to want to
    finish everything and count it all up. I have found
    that a destructive inclination, and I am trying
    mightily to resist it – to let poems develop in their
    own time, whether it happens to fall within the
    grant period or not. Whenever you may get poems,
    though, rest assured I am working, working.

    P.P.S. I was delighted with your prediction about Davison.
    Whether it proves out or not, I am glad for the
    Faith it shows you and Joey have in my poems.

    A note from McNair about this letter: The reading I refer to was given for guests at the home of the English department chair at Colby-Sawyer College, Carl Cochran. My teasing about Don’s “flugling,” etc. plays off his own comic description of preparations for his reading three years before….. The “fat” poem mentioned in the postscript is “The Fat People of the Old Days,” discussed with Don in Section III of our correspondence and still underway.

    Read Flies (published version)

    Read The Repeated Shapes (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: October 27, 1980


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    27 October 1980

    Wesley McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I will see you before I mail this – but I’ll be
    damned if I’ll give up the opportunity for writing a
    letter. I like your notepaper. How do you like mine?
    Mine is courtesy of Peru, Indiana, where most of the worst
    and most notorious letter writers of the United States
    buy their stationary because it is so cheap. Marianne
    Moore and I, Robert Creely and I all share the same

    Please realize that the main problem is that jobs
    are terribly difficult. That is, probably two thousand
    people apply for each job listed, and of those two thousand
    one thousand have a Ph.D. already, and another seven hundred
    almost have it. And for a job in creative writing, if only
    and probably most of them can claim a “book” or two… Because
    hiring is done on the basis of statistics rather than value,
    they are most likely to get the job than you are – at this
    moment. Once you have a book things will get easier. There
    will still be hundreds and hundreds of and hundreds of people,
    terrible poets with terrible books, who will statistically
    equal you! It is all so ridiculous!

    I fear for Colby-Sawyer also. And I admire the place,
    and think there are a lot of good teachers there, certainly
    many very hardworking ones, and it is a good place for those
    one out of four girls who will manage to mature in the head,
    to get alive, while they are there. I fear for it. Muller
    seems to be a clever man, and maybe he can work miracles. But
    it is scary. I feel really frightened for the good people
    teaching there – which obviously includes you! Jack Jensen
    my minister and dear friend… so many others. Maybe Carl
    is the lucky one, retiring at this time.

    The payscale also I realize. though the other thing is
    more serious. But of course if you were paid twenty-five per
    cent more in Tempe, you would probably have less money in
    Tempe than you have in North Sutton!

    Therefore if I were you and I were offered a decent
    job elsewhere I would probably go also! I think you will
    not be offered a good job elsewhere right now – which is not
    to say that you should not try. I believe that you should try.
    I believe however that the chances are against you, and that
    therefore you can take your sabbatical!

    A note from McNair about this letter: The “Muller” referred to here is Nick Muller, then the president of Colby-Sawyer College. Though the College had fallen on hard times in this period of its history, it eventually bounced back and is now thriving.

  • McNair to Hall: October 28, 1980


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    October 28, 1980
    Dear Don,

    Wanted you to know your reading of “To a
    Waterfowl” last night brought out something I
    in my stupidity hadn’t seen before. While the poet/speaker
    mocks the affluent ones who “keep” him (the
    wealthy businessmen, their wives and college-age
    children), he also mocks himself, as a writer of
    the poetry, which “shocks” the wives – the mad poet
    of feeling, naked in his motel, watching King Kong
    Sucks Mount Fugi.

    It’s that ironic speaker – ironic accuser, I
    should say – that gives the poem’s humor such
    dimension, such seriousness, I now feel. I
    had sensed the despair in the poem before,
    but I never sensed all its sources so clearly.
    In a short space, the piece says a lot about
    the darker America – its wealth, classes, art
    and artists.

    By the way and for what it’s worth, I still
    like the first version of the father (brother) poem.

    It was good to see you, even if briefly.
    I hope you made the kick-off!



    Read To a Waterfowl (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: October 30, 1980


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    30 October 1980

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Many thanks for your letter, and I am
    glad to hear what you say of “To a Waterfowl.”
    It does have this social content… I have
    always thought a little the less of it, because
    its content was more outward than inward, and
    so subject to performance… But really, it
    is simply another idea of poetry – a more Horatian

    I like the first version of the father/
    brother poem. I guess I like it a little better
    with the change of pronoun and fa for bro
    Just because it seems a little directer, more
    into-the-eyes. But the poem was essentially
    there the first time.

    I have been going back to the new father
    poem and returning “Forgive Me,” but I am not
    sure. The guilt is real, but I am not sure
    that the request for forgiveness is.

    Best as ever,



  • Hall to McNair: October 31, 1980


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    October 31, 1980

    Dear Mr. Amaryllis,

    Thank you for letting us see Mr. McNair’s

    I like, and would like to accept, two of
    them (“Hair on Television,” “The Fat Enter Heaven”)
    if Mr. McNair would change “tampons” to anything
    else hawked on television.

    My reason is that “tampons” right now has too
    many painful associations with “toxic shock syndrome”
    and suffering and death. It’s a gruesomely dissonant
    not in this poem—though it might be fine elsewhere,
    anywhere where gruesomeness was the intent.

    I return the other poem just to save paperwork.
    If Mr. McNair can rework his poem just a little, we
    can accept both at once.

    With all best wishes,

    John F. Nims

    Read Hair on Television (published version)

    Read The Fat Enter Heaven (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: November 7, 1980


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    7 November 1980

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH

    Dear Wes,

    Good news from John Nims. I think that his
    point about “tampons” is well taken – for
    accidental reasons, as he says. It is the kind
    of thing where you might be able to restore the
    word in a year or two, but I would think that
    another word might be equally acceptable. What
    do you think?

    I am keeping “The Fat Enter Heaven” here,
    but will return it with the (revised?) “Hair
    on Television” when I write him again.

    Actually, he has a couple of other newer
    ones now, which the New Yorker has (mistakenly)
    let go. He did not know he had a couple newer
    poems, when he wrote this note. So we will
    hope that he may have more than two, to print
    together, next time you come out in Poetry!

    Best as ever,



  • McNair to Hall: November 12, 1980 (1)


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    November 12, 1980

    Dear Don,

    How wonderful it is that Joey has managed to
    interest John Nims in the poems! I have long hoped
    someone would see something of worth in “Hair
    on Television,” and “The Fat Enter Heaven” is a poem
    I feared no one other than you, Jane, Joey and I
    would like. I am very glad they will appear in Poetry
    and very grateful to Joey for his good efforts and his
    continuing faith.

    Of course Nims is correct, as you say, that “tampons”
    should be changed. I enclose a touched-up revision,
    which I hope he, and you, will find acceptable.

    Contrary to my stated intentions of two or three
    weeks ago, I also enclose two new poems. The reason
    is I am worried Joey is running out of stuff to
    send out. Where he is getting other poems to mail
    to Poetry – and to the Atantic – I cannot imagine,
    but he must be at the absolute bottom of the barrel.

    Would the two poems help Joey with his attempts
    at the Atlantic (suggested, I believe, in an earlier
    letter?) Or anywhere else?


    Please let me know if you think to, and thanks again
    and again for all you both have done in my behalf
    at Poetry!




    You will come into an antique town
    whose houses move apart
    as if you’d interrupted
    a private discussion. This is the place
    you must pass through to get there.
    Imagining lives tucked in
    like china plates, continue driving.
    Beyond the landscaped streets,
    beyond the last colonial
    gas station and unsolved
    by zoning is a road. It will take you
    to old farmhouses and trees
    with car-tire swings.
    Signs will announce hairdressing
    and nightcrawlers.
    The timothy grass will run beside you
    all the way to where I live.

    – Wesley McNair

    A note from McNair about this letter: The “touched-up” revision of “Hair on Television,” not available with this letter, replaced “tampons” with “maxi-pads,” in response to John Nims’s objections.


  • McNair to Hall: November 12, 1980 (2)


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    November 12, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Here I am with another of my famous
    second thoughts. If you have no violent
    objections, I would prefer this version, with
    “mini pads”, rather than the other, with “maxi pads.”
    A small change, I know, but important
    enough to make this the final and definitive





    On the soap opera the doctor
    explains to the young woman with cancer
    that each day is beautiful.

    Hair lifts from their heads
    like clouds, like something to eat.

    It is the hair of the married couple
    getting in touch with their real feelings for the first time
    on the talk show,

    the hair of young people on the beach
    drinking Cokes and falling in love.

    And the man who took the laxative and waters his garden
    next day with the hose wears the hair

    so dark and wavy even his grandchildren are amazed,
    and the woman who never dreamed mini pads
    could be so convenient wears it.

    For the hair is changing people’s lives.
    It is growing like wheat above the faces

    of game show contestants opening the doors
    of new convertibles, of prominent businessmen opening
    their hearts to Christ, and it is growing

    straight back from the foreheads of vitamin experts,
    detergent and dog food experts helping ordinary housewives discover

    how to be healthier, get the clothes cleaner and serve
    dogs meals they love in the hair.

    And over and over on television the housewives,
    the news teams bringing all the news faster
    and faster, and the new breed of cops winning the fight
    against crime, are smiling, pleased to be at their best,

    proud to be among the literally millions of Americans everywhere
    who have tried the hair, compared the hair and will never go back
    to life before the active, the caring, the successful, the incredible hair.


  • Hall to McNair: November 17, 1980


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    17 November 1980
    Wesley McNair
    Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Yes, it is nice about Poetry isn’t it?
    Terrific. …As you remember, Nims has not
    yet accepted them! But he has largely promised
    to accept them, so I expect to forward an
    acceptance slip to you before long.

    If you will not keep your stated intentions,
    Joey will help you out. Joey will not send out
    those poems for a few weeks, waiting for you
    to make a change! The only one that I can see
    is the a-typical syntax of the middle sentence
    of “Where I live.” Syntactically and in its
    punctuation if it were like the rest of the poem,
    there would be a comma after “gas station,” and
    probably the line-break would be different. I
    am not sure that it is a bad thing. It certainly
    does slow me down and make me go back and parses
    the sentence… But it would take me a while
    to figure it out for sure also. But I don’t
    want to send it out and then get a new version
    in the mail… So why don’t you look back at
    it for a while? I will hold on.

    Best as ever,


    I like them both!

  • McNair to Hall: November 18, 1980


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    November 18, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Have just gotten back from Keene, where Diane’s
    father’s funeral just took place. He was in the hospital
    for three weeks, had a broken hip, which (because he
    was a “bleeder”) was complicated to fix. Eventually
    the operation on the hip led to two other operations –
    one to prevent a blood clot in his leg from moving, the
    other to remove a very diseased gall bladder,
    which was preventing the blood from clotting, even after
    medication for coagulation was administered. But the
    bleeding wouldn’t stop; indeed, there was much more
    of it after the latter operations. And so he died.
    It’s been a sad time. That guy meant a lot to all of us.

    The fact is, all the news I have for you today
    is upsetting. I just learned from the editors of
    The Journal of Popular Culture that “The Thugs of
    Old Comics” was never published by them, even though
    they sent me a note of acceptance back in the fall
    of 1976. The poem was to be published, or so I thought,
    during my year out of the country. It occurred to me
    the other day that I never did receive a copy of
    the issue the poem appeared in, so I wrote to ask


    about getting one. No one there has any record of
    receiving or accepting the poem, I am told, and, of course,
    it never did appear.

    It is the sort of half-assedness I’ve come to expect
    from The Popular Culture Association; which seems to
    screw everything up, from conferences to subscriptions.
    Initially, I was ticked at the magazine editors,
    as you can imagine, but I have come to think the
    foul-up may be to my advantage because the poem is,
    I think, a good one that better magazines might be
    interested in. Anyway, I do want you and Joey to
    know that I have told the JPC I will publish
    the poem elsewhere – called to this, actually –
    and the editor I spoke with – Pat Browne –
    sheepishly agreed concurred with my decision to do so.

    I therefore enclose a copy of the poem. It would
    perhaps go well with the “pop” material which
    Nims has accepted. Or maybe, do you think, at
    The New Yorker? Whatever Joey decides to do with
    it, I will be ok, I’m sure. He knows best, and he
    has just proved it again by working the recent
    combination with Nims!

    Do you recall your suggestion that the word “beat”
    in my earlier version of the poem might be changed to “beating”?
    I did make that change, as you see, but I am still a bit
    worried that the “-ing’s” pile up at the end of the poem.
    If you think not, I’m happy. —And speaking of the end,
    here I am at the bottom of the pages – so I’ll stop.

    Love, Wes


    At first the job is a cinch like
    they said. They manage to get the bank teller
    a couple of times in the head and blow the vault door so high
    it never comes down. Money bags line the shelves
    inside like groceries. They are rich, richer
    than they can believe. Above his purple suit the boss
    is grinning half outside of his face.
    Two goons are taking the dough in their arms
    like their first women. For a minute nobody sees
    the little thug with the beanie is sweating drops
    the size of hot dogs and pointing
    straight up. There is a blue man flying
    down through the skylight and landing with his arms
    crossed. They exhale their astonishment
    into small balloons. “What the,” they say,
    “What the,” watching their bullets drop
    off his chest over and over. Soon he begins to talk
    about the fight against evil, beating them half to death
    with his fists. Soon they are picking themselves up
    from the floor of the prison. Out the window Superman
    is just clearing a tall building and couldn’t care less
    when they shout his name through the bars. “We’re trapped!
    We got no chance!” they say, tightening their teeth,

    thinking, like you, how it always gets down
    to the same old shit: no fun, no dough,
    no power to rise out of their bodies.

    – Wesley McNair

    A note from McNair about this letter: Don made his suggestion about “The Thugs of Old Comics” in person at his farmhouse. As it turned out, the poem was never published by Poetry or any other magazine, so I published it myself in my first book, where it appears in the above form. Later, I shortened some of its lines, as I did with “Hair on Television,” so they would fit into the normal 55-character line limit of publishers (in particular my later publisher, David R. Godine) and therefore would not have to be broken. This became a standard practice for me whenever I wrote a poem, using the 55 character line to shape my sense of the poem’s turns and vocal intonation. Here are the two poems as they appear on the 55-character grid in Lovers of the Lost :

    Read The Thugs of Old Comics

    Read Hair on Television

  • Hall to McNair: November 20, 1980


    [Click image to view]

    20 November 1980

    Wesley McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes and Diane,

    I am so sorry about Diane’s father. It is a wretched
    time. This December will be the twenty-fifth anniversary
    of my own father’s death, and last October I turned older
    than he was on the day he died. He is still there for me,
    [Written in margin: I know you know the poem.]
    freshly, around the corner, with the familiar sound that his
    feet made walking – only he is younger than I am now. Very

    Jane’s father, who is seventy-six now, is chronically
    ill. He has had cancer twice, had a little stroke last year,
    has congestive heart failure – and they may, or may not, –
    be coming out for Christmas. We worry about him, as you might
    expect. How old was your father, Diane? He certainly packed
    things in together, didn’t he? Horrid.

    Wes, many thanks for the poem, which Joey will make
    excellent use of. Very good to have it now, and I think that
    we will do better by it. Good for them, in their fecklessness.

    Best as ever, love, and sorrow…


  • McNair to Hall: November 24, 1980



    [Click image to view]

    November 24, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Diane and I both appreciated your note. I have
    from time to time during this period thought about your
    poem to your father. I imagine I will be writing about
    my father-in-law, too. His life feels so small to
    me now, and so unsung. I want to change that,
    if I can.

    Jane has our sympathy in her apprehension about
    her father. We have known that feeling, too, and
    it’s a difficult one to deal with.

    But we press on – like the people of Frost’s poem
    who “turned to their affairs.” There’s no other way.

    I enclose a freshly typed version of the “Thugs”
    poem, in case you would prefer it that way,
    rather than in mimeographed form, as you have it
    now. Suit yourself, and if Joey has already
    sent the poem out, fine.

    I also sent along a slightly revised version
    of “Where I Live.” True, it has only been a
    couple of weeks since I sent you the first version,

    but I have been sitting on the first version for some
    time already, and I’m therefore as sure as I’m
    likely to be that the poem is ready in its present
    form. Incidentally, I, too, worried about that
    line-break you mentioned and played with it a great deal.
    Your comment gave me the courage to make the
    change of the enclosed. I do feel, though, that
    there shouldn’t be a comma after “gas station.”

    Please tell Joey, then, that it’s ok to send
    out “Where I Live” and “Trees That Pass Us.”

    And thank you, as usual, for your help.



    A note from McNair about this letter: The revision of “Where I Live” involved changing one line break and two lines — from “beyond the last colonial/ gas station and unsolved by zoning/ is a road” to “beyond the last colonial gas station/ and unsolved by zoning/ is a road” — which responded to Don’s earlier questions, while keeping faith with the flow and meaning of the poem. Though place becomes a metaphor in “Where I Live,” the poem’s situation derives from my daily commute home from the college town of New London, New Hampshire, with its restored colonial homes, to my unvarnished location of North Sutton.

    Read Where I Live (published version)

    See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Where I Live.”

  • Hall to McNair: November 25, 1980


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    25 Nov. 1980

    Dear Wes,

    But there is also a bitterness, a self-
    bitterness, in Frost, in that poem and also in
    the Home Burial, about turning one’s affairs.
    You know there’s nothing else to do, but he
    regrets that the world is such that there is
    nothing else to do! Well, don’t we all.

    Thanks for the thugs and the where I live…
    Joey moves. Onward!


  • McNair to Hall: November 29, 1980


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    November 29, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Just so you won’t think you have a Louis Untermeyer
    on your hands, I do want you to know I am aware
    of the resonance of that last sentence in “Out, Out-.”
    I think the sentence means just what you said.
    On the one hand, it suggests the people are outrageous
    in being so sensible as to turn to their affairs,
    given the strange and violent death of the boy, and
    the seeming malevolence of the saw that caused his
    death. But the sentence also implies, as you say,
    that there is little else for the people to do – and
    besides, their ignorance (some of it willed) saves them
    from living with “fright,” and perhaps from giving
    their own hands to saws.

    I happen to feel that a certain malevolence
    hung over Herman (my father-in-law), especially
    in his last days, and that he was aware of it, too.
    So in a way, I see what the boy, with Frost, sees.
    But I also identify with those people, and so
    my quotation. With them, I feel the danger of
    “fright” and the pull of “affairs.” More knowing


    than they are, I nonetheless respond as they respond.

    There, I hope I have cleared things up.
    I will try not to take so much for granted next
    time I quote Frost!

    Good that Joey is moving onward with
    the new poems. I hope for some good news,
    as my book has been rejected by Georgia,
    with no more than a form letter. Earlier, I
    got a note from Costanzo at Carnegie-Mellon
    which said that he like the book very much,
    but that he would not be able to publish it
    this year as he had already accepted all the books
    the current budget would allow. Did I tell you
    I got a form rejection letter from Houghton
    Mifflin some time back? Over two years after
    the book’s completion, the rejections keep coming in.
    I am not too down about that yet, but I do
    hope something breaks by spring. Otherwise, I
    could be in trouble.

    Ah, well. To affairs! In that department


    I should tell you about my sabbatical application
    I have decided to take a year-long sabbatical
    next year if I can get it – and I think I can.
    I haven’t ruled out a move from Colby, but I
    do believe I should not pass up the possibility
    of a year (15 mos. Actually) for writing if
    I can get it. I would, besides, much rather have
    completed poems than a job at any university,
    however stable or prestigious.

    I let you know how this goes. I should
    know by mid-December.

    The writing still goes slowly and well.
    I shall hold all back, with no help from
    Joey, for a while though.

    Thanks to you and Joey for all your help,
    and regards to Jane!



  • Hall to McNair: December 2, 1980


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    2 December 1980

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to have your good letter. I am delighted that
    you are applying for a full year off. You are acting according
    to the Hall principal, which is to save nothing, conserve
    nothing, and devote every possible moment and piece of energy
    to writing the best that you can. When I had taught for two
    years in Michigan I applied for a Guggenheim because I was
    so crazy for time to write in. I did not get it. I had
    saved $2000 from poetry readings, book reviews, etc. – and
    we took the year off, Andrew five and Philippa just born –
    and I have never regretted it for a moment. So many people
    waste their lives doing sensible things.

    May you get it. What is at issue? I am assuming that
    you might either have a half-year at full pay or a full year
    at half-pay, and that therefore you asking for a full year
    at half-pay. (That was the way it was at Michigan and the
    way it is at many places. Naturally enough I always took
    the whole year at half-pay!)

    Sorry about the bad news. Form letters reveal that
    Georgia, like most places, is a lottery. If I were editing
    for a big university press now, I bet you I would reject good
    things with form letters also! Not that I approve of it! But
    when you get so many manuscripts in the mail, it is incredibly
    hard to keep any judgment at all. Of course you are right to
    keep it out, and under these circumstances to keep it out
    multiply. Of course I continue to hope that I might sometime
    be able to be helpful.

    You have really been getting a lot of work done with your
    time off, wonderful and good for you… Also good to hold back!

    Best as ever,


  • McNair to Hall: December 5, 1980


    [Click image to view]

    Postmarked Dec 5, 1980

    Dear Don,

    Thanks for your words of support about my sabbatical
    decision. I will remember that Hall principal and your
    obsession about people wasting their lives doing sensible

    The news about the sabbatical is good. It was approved
    just after I sent my last letter. That means 15
    months of solid writing, a gift from heaven. I was
    a bit worried about being granted a full year, since I
    have had a lot of time away from the college recently
    (was gone in 77-78, and am, of course, gone this term).
    I believe the committee which approved my application
    had the prerogative or recommending the half-year
    alternative if it seemed American Studies was suffering
    as a result of my absence. But I have been grooming
    Pat Anderson for the past several months to replace me
    as co-ordinator of American Studies (again, to
    give myself more time for writing), and I am sure
    the knowledge that Pat will be running things soon helped.
    Also, I convinced Wally before the committee made its
    decision – before I submitted my application, too – that
    Carl should be replaced for the benefit of the A.S. program,


    this in spite of the college’s position that a “new Carl”
    was not needed. As it turns out, the new person will be
    able to take some of my courses, as will Pat.

    The pay for a full-year sabbatical at Colby
    is ¾ – not ½ – of the professor’s salary. The ¾ pay
    policy was instituted at the college by faculty vote a
    couple of years ago. Diane and I figure that my
    salary, plus hers, plus the money we get for
    renting part of the upstairs, will carry us through
    so that Diane will be free during evenings for work
    on her ceramics, I will be a “househusband”
    (in the parlance of the talk shows), just as I am now.

    As you can imagine, I am just ecstatic to have
    this time. It will help me to capitalize on the
    momentum I have gained from the current time

    And the momentum is significant. I have
    several poems – many more than I have ever had
    at any one time – finished and nearly finished in
    my notebooks. And I am speaking here not of


    poems I have sent to you already, but of new work.
    I am sure that with the addition time off, I will be
    able to complete a large share of the second book I
    am currently working on. For the first time in my life,
    I can call myself a poet, without misgivings.

    Thanks for your comment about the work of this
    term, by the way. I can only say there is much
    you haven’t yet seen. But there has been a lot
    of work, and knowing how things might have gone,
    I feel very fortunate in this. Naturally, I also
    feel lucky to have had the sympathetic attention
    of Fran McCullough, one of those who read the
    poems I submitted for my N.E.A. grant. And I
    am mindful of who first brought these poems to
    her attention.

    So in spite of my difficulty with that book
    of mine, I feel blessed in my writing, and
    in the continuous help and encouragement of
    yourself and of Joey Amaryllis.

    More poems after a while. In the meantime,
    all the best to you in your writing, too. And
    to Jane in hers.



  • Hall to McNair: December 8, 1980


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    8 Dec. 1980

    Dear Wes,

    Wonderful about the sabbatical. Colby-Sawyer
    has made up for its (one person’s) insensitivity
    in connection with the current grant.

    Having fifteen months off in a row will ruin
    you forever!

    That is where I learned my taste for such liv-
    ing as I do now, taking a year off here and there.
    Well, may you join me in – as people sometimes
    suggest – “retirement.” Of course I work a hundred
    hours a week, in my retirement. It is the only way
    to go however! Love as ever,


  • Hall to McNair: December 9, 1980


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    9 Dec. 1980

    Dear Wes,

    That ought to be a very good poem… “Riffled”
    is a cliche, false-color. The last line sounds too
    much like a last line! It might end better simply
    without it. It is absolutely perfect iambic pen-
    tameter, which is one reason why it sounds like
    a last line. And “lovely” seems just vaguely honorific
    to me… What kind of song is a “lovely song”?
    I think I like the floating trees. I wish it were
    not iambic at all.


    Editorial note about this letter:  The poem Don is discussing in this letter is the elegy, “A Dream of Herman.” In it, McNair pays tribute to his father-in-law, Herman Reed, a band leader, whose life seemed to him “unsung” in his letter of November 24, 1980. Here is the draft Hall responded to on December 9.

    A Dream of Herman

    I was driving the old Dodge wagon
    again, with Coke cans rolling
    to the front at stop signs,
    and you rubbing the dash
    every so often to thank the car
    for not needing the spare tire
    we hadn’t fixed. We were on a trip
    that felt like going to your father’s camp, only
    we never got there and didn’t care.
    It was a beautiful day, just enough wind
    coming into the back to make the kids
    squint with pure pleasure
    as it riffled their hair, and your mother
    patted them, saying what a nice ride it was
    in the odd, small voice
    she used only for your father.
    It was then in the rearview mirror I saw him,
    wearing the brown cardigan he always wore
    and putting on the shining bell
    of his saxophone as if just back
    from an intermission. You were smiling,
    and suddenly I saw the reason
    we were traveling together
    and did not want to stop
    was Herman, who just sat there
    in the cargo space, breathing the scale
    until the whole family sat back
    in their seats, and then he lifted his sax
    and opened one more song
    as wide and lovely as the floating trees.


  • Hall to McNair: December 15, 1980


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    15 December 1980

    Notice of Acceptance

    The editors of Poetry are pleased to accept the
    following for publication:


    Wesley McNair
    c/o Amaryllis, Inc.
    Box 71
    Potter Place, NH 03265

    Editorial note about this letter: This is John Nims’s formal acceptance of the two poems he was holding in anticipation of a change to “Hair on Television.”

  • McNair to Hall: January 1, 1981


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    Jan 1, 1980 [1981]
    Dear Don,

    I haven’t written recently
    because I have been on a trip
    to see my brother in Wisconsin –
    and I have been swallowed up by
    holiday activities, which have included
    an extended visit from my mother –
    in law, bereft this season.
    But I have been glad to get
    your notes, one about my recent
    poem (which I shall have to revise)
    and the other about my sabbatical –
    and I have appreciated your thoughts about both
    things! Please let me know when you hear from
    Nims! More poems later!  Love, Wes

  • Hall to McNair: January 5, 1981


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    5 January 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Thanks for the card. Here is the latest
    acceptance slip, just arrived although dated
    15 December.

    My big son cracked up the car on December
    28th and has been in New London Hospital ever
    since. He will be home here with us by the
    time you get this letter probably. He will be
    all right, but he has back injuries, and has to
    lie flat on his back for a number of weeks.



  • Hall to McNair: January 12, 1981


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    January 12, 1981

    Dear Mr. Amaryllis:

    Thanks for yours of December 24. We’ll be delighted
    to publish “Trees” by Wesley McNair in the Atlantic.


    Peter Davison
    Poetry Editor

    Read Trees That Pass Us in Our Cars (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: January 13, 1981


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    January 13, 1981

    Joseph Amaryllis, Amaryllis Inc.
    P.O. Box 71
    Potter Place N.H. 03265

    For your contribution to The Atlantic Monthly
    entitled “Trees That Pass Us In Our Cars”
    we enclose a check for $36.00
    [Written below: -3.60 = $31.40]
    in payment of all rights.

    Since the ATLANTIC is interested in first American
    and Canadian magazine rights only, we shall be happy, on receipt
    of your request, to assign the copyright therein to you, at any
    time after the publication date, reserving to ourselves the right to
    vend copies of your contribution during the term of the copyright
    as a component part of the edition of The Atlantic Monthly in
    which it is originally published and for which copyright will be

    We are advised that this formal procedure is necessary
    to protect your rights, as well as ours, under the very complicated
    conditions surrounding the copyright laws.

    Very truly yours,


  • McNair to Hall: January 17, 1981


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    January 17, 1981

    Dear Don,

    I do hope your “big son” is at least relating ok –
    taking nourishment, and even drinking an occasional
    beer, as I think I recollect he enjoys doing. At least
    what happened can be mended – no doubt the mending
    goes on right now, and that is good. My thoughts
    are with you during this unpleasantness.

    Thank you for sending the notes from Poetry. I
    am awfully pleased to know the poems will appear there.
    The lift this gives me is especially important at
    this time, since, to tell the truth, I happen to be
    going through a very down period. In the past
    few weeks, I have found myself crying a lot,
    immersed in regrets of various kinds, painfully
    aware of the cost of running too hard in
    my life. I am told “This Thing” happens to
    others. Did “it” happen to you at roughly my
    age? I have been, I think, fighting it off
    for a couple of years, at least. But the thing
    is here now, full force. I guess I am relieved


    in a way to have lost control, to have found this new
    contact with my emotions; yet how much everything
    hurts! And how irrelevant the “main memories”
    of my life feel!

    You can see, then, why I have not written to you
    for a while. I believe I am ready to do better
    with that now. But I did want you to know why
    this lapse!

    Even writing is hard to do – that is, poetry writing –
    especially when I am in the process of discovering
    how much about my “inner life” my poems contain,
    even when they are about subjects quite removed
    from personal experience. Of course, I always knew
    all my poems were autobiographical, as everyone’s
    are. It’s just that I never knew how much
    autobiography was there!

    Anyway, I do send a poem along – a new
    version of a piece you saw earlier. I hope
    to be sending other stuff, too, in the not-too-distant

    In the meantime, best to you, your son, and
    your wife – and thank you again for all your notes.



    Editorial note about this letter: The poem that McNair mentions at the end of this letter is “A Dream of Herman” (see December 9, 1980) for which he changed the word “riffled” to “scribbled,” responding to Don’s earlier critique, though he has not yet dealt with Don’s rejection of the “perfect iambic pentameter” in the poem’s last line.



  • Hall to McNair, January 20, 1981

    Letter from Hall to McNair, 02-08-1982, Page 1

    [Click image to view]

    [Postmarked January 20, 1981]

    More good news! The Atlantic takes “Trees”!
    So sorry you’ve been low. Letter & cheque
    follow at end of week. $36 – 10%!


  • McNair to Hall: January 22, 1981


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    [Jan 22, 1981]

    Dear Joey,

    Thank you for making
    my day.



  • McNair to Hall: January 24, 1981 (misdated January 24, 1980)


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    January 24, 1980 [misdated, should be 1981]
    Dear Don,

    Thanks very much for your letter from The Atlantic and the
    check. I thought Davison had taken “Old Trees” instead of “Trees
    That Pass Us,” and so I am twice surprised. Anyway, it is
    awfully good to be appearing in that magazine.
    Also, thanks for your words about my “bad patch,” I’d
    hope to be reborn soon, as the lack of sleep alone is killing me.
    I am very sorry to learn of your own current bad patch.
    Lest whatever “guilt” you may refer to makes you feel like a
    bad man, please remember that you have saved my life
    as a poet, and continue too do so. Whoever may be taking notes
    on us both has a whole page about that.

    I am in the process of rewriting “A Dream of Herman,”
    and I have the thing done except for the last line. The problem
    is, I still like the line, I knew it was perfect iambic
    pentameter when I wrote it, and I liked the way the poem
    found its way to the line, resolving itself in content and form.
    I feel that way now. I sense you do not like the perfection
    of the line, meter, especially given the lack of meter in the
    rest of the poem (except for the movement toward iambic
    in the next-to-last line). What really worries me is that you
    seem so sure of your position in this, since that usually
    means I am dead wrong. Yes, I say, I like the
    line and am therefore unable to find a suitable alternative
    for it. I even like “lovely,” because for me the reference to
    “trees” gives the word a definition it wouldn’t ordinarily have/
    takes away the vagueness you have mentioned.

    I may very well be unable to see the poem clearly because
    of my closeness to the material. I do know the tendency toward
    sentimentality one has with this stuff. Perhaps that is what you
    hear coming through in that last, perfect line. (Maybe you
    hear sentimentality in other pieces?) I thought I was
    saved from sentimentality of the closeness of the ride to a
    hearse ride, and by certain lines which conjure up Herman,
    and half suggest, at the same time, that he isn’t there (“as if
    just back” “breathing the scale,” etc.)

    Please tell me more if you can, about the last line!
    I need to see it better. The shortest note will do…
    Would it be any help to get rid of the first “as”?

    Thanks to you and Joseph again for The Atlantic



    P.S. Manuscript is now out to other places—U.
    Alabama and the National Poetry Contest. Next month
    is just Yale and Princeton Pittsburg—again! Will soon be
    sending ten (published) poems to the Discovery/Nation

  • McNair to Hall: January 26, 1981 (misdated 1980)


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    January 26, 1980

    Dear Don,

    I realized after you left Carl and me today
    I had not asked you about your son.

    How is he doing? Are his injuries so serious
    that he will be at your house for a long

    Crazy of me not to ask, since this
    has been on my mind.

    Anyway, it was good to see you, new
    haircut and all. I do hope you found
    your check!

    Best to you and your son,


  • Hall to McNair: January 27, 1981


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    27 January 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton
    New Hampshire

    Dear Wes,

    It was good to see you, however briefly, yesterday…
    and today I have your letter, mostly about Herman. I am glad
    if the bottom seems to be raising a little. …I do appreciate
    having helped some other people, from time to time – very much
    including you. I believe it and I warm myself at that fire.
    And then I remember Robert Frost, as quoted by Lowell in that
    poem about Frost, Frost always so miserable about his family,
    saying how little good his own successes did his family. Well,
    Andrew goes off Thursday, and I suppose I will keep my fingers
    crossed for the rest of my life – or his. I have hopes for him,
    with some reason I think. But his is a tenuous hold, really.
    He is another casualty of the sixties and the war, like many
    many of his generation. I don’t suppose he will ever really
    be free of it. I mean simply that he grew up at a time when
    resistence to authority was decent – and somehow or other it
    was a revolutionary act to drop acid when you were fourteen
    years old.

    I have been going over “A Dream of Herman,” and, yes,
    I do feel certain about the last line. Of course this does
    not mean I am right! But I feel very certain. And I
    understand about loving certain lines. They give one everything
    one could ever ask for! They are the golden dream! When I wrote
    Ox Cart Man, it ended with: “bees wake/ roused by the cry of
    lilac.” And I still think it is just plain exquisite. But
    it was decorative, finally; it came not at the end but after
    the end… Louis Simpson made me take it out! Sometime maybe
    I will use it some place else.

    The last line here looks like a last line. It looks
    like something cherished and set apart and framed and put on
    top of the piano. The fact that it is iambic lends to this
    quality. It is not the only thing. Everything in it claims:
    beauty. But therefore, somehow, it seems to look at itself,
    and not at Herman or at the experience. It seems to be poetry!
    (I will understand that everything I say is answerable. But
    you reading this letter any way try to understand how I can
    mean these things negatively.)

    I do have a suggestion. Cut it out. End the poem
    instead with something like this: “And then he lifted his
    sacksx and opened/ one more flourishing song.”

    My “flourishing” is no good, but it is meant to do
    something like the wideness of the trees, and the spectral
    quality of the moment. You could end it simply “one more song”
    but the line would be terribly short, and I think we could
    stand the perfect adjective right there. I’m a little troubled
    by the way the lines at the end get more consistently long,
    anyway, and would be grateful for a short line, tying me back
    to earlier line-lengths.

    I think of one weird coincidence – and that is all
    it is. In The Alligator Bride, look at a poem called (I
    think it is called this) “The Old Pilot.” That was my little
    elegy for my first wife’s father! I did indeed have some of
    the same problems. And I am not sure that I avoided sentimentality.

    I do not find this poem sentimental – except I guess
    in a sense in this last line, probably especially with the
    word “lovely,” but really with the whole gesture of the line.
    I think we should end with a fantasy of the real saxaphone [sic]
    bursting into real $ong [sic].

    Love to you as ever,


    A note from McNair about this letter: The mention of seeing each other in Don’s letter to me, and my last letter to him, refers to our chance meeting in Carl Cochran’s office at Colby-Sawyer. “How are you doing?” Don wanted to know, his question — about my depression — carrying more meaning than Carl knew…. For me, the effort to perfect my elegy “A Dream of Herman” was a disheartening proposition. For though I had hoped to lift Diane’s spirits with the poem, she was too deep in grief to respond to it, in any of its revisions. In the end, I put the poem aside until the ensuing fall.

    Read The Old Pilot (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: January 28, 1981


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    28 Jan. 1981

    Dear Wes,

    Got your note. Andrew is doing very well.
    He is up and around and cooking all the time, but
    he needs to wear his brace. Tomorrow he starts
    the journey back to New York, as I drive him down
    to a friend in Massachusetts, who will then take
    him on further.

    Best as ever,


  • McNair to Hall: February 16, 1981


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    February 16, 1981

    Dear Don,

    It was good to be with you and Jane last week.
    Diane and I were sorry not to have seen Jane this week,
    but I am sending her the book I would have given her,
    so all is not lost.

    I write to you out of the frustration of having, as my
    poem says, “no fun, no dough”—and out of the need
    to do something about that, in the long range. I’ve been
    considering writing a textbook, one that might bring
    at least some extra money in from year to year.
    I have two possibilities in mind. The first is a book
    about interdisciplinary themes in American culture.
    It would involve students in the study of relationships
    between and among history, literature and art in
    various periods of the national culture, and would
    be used in American studies and cross-disciplinary
    “humanities” courses.

    Perhaps the book is too specialized. My other
    idea is an introduction to poetry, which would
    include poems, critical notes and questions for

    I feel I would have time to work on a textbook


    during my long sabbatical in those hours when I am
    not writing poems. What do you think? Am I
    crazy? I just can’t get the words of a Fullbrighter
    I met in Argentina (from Southern Cal.) out of my
    mind. “Do a textbook and you’ll always have
    extra money coming in.” I guess I feel that if
    he can write one, knowing (as our conversation showed)
    no more about literature than I, I can do it, too.

    As one of the most successful authors
    of textbooks around, you will no doubt have advice
    for me. I would very much like to hear it—



  • Hall to McNair: February 18, 1981


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    18 February 1981

    Wes McNair
    N. Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to have your letter.

    Are there any textbooks which resemble the one that
    you propose on interdisciplinary themes in American culture?
    On the whole, I think this one is the less likely. If there
    are no other textbooks in the field, any publisher will be
    reluctant to take up a new field – and of course there are
    far fewer courses which would use such a book, than might
    use an introduction to poetry. On the other hand, there are
    dozens of introduction to poetry texts!

    There is an old rule in the textbook business: if
    somebody proposes a book telling you that it is absolutely
    new, and nobody has ever thought of doing this before, reject
    the book! It is a very cynical field. The usual notion –
    the old wisdom – is to find the one or two books in the field
    which are selling the most copies, and do another book which
    is very much like them, maybe taking the best features of each,
    doing a few new things in it, but very little, and covering
    everything that they pretend to cover – and then bring it
    out and advertise it as absolutely new and the perfect thing
    for everybody’s course, knocking every other book out on its

    Do you know Perrine… Sound and Sense? I hate it.
    It is the one to shoot for. Probably the second best seller
    in that field right now is X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to
    Poetry. There are others by Nims and Simpson, which sell
    a little every year but not terribly much… there is the old
    Understanding Poetry, which sticks in there. And I have two of
    them, in a sense. One is my old The Pleasures of Poetry, which
    has never done very well, and the other is the poetry section
    of my new Holt book, To Read Literature, which will probably
    be issued as a separate text, the poetry part by itself, next
    year or so.

    Perrine is full of lies by simplification. Kennedy and
    I are known as too sophisticated.

    The ones that sell best integrate a lot of poems into
    many chapters, and the subject matter is pretty well decided
    upon for you, and even mostly the organization. Then usually
    these books have a brief anthology of poems for further study
    appended to them. The trouble with Simpson and with my first
    one is that they had a brief introduction, not organized particularly
    as a text – no study questions and so forth – followed by a good
    anthology. Apparently most teachers want – though most teachers
    will tell you that they do not want – something that leads them


    by the hand.

    I know so much about this, I would take twenty pages
    to tell you about it. Think about it, and if you continue
    to want to do one, let us get together and talk about it.

    I think that the first thing for you to do is to work
    out a plan for such a book, which would detail what the chapters
    would contain, and what sort of thing you would do by way of
    study questions and by way of a supplementary anthology…
    then in order to convince a publisher you would need some
    sample pages, maybe one whole chapter and a couple of things
    from other chapters…and then you would have a sort of
    prospectus for a book which you would be worthwhile (sic) to
    send around to publishers. I do know some people in the
    business. I think I could be of help.

    It is always wise to remember: some textbooks make
    a tremendous amount of money, another percentage make a
    small but gratifying regular income… And most textbooks
    fail and do not make any money at all. However, it is better
    than gold mining, and more remunerative than writing excellent

    Best as ever,


  • Hall to McNair: February 20, 1981


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    February 20, 1981

    Dear Mr. Amaryllis:

    Enclosed is the uncorrected proof of Wesley
    McNair’s poem, “Trees.” Please have him look
    it over carefully, making any necessary changes
    or corrections, and return the galley to me
    in the enclosed envelope.

    Thank you.

    Very truly yours,

    Nina Engelhardt

    Assistant to the
    Managing Editor

  • McNair to Hall: February 24, 1981


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    Good news: I am one of the finalists
    for the Walt Whitman Award. Please keep
    fingers, legs and whatever crossed until
    the end of March. Regards


  • McNair to Hall: March 4, 1981


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    March 4, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful letter
    about textbook writing. And thanks to Joey for
    the Poetry proofs.

    I will do my best to write more soon. I seem
    to have no time at all right now because I have
    taken on an extra course in (of all things) “Business
    English” [2 nights per week] at N.H. College (Manchester) to make up for
    the financial loss I told you about. And, my
    materials for a three-year teaching evaluation
    are due at the end of the month. Whew! More later!


  • McNair to Hall: March 23, 1981


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    March 23, 1981

    Dear Don & Jane—

    We would like you to come for dinner
    on April 1. This is not a trick (we will
    not say, “April fool—no meal!”)

    But if you can’t come then, how about
    the 8th or 9th?

    Book is gone to Missouri—also (revised)
    to Pittsburgh.



  • Hall to McNair: March 27, 1981


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    27 March 1981
    Dear Wes,

    Anything ever happen with the end of A Dream
    of Herman? …Joey is a little confused these
    days, and I think it is the new medication. He
    wants [you] to confirm that the following poems are
    not published: Old Trees, Calling Harold, The
    People Upstairs, The Fat People of the Old Days,
    not to mention The Thugs of Old Comics, and Where
    I Live.



  • McNair to Hall: April 6, 1981


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    April 6, 1981

    Dear Don,

    I have just returned from a six-day trip to Washington, D.C., to
    find your card asking about the publication of poems. I have not
    published–nor have I sought to publish–any of the poems you named.
    I do want to point out, though, that I have received a note
    from the director of the Wilory Farm poetry contest (the note was in
    the mailbox with your card), explaining that “Where I Live” has been
    chosen for a fifth prize in the contest, and that the poem will be
    printed in a booklet that will be sent out to other contestants only
    and copyrighted in my name.

    To clear up any possible doubts, I should tell you a couple of
    things about this. One is that I wrote to the director before submitting
    my poem to ask whether the contest would interfere in any way with the
    future publication of the poem. The answer was no. The other thing I
    want you to know is that I would have written you about the Wilory Farm
    plans whether or not you had sent your card. I do not intend to repeat
    my mishap of a year ago.

    I do not think there is anything here that would prevent Joey
    from sending “Where I Live” out, but I want him to know about the note
    just in case he has any misgivings. Please let me know what he thinks.

    No, “A Dream of Herman” is not finished yet. My Great Sadness and
    the hectic schedule which the New Hampshire College course has caused
    have limited time for revision or new work. I am sending a new version
    of “The Fat People of the Old Days” with this, though. Please replace
    the other version with this one if the poem comes back unpublished
    and if you have no doubts about the changes I have made.

    No word yet from the Academy of Am. Poets about the Walt Whitman
    contest. Though I “expect nothing,” I do manage to check my mail.

    I hope all is well with you and Jane–also that Joey is doing
    better with the new medication.




  • Hall to McNair: April 11, 1981


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    11 April 1981

    Wes McNair
    Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I asked you because I was confused, not because I dis-
    trusted you.

    However, you have removed another poem from the possibility
    of publication for pay! I cannot believe that you have forgotten!
    Last year you were astonished when I told you that publication
    in the Concord Monitor – or any publication – precluded re-pub-
    lication in almost any magazine that paid anything or took
    itself seriously.

    Of course that remains true for [this one]. It matters not
    at all what the director of the “Willory Farm Poetry Contest”
    tells you. Very decent of him, I am sure, not to mind your
    reprinting it – but the point is that the magazines are not
    in the business of reprinting from other publications! This
    is really too bad, because it is a poem that I am sure that
    we could have sold. In return for a fifth prize, we lose
    the poem.

    Just to be clear. The fact that the present publisher
    of a poem tells you that there is no problem about reprinting
    it tells you absolutely nothing about whether somebody else
    will want to print it under these circumstances or not. And
    the answer is virtually always no.

    Please do not submit poems for any kind of publication –
    even just for other contestants, it doesn’t of course matter
    who the hell is supposed to read it – without telling Joey.
    Because again he may have gotten himself in trouble, by sending
    out a poem which, if it is taken by this magazine, he will have
    to withdraw, thus offending a poetry editor.

    Best as ever,


  • McNair to Hall: April 18, 1981


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    April 18, 1981

    Dear Don,

    I see I have done badly by the poem
    and by Joey. I did not mean to, but
    it seems I did not mean not to enough
    to think the thing through.

    I will send nothing out from now on
    except my book. That’s my position, and
    you may be certain I will not budge from it.

    I am sorry for the upset I have caused.


  • McNair to Hall: May 12, 1981


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    May 12, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Finally, I manage to write!

    I thought time would be easier to find after my course at NHC
    concluded at the end of April, but then Diane went into the
    hospital for a hernia operation. Now, she is at home, recuperating,
    and I am trying to keep the house in order. I write this just
    after getting the kids on the bus, and just before starting housework.
    Soon, I will be taking this to the mail and going to the college to
    pick up final exams. So you see, time isn’t easier to find.

    Fortunately, Diane’s recuperation is going well. Yesterday,
    she was able to do some work in her studio, and she is able
    to spend more time on her feet every day. She hopes to be
    well enough by June to go to Haystack–a ceramics
    school in Maine, whose month-long session I paid for
    with NHC money…the only good thing which came out
    of that experience. Obviously, she will be staying away from
    the liquor store for several days.

    The news on my book is all bad. I will soon be one of
    the most famous also-rans in American publishing. I was
    a finalist in this year’s Walt Whitman contest, and I was
    a finalist in the Princeton poetry series. AWP just wrote to
    say my book received “serious consideration” (the note was
    attached to their copy of my manuscript). The book is now
    at Pittsburgh and Alabama. You will remember that
    it got to the final reading in Pitt last year and the


    year before. I doubt the pattern will be broken this year–unless,
    perhaps, the manuscript doesn’t quite make it that far.

    I’m trying to decide whether I should change the format
    of the book. Perhaps the title The Faces of Americans in 1853
    and a new arrangement of the poems would make the thing
    more “marketable.” What do you think? Unhappy as I
    am about seeing the book through another cycle of readings
    next year, I fear I will soon be facing that prospect,
    and I have the feeling a new approach is needed.

    As I’ve implied, the Colby-Sawyer term is almost
    over now. I will be able to write soon, and I am looking
    forward to that mightily. A month ago, I wouldn’t have
    been able to say that. I was still going through my
    “bad patch,” which turned out to be far more extensive
    than I thought it might be. The nutso activity
    of the semester was finally a good thing for me
    since it keeps me away from my inner world, which was
    in a terrible flux. Now, I feel freer to deal with
    that world. And I miss writing awfully.

    The latest news from Colby-Sawyer includes two
    acquaintances of yours. One, Wally Ewing, who left
    the college in January to manage–and invest in–a
    business which failed, is now managing the Kearsarge
    golf course, which the college recently purchased. The
    other, Carl Cochran, will soon be ending his association


    with the college. Tomorrow, he will be feted by the English
    department at Pat Anderson’s house. We are giving him a
    pewter plate inscribed with Henry Adams’ words about
    the teacher–“The teacher affects eternity; one can never
    tell where his influence stops”–Also, we are notifying
    him that the American studies program award will now
    bear his name.

    My day’s schedule calls! Blessings to you and Jane,
    and happy spring!



  • Hall to McNair: May 18, 1981


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    18 May 1981

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    N. Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Very good to get your letter. And it came at a time
    when I was on the road almost continually, so you find me
    unusually slow in replying. Last weekend we flew south,
    Jane to Virginia to the Orrs, and me down to Clinton, South
    Carolina, where I gave the graduation speech and got an
    honorary degree at a little place called Presbyterian College
    in Clinton, a nice little place where I have read my poems a
    couple of times. After the graduation, a young poet named John
    Lane drove me seven hours to Charlottesville. And the next
    morning I tied up with Jane and the Orrs. We worked on poems
    for a day and a half, and then flew back here. Tuesday night
    I saw the Celtics beat Houston, Wednesday morning answered
    some mail, Wednesday noon did a reading in East Andover that
    I had agreed to do fourteen months ago, and after that I flew
    to New York. Ihad (sic) dinner with Andrew that night, and the next
    morning addressed the Oxford University Press’s sales force,
    whipping up enthusiasm for the Oxford Book of American Literary
    Anecdotes. After that I flew back to Boston, drove out to Exeter
    and did a reading! Then I had to hang around there for a couple
    of days to talk with students. Just got back up here Saturday
    night, and I have to go off again Tuesday night, and all day
    Wednesday – but after that I get to stick around for a while,
    thank heaven.

    I hope that the financial situation begins to steady-out
    now. Sorry to hear that Diane has had to go through an operation.
    That is always a lot of fun. Good for Diane with the months
    at Haystack – which I hope will work out all right. I mean to say,
    that she will feel well enough to go.

    You say that news on the book is all bad, and of course
    I know what you mean – but being a finalist in all these things…
    being a bridesmaid, in this case, is a sign that you will be a
    bride. I know it is small comfort to hear these things – but I
    still think Iought (sic) to tell you the truth!

    I think the title is good. I think you should probably
    continue to change it to make the best book possible, if you
    can determine what that is. When I was sending my first book
    around, I changed it every single time, between rejections,
    so in a sense the same book was not rejected thirteen times,
    which I always say. You are older and the book is better – but
    still I think that you lose nothing by dropping some poems you feel
    less confident about. Ten years from now, if you continue to like
    them, you can publish them at that time. A poem is not destroyed,
    simply by being left out. And if you make a better book – or even


    merely a more fashionable book – I think that the bird in
    hand is worth cooking.

    I feel that I am about to be able to get into a good
    patch of working on poems. Usually if I feel that way it
    happens. I need one. I have not sent out a poem for three
    years. The house is full of almosts. But I am not sure that
    any of the almosts is as good as the four or five best poems
    in Kicking the Leaves. Well, who am I to say anyway?

    I knew that Wally had had bad luck with his nightclub.
    I did not know about the golf course. I’m delighted to hear
    about the honors for Carl, who is a wonderful teacher, who
    sometimes I think wants to convince us that he is not. You
    have always been around him and seeing him at work, but for
    me the exposure has been briefer. But perfectly clear. I hope
    Carl enjoys retirement. I think it is a little frightening
    for him, although he also looks forward to it. Nothing like
    that is ever unconflicted!

    Thank you for writing, and good luck to us all! I
    mean in our work especially…but why not everything else?


  • McNair to Hall: June 20, 1981


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    June 20, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Not a new poem–just the old one
    with the revisions I mentioned typed in.

    If I am lucky, this is ready
    to become one of the next batch.

    Am working on many other things,
    but progress is, as usual, slow. I
    should have a reasonable group of
    things by October, though.

    When is the Ploughshares coming out?

    I await that and the probable return
    of my manuscript from Pittsburgh…

    Something to look forward to, and something to dread.

    Best in your work.



    When Paul Flew Away

    It was the same as always,
    Paul opening the big, black lung
    of it with that worried look
    while the cats watched
    from under the stove,
    but when he closed
    his eyes and began to sink
    down between the straps
    of his bib-overalls,
    it was like he died. Except
    the accordion was still breathing
    a waltz between his hands,
    except he called back
    to us every so often
    from wherever he was, shit.
    Which meant everything
    he had ever known
    in his life up to that
    moment, but this song.
    Not some sock-drawer
    music of getting a tune out
    and then rummaging
    for the chord to match,
    but together, exactly like
    he was breathing the thing
    himself. No stomping
    either, just Paul twisting
    like he was after some deep
    itch, only right then
    he was starting to lift
    out of his chair. Slowly
    at first, like flypaper
    in a small breeze, then
    the whole enormous weight
    of him hanging over the sink. God,
    he was happy, and I
    and the kids was laughing
    and happy, when all
    at once it come to me,
    this is it. Paul is leaving
    the old Barcolounger
    stuck in second
    position, and the tv on top
    of the tv that don’t
    work, and all my hand-paintings
    of strawberries as if he had never
    said this would be Strawberry Farm.
    Hey! I said to him out in the yard
    because he was already going
    right over the roof
    of the goat-shed, pumping
    that song. What about you
    and me? And Paul
    just got farther and smaller
    until he looked like a kid
    opening paper dolls over
    and over, or like
    he was clapping slowly
    at himself, and then
    like he was opening up the wings
    of some wild, black bird
    he had made friends with
    just before he disappeared
    into the sky above the clouds
    over all of Wisconsin.

    -Wesley McNair

    Editorial note about this letter: This draft of the poem and its follow up on 6/18/82 are both close to the published version, which appeared in McNair’s second collection, The Town of No.

    McNair’s note about this poem: The comic “Paul” of this poem is my older brother Paul in disguise, who also plays accordion and at the time I wrote “When Paul Flew Away” had been taken into the hospital for a life-threatening kidney operation — the grim back story for this character’s “flying away.”

    Read When Paul Flew Away (published version)

  • McNair to Hall: June 29, 1981


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    June 29, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Thanks–belated thanks–for your very encouraging
    letter about my book.

    I have not written because fate has filled my life
    once again with activities which prevent regular
    correspondence. I am holding down the house while
    Diane prepares to go under the knife one more time
    at Mary Hitchcock. Now, she has a ruptured disc.
    It looks as if she will be more-or-less OK
    after the operation and the ensuing period of recuperation,
    but the recuperation will take 3-4 months, and
    much of that time, she will be flat on her back.
    She probably won’t be finished with this thing until

    Diane tells me that fate has also played a trick
    on Jane. After the experience with my father-in-law
    last fall, I can imagine how troublesome this period
    is for her. Please wish her well for me.

    I will try to keep you posted on Diane’s condition
    after this new surgery. In the meantime, thanks
    for your patience with such a rotten correspondent.
    I think of you both often, however it may appear!



    A note from McNair about this letter: Jane’s “troublesome period” refers to her bout with depression.

  • Hall to McNair: July 7, 1981


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    Dictated: 3 July, 1981
    Typed: 7 July, 1981

    2896 Newport
    Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, New Hampshire 03260

    Dear Wes,

    The stationery tells a lie. I am dictating this in a cellar in Ann
    Arbor on July 3, and I will mail it out to Pacific Palisades, where an
    old helper/typist/assistant of mine now lives, who will type it and mail
    it from there, without me having read it. Don’t think this is too strange:
    just be grateful I did not try my handwriting on you!

    Well, I am so sorry about Diane. Everything will be all right I
    realize—but that is a lot of time to wait. And in the meantime, I reckon
    she has to miss the longed-for potting this summer. What a shame.

    Yes, you know why we are out here. Jane was here two weeks without
    me, but neither of us could stand that. She came back for a week, and
    then we drove out here, and I believe that we will stay here until the
    end. I loaded the car up with six months of work, etc., and we
    will manage.

    Do keep in touch. Danbury forwards mail so that it gets here in
    about 48 hours. Good people. But you might as well write us here.
    2896 Newport/Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103.

    Love to you both as ever,

    (Donald Hall)

    Dictated but not read

  • McNair to Hall: July 8, 1981


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    July 8, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Enclosed, the money due you for
    the Poetry publication.

    Thanks to you and Joey.

    Hope you and Jane are doing OK.



  • McNair to Hall: September 2, 1981


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    September 2, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Rising early in the morning seems to be the only
    way of writing this letter to you–a letter I have
    been “about to write” for a very long time. So I’ve
    risen early, after staying up until nearly two
    this morning covering a couch.

    I do not recall if I told you that Diane and
    I decided to have some renovations done on the
    house during this summer. In fact, we made the
    contract with our builders shortly before her accident.
    Have you ever gone through a period of renovation?
    I never guessed how time-consuming this thing
    would be. It has of course gone on at the very
    time Diane has been recuperating–terrible timing,
    but the builders couldn’t work us into their schedule
    later on, and we had to get certain things such as
    roofing and re-clapboarding done before winter.
    Also, we needed to have our porch repaired–
    the boards were in woeful shape. We combined
    that exterior work with renovation of the kitchen
    and bathroom, and with other projects such as
    recovering the couch. The builders have only just
    left, so that the “other projects” can begin. Thus,


    our summer, which began with getting Diane back on
    her feet and dealing with the builders, now concludes
    with finishing touches on the renovation. I am bound
    and determined to get all that stuff done before my
    sabbatical officially begins so I can (finally)
    settle down to long days of writing. At this point,
    I am deeply frustrated, dying to get going on

    I am, however, also pleased with Diane’s recovery.
    She threw away her crutches some weeks ago and
    is now up and around with only occasional, and
    minor relapses. Her physical therapist thinks her
    recuperation is near-miraculous, and so do I.
    A week ago, we learned that she has been granted
    worker’s compensation. More good news!

    I have managed to revise my book manuscript.
    So I am totally free for new work, come two
    weeks from now. I have decided to call it
    The Faces of Americans in 1853. I have also
    removed “The Poetic License” from the “Faces”
    section of the book, so that the affirmative

    [Written in left margin at last line, above:
    Forgot to mention
    I’ve also removed
    the “dirty” poems
    and “Beggars.”
    Perhaps they are
    poems for a
    different book – ]


    connection with Rufus Porter (central figure in
    the as-of-now last two poems in the section)
    leads without irony to the last section and its
    reconciliation with self and place. I have
    retitled two of the sections (the last, for instance,
    is called “Where I Live”), and I’ve added three
    new poems, all of which you’ve seen.

    This week, I begin to retype the book, so
    you can see it sometime next week. I am
    quite happy with the new form. It makes a lot
    more sense, I think, as a “journey.” I hope you
    like it, and I hope to God I can finally get
    rid of it. I must move on from the book and
    its needs to new work, new concerns!

    I hope your own writing is going well. Two days
    ago, I was visited by a friend who brought back
    my copy of Kicking the Leaves, and I reread it.

    It really is a wonderful book, far better than
    any reviews have said, even though the reviews
    were generally positive. The elegiac feeling is
    so strong in it, and so elegantly expressed!
    “Names of Horses,” “Flies,” “Black Faced Sheep,”


    poem after poem hits me over the head. Also, I returned
    to the concluding pages of String Too Short To Be Saved,
    this time noticing a description of the present which
    reminds me of a poem you sent me in manuscript
    called “The Intersection.” (The description I mean
    is in the Epilogue, “Being Here.”) I have not yet
    looked up the poem, but I would guess the description
    will help me with it. Anyway, I like the (new) part
    of the book very much–almost took it as an
    epigraph for my book, but it wasn’t quite the right

    Got the two copies of The Atlantic a few days ago,
    and I was most thrilled. I do thank you and
    Joey again for making that happen.

    Please pass on regards to Jane. I hope she
    has got beyond the Great Sorrow of awhile

    And I send this to Danbury, assuming
    that by now you are back there. Best to you,
    Jane, Wesley Wells, the animals and all
    at Eagle Pond Farm and environs!

    And Love,



  • Hall to McNair: September 4, 1981


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    4 September 1981

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Many thanks for the good long letter. We have been back
    here for quite a while, but of course it is a strange time.
    We stayed here, after coming back at the end of July, because
    Jane’s father – we were told – would have to remain in the
    hospital or a nursing home until he died. The cancer metastasized
    to his brain. However, he has now taken a turn for the better,
    and he may go home again. But he may be well enough so that we
    do not have to be out there.

    Jane just went out for another little visit, and when
    she came back we had timed it so that Geoffrey Hill and Aileen
    came into the airport at the same time, and they are up here
    now, staying with us for nineteen days. We all work in the mornings,
    and then play in the late afternoons and evenings. It is a good

    We have had a tremendous amount of work done on the house,
    and it is just horrible. All last summer was lost, when we tore
    off the old bathroom and converted the old bedroom into a new
    bathroom and hallway, and built a new bedroom on at the end.
    Earlier, we have suffered through the replacement of two chimneys,
    through lifting up the woodshed and putting new sills under it,
    all sorts of things. Horrible. Now I don’t think we will have
    to do any more major work – just roofing and painting from time
    to time. I hope so. And the dozers like to get here at about
    six a.m..

    Very good about Diane’s recovery. Bad to have to recover…
    but good to recover. Not only that but worker’s compensation.

    I look forward to the new book manuscript. By the way, the
    situation at Dial – Fran McCullough – is bleak, and I’m in the
    process of looking for another publisher myself. Not that i
    have anything to show right now to show. But will do. The revision
    of the manuscript sounds good offhand. But I want to spend
    some time with it.

    I am writing every day, and now feel a little more encouraged
    than I did a year ago. I have some newish poems, revised poems,
    which seem better to me. The Intersection is very different,
    I think I am finally getting those horizontals and verticals

    Love to you both.


  • Hall to McNair: September 18, 1981


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    18 Sept. 1981

    Dear Wes,

    Many thanks for the manuscript. Unfortunately,
    I cannot read it right away. I am just about to
    go off on an author-tour for Oxford, for the Anec-
    dote book, and when I get back there will be a
    great pile of things. I wish I could read it right
    away, but things are rather frantic right now! As
    soon as I can!



  • McNair to Hall: October 8, 1981


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    October 8, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Enclosed, two revised poems. Hope
    you like them.

    I had to go ahead and have my book
    mimeo’d, since the contests are calling
    for manuscripts now. I’m therefore
    going to have to assume you like
    The Faces well enough–

    Hope all is well at the Farm–




    Oddly, being so large
    gave them a sense of possibility.

    Women with huge upper arms
    felt freer.

    Children never stopped opening
    the landscapes of flesh that grew
    in their hands.

    Their word for the thin ones
    whose long faces seemed
    part of their necks
    was “chinless”.

    Barking dogs and stray cats
    were also called “chinless”.

    No one knows when
    the thin ones began
    to seem beautiful,

    when the fat people first worried
    about weight.

    A woman came to fear her knuckles
    and elbows were sinking
    into dimples.

    A man believed his chin
    which shook when he talked
    was also speaking.

    For many years
    the fat life continued.

    Each day inside strange houses
    with wide doors
    the fathers rose folding themselves
    into their pants.

    Each night the families dreamed of bones
    hung forever in fat’s
    locked closet.

    –Wesley McNair

    for Diane

    I was driving the old Dodge wagon
    again, with Coke cans rolling
    to the front at stop signs,
    and you stroking the dash
    every so often to thank the car
    for not needing the spare tire
    we hadn’t fixed. We were on a trip
    that felt like going to your father’s camp, only
    we never got there and didn’t care.
    It was a beautiful day, just enough wind
    coming into the back to make the kids
    squint with pure pleasure
    as it scribbled their hair, and your mother
    patted them, saying what a nice ride it was
    in the odd, small voice
    she used only for your father.
    It was then in the rear-view mirror I saw him,
    wearing the brown cardigan he always wore
    and putting on the shining bell
    of his saxophone as if just back
    from an intermission. You were smiling,
    and suddenly I saw the reason
    we were traveling together
    and did not want to stop
    was Herman, who just sat there
    in the cargo space, breathing the scale
    until the whole family leaned back
    in their seats, and then he lifted his sax
    and opened one more song as wide
    and delicate as the floating trees.

    –Wesley McNair

    Editorial note about this letter: Minus its fifth stanza, this version of “The Fat People of the Old Days” is the way the poem finally appears in The Town of No.  The published version is here: The Fat People of the Old DaysThe above draft of “A Dream of Herman” is its final version, later published in The Faces of Americans in 1853.

  • Hall to McNair: October 19, 1981


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    19 Oct. 1981

    Dear Wes,

    You have not heard from me because
    I have not been here. We went back to ann Arbor.
    Actually Jane has been there all but six weeks, since
    early in June. And I have been there seven weeks, all
    together. I just came back after twelve days. And
    Reuel died just as I got back here, last Friday af-
    ternoon. Thank heaven. End was peaceful. Jane
    will be back on Tuesday. Maybe again we can start
    to live the old life. Of course “normal life” is
    nothing but how you live in the interstices among
    disasters. And I will read the book! It must seem
    strange to you that I have not been able to. But I
    really have not been able to. I will be back with
    you – and back among the living, for a while – as
    soon as I can be. Love to you all,

  • Hall to McNair: October 23, 1981


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    23 October 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton, NH

    Dear Wes,

    I like the book very much, and the order seems to me
    sensible… Yet I may have notions about how to improve it.
    I want to sit on it some more, dream on it some more. And
    also, I would appreciate it if you would send me copies of
    any of the near-misses. It seems to me that I remember a
    few poems, recent ones, not the old “sexist” ones, that you
    have left out. I am wondering if I can see a place for them,
    and argue with you. But maybe I would not want to.

    Why do you have so few lines on a page? Does one of the
    contests demand that you only have so many lines on a page?
    It has the curious affect of seeming to thin a rather solid
    and bulky manuscript. Maybe that number of lines suggests

    I am going to wait, for further conversation, until I
    hear from you.

    Did I tell you in my last letter – I cannot remember whether
    I wrote you a note a week ago or not…maybe I did…maybe this
    week… – that Jane’s father died last Friday? We are relieved,
    and it is wonderful to be back here together, and staying here.

    We look forward to seeing you again, inspecting your

    We had a wonderful time with Geoffrey Hill and Aileen.
    And yes, it was invigorating, because nobody in the world is
    so serious, and – when it comes to composition and publication –
    so disinterested.

    Love to you as ever,


  • McNair to Hall: October 28, 1981


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    October 28, 1981

    Dear Don,

    Yes, I did just get word from you that Jane’s
    father died. I suppose it is finally a relieving
    thing for you both, since he had been hanging by
    a thread for so long. I hope Jane is holding
    together, and that you are. Diane and I both
    wish you both well.

    You wrote about my book at the very time I
    was set to write you some good news about it.
    Gerald Costanzo, of Carnegie Mellon Press,
    sent me a very full letter about it, said
    he found it “excellent” and did want to
    publish it, though it was too late for this
    year’s publication list. (My best information
    was that manuscripts of poetry should be sent
    to C.M. any time during the year. Apparently,
    this is no longer so.) He asked me to send
    it to him again in 1982, between September


    15 and October 15, and while he did not flat out
    say he would publish it, he left me with the
    impression that he would. The letter really did not
    seem to be an elaborate “no.” Whatever it
    may have been, it left me ‘up’ about the book’s
    chances in the current form.

    But I remain most concerned about your
    feeling that the book might benefit from the addition
    of other poems. If you finally feel I should
    revise the thing, I will certainly consider doing
    so. My main problem is that I went ahead
    and ran copies of the present version (you’ll
    remember I told you I had to do so because
    contest time was coming up fast). But no
    matter. I still have a bit of time for a
    revision if I know of your ideas soon.

    You ask if there was any “near-misses”
    for inclusion in the book. I have not really
    considered any poems for the revision


    other than the ones you found in it. Here are the
    titles of the poems which seem to me appropriate
    for some book, and which I’ve left out of this one:
    (1) The Poetic License; (2) Beggars; (3) Trees That Pass Us
    (4) A Dream of Herman; (5) The Fat People of the
    Old Days; (6) Calling Harold; (7) The People Upstairs;
    (8) The Fat Enter Heaven.

    I left “(1)” out of the new book because it
    broke the affirmative–unironically affirmative–
    mood which the Porter poems establish in part 5,
    and which moves into part 6. (I should say
    also that the Porter poems establish a feeling about
    region that I don’t want to intrude upon.)
    I left “(2)” out because it has little to do with
    the book as a whole, and little connection with
    the poems of the last section in particular.
    I suppose there might be some reason to include
    one or two of the other poems–though probably
    (5) and (8) wouldn’t fit. I can’t see much
    justification for adding others, though. Maybe


    (3) could work in the affirmative last section; problem is,
    it’s still another “region–viewed–from–car” poem,
    and I have too many poems of that kind in the last
    section already–three, in fact. Poem (6) might
    be put into the last section, too; it is, after all,
    a positive sort of verse. But it has nothing to do
    with the new consideration of region (“new” after
    the region of part 2)–and I do want this
    business to dominate in Part 5.

    For me, the book, whose epigraph promises
    a “journey” that goes “backward in time”
    “after a few wavers” begins with wavers,
    or waverings, in the present, (sections 1 and 2),
    goes backward (sections 3, 4, 5–hints in 2)
    and returns to the present (Section 6). The
    journey works on personal, regional, and national
    levels. All of the poems must fit that movement,
    and must relate to the more-or-less negative
    beginning and positive ending of the book.


    That, in brief, is the way I see what I’ve done
    with the poems of the book. Please let me know
    where you may disagree! Also let me know
    if you have any response to the revisions
    I recently sent–particularly to “A Dream
    of Herman.” Perhaps you didn’t get the
    poems I mailed. I worry about that. Then again,
    maybe I sent them more recently than I think.

    Anyway, I look forward to your comments
    about any of the above (new pen). And please
    give our very best to Jane.

    More later about your visit here!




  • Hall to McNair: November 2, 1981


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    2 November 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Jane is doing just fine. Of course after the relief –
    even the high of the death of someone whom you have seen to
    suffer the torture of the absolute damned…then there is time
    for the grief to begin. But she shows every sign of taking it
    all well. What is so important: she knows that she did the right
    things. Oh, maybe some day there will come the day when they make
    a computer which relieves us of being good. But I don’t look forward
    to the day.

    Jane got an NEA. The relief and pleasure for her, the
    independent affirmation of her worth…you know something about
    what that feels like! Very good for her.

    I know Gerald Costanzo a little bit. He is a good man.
    I’m delighted that he liked the book, and that
    he wants to publish it… As you well know, nothing is firm until
    you have the book in your hand, or see ten copies of it at once!
    Still, I’m absolutely delighted.

    I don’t think that one should ever save poems for a new
    book. One should at any moment present the strongest possible
    book. On the other hand, sometimes it is wise to leave poems out
    of a book, not in order to save them, but in order to give a shape
    to the book. I don’t know which you are doing, or whether you are
    doing something else… I wondered if I might be able to help by
    supplying an external opinion. I didn’t mean to leave you “most

    You know, even after a book is taken, you are usually allowed
    to revise it, to add to it, to subtract from it, to revise the poems
    in the manuscript. Jane’s From Room to Room hardly resembled,
    when it was printed, the manuscript that was accepted.

    Your reasons for leaving out these eight poems… A lot
    of them make sense. But sense isn’t always what matters. That is,
    I think you may be worrying too much about “affirmative” and “negative.”
    The quality and power of the poems is what matters, I think I might
    argue. Do you have copies of these eight? Obviously I know them all –
    but I don’t have copies of them handy. Could you make xeroxes of them
    over at the English Dept., and send them to me, and let me play
    with the manuscript as a whole, and make a (non-dogmatic) suggestion?


    I don’t think enough people pay attention to the book, [as shape,]
    but pay attention just to making an anthology of poems; it is
    possible that you pay too much attention to the book, and not
    enough to the anthology of poems. But I don’t mean to tell you
    so, in this letter – just to think that I might think about it,
    and might wind up saying so…and if I did, that would be no
    disaster, and if you disagreed with me, that would be no disaster

    I think it is important – and I’m sure you agree – to
    put your best possible foot forward. Spend every penny you have.
    Save nothing. In your first book.

    I did not get a bunch of poems recently, except for the
    book itself…maybe you sent them more recently than you think –
    but I got the letter here, and have not yet received the revisions
    of a dream of Herman or others.

    Joey is about to submit some McNair poems to Donald Hall
    for a special issue of Ploughshares. Probably the new revisions
    are in order, in such a case.

    Love as ever,


    A note from McNair about this letter: The poems Joey submitted to Ploughshares for Don, as a guest editor of the magazine (which was a matter of Don submitting them to himself) were: “Old Trees,” “The Fat People of the Old Days,” and “Calling Harold.”

  • Hall to McNair: November 16, 1981


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    16 November 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton, NH

    Dear Wes,

    I’m so sorry to take so long with you, all fall. You
    know there have been all sorts of little things. And now I
    have been interrupted by this and by that – but (sic) a poetry
    reading, by having to go down and watch the Celtics practice
    and talk with Kevin McHale…all sorts of things that just keep
    me from concentrating.

    I don’t feel the urgency that you feel in one sense: the
    book is going to change every few months anyway. I know I may
    be wrong. I don’t believe I’m wrong. I don’t think that you’ve
    hurt yourself madly by leaving these poems out – but I do think [you]
    hurt the book. Because I think that these [poems] include some of
    the best things that you have written. I don’t know as you are
    doing this, but let me counsel against something that some people
    do from time to time: they hold back on new poems in order
    to get started on the next book. It is always wise, I do believe,
    to print your best poems now, and hold nothing back. And it is
    wise to get rid of the weaker old ones, even when they are old
    affections and old favorites for various reasons. Also, I would
    say that the shape of the book, that you perceive, as you put it
    together, is far less important than the individual poems. I do
    believe in trying for a shapely book – but only after you make
    the decision to include all the best poems and leave out all the
    weaker ones.

    The book will seem thicker, with more texture and tweed
    to it, more grit, more content, and much more particularity, with
    most of these poems added, and one or two of the old ones taken
    out. Just how you do it – just how you make it a single whole –
    I’m not sure. But also, I do not worry terribly about it.

    I love the new one, by the way. I have one or two little things
    to question about it. But very very good. The only one of these
    poems – nine poems – that I would omit is The People upstairs. You
    were having some doubts about it. I would put the whole thing back
    in the drawer. Two years from now you may find it and it may be
    the start of something else great. As I have come to see it, over
    the last year or two, I have come to feel that it does not work.
    It is too thin. It is too tenuous a music.

    I tend I guess usually to like your thicker and grosser
    things – like the absolutely wonderful Peaceable Kingdom, which
    was the poem in your manuscript at the very beginning which took
    my eye – and my eye has never left you since! The new one is an-
    other one of your thick and gross things. (By “gross” I am using
    an exaggeration, as opposed to the very ephemeral, very short-lined
    things, of which The People Upstairs is an example.)


    Leaving out. I would leave out Elinore. Elinore has
    never been a favorite of mine, and as you have written more
    poems, and gotten better and better, Elinore has receded until
    Elinore just waters the soup at this point. I think that you
    could put Holding the Goat and When Superman Died in the previous
    section. In general, I think maybe you have too many sections –
    and all the blank pages and the short line pages and the short
    pages combine to make the manuscript seem a lot thinner than it
    genuinely is. I want you to look for, and even enjoy the idea
    of greater bulkiness. The book feels thinner than you are. I
    would think about omitting some of the poems in the second part –
    but I think that in a bulkier book they would stand up better.
    They wouldn’t have to carry so much on their own backs. I don’t
    think that Fire in Enfield or Kuhre are up to the best of your work…
    but I don’t think that they actively hurt you, unless they seem to
    be padding out the thin book. Lines or paragraphs like “Kuhre/
    just lurches/ off/into the tractors/ noise and/…” This is very
    very thin, when the word “off” has to carry whole line on its
    back. And there is, in this second section, really less vigor
    than there is in much of your work. I like your work best when
    it is thick and muscular or even fat, when it is vigorous in its
    positive or negative way – I don’t really make any distinction
    between the positive and the negative! I make a distinction between
    the vigorous and the frail.

    I would leave out The People Upstairs. I would leave out
    Elinore. I would think about leaving out Kuhre or cutting things
    down. I would think about jamming things together a little more…
    And I would add these eight poems and I would have absolutely
    no doubt about that. Of the eight, the most nearly weak one
    is the Beggars. I meant to say, it is not quite up to the wonderful
    other ones. Even Calling Harold, tiny as it is, is wonderful and

    I don’t think you ought to worry about affirmation. I think
    that books work as well by contradiction as they do by consistency.
    In a poetry reading, for instance, I like to put poems right up
    against each other that are absolutely opposites, that contradict
    each other in every way…you get energy from contradiction. And I
    think you can do this in a book as well. You need not – as everybody
    assumes – print like with like. I really don’t [like] printing by sections
    anymore. Maybe I will do it again, as I used to do it, but in the
    Kicking I did not do it.

    I am writing in haste Monday morning, dictating that is,
    and I must get up and drive down to Brookline almost immediately,
    to watch the Celtics practice, then talk with Kevin McHale,
    Cedric Maxwell, and Bill Fitch, and then drive two and a half hours
    back… It’s a good life, really, and I’m not complaining…but
    I mean to say I cannot answer your questions about Ploughshares
    (and I probably won’t know for sure for a month or two) and the
    revisions in the Herman…although I like the poem as I read it
    right now.


    And I do love Mina Bell’s Cows…although I have a couple of
    changes to suggest. When you have contemplated the changes and
    possibly made anything that sounds sensible, could I have another
    copy of it, for Joey that is?

    Three things. First of all, totally trivial, shouldn’t it
    be hay “chute”? In my copy you have “shute.” It seems to me there
    is the word “shoot,” partly working by folk etymology, but that
    the real word is “chute” from the French for “fall.” Maybe I’m
    talking about a typo. Then in the last line, when I read it,
    I hear it in a way that you didn’t type it… I absolutely hear,
    every single time, “who never would come home.” And Ifind (sic) it very
    hard to say it the other way.

    Then I find something a little awkward in the second to last
    line, it seems to center around the word “and,” which is idiomatic
    enough, but not exactly grammatical, and a little strange…and
    kind of slows me down every time. And I am not sure that “meaning”
    is [the] exact word, or that it is the exact word if you come at it this
    way. I mean to say, I might want you to say something like “ape,
    ape, as if she called all three of them,/ her walleyed girls…”
    I’m not suggesting this as the right way to do it…just that some-
    how the word “meaning” seems like the author’s interpretation,
    and therefore to insert the author into the poem suddenly. The
    author having a window into her skull and her hidden “meanings.”

    I love the poem. Love the book, also,


    A note from McNair about this letter:  In this extensive and insightful response, Don gave me a new way to think about arranging my book, which was organizing its poems around a signature approach that was beginning to emerge in my work. As I look back, I see that I bumped poems out of my manuscript partly because of my overly strict adherence to themes, and partly (though I never confessed this) to save them, out of the fear that the slow trickle of my work in this period might eventually dry up and leave me with only one collection.

    Below is the text of “Mina Bell’s Cows” as Don first saw it:

    Mina Bell’s Cows

    O where are Mina Bell’s cows, who gave no milk
    and grazed on her dead husband’s farm?
    Each day she walked with them into the field,
    loving their swaybacked dreaminess more
    than the quickness of any dog or chicken.
    Each night she brought them grain in the dim
    Barn, holding their breath in her hands.
    O when the lightning struck Daisy and Bets,
    her son dug such great holes in the yard,
    she could not bear to watch him.
    And when the baby, April, growing old
    and wayward, fell down the hay shute,
    Mina just sat in the kitchen, crying, “Ape, Ape,”
    and meaning all three cows, her beautiful
    walleyed girls who would never come home.

    See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Mina Bell’s Cows.”

    Read Mina Bell’s Cows (published version)

    Following Hall’s suggestion that “Memory of Kuhre” was too “thin,” McNair prepared this revised version, eventually published in his first book.

    Read The Last Peaceable Kingdom (published version)



  • McNair to Hall: November 23, 1981


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    November 23, 1981

    Dear Don,

    It was very good to see you and Jane last night. I’ve made up
    my mind we will do it more often, barring conflicts in your
    schedule or Jane’s, It does seem silly not to get together more
    than once a year–a hazard, I guess, of living so near each other.

    Enclosed is the revised manuscript I forgot to give you.
    As you suggested, I made it “bulky”. I am very excited about the
    result. What do you think? If I hear nothing negative from you,
    I will have it run off next week.

    I’ve also enclosed two poems for Joey, if you agree they’re
    ready. I am awfully glad you like “Mina Bell’s Cows”
    [Written in margin: and thanks for your suggestions!].
    I was worried about that one. I like my poems, too, when they are “thick and
    muscular and even fat,” as you put… “thick and gross.” (Your
    description is so close, it gives me hope!) I was hoping for that
    kind of thing in this poem, and I thought I was on the way with
    the handling of the story, and with words like “Ape” and “walleyed”.
    I’m glad you discover “grossness” in the poem.

    I sometimes think of the energy and even the vulgarity of
    country-Western music with poems like these–of getting that sort
    of thing into a poem and refining just enough to make “literature”.
    Early comics, say, or dirty jokes have a similar energy. Or Dear
    Abby letters. “The tears have washed I love you from the blackboard
    of my heart” and “I want to be a cowboy for Jesus in the Holy Ghost
    Corral”–words like these have in them the yearning and sadness and
    humor of the poetry I often want to write–this in spite of their
    bathos, maybe even because of it.

    Anyway, I hope you like book, poems and all. Let me know
    when you can.



    P.S.: How did the reading at Iowa go?

    A note from McNair about this letter: The two poems referred to in this letter are a revision of “Mina Bell’s Cows” and the same version of “A Dream of Herman” I mailed to Don on October 8.

  • McNair to Hall: November 27, 1981


    [Click image to view]

    November 27, 1981

    Dear Don,

    If you think this poem is OK,
    will you pass it on to Joey.


    A note from McNair about this letter: The unnamed poem referred to is “Small Towns Are Passing,” sent to Don, as it turned out, in its published form.

    Read Small Towns Are Passing (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: December 1, 1981


    [Click image to view]

    1 December 1981

    Wes McNair
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I love the book in its gross state, and think it is a
    great improvement, far more improvement than it ought to be.
    I love the feel of it, and really think it makes a quantum
    leap. I also like the three new poems, and they are already

    Yes, it was lovely to see you two – and Lily and Wolf also.
    And it would be good to see you more often. We are very laggard
    this way, both of us inclined to go to bed at about the time we
    would be having people over. But when we do see people – I mean
    a few people! – we love it.

    You are absolutely right about the energy and the vulgarity
    of country-western, and this is something wonderful in your work,
    and generally it is the best part of your work. Yes, and do not
    forget “Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal-posts of life/ ,
    end over end, neither to the left nor the right.”

    Iowa was a lot of fun. I saw quite a bit of Don Justice,
    whom I admire. Also there was Hank Coulette, and Larry Levis
    and Marcia Southwick… And the Justices had a lunch
    party for me, and two other people had dinner parties for me,
    and somebody else had a big party after the reading. I felt
    feted…and I feel even better to be home.

    Unfortunately my piece about Kevin McHale seems to be
    doomed. Inside Sports is folding. I feel about fifty-two per
    cent disappointed, because I had looked forward to writing it;
    and forty-eight percent relieved, because I can do something
    else instead.

    Best as ever,


    A note from McNair about this letter: “Wolf and Lily” were local restaurateurs and mutual friends who swelled our dinner company in North Sutton to six….The three poems referred to in this letter are “A Dream of Herman,” “Mina Bell’s Cows,” and “Small Towns are Passing.” So Section IV concludes with one more generous letter from Don, thanking me for a visit; complimenting me about the poetry collection I will once more send out to editors; and  submitting new McNair poems in the guise of Joseph Amaryllis. Less noticeable, but also helpful, is his last paragraph, with its model of cheerfulness in the face of writerly disappointment.