A CORRESPONDENCE IN POETRY BETWEEN WESLEY MCNAIR AND DONALD HALL
A personal note for online visitors, by Wesley McNair
When I met Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon at his ancestral farmhouse in Wilmot, New Hampshire in the winter of 1976, I lived a very busy life. I was raising four children, teaching four classes at Colby-Sawyer College, developing a new degree program in American studies, and negotiating a Fulbright lectureship to Chile, where politics had threatened to overturn the Fulbright program. Full as my days were, I had troubled dreams that regularly got me up in the middle of the night. I wished more than anything else to be a poet, yet there seemed to be no place for poetry in the life I had made. All I had to show as a poet was the small chapbook manuscript I put on Hall’s kitchen counter during my visit in Wilmot, where I met him and his wife Jane Kenyon for the first time. What I wanted to know, I told him, was whether I was any good.
Two or three days after I asked that question, a letter from Don arrived in the mail praising my poetry with great enthusiasm. “I am dazzled by your poems,” he wrote.
Though that letter is now lost, its impact remains. It allowed me to believe in myself as a poet and started a correspondence in poetry and friendship that has lasted to this day.
The letters of this online selection represent the first eight years of that correspondence, from late 1976 to the end of 1984, the year when my first collection of poems, The Faces of Americans in 1853, just published by the University of Missouri Press as the Devins Award winner, began making the rounds. Our exchange was formative for me. I learned by Don’s advice and example how to revise my poems, publish them, deal with the inevitable cycles of rejection, and put poetry at the center of my life.
With the help of the special collections staff at Colby College and the dozens of individual donors who have funded this project, I now make our early conversation in poetry available to students, poets in formation, and general readers so they can learn just as I did, letter by letter.
As collaboration was essential to this effort, I close with thanks, first to the special collections staffs at Colby College, which has my personal papers, and at the University of New Hampshire, which has Don’s. Without the unwavering support of Patricia Burdick at Colby and Roland Goodbody at UNH, these letters would still be in boxes. Thanks also to Erin Rhodes at Colby, who was central to this undertaking, the Colby ITS staff, and my student intern Jamie Phillip for their invaluable assistance. I am especially grateful to United States Artists for featuring this correspondence as an online donor project, and to the donors who saw the value of the project and responded so generously.