My Life as a Poet – Letters

(Note: Thumbnails displayed alongside text are images from the original presentation. Click on a thumbnail to view an enlarged image.)Eventually, I published not only a first poem, but a first book, and this is the galley copy of that book from my collection, titled The Faces of Americans in 1853, published in 1984 by the University of Missouri Press as the Devins Award- winner in that year.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that publishing this book took many years, and it took many years more to finish it. In fact, how I even completed this book, I do not know, because while I wrote it, I was also teaching, raising four kids with Diane, and piecing together graduate degrees.
So it helped enormously in this period to have the encouraging letters of the poet Donald Hall, who, as luck would have it, just happened to live in my neighborhood….
Here’s his letterhead again, which is often repeated in my papers of the late 70s and 80s, and in fact turns up regularly in all the years since. I was introduced to Don and his wife, Jane Kenyon, in the early months of 1976 by two former students at his farmhouse, which was located ten miles away from my own house, in North Sutton, New Hampshire – hence the address below that letterhead – and at the end of my visit, I sheepishly drew a chapbook of poems out of my coat, put it on the kitchen table, and scrammed. But it turned out Don liked the poems, and we began to visit each other and write back and forth about each other’s work. I got the best of the correspondence, though, because in the end, his advice helped shape me into a poet.
I soon learned I could trust Don to say exactly what he meant, as here, in this letter from the 21st of September, 1979, where he flays me about a particular word in a draft I’ve sent him. (That’s not the original letter)
Here now, a detail from the letter: “Can’t you hear Bing Crosby singing this word of yours ‘yearning’? It’s Tin Pan Alley. And the word reminds me of the most prosperous poet ever to emerge from Tin Pan Alley: Rod McKuen.”
Once, Don read an extensive and self-adoring biography I sent as a contributor’s note to Poetry magazine, and he wrote this: “I think that the most effective kind of biographical note is something that is quite reticent, non-academic, and non- ‘successful,’ like: ‘Wesley McNair lives in New Hampshire where he raises goats with eyes in the middle of their foreheads.”
Because I kept trying and failing to publish my first book year after year during this period, many of Don’s letters had words of support for my struggle, like this one. “The writing – I don’t need to tell you – is what matters. Keep getting better, and improve the manuscript every time it comes back, and you will win through.”
Yet his most moving counsel was not an upbeat call to work, but the bittersweet commiseration in this letter, dated July 8, 1980, which mixes advice to me in my disappointment about not publishing a book with the disappointment he himself had begun to feel after publishing several. So I’d like to read with you the opening section of this letter.

“…Believe me I am sympathetic with your feelings, but let me tell you that when you have published a book – which you will – nothing will happen; or at least it will seem that nothing has happened. And this would be true whether it were published by New Rivers or by Atheneum. Even if something happens, then you realize that the ‘something’ is truly nothing. And after you have published eight books of poems, you are still convinced that no one has read you, and that probably you are no good anyway. Or at least you are convinced of that frequently. I have been going through quite a bad patch, in my feelings about my own ability, my past work, and certainly my present work.There is only one place, or one moment, in which one finds happiness, and it is always momentary – because that is the moment of actual writing, and of course that is not always true.

So I do two things: I assure you that you will publish; and I tell you that it will not make any difference! But I have a third thing to say: it makes a difference to me!”

That letter, I don’t need to tell you, is remarkably honest, true and generous, and in just these ways, it’s characteristic of the whole series of Hall letters I’ve tucked away, from those early years to present.

My collection also contains notes and letters from Jane Kenyon, who supported me during this period by publishing my poems in a new journal of hers, called Green House. “…it’s good, and I want to put it in the winter issue. How many more do you have in your drawer?”
And speaking of notes of support, I want to show you now the strangest note of that kind I ever got. It came to me in this envelope seven years after I’d arrived in Maine (so the postmark tells me), with that odd return address: “NOTES TOWARD A SUPREME COLUMN (Q.E.D.) [shades of Wallace Stevens, you see], From a Peninsula Correspondent.” I eventually gathered from the town name of “Castine” on the postmark that the Peninsula correspondent was the Maine poet Philip Booth.
Inside the envelope, enclosed in green paper, was this little card with a collage of quotations on it —
short, cryptic phrases arranged on a page, very like the arrangement of a Philip Booth poem. And when I looked closely at the phrases, I found that he was responding to individual poems in my book, My Brother Running, which had just been published.

Beginning at the upper right: “The imagination of ‘The Bird Man’…The compassion of ‘Mother’s Place’…The Passion (in all senses of that word) of ‘Coming for Brad Newcomb’…” And what looked like a strange series of lines and arrows was actually a diagram of the book’s thematic structure, with a fragmentary compliment at the very bottom about my title poem “My Brother Running,” [quote] “…a masterpiece of both pacing [the word pacing underlined to emphasize the pun] and intensity.”So what was the origin of this strange and flattering document, which for a long time I was baffled by?

Well, the key is right here in a red circle, not my red circle, but Philip’s: “Jack Barnes, 625-4776, send me clipping.” Jack Barnes, some of you may recall, had a literary column in the Maine Sunday Telegram, and he’d called Philip to arrange an interview about my book of poems, then just out. So these were the generous notes the ever-cryptic Philip wrote for his interview, then simply sealed up and mailed to me.
I make a little detour to mention that by the time I got Philip Booth’s note, I had written several poems about Maine, teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington and falling in love with our own territory of this state, where I discovered Grange meetings, as this title shows, and makeshift farms,
and country characters like the farmer and orchardist portrayed in this poem (I won’t stop for the text)…
and the people of my little town of Mercer — including, as you see here, “the couple with the sign that says Cosmetics and Landfill.” In other words, I found in West Central Maine the sense of a benign pause in a quickly changing New England — a place where the organic life of New England could still be found, though it had all but disappeared from southern New Hampshire, where I had lived,
and I wrote to my friends about my discovery in words I later borrowed for this passage in an essay. So let me read with you my description of this Maine location many of us share, and see if you recognize it.
….my new location, a little farther than I had been from the megalopolis, gave me the impression of a rural culture that slow change had more completely preserved. In its amalgam of the old and the new, not quite either thing, was a lack of acculturation similar, in its way, to what I experienced long before on the old Kuhre farm [that’s a big farm I worked on in New Hampshire as a teenager before it got sold and broken up]. Living and writing in Maine, I feel to this day that I am able to discover sides of life that are themselves unacculturated – and find unknown sides of myself.
But back to the correspondence, before I lose that thread entirely. I should say for the record that I’ve put away in boxes for this collection thousands of letters over the years from editors, publishers, writers and others – and that this collection also includes a great many emails.
For example, here’s a long electronic message from Cathie Pelletier, not to read in this tiny print, but as a general illustration. Now as we all know, emails can be hasty and thoughtless, and besides, they lack – what? the romance of letters. But I think they also benefit a literary archive because, for one thing, many authors who use email are letter-writers in disguise, composing real paragraphs and thoughts before they zap them away to their recipients. So this email Cathie wrote goes on for nearly two pages with a wonderful riff about the influence of Paul Anka and rock ‘n’ roll and dating on Saturday night in the late 1950s in Fort Kent, Maine.One more benefit of the email for an archive is that unlike the conventional letter, it often gives you two sides of a exchange, the message and the response, so anybody who might be curious can follow both sides of a conversation without having to go to different archives to reconstruct it. So just below Cathie’s message here is the one she got from me that inspired it.
While I’m on the subject, Emails allow something else that’s impossible with letters – a conversation in print involving more than two people. Here’s an example, my part of a three-way conversation that I had with two others, Wendy Lesser and Donald Justice, when I was helping to judge a national literary prize in poetry not long ago. I picked this sample out because it comes from late in the jurying process, when we were all a little tired of our reading, and were speaking more directly than we did earlier on about what we felt.
Here’s the second paragraph:“I certainly share Donald’s weariness with the reading. Really, the weariness comes from reading too much of the same thing – on the one hand, a conventionalized, literary language and syntax; on the other, a language that is so everyday and common, there is no poetry in it. Then, of course, the ubiquitous blurbs, and the disparity between them and what one finds between the covers. If few readers are paying attention to what we poets do, it can’t only be the readers’ fault.”The Wise Man, as you see, has spoken – or maybe I should say, ranted. But here again, the point that if you scrolled down, you’d discover earlier entries — in fact, a chain of previous exchanges among the three of us, so anybody interested in the conversation could find this three-way thinking, which is unique to email, all in one place, and not split up into different archives.