The Poets – Wesley McNair

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Wesley McNair, 1983, during his correspondence with Hall

WHEN WESLEY McNAIR MET DONALD HALL at Hall’s farmhouse in the winter of 1976, he was thirty-five and married to his wife, Diane. They and their four children lived outside North Sutton, New Hampshire, ten miles away from Hall’s home in Wilmot. A former high-school teacher, McNair was an assistant professor at Colby-Sawyer College who had just completed his second advanced degree through summer programs at the Bread Loaf School of English and had embarked on a career as a teacher and scholar of American studies. Yet he longed to be a poet.

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McNair children, ca. 1971

Shortly after his correspondence with Hall began, McNair left for Chile, having been selected for a year-long Fulbright lectureship at the Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago. While he was there, he began his transformation from a scholar of American studies who occasionally wrote poems into a poet. He began to send Hall new poems, together with Chilean poems he translated with the help of his graduate students. With Hall’s encouragement, he devoted even more time to his poetry on his return to Colby-Sawyer. As his older children departed from the family and he received a year-long sabbatical, he handed off his role as a director of American studies to a colleague and wrote in every spare moment, even when he had to take on adjunct teaching positions to supplement his salary. As his output increased, his confidence as a poet grew. By the end of 1984, when the exchange of letters concludes, he had mailed to Hall enough poems to fill a first book and a substantial part of a second. Through discussions that are at the center of this correspondence, these poems were prepared for publication.

Gradually McNair’s poems won national awards, including annual prizes from Yankee and Poetry magazines, a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Devins Award for Poetry, and shortly after this exchange of letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship.

There were struggles along the way. The death of his wife Diane’s father in 1979 sent her, and McNair too, into a depression. His low pay at Colby-Sawyer forced him to teach night courses at area colleges during the early 1980s. Most challenging of all was the struggle to publish his first volume of poetry. McNair’s complaints of rejection are a continuous refrain in these letters. “Well, it’s damned discouraging. You are good!” Hall wrote to him, and later: “Keep changing it every time it comes back and you will win through!” At last, the volume found its publisher. In the meantime, Hall’s faith in its ultimate success gave McNair faith, too.