The Writing Rhythm

  • V. The Writing Rhythm (2/8/1982 – 11/15/1982)

    atlantic-cover-ape

    “Mina Bell’s Cows” is published in The Atlantic, 1983.

    poetry-covers

    Poetry Magazine

    My year-long sabbatical leave from Colby Sawyer has been crucial to continuing the momentum started by the NEA fellowship, providing a range of poems in progress together with poems for Joey’s “fall campaign,” as Don has begun to call the process of submitting to magazines. “You are really building up a nice group for Joey,” he writes on September 30. On sabbatical in a period when my two oldest sons have left the nest, I have settled into the luxury of a daily writing schedule, teaching classes at neighboring colleges at night to make ends meet. Going into isolation with my poetry (naming the creation of poems a “vocation” twice in the early letters of this section), I write Don mostly when I am sending work for his critical assessments. I have caught the rhythm of the writing life at last, and I am possessive of it.

    That rhythm continues right into the fall of 1982, even though I am teaching a four-course load at Colby-Sawyer and two night courses elsewhere. Outside of this correspondence, I am preparing all of my classes and correcting papers on weekends, just so I can spend a couple of hours each weekday morning writing poems. “Writing is going fine, in spite of all my teaching and other duties!” I write Don on October 31. “I remain on my daily schedule!”

     

    mcnair-sutton-002-c

    McNair’s farmhouse in North Sutton

    Hall-ep-farm

    Eagle Pond Farm

    In the meantime Don continues with his freelance writing and his poetry readings around the country. Busy as he is, it’s hard to schedule time in the fall of 1982 to discuss the organization of my book manuscript, The Faces of Americans in 1853, at his farmhouse, but I persist. Four years into the submission of my collection (I call it the”Most Famous Little-Known Unpublished Manuscript of Our Times”), I spend more time than ever in these letters fretting over its shape and content.

    We meet at last to prepare the book for my own fall campaign.

    [This section has 55 letters]

  • Hall to McNair: February 8, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, 02-08-1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

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    8 Feb. 1982
    Dear Mr. McNair,

    Donald Hall has relentlessly taken
    Old Trees, Calling Harold, and The Fat People
    of the Old Days for Ploughshares. He desperately
    wanted Mina Bell, but I would not let him have it
    … (The New Yorker ridiculously declined to have
    It.)

    Best as ever,

    Joey


  • McNair to Hall: February 12, 1981 [1982]

    McNair-to-Hall-02-12-1981

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    February 12, 1981 [misdated: should be 1982]

    Dear Don,

    I heard from Joey that you have chosen three of my poems for
    Ploughshares. I’m very glad. I’m also pleased that he thought
    “Mina Bell’s Cows” good enough to submit to the New Yorker, even
    though it was rejected.

    What’s happening here in Sutton is a lot of writing and re-writing.
    I thought for sure I’d have two two-page poems for your review
    by the end of January, but I put them both away about a week ago,
    each about finished. I’m now working on two other poems. Maybe
    I’m beginning to work on batches, as you seem to. Anyway, I do
    want you to know that I’m struggling each and every day on poems,
    and that I’m excited by the writing I’m doing, even though I’m not
    yet ready to send samples.

    Incidentally, I have been doing some extra teaching—not enough
    that it interferes with my writing, but enough to keep food on the table
    while I’m on sabbatical. I’m working for the School for Lifelong
    Learning, UNH’s continuing education school, which has branches
    within commuting distance. Later on, the connection with SLL will
    probably help me to put Sean through college, if we’re still here.

    My manuscript, famous in its various revisions among
    the readers for all the major contests, is now being read once
    again by Princeton, The National Poetry Contest, Pittsburgh
    and Associated Writing Programs. I have my fingers crossed
    for Princeton, the first notification I must face. Rejection—
    or acceptance—happens at the end of this month.

    2/

    Night before last, I read for the Baptist Monday Nights (NL),
    mostly older folks, some of whom no doubt expected my poetry to rhyme.
    They did like the poems, nevertheless—their engaged and pleased
    expressions during the reading were unmistakable. Getting people who
    don’t really follow poetry involved in a reading is an especially
    gratifying thing for me, since I do feel that poetry should have a
    broad appeal.

    That makes me think to ask you what is probably a naïve
    question. Why isn’t there a book club that features regular selections
    of contemporary poetry? Or a book club that features poetry only?
    Don’t you think that people would buy contemporary verse if there were
    such outlets for it? Probably it’s because I now see the possibility
    of publishing a book myself, but I’m currently very down about
    how little poetry is read today. I can’t believe the limited number
    of readers is only the fault of poets, especially since there’s such
    interest in poetry writing in college, and afterward, through workshops
    of one kind or another. If individual presses can’t afford to
    advertise for their poetry, perhaps a co-operative of some kind
    would work—a book club sponsored by the presses, maybe…
    I assume others have thought of such things and discarded
    their thoughts—but why?

    Speaking of books, I’d very much life to get a copy of
    your Hobart and William Smith collection of recent essays.
    Do you have a copy I could buy? I just bought two very interesting
    books—The Private Life and Satan Says. Do you like them, too?
    What do you think of Sharon Olds?

    Just got word that Diane is leaving for shopping & mail…
    so I’ll cut this off here. I hope your trip with Jane to England
    went well—and that your return to Eagle Pond Farm has been good, too.

    Lots of love to both of you,

    Wes


    Read Mina Bell’s Cows (published version)

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

  • Hall to McNair: February 15, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, 02-15-1982, Page 1

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    15 February 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to hear from you, and I’m glad you got Joey’s postcard.
    (Basically some place or other I must be Celtic, with all this
    dual personality stuff. Next I will be Fiona McLeod.)

    I don’t think you are good enough to submit to the New Yorker.
    I think you are too good to submit to the New Yorker. With this
    most recent issue, full of Howard Moss again, I concocted a
    bitchy definition of “disinterestedness”: When a poetry editor
    prints great quantities of himself, on the basis of quality
    alone, although he realizes that he will be criticized for it…

    Good to hear about the writing and re-writing. Me too.
    Sometimes I think I carry it a bit too far! You know, I have not
    published a satisfactory poem – virtually not a poem – since Kicking.
    One little one which will stay as it is – but which I probably will
    never reprint in a book because it is too damned little. And
    Ploughshares is coming out with one, the Joyce Peseroff issue –
    but I am changing it in the meantime. And last week New Republic
    came out with one, and I had already changed it, and now I’m changing
    it some more – and that little thing is only a few lines long
    anyway.

    But I am working on long and ambitious things, and maybe
    eventually they will not only be publishable but Immortal…
    And after all, that is the only thing worth thinking about!

    Well, I am both pleased and sorry about the extra teaching,
    you will understand. I’m glad it is there if you need it; I am
    sorry that you need it, but my goodness the economy is terrible,
    and going to get worse. Reagan is worse than Nixon any day. The
    worst president we have ever had, and the country is going to be
    in the worst shape, quite possibly.

    Lately, I have been hearing from Gerry Costanzo – and not
    about you. I have written him twice about you, and he has not
    mentioned it in reply, and I am going to shut up – because I don’t
    want him to get the sense that he is being pushed. However, I don’t
    think it all bad that he is being in touch with me, because appar-
    ently he wants to write about me – he asked me, and he sounded
    serious, if he could be my authorized biographer. Well, I don’t
    want one of those! But I think he means it about writing about me.
    And I am going down to his place again this spring, to read poems
    and give a talk. I am hoping that he will do you, next year,
    because I think he does good books, and I think he makes them
    attractive. He doesn’t do all good books – nobody does that –
    but he has done a couple of good ones lately, and I really think
    he’s one of the better small places.

    2/

    But in the meantime if one of these other things comes
    through…I will be delighted of course.

    I think that Max Kumin is judging the Princeton things
    right now. Dan Hoffman is through.

    I saw that you read for the Monday Night. Good for you.

    Back in the forties there was a book club for poetry, which
    didn’t last very long. I could tell you about it, but it was
    doomed. In England, there has been one for years and years and
    years, the Poetry Book Society. It comes out of the Arts Council
    which is government sponsored. The only way it could happen in
    this country is if the Poets and Writers (the Coda people) or the
    Academy of American Poets did it. They in a sense have an annual
    book, with the Lamont, which they distribute… I think there is
    one other book that they annually distribute.

    It would be a losing proposition I suppose. The book club
    in the forties had five or six members, nation-wide. I was one
    of them. Once I met one of the directors, and asked him. Amazing.
    But that was a little thing run out of one quarterly magazine…

    I seriously think that a national book club would not have
    more than two or three hundred members. And everybody would be
    quitting all the time, because everybody would get pissed off
    about which books were selected.

    I’d be all for it anyway of course. But I wouldn’t want
    to do it myself.

    In a sense, any one person could probably do it, because
    it would never get very big. And so if anybody had about $10,000
    to lose, I think they could do it, and do it single-handed – maybe
    hiring a high school student to stitch up book bags four times a year.
    (I suspect it would have to be quarterly rather than monthly.)
    Ten thousand dollars would go for ads to start it off, and the
    “profits” on the ongoing club would pay for one or two ads or
    mailings a year thereafter…but I doubt very much if the initial
    ten thousand would ever be earned back.

    Want to try it?

    Who wrote The Private Life? The title does not ring a bell.
    I don’t like Sharon Olds, or not much anyway. I like Linda Gregg –
    And I like one or two other people here or there, for that matter!

    We had a wonderful time to England. We ate sausages and read
    French novels. It was cold, there was a train strike – and it was
    lovely. We went to the theater a lot, to the opera once, we looked
    at some pictures in museums, some sculpture… We saw Geoffrey Hill.
    I saw John Fowles and interviewed him for Esquire. But mostly we
    just took it very very easy. And I return here and am delirious
    with joy at the old fourteen hour day!

    Love as ever, to all of you,

    Don


    A note from McNair about this letter: The “long and ambitious things” Don says he is working on eventually appeared in his acclaimed collection, The One Day.

  • McNair to Hall: March 1, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, 03-01-1982, Page 1

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    March 1, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Thanks for your good, long letter.

    It’s discouraging to learn about the poetry book club
    that failed. But then so much one learns about poetry and its
    readership is discouraging! The retreat of the trade houses
    from poetry; the government’s retreat from funding small presses,
    magazines and individual poets; the competition for places
    in the poetry series of a few academic presses–which in
    many ways strengthen the walls between the poet and a
    general readership. It’s terrible.

    Having just gotten word that another of the academic presses
    has turned me down for the second time, I am particularly
    down about all these things. Over the weekend, Princeton
    sent me a form rejection (not the “finalist” letter of last
    year) containing its elaborate “no.” Now that I’m in
    my fourth year of submitting this manuscript of mine,
    I have reason to be troubled. I don’t see how I can make
    the thing much better than it is. Yet I feel the old,
    annual cycle of rejections starting up once again. Harper
    [Written in margin: Solotaroff finally wrote back,
    saying he’d “be glad to” look at my book.]
    & Row, The National Poetry Series and Pittsburgh are left.
    I hope I’m wrong about just one of them, but the hope
    at this point is rather thin.
    [Written in margin: Forgot Assoc. Writing Programs].

    I’m glad to have you as a witness with Costanzo.
    I’m also glad that he wants to write about you. You have

    2/

    written better, larger than most poets of your generation;
    you have worked as hard as anyone to establish respect
    for the fathers of modern poetry–and awareness of
    contemporary poets on each side of the Atlantic. Your sense
    of the absolute importance of poetry and the vocation of the poet
    has changed many others, I am sure, as deeply as it
    has changed me. Together, your books, articles and letters
    represent one of the forces keeping literature alive today.
    I am glad Costanzo has seen the need for a biography,
    and I hope your relationship with him works out.

    You ask about The Private Life Lisel Mueller
    wrote it. I liked her work in a recent issue of Poetry,
    and so I bought that book, her second. Also bought, among
    other things, The Situation of Poetry, which I liked very
    much, in spite of the academic language. I am sending
    now for Pinsky’s An Explanation of America, which I’ve
    read about long since and never gotten around to buying.

    And I have liked a couple of articles you have
    written–the one in the current Poetry, and, especially,
    the raking of Lathom (sic) in The Atlantic (the only articles
    by you I’ve seen recently). I continue to be interested
    in the Hobart & William Smith book, which I’d
    gladly purchase if you have an extra copy. If you
    don’t, I’ll send for one. (I mentioned this in an earlier
    letter and am not sure if you noticed…)

    3/

    Because I like so much the “long and ambitious things”
    of Kicking the Leaves, I look forward to your printing the
    long and ambitious things you are now struggling with.
    I am sure the wait will be worth it.

    In the meantime, good that England went well, and
    good that you are both back to re-writing!

    Blessings,

    Wes


    A note from McNair about this letter: Don’s response in the previous letter to my notion of a book club for poetry has dampened my interest in the idea, though the opening of this letter shows my concern, which continues today, about a system that prevents a wide, general readership for poetry….  Later, I refer to Gerald Costanzo, my one glimmer of hope for the publication of my book manuscript, since he invited me to submit my collection in the fall 1982 round at Carnegie Mellon University Press.

  • Hall to McNair: March 8, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, 03-08-1982, Page 1

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    8 March 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to have your letter. I am home for four whole
    days now. Amazing. Then I am gone for all but thirty-six
    hours of the next two weeks. I don’t like that.

    I just read at the college of Bruce Guernsey who was
    selected last summer as one of the two manuscripts taken by
    Pitt – out of more than 1400 submitted. When the figures are
    like that, the lottery-likeness is inevitable. But then, so
    was the NEA! The good lightning bolts drop out of the blue
    just like the bad ones.

    Old Costanzo is in funding trouble for his press, as
    he told me not in relationship to your manuscript, but just
    in general.

    Glad you are going to try Solotaroff.

    I had forgotten Lisel’s title. I do like a lot of her
    work. And I do like Pinsky. I am about to see him again, and
    I miss him, now that he has gone out to the west coast. I’m not
    sure you are going to like An Explanation very much. It is very
    discursive indeed. The opening and closing lyrics are quite
    beautiful. He can do it when he wants to.

    I will get you that To Keep Moving if you keep reminding
    me! It seems silly to go to all the postage when we are nearby.
    I would like to think that I will stop by at Colby-Sawyer and
    leave it for you…if you are over our way, why don’t you try
    driving in the yard.

    I am reading a lot of these long and ambitious things on
    the road, and some of them are sounding pretty good to me, and
    to my listeners. I have hopes.

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: March 11, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, 03-11-1982, Page 1

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    March 11, 1982
    Dear Don,

    Thanks for your letter. I trust you are now back
    home again to enjoy window-views of the snow
    that fell while you were away.

    I send a poem which I do hope is finished,
    but which may not be. Please look it over and
    if you find it OK, give it to your right hand,
    Joey.

    If you find it wanting [even if not], please let me know!

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter: The poem McNair includes is “To My Father,” which appears in the footnote for March 25.

  • Poetry Magazine to Hall: March 12, 1982

    Letter from Poetry to Amaryllis, 03-11-1982, Page 1

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    (Poetry Letterhead)
    March 12, 1982

    Dear Mr. Amaryllis,

    Thanks for letting us see the new
    poems by Mr. McNair. We especially like
    “Small Towns Are Passing”
    and are glad to keep that one for
    POETRY.

    Best wishes,

    John F. Nims


    Read Small Towns Are Passing (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: March 25, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, 03-25-1982, Page 1

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    25 March 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Well, you just cannot lose at Poetry. Only one this time,
    but you cannot knock it.

    And on the other hand, I am not happy with the father poem.
    I think the end is just beautiful, and you have to start nearer
    it probably. But there are all sorts of strange awkwardnesses
    and inadequacies I think. You say “had you gone/ over and over,”
    so that it is ambiguous, as if the act of leaving took place over
    and over again, whereas I believe you mean the asking about it…
    And then when you say “some world beyond my reach” you have two
    clichés together, the world, and the physical reading business…
    two dead metaphors, the commentary of “the worst/ of it…” and
    then other things, all along in there in the middle, and I don’t
    think that your language is much good, it seems slack… More
    thinking! More feeling…more setting aside. Sorry about that.
    But I really feel strongly about it, and I feel strongly that
    you will feel it too. You are very rarely ever slack – so I
    suspect that this poem is just emotionally a tough one.

    Best as ever,

    Don


    Editorial note about this letter: Below is the poem Don questions in his letter, leading me to put it aside. Still, I knew by the depth of feeling I had reached in “To My Father” that it would be an important poem for me if I could ever sort out the material it contained. Though I never completed the poem, “To My Father” turned out to be crucial, its themes and images resurfacing years later in my long narrative, “My Brother Running,” and in poems I wrote afterward, particularly “Weeds.”

    To My Father

    Your were so tall your loved face
    moved across ceilings. Your voice,
    a cigarette’s light, floated
    high in my bedroom’s dark. This is why,
    after I asked mother had you gone
    over and over, it seemed right
    to think of you floating
    and moving in some world beyond
    my reach, why when you came back
    twenty years later, I was so down.
    You were not supposed to be
    who you were: shorter than me,
    slightly drunk and, the worst
    of it, unable to see the difference
    between living in the high world
    I had imagined, and just
    saying you did. And yet tonight,
    having dealt with all the expectations
    of the world and my own sons,
    I don’t quite think of you
    as a failed father, but more
    like me, lost in a patch of weeds
    and doing the best you could with it.
    So I write this poem partly for me,
    Partly just in case where you are now
    they read, to say that in the end
    of your booze-ridden life,
    when your eyesight and second family
    gave out at the same time
    and, having no story left
    in your crazy head, you lay down
    on your back yard to plant seeds
    you could hardly see, I wish
    I had stood in that darkness,
    as you once stood for me,
    to tell you that I saw the garden
    you meant, the bright flowers blooming
    everywhere, no matter if weeds should grow,
    no matter if, by some accident of timing,
    you should not be there to tend it.

  • McNair to Hall: March 31, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, March 31, 1982

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    March 31, 1982

    Dear Don,

    I am sorry you do not care for the father poem
    in its present state, but I remain grateful for
    your honest review of my poems. I will put it away
    for a while. It’s much too close for me to come
    to terms with any of your comments at this point.

    I enclose $3.50 for the HM publication (payment
    was $35), and I thank you not only for seeing
    that one through but for passing the “Small Towns”
    poem on to Joey for Poetry. The hit there lifts
    my spirits considerably!

    I’m also sending you, as you see, two new
    poems, which I hope you like. Please let me know
    when you can what you think.

    Best to you and Jane, and love,

    Wes


    A note from McNair about this letter: The two unnamed poems sent with this letter for Don’s appraisal are “The Longing of the Feet” and “My Brother Inside the Revolving Doors.” The “HM publication” refers to Harvard Magazine, in which McNair’s poem “The Thin Man” was published (March-April 1982 issue).

     

  • Hall to McNair: April 2, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, April 2, 1982

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    2 April 1982
    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    These seem to me further along than the Father-Poem, but
    I think that maybe they would profit by being kept around for
    a while longer. I am taking so long, I am being so “patient”
    (if that is really the name of it) that maybe I urge it too much
    on others. When I wait, I am glad that I have waited… It is
    not only that you change a word… Sometimes you see something
    about a poem that is entirely new – like a way for it to mean or
    go that you never even saw before. And I am getting up to two
    hundred drafts these days! Maybe that’s a bit ridiculous…

    I like both of these. “Feet” is a wonderful idea. I have
    two kinds of objections, one of which is just little things about
    single words, pacings, connections… Then there is the possible
    area of implications not exploited enough, or not clear enough…

    You will see that I am messing with things on the first page…
    I feel that it is ambiguous when we do not have “that” in the
    third stanza… I find “are” a boring word, and wonder if some-
    thing like “lay” or a more interesting verb might be possible.

    Then I find “to stand/ the body/ can take it…” The
    transitive “stand” slows me down. Maybe it should… I’m not
    sure it should.

    But then I am bothered very much by the metaphor of “flight.”
    Probably it is “the whole point,” as we say. But the feet have been
    very much attached to the earth, and that has been the characteristic
    of them, the lowliness of them, the footageness of them, as opposed
    to voices that go hundreds of miles through machines… And then
    they take it in its “low/mysterious flight…” and I really don’t
    know what they’re doing or why it is the feet that would do that.
    Although we can use the word “flight” meaning fast movement, it
    surely means up in the air also, whatever we want. This seems
    a low orbit…but why? How? And isn’t “maybe” “mysterious” a
    cop-out?

    Then with My Brother. I don’t understand the concept of
    “taken/ into the doors.” Inside doors? Into the room which is
    behind the doors? Banging against the doors, breaking your nose?
    I think that it ends very well. I think that it is almost all here.
    That image is disturbing to me though, because of its physical
    confusion. Physical confusions perhaps in both poems.

    Love as ever,
    Don


    Editorial note about this letter: Though McNair’s first drafts of “The Longing of the Feet” and “My Brother in the Revolving Doors” as sent on this date have been lost, the changes he made to those poems following Hall’s critique were small; in fact, his second drafts of these poems are nearly the same as the first. To find them and continue with the discussion, skip the next notes detailing McNair’s new acceptance from The Atlantic Monthly, and go to the series of three letters starting on May 27.

  • McNair to Hall: April 16, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, April 16, 1982

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    April 16, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Sometimes I respond to your letters in my head
    and forget I have not responded on paper.

    Thanks for the time you took with the
    poems. Again, I will have to put them (with
    your letter) up for awhile to see what I
    agree with and what I don’t.

    But it is good to have your straight out
    commentary, as always, and I thank you
    for that especially.

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • The Atlantic to Hall: April 20, 1982

    Letter from The Atlantic to Hall, Page 1, April 20, 1982

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    April 20, 1982

    Dear Joseph Amaryllis:

    We’ll be happy to publish Wesley McNair’s “Mina Bell’s Cows.”
    Thanks for sending it.

    Yours,
    Peter Davison
    Poetry Editor

    April 19, 1982

    Mr. Joseph Amaryllis
    Box 71
    Potter Place, New Hampshire 03265

    2/

    For your contribution to the Atlantic Monthly
    entitled “Mina Bell’s Cows”,
    we enclose a check for $50.00.

    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 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
    claimed.

    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,

    THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY
    Lawrence J. Murphy
    VICE PRESIDENT FINANCE & ADMINSTRATION


    Read Mina Bell’s Cows (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: April 29, 1982

    Letter from The Atlantic to Hall, April 29, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

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    April 29, 1982

    Joseph Amaryllis
    Box 71
    Potter Place, NH 03265

    Dear Joseph Amaryllis:

    I am enclosing the author’s proof of
    Wesley McNair’s “Mina Bell’s Cows.” Any
    necessary changes should be indicated, and
    the proofs returned to me as soon as possible.
    Thank you.

    Yours truly,

    Rhoda Gubernick


     

  • McNair to Hall: April 30, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, April 30, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

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    April 30, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Needless to say, I am thrilled to be
    appearing in the Atlantic once again.

    Good old Joey. Just when I am feeling
    down about my poems, he gives me the steel
    to continue.

    It’s spring!

    Thanks to you both.

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • Hall to McNair: May 3, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, May 3, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    3 May 1982

    Wes McNair

    Well, we were very pleased also. You are
    one of Joey’s poets who hits nothing but the
    top places. I am so frustrated about The New
    Yorker – but it will happen.

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: May 27, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, May 27, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    May 27, 1982
    Dear Don,

    As you see, I have enclosed three poems, two
    of which you have seen. I have revised the “Feet”
    poem, but I did not change its ending. I may be
    wrong not to change it–may well be–but I do
    think it works at this point, having let the thing
    rest awhile. The “Brother” poem has been revised also
    so it should be less confusing.

    If you like “The Before People”, please pass it on
    to Joey.

    Other poems–so many others–are in progress,
    but they resist all my best pushing and prodding
    thus far. I will send more when I can.

    Best,

    Wes


    Read The Before People (published version)

    See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “The Before People.”

  • Hall to McNair: May 28, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, May 28, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    28 May 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    Good to hear, good to have the poems.

    I spoke to Joey the other day, and he is obsessed with
    sending your stuff to the New Yorker. And the New Yorker is
    shut down from now until Labor Day. And on Labor Day, they
    get four thousand poems a day for two weeks, and nothing gets
    in except the contract-folks… Therefore it is probably
    best not to send the poems to the New Yorker from now until
    Columbus Day.

    So: with new poems, should we just hold back until
    then, and then start with the New Yorker at that time? I am
    inclined to say so. With new poems. Save them up. If there
    are eight or twelve by that time, then I would send them to
    the New Yorker in three groups or two. And then go on down
    the line. But if you would rather start with other magazines,
    we can do that. Poetry is closed until the fall too – but
    then you do have some things coming out there.

    “The Before People” really bothers me visually, the
    way it looks on the page – and I don’t think that the Fallacy
    of Imitative Form can be invoked, even if it were not a fallacy.

    I like it. I think it’s ready. Shall we save it?

    I cannot remember whether this was there before, whether
    it bothered me or not…it almost seems as if I remember it:
    “…suddenly, the feet/ are for…” That is, I get “the feet”
    as the object, direct object, of “discovering,” and then when
    I get to the next line I discover that the “that” has been omitted.
    But if I had “that feet” would I be tempted to think of an eccentric
    demonstrative? I like it a lot, and maybe the end is just fine.
    I worry about this little patch… Let me know what you think.

    And I like “My Brother” very much, but myself think that
    “heartbreakingly” is a mistake. Did I see that before? Did I
    miss it before? Was it there before? I am bothered by its
    triteness, by its continual use on soap operas and sports pages,
    by the dead metaphor… I think that some people would like it
    just because it is corny, because that would mean that you were
    taking a chance, being vulnerable…and today I think they are
    wrong.

    2/

    Joey says: if you don’t want to wait, he will be happy
    to send these to APR. (Actually, he will ask Don to send those
    to APR, if you want.)

    Love from both of us, and Jane sends her love too,

    Don

    (Note: Don’s markings on the poems are in bold and brackets)

    FEET

    At first the crawling
    child makes his whole body
    a foot.

    One day, dazed
    as if by memory,
    he pulls himself up[,]

    discovering, suddenly,
    [that] the feet
    are for carrying

    the hands. He is so
    happy he cannot stop
    taking the hands

    from room to room,
    learning the names
    of everything he wants.

    This lasts for many years
    until the feet,
    no longer fast enough,

    [are] forgotten,
    say, in the office
    under a desk. Above them

    the rest of the body,
    where the child
    has come to live,

    is sending its voice
    hundreds of miles
    through a machine.

    Left to themselves
    over and over,
    the feet sleep,

    awakening
    one day
    beyond the dead

    conversation of the mind
    and the hands.
    Mute in their shoes,

    your shoes
    and mine,
    they wait,

    longing only to stand
    the body
    and take it

    into its low,
    mysterious flight [—?]
    along the earth.

    MY BROTHER IN THE REVOLVING DOORS

    I see you in Chicago twenty-five years ago,
    a tall kid, heartbreakingly sure of yourself.
    You are just arriving from the goat farm
    to meet your father, the god you invented
    after he left you in childhood.
    It is the sunniest day you can remember,
    and you walk the wide streets
    of the city by his side in the dream
    you have had all along of this moment,
    except you are starting to see how different
    he looks and how he does not care
    about this in the same way that you do.
    Which is when it happens, you are taken
    into the doors. Just like that,
    you are closed off from him, walking
    in the weightlessness of your own fear.
    And when you push your door, it leads
    to other retreating doors, and again
    and again it takes you to the voice of him,
    the fat man standing outside who has nothing,
    suddenly, to do with your father and shouts
    let go! let go! and you cannot let go.

    -Wesley McNair


    Read The Before People (published version)

    See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “The Before People.”

     

  • McNair to Hall: June 3, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, June 3, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    June 3, 1982

    Dear Don,

    All praise to Joey’s obsessions! I, too, would like to see
    one of my poems end up there and would therefore as soon wait
    with the poems I sent you, adding others through the summer
    toward October.

    Between now and then, I will have a chance to mull
    over your comments about the poems. I think you are right
    about the “heartbreakingly” of the brother poem. Actually, I
    worry about clichés while working on many of my poems–
    the consequence some of the time of working on “popular”
    subject matter or trying to speak in an “unliterary”,
    a “real” voice. Any suggestions about what might
    replace the above word?

    About “The Longing of the Feet”: You did
    remark about that stanza

    discovering,
    suddenly, the feet
    are for carrying….

    Originally, the stanza looked this way (over)

    2/

    discovering, suddenly,
    the feet
    are for carrying

    I changed the lineation so the sentence could be felt more
    as a unit, and so I could leave out the “that” which
    you thought might clarify the meaning of the stanza.
    I decided against a “that” because I wanted the sense
    of discovering “feet” and “are for carrying” more or
    less at once. The word “that”, I felt, would restrict
    the stanza to one discovery. Thus, my revision (again,
    with notes):

    [enjambment,
    picking up new
    meanings, lending
    to surprise
    “hands” of next
    stanza]
    discovering, suddenly, the feet are for carrying

    You may be right about the shape of “The Before People.”
    I will have time to think about that, too.

    Anyway, I am very glad you like these poems.
    You have made my week.

    My manuscript bombed at all presses except
    Pittsburgh, from which I will receive word by June’s end.

    Thanks for your letter

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter:  McNair finally decided to keep “The Before People” as he originally had it, and though discussion of the two other poems continued until June 18, he settled on minor revisions Hall suggested for “My Brother in the Revolving Doors” and “The Longing of the Feet,” avoiding Hall’s objection to the “mysterious flight” of the feet (“I really don’t know what they’re doing or why it is the feet would do that.”)

    Read The Longing of the Feet (published version)

    Read My Brother Inside the Revolving Doors (published version)

  • McNair to Hall: June 18, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, June 18, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    June 18, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Will you please let me know
    if you think the enclosed is
    ready?

    Thanks–

    Wes

    WHEN PAUL FLEW AWAY

    It was the same as always,
    Paul opening the big, black lung
    of it 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 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 never
    said this would be Strawberry Farm.
    Hey! I said 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
    unfolding 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.


     

  • Hall to McNair: June 18, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, June 18, 1982, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    June 18, 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    Sutton, New Hampshire 03260

    Dear Wes,

    We have agreed, then, on waiting. I don’t have any suggestions
    about that word in the brother poem. Not off-hand.

    At the moment I still feel that leaving out “that” introduces a
    hesitation/ambiguity that has no purpose, that only puts an impediment—
    like a pebble in a shoe…but if you feel strongly you must leave it as
    you wish.

    One day the manuscript will not bomb!

    Love as ever,

    Don

    [P.S. I like Paul very much!
    In the fall, please send flat copies on
    thick paper for Joey’s Autumn Campaign.]


     

     

  • McNair to Hall: June 19, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, June 19, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    June 19, 1982

    Dear Don,

    I have a feeling I left a word out
    of that poem, “When Paul Flew Away.”

    On page 2, it’s “the whole enormous weight/
    of him hanging over the sink.”

    Please insert that word, if necessary–

    Thanks–

    Wes


    A note from McNair about this letter: “Paul” is a fictional disguise for my older brother Paul, from Wisconsin, who played the accordion and was taken into the hospital for a life-threatening kidney operation when I began this poem. Thus, the character’s comic “flying away” has a darker association. Though I later added a phrase to the poem’s opening description of Paul (“with that worried look”) and changed the verb “began” in the first sentence to “begun,” the poem I sent in my original letter was virtually complete.

    Read When Paul Flew Away (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: June 28, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, June 28, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    I liked it before and I
    still like even though
    it’s right!
    Don

     

  • McNair to Hall: July 26, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, July 26, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    July 26, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Heard you tonight at Colby and wanted to tell you
    I enjoyed your anecdotes, but you were surrounded
    and busy autographing, so I tell you this way.

    I also enjoyed the nice little volume of Ploughshares
    you edited and am glad Joey was willing to give you
    poems for it. The cover is great, and I liked
    several of your choices.

    No word yet from Pittsburgh, though word
    is overdue. While I can’t help expecting the
    worst, though I admit to peeking through
    hands as I hold them over my eyes
    in case something wonderful happens. Incidentally,
    I’m working now on several things, but completion
    of each still eludes me. I will try to send
    more poems for “the fall campaign.”

    Now I have an anecdote for you. A
    student from UNH who is taking a summer
    course on critical analysis from me at

    2/

    Merrimack Valley College told me the other night
    that he is trying to get an English minor–may
    even get a major in English–mainly because
    of a book that got him interested in poetry,
    which he had never considered seriously before.
    The title of the book is Kicking the Leaves.

    Take this letter out the next time you have
    any doubts about your work!

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • Hall to McNair: July 28, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, July 28, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    28 July 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes and Diane,

    Thanks for writing, Wes. I heard you were
    there but I didn’t see you. Glad that Ploughshares
    arrived. Good luck with Pittsburgh…and with
    Carnegie-Mellon in that same city. Heaven knows I
    am pleased with your anecdote from the University
    of New Hampshire!

    Love as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: August 17, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, August 17, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    August 17, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Thanks for the card about Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon
    and the anecdote.

    The bad news I expected, but didn’t really, came
    yesterday from Pittsburgh. “Now there was one: Carnegie-
    Mellon.

    You’ll remember I told you Costanzo wrote me
    a good letter about my book last October–thus, after
    I had unwittingly mailed my manuscript to him
    too late for last year’s competition. Since he was
    writing his letter before the last revision of the book,
    I think I have an outside chance there for more
    than a “yes rejection”–the note of praise saying
    no, of the sort I received from Pitt yesterday.

    I did send Costanzo the last revision, by the
    way, saying that I knew he couldn’t do anything about
    it at that time, but that I wanted him to
    see it in its new form. (No answer from him

    2/

    about that.)

    If Constanzo doesn’t take it, I guess I will
    just stop sending it to the places I’ve been trying
    for the past four years. More of the same would
    be all that would happen.

    Which brings me to my question: Are there
    alternatives beyond the ones I’ve been trying?
    I am reluctant still to send the thing to small
    presses because such publication often does not
    lead to exposure, jobs or grants for new writing
    time. But there’s always Greywolf, I suppose
    (assuming they’d be interested), and maybe
    there are others…

    Well. Please let know about this whenever
    you can. In the meantime, I will continue
    to write. I hope you and Jane will too!

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • Hall to McNair: August 18, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, August 18, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    18 August 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes,

    Too bad about Pittsburgh. I think I wrote
    you about Carnegie-Mellon, that Costanzo sincerely
    likes the book very much; that his funding is temp-
    orarily down, and he may do no more books for twelve
    months… Don’t expect anything from there. We go
    to the opening of my play tonight in Peterborough,
    on Friday we fly to England, back on September 4th…
    Maybe Joey should take over? Let us talk in Sept-
    ember.

    Love,

    Don


    Editorial note about this letter: Don’s play opening that night was Ragged Mountain Elegies

  • McNair to Hall: September 2, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, September 2, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    September 2, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Thank you for your card. After receiving it and
    learning about your up-coming play, I promptly
    forgot about going to see it. Which pained me
    because I very much wanted to see it. It is not
    easy, living in this head.

    I appreciate your suggestion about getting
    together with you and Joey to try to plan
    strategy for the Most Famous Little-Known
    Unpublished Manuscript of Our Times.

    Whenever you say (before school starts up),
    I’ll be there.

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • Hall to McNair: September 7, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, September 7, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    7 Sept. 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes,

    If you get this in time, maybe come over
    Friday afternoon the 10th? If not then, Friday
    afternoon the 17th? When does school begin anyway?

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 12, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, September 12, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    September 12, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Here is the copy of the manuscript
    which you requested.

    Do you think I ought to send Costanzo
    the book anyway, since he asked me to
    mail it to him between Sept 15 and
    Oct 15 this year?

    Good to see you, looking so fit, and
    Jane–what Emily Dickinson would call
    “home faces.”

    Love,

    Wes


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 20, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, September 20, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    September 20, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Are you too deeply occupied to say if my
    verse is alive?

    I will be sending poems for the fall campaign
    on “flat paper”, as you requested, soon. Perhaps
    they will include the enclosed verses, in some form.

    In case you did not open the package containing
    my manuscript and see my note in it, I
    ask again the question the note asks: Should
    I send a copy of the book to Costanzo at
    Carnegie-Mellon, or is it a sure thing he
    won’t consider publishing it now?

    My visit to Eagle Pond Farm helped! I’m
    writing!

    Will let you know more soon about that dinner–

    Love,

    Wes

    BIG CARS

    Ten years later they arrive
    on the thruway, pulling their winged
    fenders and smiling a lane wide–
    big cars, old floats that took a wrong
    corner somewhere and lost
    the American Dream parade. Around them

    the strange, grilleless
    cars of their future
    hum at their tires–tiny aliens
    of a planet out of gas.

    To think of their long trip
    just beginning–the irrepressible fuel
    rising everywhere into their tanks!
    Armrests unfolding out of seats,
    out of the armrests, ashtrays! Maps
    falling open to the new roads

    which led them, finally, here
    to the right lands of America,
    suddenly the antiques of optimism
    nobody wants or understands
    except the poor. Or dictators

    cruising the boulevards of some country
    where the poor do not have cars
    and run behind until it seems
    that they themselves are riding
    on soft shocks, under a sun roof
    toward the great plenty of the New World.

    MUTE

    Once, on the last ice-cutting,
    the son broke through the surface
    of their solid world,
    coming to rest among the folded
    legs of horses. Listening for him

    after all her tears was perhaps
    what drew the mother
    into that silence. Long afternoons
    she sat with her daughter,
    speaking in the sign they invented
    together, going deaf to the world.

    How, exactly, did they touch
    their mouths? What was the thought
    of the old man on the porch,
    growing so drunk by nightfall
    he could not hear
    mosquitoes in his ears.

    There is so much no one remembers
    about the farm where sound,
    even the bawling of the unmilked cows,
    came to a stop. Even the name

    that neighbors must have spoken
    passing by in twilight, on their way
    to forgetting it forever.


    A note from McNair about this letter: The opening is a quotation from Emily Dickinson’s 1864 letter to Thomas Higginson.

     

  • Hall to McNair: September 22, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, September 22, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    22 Sept. 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes,

    Sorry I didn’t answer your question about
    Costanzo. (I like the new poems a lot, and will
    probably have some questions – but a head-cold
    keeps me from clarity at the moment. More later.)
    Yes on the Costanzo. I am only preparing you
    accurately – not acting as his messenger… And
    it is always possible that something has changed.

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • Hall to McNair: September 23, 1982

    width="250"

    [Click image to view]

    23 September 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 42
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    You do have a wonderful gift for finding the dream right
    in the dark center of popular things, like the Big Cars.

    I like both of these poems. Possibly both of them could
    be touched up a bit. Let me ruminate and wander….

    I think that “…the American Dream parade” is almost
    too much, and it might be too much… You know, “smiling a
    lane wide” is almost over the line into pop culture itself,
    not just about it but it… Then comes the next: Is it
    ironic or is it celebratory almost? True questions, not
    disguised statements.

    I don’t understand “their future.” That is, I understand
    it as the future or our future…and since you say their future,
    which is a little strange, I take it you mean something different.
    Why is the future belonging to these old cars? As I understand
    it, the meaning is fine…but the expression is a little strange.
    However, I take it that I am not really understanding what you
    intend.

    Then I don’t really like the syntax of “maps/falling open…”
    through “suddenly the antiques of optimism…” I think it is
    very elliptical and hard to follow, and I don’t see that its
    difficulty has any function. I would think that it might be
    more parallel and easy to (sic) end”America!” parallel to the previous
    sentence-fragment, and then make a new sentence, although the
    line would be a bit long. “Suddenly they are the antiques of
    optimism…” except maybe that isn’t just right. I really
    think it might be clarified in here. Then I think that the
    syntax at the end is also hard to follow, that is, I think
    that “behind” is a little ambiguous…or that whole line is.
    I think it might need more expression, I think you might need
    to say “behind them,” or something… I have tinkered with
    ways to alter it, and I can’t do it by tinkering… I think
    it needs to be spread out a little, said a little more fully.
    But I think the whole thing is here and lovely, it is just a
    matter of small details.

    I like Mute a whole lot, and think that the end of it
    is very beautiful, but again I am puzzled by some details. I’m
    not sure about the antecedent of “it” in the last line. The
    farm? It’s pretty far away… It could be the name, but then
    I wouldn’t understand what.

    But I don’t really understand what happened at the beginning.
    Did the boy fall into the ice, really and truly, or is it a
    metaphor for something else? Obviously there is a pun going
    on, when you say “the son broke through the surface,” because
    one would constantly speak of “the sun breaking through the
    clouds…” It seems like a metaphor because you say “the
    surface/of their solid world” – but then I don’t know what
    it is a metaphor of, or what sort of things it might be a
    metaphor of, even. Just a death? Mourning and lamentation
    come clear with the second sentence.

    But I don’t really know why “sign” is singular, rather

    2/

    than the conventional plural notion. Does it really change it?
    Or does it just mystify it? And why the suggestion of mother
    and daughter kissing? Of course it need not be that. It can
    be that each, separately, touches each’s own mouth… You see
    I am wandering a bit in here! I love the old man getting drunk
    and the mosquitoes and so on… And the sound stopping. Now I
    am thinking that “it” must be “name,” but it almost seems as if
    I ought to know what that name would be, or what sort of thing
    it ought to be, and I feel sort of kept out or mystified by
    the poem.

    This sounds much more negative, about this poem, that I
    Intend it to be. I like the poem a lot. Maybe you can help
    me with it.

    Of course it could be this damned head-cold still. But I
    don’t think so completely.

    Joey (and I in my own name, for that matter) has started
    the campaign. Do not expect anything for a long time – well,
    don’t expect anything ever, I suppose…but don’t expect even
    shreds for a while. Not because I am slow but because publishers
    are.

    Love as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 25, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, September 25, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    September 25, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Thanks very much for your commentary
    about the poems. I will let the letter cool
    for a couple of days and then get the
    poems out again.

    In the meantime, here’s another one.
    If you would respond to it sometime soon
    I could get going on my October
    submission.

    I’m not sure what else I can send
    along with it at this point, but
    maybe something new will develop.

    The writing grows regular now, thanks
    to you, Jane and my afternoon teaching
    schedule.

    More thanks!

    Love,

    Wes

    P.S. Knowing Joey is at work on the manuscript
    lifts my spirits hugely–as does your full
    letter about the poems I sent!

    THE ICE RETREATS IN SUTTON

    Suddenly, the town
    as it was before
    the season of ice:

    trees, deeper
    than anyone
    can remember,

    houses a century old
    resting on stone–
    and in the field,

    taking the first
    sun, two
    lost Buicks

    standing shoulder
    to shoulder, hay
    still in their mouths.


     

  • McNair to Hall: September 28, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, September 28, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    September 28, 1982

    Dear Don,

    I hope these are clearer and better now.

    Would you please let me know what you think
    when you can? I am in hopes of putting
    several poems into cold print for mailing
    out to magazines soon.

    Thanks.

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter: The enclosed poems were “Big Cars” and “Mute,” neither in Hall’s view quite ready. Thus, his critiques of those poems and “The Ice Retreats in Sutton” in the next few letters.

  • Hall to McNair: September 29, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, September 29, 1982, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    29 September 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I like it very much. Could you bear, please, to add a
    comma after “and in the field,”…? I think you would need one
    in prose, for the grammar, and I miss it here.

    The only other thing I wonder about is the force of “a
    century old…” That is, I don’t know whether that is supposed
    to be old, or young, or how that is supposed to be relevant – the
    age itself. A century old is only an 1882 house, and it is not
    very old for around here. What are you telling me, when you tell
    me this? I understand what you are telling about the trees, and
    heaven knows the Buicks – which are absolutely marvelous! But
    what is that house a hundred years old for? Would it make any
    difference if it were wood or stone or brick? Or green or white
    or red? Or just a hundred years old? So it “begs a question,”
    like they say. But I am being fairly picayune, I think.

    Good for you with your writing on a schedule. Excellent.

    Joey gets frustrated because people don’t answer letters…
    But Joey does not get so frustrated for other people’s manuscripts
    as other people get – or as Joey would get, were Joey handling his
    own! Such is the utility of Joey!

    Love as ever,
    Don


     

  • Hall to McNair: September 30, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, September 30, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    30 September 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    You are really building up a nice group
    for Joey… Now it is true that I don’t really
    understand the literal/figurative configuration
    at the beginning of “Mute.” And if Howard Moss,
    Peter Davison, and John Nims are as dumb as I
    am, they will not buy it. But I think it is
    very beautiful! (I would buy it, because I do
    not demand to understand everything.) And I
    really love it…but I must tell you I don’t
    know what really happened to the son.

    In Big Cars I would surely make it a
    semi-colon after “seats”. Did I tell you a
    comma last time? Then I wonder about a dash
    after the word “here” in the next stanza…
    I don’t think that the absence of punctuation
    is quite right…

    Love as ever,

    Don

    (Note: Don’s markings in brackets.)

    BIG CARS

    Ten years later
    they arrive on the thruway,
    pulling winged fenders and smiling
    a lane wide—big cars,
    old floats that took a wrong
    corner somewhere and lost
    the American dream parade. Around them

    the strange, grilleless
    cars of the future
    hum at their tires—tiny aliens
    of a planet out of gas.

    To think of their long trip
    just beginning—the irrepressible fuel
    rising everywhere into their tanks!
    For the first time, armrests
    Unfolded out of seats, [;]
    Out of the armrests, ashtrays!
    Maps fell open to the new roads

    That led them, finally, here [– ?]
    to the right lanes of America,
    the antiques of optimism
    nobody understands or wants
    except the poor. Or dictators

    driving down boulevards in some country
    where the poor do not have cars
    and run alongside until it seems
    that they themselves are riding
    on soft shocks, under a sun roof,
    toward the great plenty of the New World.

    MUTE

    Once on the last ice-cutting,
    the son went through the surface
    of their solid world,
    coming to rest among the folded
    legs of horses. Listening for him [fig/bit]

    after all her tears was perhaps
    what drew the mother
    into the silence. Long afternoons
    she sat with the daughter,
    speaking in the sign language
    they invented together,
    going deaf to the world.

    How, exactly, did they touch
    their mouths? What was the thought
    of the old man on the porch
    growing so drunk by nightfall
    he could not hear
    mosquitoes in his ears?

    There is so much no one remembers
    about the farm where sound,
    even the bawling of the unmilked cows,
    came to a stop. Even the man’s name,

    which neighbors must have spoken
    passing by in twilight, on their way
    to forgetting it forever.


    A note from McNair about this letter: Responding to Don’s questions about clarity in the opening stanza of “Mute,” I made the changes that appear in the published version of the poem below, also adding his suggested semi-colon to “Big Cars.”

    Read Big Cars (published version)

    Read Mute (published version)

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

  • McNair to Hall: October 1, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, October 1, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    October 1, 1982
    Dear Don,

    Well, I’m glad you like “The Ice Retreats in Sutton,”
    but I wish its intent were clearer to you.

    I was hoping to convey the impression of a long winter–
    the retreat of ice humorously recalling the end of an
    ice age. Thus, the Buicks would be seen as mastadons [sic],
    “hay/still in their mouths.”

    Because of that intent, I wanted the farm to appear
    ancient–more or less so. So, the reference to
    “a century old.” (True, that does mean 1882,
    hardly an ancient time.)

    Do you think “houses centuries old/resting
    on stone” would work better. Or do you think this
    whole idea of the farm after an ice age flops,
    houses and all?

    I hope a small change will solve the problem,
    but I fear I’ll have to abandon the project
    until some later time…

    2/

    The other problem you raise–the needed comma after
    “field,” is easily solved–

    My writing schedule continues. It’s the
    thing that sustains me in my other schedule.

    Praise God for Joey’s utility!
    And thanks for your letter.

    Love,

    Wes

    I hope the cold is now out of your head.


  • Hall to McNair: October 4, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, October 4, 1982, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    4 October 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I think that the notion of the farm’s
    return after the ice age is wonderful and clear.
    And I love those Buicks with hay in their teeth…

    But yes, a century confuses things,
    because it is so recent… And even centuries
    is perfectly historical, and not ice-age-ish.
    I don’t know quite how to do it. I don’t think
    that you are far away, by any means… No need
    to abandon the project! I mean to say, could
    you even do houses millennia old… I know they
    are not, but then, the Buicks don’t eat hay
    either!

    Love as ever,

    P.S. Wes: You have sent the manuscript to
    Costanzo, have you not? If you have not, please
    get it in the mail today. I just had a letter
    from him, and he mentioned reading manuscripts…

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: October 6, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, October 6, 1982, Page 1, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    October 6, 1982

    Dear Don,

    Diane bought me this, and while I’m glad to have
    it and like it, I would really prefer stationery
    a bit simpler–and cheaper. Would you send me
    sometime the address of the company which does yours?
    You mentioned once that prices there are low. Does
    the company offer a variety of typefaces for name
    and address?

    Your notes about poems, sent so quickly after
    my questions, have been enormously helpful. I
    would be lost without your sympathetic and insightful
    comments. Thank you.

    If you like the enclosed–or any part of
    what’s here–please pass it on to Joey. If you
    have reservations, I will welcome your letter about
    them. I am at work (always) on others, but they
    may be awhile. I had hoped for two more for
    this batch, but they remain under their stone,
    until some later resurrection!

    By the way, I did send the book to Costanzo–
    this, after your OK.

    The attached check is for Ploughshares poems,

    2/

    which earned $25.

    Fall is lovely here–the trees beautiful,
    even as their leaves fall. We live in such light!

    I think of your fall, pleasantly
    haunted by memories of kicking leaves against
    the house–and by the Blue Ghost. I trust
    you are enjoying the season!

    Love to you and Jane,

    Wes


    A note from McNair about this letter: The enclosed poem is “When Paul Flew Away.” “Blue Ghost” on page two of this letter is a reference to Don’s short lyric, “Mount Kearsarge.”

    Read Mount Kearsarge (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: October 11, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, October 11, 1982, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    11 October 1982

    Wesley McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I don’t have a current price list for the American
    Stationery Co., because I just [ordered] a whole bunch of
    things. If you write a postcard to them at Peru, Indiana,
    they will send you a catalogue. I have no doubt! Their
    price has gone up enormously fantastically – and I suppose
    it is still the cheapest thing anywhere around. I find the
    postcards wonderfully cheap. But the price you pay, as it
    were, is that you have no variety. The minute you start
    paying for variety, you pay them more… The stuff that I
    use comes in blue, for the small stationery…blue ink that
    is…and black for the typewriter size… Blue for the postcards.
    And exactly the same typeface… That is why it’s cheap.

    I love the poems, and am starting to send them out.

    I have one suggestion – the title of “The Ice Retreats
    In Sutton” is cliché and dead metaphor. Military metaphor of
    retreating. The poem is so much better than that! Why not
    just say something like “After the Ice”?

    Refresh my memory – so I can pass it on down street to
    Joey… Do you have poems still coming out in Poetry? Do
    you have a poem still coming out in the Atlantic?

    Stay tuned for the latest bulletins. But don’t stay up.
    “When Paul Flew Away” so beautiful… The grammar made me nervous
    until I saw that it was consistent, and a form of speech…

    Best as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: October 13, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, October 13, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    October 13, 1982

    Dear Don,

    “Retreats” was meant as a word about the
    “ice age.” But if you think it sounds like a
    military word, I want to change it.

    Thus, the enclosed. I do like the title better!

    If you have any doubts about the grammar
    of “Paul,” please let me know.

    It’s off to school! I’m very glad
    you like the poems!

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter: The enclosed poem is “After the Ice,” in its published version.

    Read After the Ice, as published.

     

  • Hall to McNair: October 14, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, October 14, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

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    14 Oct. 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes,

    I like the new title. It is not that I care
    whether “retreat” was meant about the ice-age, and
    it is not that I think it “sounds like” a military
    word. “Retreat” is always a military word –
    whether it is spoken about the Dow Jones Index, or
    the colons in autumn, or the ice in the spring, or
    anything. Just as the word “cradle” is always a
    wooden object for rocking babies in, even when we
    cradle a submachine gun…

    Love,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: October 31, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, October 31, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    October 31, 1982

    Dear Don,

    I hope you and Joey like the enclosed. If
    you both do, please let me know and keep it.

    If there are reservations, I will just wait
    and return to it later.

    Writing is ‘going fine’ in spite of all
    my teaching and other duties! I remain on
    my daily schedule!

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter: The unnamed poem referred to is “The Minister’s Death.”

    Here is the text of “The Minister’s Death” as sent to Hall:

    That long fall,
    when the voices stopped
    in the tweed mouth
    of his radio, and sermons
    stood behind the door
    of his study in files
    no one would ever again inspect,
    and even the black shoes
    and vestments, emptied of him,
    were closed away,
    they sat together Sundays
    in the house, now hers —
    the son wearing his suit
    and water-combed hair,
    and mother in a house dress,
    cradling the dead
    man’s cane. Somewhere
    at the edge of the new
    feeling just beginning
    between them, floorlamps
    bloomed triple bulbs
    and windowsills sagged
    with African violets,
    and the old woman,
    not knowing exactly how
    to say his face looked lovely
    in the chair, framed
    by a white aura
    of doily, said nothing
    at all. And the son,
    not used to feeling
    small inside the great
    shoulderpads of his suit,
    looked down at the rugs
    on rugs to where the trees kept
    scattering the same, soft
    puzzle of sunlight
    until, from time to time,
    she found the words
    of an old dialogue they both
    could speak:”How has the weather
    been this week? What time
    did you start out from Keene?”

  • Hall to McNair: November 3, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, November 3, 1982, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    3 November 1982

    Wes McNair
    Box 43
    North Sutton, NH 03260

    Dear Wes,

    I think this is extremely beautiful, possibly even one
    of your very best – and I think it has one horrible word in it.
    A gross and palpable dead metaphor in the word “cradling.” (It
    is the same dead metaphor which practically ruins Roethke’s
    Meadow Mouse…but not quite.) (You are alive: you can change
    it!) There are some people who actually say that the bandito cradled
    the Thompson sub-machine gun – and then claim that they are not
    comparing the sub-machine gun to a baby!

    It is another one like “cupping” and “darting” which is
    very commonly used, but is a dead metaphor. There is a man
    who sends poems to the Country Journal who tries to tell me
    that the word “wake,” as in “in the wake of the scythe,” has
    absolutely nothing to do with water, because after all his
    Webster’s and his Roget tell him that it means “aftermath” and
    things like that…

    Anyway, could you find something else for that? And there
    is one other dead metaphor, which is “framed,” but it is not
    such a sore thumb as “cradling.” I would infinitely prefer
    that there were something besides an oil painting or a window
    in that line, because “framed” in the sense of “outlined” or
    “surrounded” is very very dead… But it is not so bad as
    cradling and I can’t pretend it is.

    The only other thing I have any doubt about at all is the
    rhythm in “just look down at the rug/ on rugs to wear…” (sic: “where”) A whole
    lot of monosyllables without much importance to any of them,
    and it makes for a dead patch in the rhythm, and it is especially
    in the first line there. I wonder if it might be possible to
    take out at least one of the little words.

    But what I started out with is the real thing. This is
    absolutely wonderful.

    Love as ever,

    Don


     

  • McNair to Hall: November 6, 1982

    Letter from McNair to Hall, November 6, 1982, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire

    [Click image to view]

    November 6, 1982

    Dear Don–

    Since it is 11:50 AM, I must
    fly to the post with this revision.

    If you think it’s ready, please
    hand it to Joey.

    Many thanks for the advice!

    Love,

    Wes


    Editorial note about this letter: The revision referred to is “The Minister’s Death,” sent on this date as it was published.

    Read The Minister’s Death (published version)

  • Hall to McNair: November 15, 1982

    Letter from Hall to McNair, November 15, 1982, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

    [Click image to view]

    15 Nov. 1982

    Wes McNair

    Dear Wes,

    Well, I love it, which means that Joey is
    likely to approve of it… Thanks a million.

    Best as ever,

    Don