A central narrative in this section of the letters is my growing sense of myself as a poet. Returning to Colby-Sawyer College from my NEA fellowship to teach in the fall, I am committed to organizing my life around poetry. So I write to Don in the first letter of this section about applying for a new college position as a poet, against the odds of obtaining one. (“I plan finally to adjust my teaching assignment to my real self, kept secret for so long!”) Shortly afterward, I report my decision to resign as coordinator of the American studies program I founded, and my intention to apply for a full-year sabbatical in the ensuing year in case my job search doesn’t pan out. My NEA grant has allowed me to create enough poems for part of a second book, I tell Don on December 5, 1980, and I want to continue the momentum. “For the first time in my life,” I write, “I can call myself a poet, without misgivings.”
Yet events conspire to limit my output of poems. A mid-life crisis, brought on by the death of Diane’s father, family struggles, and an up-welling of regrets — leaves me “crying a lot,” as I tell Don on January 17, reluctant to spend time with poetry and its reminders of my “inner life.” By opening up my emotional life in this period, poetry has itself no doubt contributed to my situation.
One exception to my inactivity as a poet in early 1981 is the poem I write for Diane in sympathy for her grief , “A Dream of Herman.” Fussing over its final line with Don occupies a series of our early letters in the section. Otherwise, I try to hold myself together, using my spare time to teach in the night school at a nearby business college so I can pay some bills and send Diane to a summer session in pottery at the Haystack School in Maine. In one letter, I toy with the idea of writing a textbook for a new source of income.
In May, however, spurred on by acceptances by both Poetry magazine and The Atlantic, I tell Don I’m ready to start writing once more. And I do, sporadically, though my personal struggles continue. They include Diane’s two back operations that have resulted from her work in the state liquor store and prevent her from attending Haystack. All summer, our lost summer, she must recuperate, and I must serve as a house-husband, summer-school teacher, and occasional assistant for carpenters renovating our house. Dealing with such troubles and distractions, I send only three letters to Don in the summer of 1981, one of them composed in September.
Don’s correspondence in this section, like mine, is more personal than it has been before. It tells of his own sorrows – his son’s car accident, the dire health and eventual death of Jane’s father in Michigan, and Jane’s difficulties with depression. But by the fall of 1981 Diane is on the mend, and though Don is often on the road with an author tour and visits with Jane to Michigan, the two of us are back to active discussions about poems in progress and the revision of my still unpublished book, which the editor of Carnegie Mellon University Press has invited me to submit during his 1982 round of submissions. My year-long sabbatical, with its promise of new poems, has begun.
[This section has 60 letters]
Editorial note about this letter: The poem referred to in the first paragraph is “Waving Goodbye,” which Hall assesses in his final letter of Section III.
Read Waving Goodbye (published version)
See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Waving Goodbye.”
Editorial note about this letter: Included with this letter is Hall’s letter of recommendation for McNair’s job search, accompanied by other letters written by professors from Bread Loaf, and from Dartmouth College, where McNair took courses in American literature, history and art during 1971-72, sponsored by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
See the letter of recommendation Hall wrote for McNair here.
A note from McNair about this letter: The reading I refer to was given for guests at the home of the English department chair at Colby-Sawyer College, Carl Cochran. My teasing about Don’s “flugling,” etc. plays off his own comic description of preparations for his reading three years before….. The “fat” poem mentioned in the postscript is “The Fat People of the Old Days,” discussed with Don in Section III of our correspondence and still underway.
Read Flies (published version)
Read The Repeated Shapes (published version)
A note from McNair about this letter: The “Muller” referred to here is Nick Muller, then the president of Colby-Sawyer College. Though the College had fallen on hard times in this period of its history, it eventually bounced back and is now thriving.
Read To a Waterfowl (published version)
Read Hair on Television (published version)
Read The Fat Enter Heaven (published version)
A note from McNair about this letter: The “touched-up” revision of “Hair on Television,” not available with this letter, replaced “tampons” with “maxi-pads,” in response to John Nims’s objections.
A note from McNair about this letter: Don made his suggestion about “The Thugs of Old Comics” in person at his farmhouse. As it turned out, the poem was never published by Poetry or any other magazine, so I published it myself in my first book, where it appears in the above form. Later, I shortened some of its lines, as I did with “Hair on Television,” so they would fit into the normal 55-character line limit of publishers (in particular my later publisher, David R. Godine) and therefore would not have to be broken. This became a standard practice for me whenever I wrote a poem, using the 55 character line to shape my sense of the poem’s turns and vocal intonation. Here are the two poems as they appear on the 55-character grid in Lovers of the Lost :
Read Hair on Television
A note from McNair about this letter: The revision of “Where I Live” involved changing one line break and two lines — from “beyond the last colonial/ gas station and unsolved by zoning/ is a road” to “beyond the last colonial gas station/ and unsolved by zoning/ is a road” — which responded to Don’s earlier questions, while keeping faith with the flow and meaning of the poem. Though place becomes a metaphor in “Where I Live,” the poem’s situation derives from my daily commute home from the college town of New London, New Hampshire, with its restored colonial homes, to my unvarnished location of North Sutton.
Read Where I Live (published version)
See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Where I Live.”
Editorial note about this letter: The poem Don is discussing in this letter is the elegy, “A Dream of Herman.” In it, McNair pays tribute to his father-in-law, Herman Reed, a band leader, whose life seemed to him “unsung” in his letter of November 24, 1980. Here is the draft Hall responded to on December 9.
A Dream of Herman
I was driving the old Dodge wagon
again, with Coke cans rolling
to the front at stop signs,
and you rubbing the dash
every so often to thank the car
for not needing the spare tire
we hadn’t fixed. We were on a trip
that felt like going to your father’s camp, only
we never got there and didn’t care.
It was a beautiful day, just enough wind
coming into the back to make the kids
squint with pure pleasure
as it riffled their hair, and your mother
patted them, saying what a nice ride it was
in the odd, small voice
she used only for your father.
It was then in the rearview mirror I saw him,
wearing the brown cardigan he always wore
and putting on the shining bell
of his saxophone as if just back
from an intermission. You were smiling,
and suddenly I saw the reason
we were traveling together
and did not want to stop
was Herman, who just sat there
in the cargo space, breathing the scale
until the whole family sat back
in their seats, and then he lifted his sax
and opened one more song
as wide and lovely as the floating trees.
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|15 December 1980
Notice of Acceptance
The editors of Poetry are pleased to accept the
HAIR ON TELEVISION
Editorial note about this letter: This is John Nims’s formal acceptance of the two poems he was holding in anticipation of a change to “Hair on Television.”
Editorial note about this letter: The poem that McNair mentions at the end of this letter is “A Dream of Herman” (see December 9, 1980) for which he changed the word “riffled” to “scribbled,” responding to Don’s earlier critique, though he has not yet dealt with Don’s rejection of the “perfect iambic pentameter” in the poem’s last line.
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|[Postmarked January 20, 1981]
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|[Jan 22, 1981]
Thank you for making
A note from McNair about this letter: The mention of seeing each other in Don’s letter to me, and my last letter to him, refers to our chance meeting in Carl Cochran’s office at Colby-Sawyer. “How are you doing?” Don wanted to know, his question — about my depression — carrying more meaning than Carl knew…. For me, the effort to perfect my elegy “A Dream of Herman” was a disheartening proposition. For though I had hoped to lift Diane’s spirits with the poem, she was too deep in grief to respond to it, in any of its revisions. In the end, I put the poem aside until the ensuing fall.
Read The Old Pilot (published version)
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Good news: I am one of the finalists
Editorial note about this letter: This draft of the poem and its follow up on 6/18/82 are both close to the published version, which appeared in McNair’s second collection, The Town of No.
McNair’s note about this poem: The comic “Paul” of this poem is my older brother Paul in disguise, who also plays accordion and at the time I wrote “When Paul Flew Away” had been taken into the hospital for a life-threatening kidney operation — the grim back story for this character’s “flying away.”
Read When Paul Flew Away (published version)
A note from McNair about this letter: Jane’s “troublesome period” refers to her bout with depression.
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|July 8, 1981
Enclosed, the money due you for
Thanks to you and Joey.
Hope you and Jane are doing OK.
Editorial note about this letter: Minus its fifth stanza, this version of “The Fat People of the Old Days” is the way the poem finally appears in The Town of No. The published version is here: The Fat People of the Old Days. The above draft of “A Dream of Herman” is its final version, later published in The Faces of Americans in 1853.
A note from McNair about this letter: The poems Joey submitted to Ploughshares for Don, as a guest editor of the magazine (which was a matter of Don submitting them to himself) were: “Old Trees,” “The Fat People of the Old Days,” and “Calling Harold.”
A note from McNair about this letter: In this extensive and insightful response, Don gave me a new way to think about arranging my book, which was organizing its poems around a signature approach that was beginning to emerge in my work. As I look back, I see that I bumped poems out of my manuscript partly because of my overly strict adherence to themes, and partly (though I never confessed this) to save them, out of the fear that the slow trickle of my work in this period might eventually dry up and leave me with only one collection.
Below is the text of “Mina Bell’s Cows” as Don first saw it:
Mina Bell’s Cows
O where are Mina Bell’s cows, who gave no milk
and grazed on her dead husband’s farm?
Each day she walked with them into the field,
loving their swaybacked dreaminess more
than the quickness of any dog or chicken.
Each night she brought them grain in the dim
Barn, holding their breath in her hands.
O when the lightning struck Daisy and Bets,
her son dug such great holes in the yard,
she could not bear to watch him.
And when the baby, April, growing old
and wayward, fell down the hay shute,
Mina just sat in the kitchen, crying, “Ape, Ape,”
and meaning all three cows, her beautiful
walleyed girls who would never come home.
See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts for “Mina Bell’s Cows.”
Read Mina Bell’s Cows (published version)
Following Hall’s suggestion that “Memory of Kuhre” was too “thin,” McNair prepared this revised version, eventually published in his first book.
Read The Last Peaceable Kingdom (published version)
A note from McNair about this letter: The two poems referred to in this letter are a revision of “Mina Bell’s Cows” and the same version of “A Dream of Herman” I mailed to Don on October 8.
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|November 27, 1981
If you think this poem is OK,
A note from McNair about this letter: The unnamed poem referred to is “Small Towns Are Passing,” sent to Don, as it turned out, in its published form.
Read Small Towns Are Passing (published version)
A note from McNair about this letter: “Wolf and Lily” were local restaurateurs and mutual friends who swelled our dinner company in North Sutton to six….The three poems referred to in this letter are “A Dream of Herman,” “Mina Bell’s Cows,” and “Small Towns are Passing.” So Section IV concludes with one more generous letter from Don, thanking me for a visit; complimenting me about the poetry collection I will once more send out to editors; and submitting new McNair poems in the guise of Joseph Amaryllis. Less noticeable, but also helpful, is his last paragraph, with its model of cheerfulness in the face of writerly disappointment.