Hall to McNair, August 16, 1984

Letter from Hall to McNair, August 16, 1984, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

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16 August 1984

Wes McNair
Hominy Pot Rd.
North Sutton, NH 03260

Dear Wes,

I like the second after. It is a music for me. Stet!

I’m really pleased that you like the poems I sent. I have all
sorts of questions of course. Isn’t “Sums” a weird one? I cannot read
it aloud!

Now about “The Ragpicker’s Horse.” You find it “charming and funny.”
Two other people to whom I sent it have hated it, I think because it was
charming and funny. Their notion – which I understand – is that this is
a poem about horror, about destitution…in which the children are first
of all mourning a horse, and then howling in terror because they hear their
parents howling, and their parents are howling about rickets and starvation.
So what the hell am I doing being charming and funny about it? Do you have
an answer? Why is it funny? I mean the last line mournful and horrible…
but can I do that when I rhyme “tsoris” with “horse is”? My fear is that I
allowed the decorativeness of the rhyming to carry the poem away with it,
and that in the process I became a heartleass beast.

I love it that you talk about three poems here, written in rhyme and
meter, without ever mentioning that they are in rhyme and meter. That is
the way I want it to be also. There are so many friends of mine who will
believe that I have turned from Communist to White Russian…the politics,
totally mistaken I do believe, of formal poetry!

Maybe you are right about “hurl,” but it seems to me that I remember
sheep standing quite still, staring around, and then throwing their heads
with great impetuosity down into the grass again. Does this ring any bells?
Didn’t you You didn’t miss no an allusion. Of course from “hurl” I took up an r with
Roman, and h with “heads.”

I felt that “Waking the Next Morning” – the title itself – was
necessary for the plot of the poem. Is it clear without it?
[Written in margin]: Why’s it wrong? Not that I’m wedded to it.

You are extremely helpful with Phototropism. You did not notice
that it is written in syllabics – and I don’t blame you. I never thought
of the jade plant cluttering the poem – and it is going out! Well, the
only thing I think about it – thinking further – is that it links the
woman to the gardening business. Maybe it doesn’t go. But I had not even
considered the idea that it cluttered it with an extra plant. I must
think more about that. I also think that the daylilies might have a location.
All sorts of good help here.

I have a lot of questions about your reading of “Felix.” You say
that the image which you love – me too! – “collides” with “twenty-five


years old forever…” Why? I don’t know why. This morning I was looking
at it and I noticed that there is all sorts of figures and numbers in it,
and the word “years,” would not be the problem? I seemed to need to say
that he is still the same age he was when he drowned. But I could have
that, without the numbers of twenty-five years old forever, by saying
“forever still out of flight training school, or recently graduated from
Yale…” as it were.

You think that the speaker is more articulate than he out to be.
But then you say he ought to be more “trucker-like,” and he is nobody’s
trucker. At the very beginning he has that image about the ruler’s line,
which is supposed to make it possible for him to “talk poetry” again at the
end. And he is a Yale graduate, fifty-five years old, who is driving through
Texas for some unnamed purpose – doubtless to meet a client, who is a rich
oilman, about buying Manhattan.

I think I make him middleclass. They are driving from New Haven
to San Diego because they were back there for their third reunion at Yale.
(I do realize I didn’t tell you this!) But here is a man who has been divorced
a couple of times, who has been in a detox center, and who wishes to think of
himself as being mild, speaking reasonably…as he revises his old arguments,
in his driver’s daydream. What more do I need, or where have I given you
misleading information?

Troubles with “Richard,” also. I suppose that this is a poem more or
less “about” childhood schizophrenia. But it is not early childhood.
I think that I will change “school” to “high school,” or something like
that. Because Richard, who is having this fantasy, is probably fourteen
or fifteen years old anyway. Then I think of putting It in quotation marks
again – my sign that I am using “I” as a persona, or some persona other
than the usual persona that might call itself “Donald Hall,”… (Forgive
me the word “persona”; it is an MFA word and when I hear it I reach for my
gun.) That is to say, I would put it in quotation marks and use the word
“I” instead of using the word “he”.

You want the poet’s language to be closer to the perception of the
boy who actually experiences the disparity… Well, that is what I want too.
There is no amused adult in the poem. What makes it sound amused? I find
it grim. These are the fantasies of the adolescent himself. Maybe I will
repair it simply by the minor changes I mention. Would you look at the poem
with these in mind? See what else I need to do. I need all the help I can
get! You give me a lot of help here – most especially with Phototropism.

Love as ever,


Editorial note about this letter: Unfortunately, the drafts that Don sent of his poems at this point in their formation do not exist; one or two were later abandoned. Yet there are signs that through McNair’s previous letter, and his letter following this one, he had influence on Hall’s work–especially “My Friend Felix,” which Hall sent for additional help during 1985.