Hall to McNair: January 27, 1981


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27 January 1981

Wes McNair
North Sutton
New Hampshire

Dear Wes,

It was good to see you, however briefly, yesterday…
and today I have your letter, mostly about Herman. I am glad
if the bottom seems to be raising a little. …I do appreciate
having helped some other people, from time to time – very much
including you. I believe it and I warm myself at that fire.
And then I remember Robert Frost, as quoted by Lowell in that
poem about Frost, Frost always so miserable about his family,
saying how little good his own successes did his family. Well,
Andrew goes off Thursday, and I suppose I will keep my fingers
crossed for the rest of my life – or his. I have hopes for him,
with some reason I think. But his is a tenuous hold, really.
He is another casualty of the sixties and the war, like many
many of his generation. I don’t suppose he will ever really
be free of it. I mean simply that he grew up at a time when
resistence to authority was decent – and somehow or other it
was a revolutionary act to drop acid when you were fourteen
years old.

I have been going over “A Dream of Herman,” and, yes,
I do feel certain about the last line. Of course this does
not mean I am right! But I feel very certain. And I
understand about loving certain lines. They give one everything
one could ever ask for! They are the golden dream! When I wrote
Ox Cart Man, it ended with: “bees wake/ roused by the cry of
lilac.” And I still think it is just plain exquisite. But
it was decorative, finally; it came not at the end but after
the end… Louis Simpson made me take it out! Sometime maybe
I will use it some place else.

The last line here looks like a last line. It looks
like something cherished and set apart and framed and put on
top of the piano. The fact that it is iambic lends to this
quality. It is not the only thing. Everything in it claims:
beauty. But therefore, somehow, it seems to look at itself,
and not at Herman or at the experience. It seems to be poetry!
(I will understand that everything I say is answerable. But
you reading this letter any way try to understand how I can
mean these things negatively.)

I do have a suggestion. Cut it out. End the poem
instead with something like this: “And then he lifted his
sacksx and opened/ one more flourishing song.”

My “flourishing” is no good, but it is meant to do
something like the wideness of the trees, and the spectral
quality of the moment. You could end it simply “one more song”
but the line would be terribly short, and I think we could
stand the perfect adjective right there. I’m a little troubled
by the way the lines at the end get more consistently long,
anyway, and would be grateful for a short line, tying me back
to earlier line-lengths.

I think of one weird coincidence – and that is all
it is. In The Alligator Bride, look at a poem called (I
think it is called this) “The Old Pilot.” That was my little
elegy for my first wife’s father! I did indeed have some of
the same problems. And I am not sure that I avoided sentimentality.

I do not find this poem sentimental – except I guess
in a sense in this last line, probably especially with the
word “lovely,” but really with the whole gesture of the line.
I think we should end with a fantasy of the real saxaphone [sic]
bursting into real $ong [sic].

Love to you as ever,


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)