Hall to McNair, May 17, 1984

Letter from Hall to McNair, May 17, 1984, Page 1, Colby College Special Collections

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[Written in top margin:] Thanks for the Union clip! I had not seen it. A
nice piece!

17 May 1984

Wesley McNair
Hominy Pot Rd.
North Sutton, NH 03260

Dear Wes,

I did talk about you down in Washington, used you as my example.
It was by and large a boring* ceremonial occasion, and I think I did what
I was supposed to do. [Written in margin:] *Not your part!

Good to hear about The Valley News reprinting the article. That
is a first cousin to the Concord Monitor, or sibling or something. Mike
went up there and worked as managing editor for a while.

Thank you for the clarity of your description of the Dartmouth job.
Excellent. Maybe I can give you some hints about that introductory creative
writing course. Not so sure I can help without the class in fiction.
Wonderful. It sounds like fun. Of course, expect nothing… “And
Mithradeates, he died old.”

Now I am a little confused about you and this poem. I send a xerox
along, in case you don’t have a copy of The Alligator Bride (and if you
don’t, I can repair that omission, the next time we see each other.) You
say you like how active the title has become, and the title is the same.
But maybe you just mean that the change in the last stanza has activated
the title. There are little changes in the other stanzas too.

But it is the switch to “I” is what excited me.

And now let me tell you a funny story. When I first published that
poem in the New Yorker, maybe in 1966, the two lines in the third stanza
were “and every/ morning takes the train, his pale/ hands on his black
case, and sits/…” etc.

Well, I have been telling a story for years and years now, at poetry
readings, when I have usually read it the revised way, as it is printed in
Alligator Bride, and I talked to them about revisions and such. I tell them about
how I first wrote it with the train, and then the first person I showed
it to, who was Louis Simpson, got all dazed-looking, and said, “But they
don’t have seat-belts, on trains…”

Everybody laughs! And then I say: “But nobody since has ever made
that mistake.” Well, now I cannot say this anymore! Of course it is not
“making this mistake,” it is a kind of literalness that I would expect poets
to do more than anybody else. Because poets are the most literal-minded
people in the world, which is what makes metaphor work. But if it didn’t
confuse the old New Yorker, how could it confuse you and Louis?

No, they don’t have seatbelts on trains, and the point is that this
guy, though he is an active sort alive at the present time, is really also,
at the same time, the skeleton crashed in New Guinea back in 1943…


The reason I took the train out, all those years ago, was that I
feared it looked like social commentary – the poets running down the commuters
again. And really, I had no such thing in mind: this is how I felt, how
alas everybody feels, from time to time. So I wanted to generalize it,
so that it could be anybody, and not just a businessman carrying an attache
case… So I changed it to “takes his chair, etc.” But I lost that assonance.
Having those four dipthongs on a train/ pale/ takes/ case… That just kills me.
That to me makes the high point of the poem! For years and years, I have
been looking for a way to get that assonance back in.

A few years ago, at a reading, somebody took me to task for not
printing it the original train/assonance way, and so I have mostly been
reading it aloud in the old way. But worried about the social implications.
Then I thought that changing it to “I” would help get rid of the social
associations, although that is irrational enough. But I think maybe it does.
And I get my assonance back!

However, I am stuck maybe with the smartest people I know thinking
that I think that there are seatbelts on trains…

Love to you,


Read The Man in the Dead Machine (published version)