Hall to McNair: November 16, 1981


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16 November 1981

Wes McNair
North Sutton, NH

Dear Wes,

I’m so sorry to take so long with you, all fall. You
know there have been all sorts of little things. And now I
have been interrupted by this and by that – but (sic) a poetry
reading, by having to go down and watch the Celtics practice
and talk with Kevin McHale…all sorts of things that just keep
me from concentrating.

I don’t feel the urgency that you feel in one sense: the
book is going to change every few months anyway. I know I may
be wrong. I don’t believe I’m wrong. I don’t think that you’ve
hurt yourself madly by leaving these poems out – but I do think [you]
hurt the book. Because I think that these [poems] include some of
the best things that you have written. I don’t know as you are
doing this, but let me counsel against something that some people
do from time to time: they hold back on new poems in order
to get started on the next book. It is always wise, I do believe,
to print your best poems now, and hold nothing back. And it is
wise to get rid of the weaker old ones, even when they are old
affections and old favorites for various reasons. Also, I would
say that the shape of the book, that you perceive, as you put it
together, is far less important than the individual poems. I do
believe in trying for a shapely book – but only after you make
the decision to include all the best poems and leave out all the
weaker ones.

The book will seem thicker, with more texture and tweed
to it, more grit, more content, and much more particularity, with
most of these poems added, and one or two of the old ones taken
out. Just how you do it – just how you make it a single whole –
I’m not sure. But also, I do not worry terribly about it.

I love the new one, by the way. I have one or two little things
to question about it. But very very good. The only one of these
poems – nine poems – that I would omit is The People upstairs. You
were having some doubts about it. I would put the whole thing back
in the drawer. Two years from now you may find it and it may be
the start of something else great. As I have come to see it, over
the last year or two, I have come to feel that it does not work.
It is too thin. It is too tenuous a music.

I tend I guess usually to like your thicker and grosser
things – like the absolutely wonderful Peaceable Kingdom, which
was the poem in your manuscript at the very beginning which took
my eye – and my eye has never left you since! The new one is an-
other one of your thick and gross things. (By “gross” I am using
an exaggeration, as opposed to the very ephemeral, very short-lined
things, of which The People Upstairs is an example.)


Leaving out. I would leave out Elinore. Elinore has
never been a favorite of mine, and as you have written more
poems, and gotten better and better, Elinore has receded until
Elinore just waters the soup at this point. I think that you
could put Holding the Goat and When Superman Died in the previous
section. In general, I think maybe you have too many sections –
and all the blank pages and the short line pages and the short
pages combine to make the manuscript seem a lot thinner than it
genuinely is. I want you to look for, and even enjoy the idea
of greater bulkiness. The book feels thinner than you are. I
would think about omitting some of the poems in the second part –
but I think that in a bulkier book they would stand up better.
They wouldn’t have to carry so much on their own backs. I don’t
think that Fire in Enfield or Kuhre are up to the best of your work…
but I don’t think that they actively hurt you, unless they seem to
be padding out the thin book. Lines or paragraphs like “Kuhre/
just lurches/ off/into the tractors/ noise and/…” This is very
very thin, when the word “off” has to carry whole line on its
back. And there is, in this second section, really less vigor
than there is in much of your work. I like your work best when
it is thick and muscular or even fat, when it is vigorous in its
positive or negative way – I don’t really make any distinction
between the positive and the negative! I make a distinction between
the vigorous and the frail.

I would leave out The People Upstairs. I would leave out
Elinore. I would think about leaving out Kuhre or cutting things
down. I would think about jamming things together a little more…
And I would add these eight poems and I would have absolutely
no doubt about that. Of the eight, the most nearly weak one
is the Beggars. I meant to say, it is not quite up to the wonderful
other ones. Even Calling Harold, tiny as it is, is wonderful and

I don’t think you ought to worry about affirmation. I think
that books work as well by contradiction as they do by consistency.
In a poetry reading, for instance, I like to put poems right up
against each other that are absolutely opposites, that contradict
each other in every way…you get energy from contradiction. And I
think you can do this in a book as well. You need not – as everybody
assumes – print like with like. I really don’t [like] printing by sections
anymore. Maybe I will do it again, as I used to do it, but in the
Kicking I did not do it.

I am writing in haste Monday morning, dictating that is,
and I must get up and drive down to Brookline almost immediately,
to watch the Celtics practice, then talk with Kevin McHale,
Cedric Maxwell, and Bill Fitch, and then drive two and a half hours
back… It’s a good life, really, and I’m not complaining…but
I mean to say I cannot answer your questions about Ploughshares
(and I probably won’t know for sure for a month or two) and the
revisions in the Herman…although I like the poem as I read it
right now.


And I do love Mina Bell’s Cows…although I have a couple of
changes to suggest. When you have contemplated the changes and
possibly made anything that sounds sensible, could I have another
copy of it, for Joey that is?

Three things. First of all, totally trivial, shouldn’t it
be hay “chute”? In my copy you have “shute.” It seems to me there
is the word “shoot,” partly working by folk etymology, but that
the real word is “chute” from the French for “fall.” Maybe I’m
talking about a typo. Then in the last line, when I read it,
I hear it in a way that you didn’t type it… I absolutely hear,
every single time, “who never would come home.” And Ifind (sic) it very
hard to say it the other way.

Then I find something a little awkward in the second to last
line, it seems to center around the word “and,” which is idiomatic
enough, but not exactly grammatical, and a little strange…and
kind of slows me down every time. And I am not sure that “meaning”
is [the] exact word, or that it is the exact word if you come at it this
way. I mean to say, I might want you to say something like “ape,
ape, as if she called all three of them,/ her walleyed girls…”
I’m not suggesting this as the right way to do it…just that some-
how the word “meaning” seems like the author’s interpretation,
and therefore to insert the author into the poem suddenly. The
author having a window into her skull and her hidden “meanings.”

I love the poem. Love the book, also,


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)