Hall to McNair: September 8, 1980


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8 September 1980

Wes McNair
Box 43
North Sutton, NH 03260

Dear Wes,

Thanks for your letters. I’m really pleased that
you liked Ox Cart Man. I do not think of it as a poem, though
it is set in irregular lines… Just a way of phrase-grouping,
and slowing down… They wanted to call it a poem on the jacket,
but I wouldn’t let them. Actually, I imagine it is a good
selling point not to call it a poem! … though that was not
my reason.

I am thinking some more about the Slow Children –
though I know from your last letter that you have put it
aside anyway. You know, you are presuming to go inside
their minds, therefore not being “objective”… “Smiles at
nothing/ he can remember exactly.” “…the astonished…”
I wonder if it is possible – it will be a completely different
poem – to make it actually objective?

Probably it is best to hold poems back for a long time
before sending them to a friend. I think you do that
already. Jane and I have learned to do that even from each
other. More or less to keep something around, looking at it
daily for two months or so, before we will even show it to
each other. Because it has a way of changing on its own, before
anybody else’s words get into it.

It was really such a pleasure to see those good poems
in Poetry! … Oh, one more bit of sage, elderly, Polonius-like
advice. For a biographical note, I think it is wise not to
emphasize fellowships or academic appointments. I do not mean
that the note in Poetry is any serious gaffe or anything, honest
to goodness! But I think that in general, people just get mad
at you if they think you have had four thousand grants, which
would be my general impression if I just scanned your note
briefly, and they tend not to like poets who are Deans and
Vice-Presidents – which is what being director of the American
Studies Program sounds a little bit like. I think that the
most effective kind of biographical note is something that is
quite reticent, non-academic, and non-“successful.” “Wesley
McNair lives in New Hampshire where he raises goats with eyes
in the middle of their foreheads.”

I went to the faculty meeting on Friday, not the faculty
meeting – the English Department meeting. You will probably get
this on Wednesday, my first day of teaching. Pray for me. Pray
for my girls.

Yes, Jim Wright’s “Venice” is wonderful, and there are
many terrific things in this posthumous book of his.

Love to you all, as ever,


A note from McNair about this letter: Though Don’s and my conversation about “The Retarded Children Play Baseball” is almost over with this letter, off-and-on work with the poem was just beginning. In fact, I puzzled over how to write the poem off and on for nearly fifteen years, finally publishing the version below in my collection, Talking in the Dark. I actually completed the poem two or three years earlier, but magazine editors would not publish it, perhaps in part because they found its term “retarded” pejorative. Even sensing this, I decided to risk my title, since it reflected in its way the condescending attitude of the children’s teachers, and besides, my poem balked at substituting politically correct terms for the title such as “mentally handicapped” or “mentally challenged.”

Read The Retarded Children Play Baseball (published version)

See also a selection of McNair’s manuscript notes and drafts of this poem.