McNair to Hall: November 18, 1980


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November 18, 1980

Dear Don,

Have just gotten back from Keene, where Diane’s
father’s funeral just took place. He was in the hospital
for three weeks, had a broken hip, which (because he
was a “bleeder”) was complicated to fix. Eventually
the operation on the hip led to two other operations –
one to prevent a blood clot in his leg from moving, the
other to remove a very diseased gall bladder,
which was preventing the blood from clotting, even after
medication for coagulation was administered. But the
bleeding wouldn’t stop; indeed, there was much more
of it after the latter operations. And so he died.
It’s been a sad time. That guy meant a lot to all of us.

The fact is, all the news I have for you today
is upsetting. I just learned from the editors of
The Journal of Popular Culture that “The Thugs of
Old Comics” was never published by them, even though
they sent me a note of acceptance back in the fall
of 1976. The poem was to be published, or so I thought,
during my year out of the country. It occurred to me
the other day that I never did receive a copy of
the issue the poem appeared in, so I wrote to ask


about getting one. No one there has any record of
receiving or accepting the poem, I am told, and, of course,
it never did appear.

It is the sort of half-assedness I’ve come to expect
from The Popular Culture Association; which seems to
screw everything up, from conferences to subscriptions.
Initially, I was ticked at the magazine editors,
as you can imagine, but I have come to think the
foul-up may be to my advantage because the poem is,
I think, a good one that better magazines might be
interested in. Anyway, I do want you and Joey to
know that I have told the JPC I will publish
the poem elsewhere – called to this, actually –
and the editor I spoke with – Pat Browne –
sheepishly agreed concurred with my decision to do so.

I therefore enclose a copy of the poem. It would
perhaps go well with the “pop” material which
Nims has accepted. Or maybe, do you think, at
The New Yorker? Whatever Joey decides to do with
it, I will be ok, I’m sure. He knows best, and he
has just proved it again by working the recent
combination with Nims!

Do you recall your suggestion that the word “beat”
in my earlier version of the poem might be changed to “beating”?
I did make that change, as you see, but I am still a bit
worried that the “-ing’s” pile up at the end of the poem.
If you think not, I’m happy. —And speaking of the end,
here I am at the bottom of the pages – so I’ll stop.

Love, Wes


At first the job is a cinch like
they said. They manage to get the bank teller
a couple of times in the head and blow the vault door so high
it never comes down. Money bags line the shelves
inside like groceries. They are rich, richer
than they can believe. Above his purple suit the boss
is grinning half outside of his face.
Two goons are taking the dough in their arms
like their first women. For a minute nobody sees
the little thug with the beanie is sweating drops
the size of hot dogs and pointing
straight up. There is a blue man flying
down through the skylight and landing with his arms
crossed. They exhale their astonishment
into small balloons. “What the,” they say,
“What the,” watching their bullets drop
off his chest over and over. Soon he begins to talk
about the fight against evil, beating them half to death
with his fists. Soon they are picking themselves up
from the floor of the prison. Out the window Superman
is just clearing a tall building and couldn’t care less
when they shout his name through the bars. “We’re trapped!
We got no chance!” they say, tightening their teeth,

thinking, like you, how it always gets down
to the same old shit: no fun, no dough,
no power to rise out of their bodies.

– Wesley McNair

A note from McNair about this letter: Don made his suggestion about “The Thugs of Old Comics” in person at his farmhouse. As it turned out, the poem was never published by Poetry or any other magazine, so I published it myself in my first book, where it appears in the above form. Later, I shortened some of its lines, as I did with “Hair on Television,” so they would fit into the normal 55-character line limit of publishers (in particular my later publisher, David R. Godine) and therefore would not have to be broken. This became a standard practice for me whenever I wrote a poem, using the 55 character line to shape my sense of the poem’s turns and vocal intonation. Here are the two poems as they appear on the 55-character grid in Lovers of the Lost :

Read The Thugs of Old Comics

Read Hair on Television