McNair to Hall: September 25, 1979


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September 25, 1979

Dear Don,

I was very pleased to learn that you like “Hair on Television”.
That damn poem took me an eternity to finish…that is, to almost
finish. You were right to suggest the longer lines in the beginning
of the poem, and the shorter line in the fourth stanza from the end.
I send you the I think finished product.

I’m also enclosing the slightly revised version of “The Thin
Man”. At first I was reluctant to change “yearning”. I of course knew
that the word is often used in the rhymes of popular songs, etc. — that
it is a “corny” word–but I thought, or sensed, that its very corniness
lent a kind of comedy to the thin man’s predicament…rather like
the comedy–the grim humor–that the shopworn word “doomed” provides
in my poem “The Bald Spot” (It peers/ out from hair/ like the face/
of a doomed man…). but I am convinced now that my judgement [sic] was
faulty. The word doesn’t read as I had wanted it to, and besides, along-
side “lonely”, it suggests that the thin man’s problem is romantic,
and it shouldn’t. The replacement word “earnest” connotes a consciousness
that is serious and unaware of irony–the appropriate consciousness
for the thin man, I think. The “lonely”, accenting the seriousness
of the thin man, and perhaps the seriousness with which he takes
himself, helps achieve the sort of comedy I want. And I
like that “earnest” reminds me of accounts of idealistic young men
just beginning their lives (esp. as used with “lonely”), since I want
the thin man to “age” in the course of the poem.

Tomorrow I’ll have decided to scratch the line and start again.
But today I’m sure of it, and of the above reasons for it.

You mentioned a batch of four poems for Joey. How well you
keep track of these things! I am still stuck on “Driving Poem”–how to
write is as a complete sentence. I simply cannot find a satisfactory
alternative to what I have now, though I think you are right that what
I have should be revised. I’m still thinking about “Old Trees”, too,
and an alternative for the “growing o’s” of that poem is even harder
to find, perhaps because I wrote the whole poem around that image,
of which I was so sure…I am not worried about “DP”, only about
“Old Trees”, which I very much wanted to use in my revised book–
which I would very much like to type and ship out. And so I hope
for a solution soon.

Please let me know you responses to the enclosed. I am
glad you have liked these things, and even gladder that you have
managed to write to me about them so quickly after you
received them. Thanks for everything,

P.S. – I have decided to send the revised manuscript to : Harper & Row,
Houghton Mifflin (if they approve of a “sampler” of my poems which
I submitted earlier), Wesleyan and The Walt Whitman Award contest.
I am also beginning to think that since “Hair on Television”,
“The Thin Man” and “The Bald Spot” – all of which contain
humor and have a ^more or less “pop” feel – will introduce the revised
book (along with “for my Father”), the two porno/pop
poems, feel more appropriate now. So I may include them after all!
As I see it now, there are many poems which are like
“The Little Lonely Comic [?]” and “The Characters of Forgotten Dirty Jokes”,
even though they (the other poems) are not dirty. There are the
three I’ve mentioned, especially “Hair on Television,” and there
are others, such as, “The Thugs of Old Comics,” “The
Poetic License,” “Rufus Porter by Himself” and “Thinking
about Carrevale’s Wife.”


On the soap opera the doctor
explains to the young woman with cancer
that each day is beautiful.

Hair lifts from their heads
like clouds, like something to eat.

It is the hair of the married couple
getting in touch with their real feelings for the first time
on the talk show,

the hair of young people on the beach
drinking Cokes and falling in love.

And the man who took laxative and waters his garden
next day with the hose wears the hair

so dark and wavy even his grandchildren are amazed
and the woman who never dreamed tampons
could be so convenient wears it.

For the hair is changing people’s lives.
It is growing like wheat above the faces

of game show contestants opening the doors
of new convertibles, of prominent businessmen opening
their hearts to Christ, and it is growing

straight back from the foreheads of vitamin experts,
detergent and dog food experts helping ordinary housewives discover

how to be healthier, get clothes cleaner and serve
dogs meals they love in the hair.

And over and over on television the housewives,
and the news teams bringing all the news faster
and faster, and the new breed of cops winning the fight
against crime, are smiling, pleased to be at their best,

proud to be among the literally millions of Americans everywhere
who have tried the hair, compared the hair and will never go back
to life before the active, the caring, the successful, the incredible hair.


Once in a mirror
as it folded hair
back from its face

he discovered his eyes
earnest, lonely.
This was the beginning

of his life
inside the body,
of standing deep in the legs

of it,
in its elbowless arms.

And when it walked
he walked,
and when it slept

he dreamed of drowning
under its lakes
of skin.

Oh the thin man
trying to get out
learned of its great

locked breasts,
its seamless chin,
the dead ends

of its hands.
And oh the heavy body
took him

to tables
of food,
and took him down

into the groaning
carnal bed.
The pitiless body took him

to a mirror
which showed
the eyes

in a face
immense and dying,
who he was.

A note from McNair about this letter: The letter moves from typescript to longhand because everyone in the house is in bed and I didn’t want to wake them with my noisy electric typewriter…. The two poems I tell Don I’m “stuck” on, namely “Old Trees” and Driving Poem,” I don’t complete until months later, the first on February 23, 1980, the second, re-conceived as “Trees That Pass Us in Our Cars,” on November 12, 1980. The published versions of these poems are available below, together with other poems I mention in this letter.

Read Old Trees (published version)

Read Trees That Pass Us in Our Cars (published version)

 Read The Bald Spot (published version)

Read Hearing that My Father Died in a Supermarket (published version)

Read The Thugs of Old Comics (published version)

Read The Poetic License (published version)

Read Rufus Porter by Himself (published version)

Read Thinking About Carnevale’s Wife (published version)