A Poetry Immersion
Wes McNair, Maine’s fourth poet laureate, is on a mission to place poetry back into everyday life.
By Douglas Rooks
Photograph by Benjamin Magro
In the year since he was named Maine’s poet laureate, Wes McNair has become a highly visible ambassador for the state’s poets, past and present. Last fall, he read his poetry on the Washington Mall, one of just five state laureates to be chosen for that distinction. His numerous appearances in Maine and New England are an indication of the seriousness with which Maine’s poet laureate approaches his job, which runs for a five-year term.
McNair is on a mission to return poetry to a place in public and everyday life — an art not practiced in obscurity, but read and heard by ordinary people in every part of Maine. “We want to establish the edges of this universe of poetry in Maine,” McNair says. “I believe we’re going to find that it’s far larger than we thought.”
McNair has launched a weekly feature in newspapers across the state called “Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry,” spotlighting short poems by contemporary and classic writers. Next is a series of gatherings and reading across Maine called the Poetry Express. The poetry “train” started in July in Fort Kent and Houlton, and by fall will chug through a dozen town meetings all over the state, with stops including Swan’s Island, Eastport, Stonington, Appleton, Waterville, Bath, Portland, and York. Rather than literary events, McNair sees them as opportunities “to break down the barriers that now exist between poetry and the people.” Meanwhile, he is still producing new poetry and prose. His latest book, due out in August, is The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry (Carnegie Mellon).
The founder of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) and the author of eight poetry and three essay collections, McNair, 69, is renowned for his ability to balance technical sophistication with a direct approach to language, drawing readers into his verse and audiences to his readings seemingly effortlessly. “He is the perfect poet laureate,” says Stuart Kestenbaum, director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle and a poet himself. “There isn’t anyone who knows more about Maine writing, or talks about it better.”
McNair insists that poetry is not a frill, but essential to life. He believes that the same force drives both writer and reader — the need to reconnect to one’s personal past, not just to create meaning, but to understand. “A memory is an experience that has not yet been fully lived and is waiting for the poet to return and discover its meaning,” he says, elaborating a thought from the poet Jorie Graham.
His own poems often reflect his childhood, growing up poor in New Hampshire’s Connecticut River Valley. His father, a union organizer, was often absent and eventually abandoned the family, leaving McNair’s mother struggling to raise three sons on her own. He says now that “I experienced the kind of dislocation and pain that a lot of writers feel,” yet “though I wouldn’t recommend these experiences to anyone, I see them as a kind of gift, in that they ushered me into my life as a poet.”
McNair was teaching high school English and seemingly getting nowhere with his writing when he met the man who would become his mentor, Donald Hall, the nationally known poet and essayist and former U.S. poet laureate. Two of McNair’s students showed some of their professor’s poems to Hall, who was so impressed he sent McNair a note that began, “I am dazzled by your poems.” A friendship and collaboration was born.
“When I met him, Wes was depressed about his work,” remembers Hall, 81, who still lives on the farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire, that he immortalized in his memoir, String Too Short to be Saved. “He had many poems rejected and had stopped writing poetry for a time.” The two exchanged letters almost daily, even when McNair was teaching at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, and lived just a few miles away from Hall. (The letters between the two poets will soon be available online as part of an unusual collaboration with the library at Colby College in Waterville, where McNair was a visiting professor from 1999 to 2004.)
Since joining the faculty at UMF in 1987, McNair has worked to attract young writing talent to Maine, and he has shared his love of poetry not only with students and colleagues, but also with his Mercer neighbors and communities throughout Maine and New Hampshire.
They, in turn, have inspired him. To establish the spoken rhythms of his Maine poems, he draws from the distinctive rural dialects of two of his neighbors in his adopted hometown of Mercer, a small rural community about ten miles east of Farmington. Shopkeeper Ethlyn Perkins, he says, speaks “in a slow plaintive way. There’s a long sigh, almost a keening, with an upward inflection at the end.” Francis Fenton, an orchardist, speaks “at a high speed, almost stuttering, punctuated by repetitions that create a cadence.” These tensions provide dramatic contrast and, when a story’s being told, help create suspense.
McNair is most productive in the early morning, before anyone else is up, when he can command the kitchen table without interruption. He typically works for a couple of hours, has breakfast with his wife, Diane, then takes the family dogs, Rosie and Gus, for a walk through an abandoned subdivision with streets but no houses. Beyond are woods roads and a bog. “The dogs fetch sticks, get in the water, and have a great time,” he says.
The walks are integral to his work routine. “You have to take the time to examine what you’ve done, work out the problems you’ve created,” he says.
At readings, Wes McNair seems to shuffle to the microphone and can appear almost detached from the poems he’s about to discuss and read. But his voice, distinctive, with long-drawn syllables and with surprising rises and falls, proves to be the perfect medium for connecting with both poetry fans and those who came because they were merely curious. Typically over the course of an evening, there are waves of laughter and applause; no one leaves.
McNair is adept with audiences in part because he takes the time to set up the poems he’s about to read. “People who have never read poetry, or this particular poem, are often put off when they’re asked to take it all in, all at once,” Kestenbaum says. “He’s very careful and patient with listeners.”
The same qualities that can hold audiences spellbound were evident during McNair’s many years as a professor at UMF, according to his co-director in the Creative Writing Program, Patricia O’Donnell. “The first time I met Wes, when we’d both been appointed, was the only time I ever saw him wear a suit and tie,” she says. “We soon realized that wasn’t who he was.”
No one was more involved with students, or more passionate about their poetry, than Wes NcNair, O’Donnell recalls. “He had a great warmth toward individual students, especially students he felt were struggling in some way.” But his enthusiasm for student work was not uncritical. When a student failed to develop a poem McNair thought had promise, O’Donnell says, “it seemed as if he suffered a great grief, this huge sadness, at the failure of the poem.”
Because it embodies more than two hundred published poems, numerous essays, and addresses to numerous gatherings, McNair’s collected works are difficult to characterize without allowing exceptions, but his major themes of rural life in Maine and New Hampshire, his dedication to the humblest of the people who live here, and his sensitivity to the landscape in all its seasons are prominent throughout.
Most of his early work consists of short lyrics, many of which manage to tell a story in a few lines, such as the frequently anthologized “The Last Time Shorty Towers Fetched the Cows,” where the drunken Shorty falls to his death from a roof while imagining he’s out in the pasture. He began a new phase in his work with the long poem “My Brother Running,” which also became the title poem of a 1993 collection. It’s a complex meditation on family history and public events of the 1980s, marked by the vacancy of the Reagan years and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The poem is held together by the character of McNair’s younger brother, who “never stops running,” in the poet’s words, until he collapses and dies not long after he shared “family secrets” that form the unspoken backdrop of this dark, thrilling, twenty-eight-page poem. “It cost me five years of my life,” McNair said, not long after finishing it.
It is notoriously difficult to keep up the dramatic level of a long poem, but McNair does, says his long-time publisher David Godine, who admits he was skeptical of McNair’s ability to carry it off and now cites “My Brother Running” as his favorite of the poet’s work. McNair, he says, embodies “the laconic idiom of New England” in a new way. “What I like is the specificity of the poems. It seems like something that really happened to someone who really existed. Wes allows you to reach your own conclusions and draw your own lessons, even when a sermon might be appropriate.”
McNair fulfilled a childhood fantasy in the 1990s by acquiring a camp on Drury Pond in Temple, one of Maine’s smaller “great ponds” that has furnished the backdrop for many lyrics. In “The Life,” McNair begins with the wavering reflections we’ve all seen in water a thousand times, and finds something new: “the firs and pines / are opening limb by limb. / See how they grow / straight down / again, trembling / in their second life.”
His friend, Bob Kimber, who also summers and writes on Drury Pond, sees McNair as a fellow perfectionist, someone with “a lunatic attention to detail. We enjoy talking about points large and small, but nothing is really too small to consider.”
While politics and public life may seem far below the surface of a typical McNair poem, his convictions emerge from careful reading. He finds beauty in an elderly mother washing the hair of her middle-aged bachelor son (“Making Things Clean”). He knows the struggle to keep a working car on the road (“Old Cadillacs”). It is not the powerful and the eminent who matter most to this poet, but the neighbors and families who are his constant subject.
He also embraces all available means of spreading the word about poetry. He welcomes the online era as a way to expand access to poetry of all kinds, noting that the Poetry Foundation’s Web site gets “hundreds of thousands of hits.”
Yet he also argues for poetry as creating depth and dimension in the lives of communities and individuals. “Poetry is opposed to the virtual space of the Internet,” he says. “It takes us away from the left brain, high-tech world and asks us to be still. Poetry places us in our own body, our intuitive life. It’s the most profound life we have.”
At an age where most poets are content with receiving honors, McNair thrives on his daily writing discipline. Any suggestion that he’s “done” with poetry is dispelled by his current fixation, what he calls “the Ozark poems,” based on the rediscovery of a Missouri branch of his family that he began exploring at a reunion last June. The poems explore themes — such as a fantasy of alien abduction — that are entirely new in his work.
Moreover, the poems he’s written since his retirement from teaching a few years ago are “the best work he’s ever done,” Donald Hall says. “As he moved from the short poems he mastered earlier, the magnitude of his performance has grown. Poets tend not to do their best work in their sixties. Wes is the exception.”
Douglas Rooks is a veteran journalist who has covered Maine issues for twenty-five years, writing for a variety of state and national publications. He lives in West Gardiner.
“Where I Live”
You will come into an antique town
Whose houses move apart
As if you’d interrupted
A private discussion. This is the place
You must pass through to get there.
Imagining lives tucked in
Like china plates, continue driving.
Beyond the landscaped streets,
Beyond the last colonial gas station
And unsolved by zoning,
Is a road. It will take you
To old farmhouses and trees
With car-tire swings.
Signs will announce hairdressing
The timothy grass will run beside you
all the way to where I live.
“Where I live” from Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems by Wesley McNair. Reprinted by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Copyright © by Wesley McNair.