For more than 25 years, Wesley McNair of Mercer has been making poetry out of the seemingly banal, oddly pathetic and, at times, wacky moments of backwater rural life.
Those unfamiliar with his award-winning, sharply crafted poems have the opportunity to get a sweeping overview in his newly released book, “Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems,” (Godine, 2010).
On the other hand, readers who have tracked the contributions McNair has made to the literary heritage of Maine and beyond will appreciate having some of the best examples of his poetic vision all in one place.
Here in this new collection are poems that capture the darker aspects of modern culture, viewed through the often-thwarted destinies of ordinary people who populate the dying mill towns and farmland of northern New England. We also get snapshots of his own life.
The book includes 10 new and 75 previously published poems drawn from earlier books, including “The Town of No,” “My Brother Running,” “Talking in the Dark,” “Fire” and “The Ghosts of You and Me.”
“Poets tend to publish books like this, that contain a selection of earlier work,” McNair said recently as he explained the literary necessity behind releasing a collection that harbors fewer than a dozen new poems.
“It’s like a one-person retrospective. You’re getting an aerial view or summary of the work. … It’s not just a body of work but a vision that emerges from it. … Billy Collins once said that kind of volume measures you,” McNair said, referring to the former two-term U.S. poet laureate.
“You’re not ready for it until you’ve published a few volumes,” he added.
McNair is professor emeritus and writer in residence at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he directed the creative writing program until his retirement in 2004.
He dedicates his new book “for Diane,” his wife of 47 years. Together, they shared the uphill struggle of raising four kids while scraping out a livelihood, particularly during their early years of marriage when McNair was just starting out, teaching high school English in New Hampshire.
“My wife, Diane, brought a couple of kids into our marriage, and we had two more. Life got going before poetry itself got going. I wanted to write more than I had time to write. I felt outside the system and myself,” he said.
Three new poems in “Lovers of the Lost” feature his wife. One, titled “Love Story,” zooms in on a family event that occurred years ago, when he and Diane tried to jump-start their old compact car, parked facing downhill, “because /the battery went dead the day before,” he writes.
Their four kids and the dog pile into the back seat. Arguments ensue. He pushes the car; she keeps popping the clutch. The poem ends with an epiphany:
“What was the moment
in the midst of our despair
when the engine suddenly caught
and you roared away and came back
for me, and I got in by the soda can
on the floor and the dog now sitting
between us on the emergency brake,
the whole family smiling
as the trees broke apart faster and faster
above our heads – what, but a blessing?”
Not every poet could turn that humble family crisis into a metaphor for a marriage that lurched bravely forward against all odds. But McNair, seeing through the lens of time, wisdom and a long marriage, does so in his ironically humorous way – the poem’s broken phrasing somehow mending, breaking and mending again.
“I have come to the conclusion that poets are menders of broken things,” he said, reflecting on his early life.
“I came from a broken home, a broken family – difficulties throughout my childhood. I worked on some of the last dairy farms in the Connecticut Valley in New Hampshire and witnessed the broken agriculture of northern New England, when I came of age in the ’60s. … When going through that, I might have wished for another kind of life. Now I feel blessed.
“Every poem is a love poem,” he added. “These moments of connection with others … . The very imperfections have marvelous possibilities.”
It would be difficult to find a published Maine poet who has worked as diligently, wisely and successfully on his poetic career as has McNair.
For 27 years, he has reaped heaps of awards and recognition since his first chapbook of poems, “The Faces of Americans of 1853,” was published in 1983.
Given the bad start destiny bestowed upon him as a child, or as he described it, “being born and raised on the other side of the tracks” in Newton, N.H., his literary accomplishments are even more remarkable, namely, the 18 published books he has written or edited, including nine collections of poetry. His work has appeared in more than 50 anthologies and textbooks.
McNair, sometimes referred to as Maine’s foremost anthologist, has compiled and edited such books as “The Quotable Moose: A Contemporary Maine Reader” (1994) and “Contemporary Maine Fiction” (2005). His new and forthcoming anthology is “Maine in Four Seasons: 20 Poets Celebrate the Turning Year” (Down East Books, June 2010).
Added to all that is a string of fellowships, awards and prizes, such as the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry (“Fire”), and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, also awarded to Robert Frost, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, May Sarton, Arthur Miller and others.
He has served four times on the nominating jury for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. And he was the 2006 recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship of $50,000, awarded to 50 of “America’s finest living artists.”
Also, his poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio morning spot “Writer’s Almanac.” His new poem, “For My Wife,” is scheduled to be read on that show at 9 a.m. today. To hear it, go to: writersalmanac.publicradio.org/ and click on Archive.
“Given these developments, as you can imagine, I have made big points with Diane,” he said.
Despite his high-profile track record, his poetry arose out of lowly, anonymous circumstances.
“I’m an autodidact,” he said of his self-taught poetic style. “I learned to do it by reading other poets and just going into a room and trying and failing.”
At the age of 68, a time when many writers might have run out of steam or, for that matter, breath, McNair keeps coming up with surprises.
“I take heart from the fact I’m still writing, and my feeling and commitment to it deepens with every passing month or year. What you really want, especially as you get older, is to leave something behind. You want to feel it added up to something,” he said.
Leaving something behind has been made a whole lot easier now that he is the featured poet in a brand-new, innovative, online archival project created by Colby College Special Collections, part of the library system of the Waterville college.
“We have taken selected images and audio from the Wesley McNair Papers to demonstrate – for students, teachers, anyone interested in poetry – how one poet creates his poems,” said special collections director Patricia Burdick.
“We gather more every year. He is busy,” she said.
Burdick spearheaded the project after extensive discussions with McNair. The online collection, developed in collaboration with Colby’s information and technology services, is an outgrowth of his work as guest professor at Colby.
Furthermore, in 2006, the college bought his core collection of literary papers, including countless drafts of poems, articles, extensive correspondence with literary peers and photos.
Although the site will not be complete until the end of this month, it is now accessible to browsers. Samples of his selected poems, taken from “Lovers of the Lost,” include multiple draft versions of each poem transcribed from his handwritten notes and audios of McNair reading his finished work.
For a site preview, go to: http/web.colby.edu/specialcollections/ and click on Wesley McNair Papers.
“His materials lend themselves to this type of project because we have the poem-in-progress,” Burdick explained. “Also, the poems focus on Maine-New England life and culture [which] lends interest to students and teachers in this state.
“The advantage of Colby’s geographic proximity to Wes’ home, the evident quality of Wes’ work, his stature in the literary field and the comprehensive nature of his collection were important factors to consider,” Burdick said.
His papers also bridge other major holdings in Colby’s special collections, she said, such as the Edwin Arlington Robinson Collection. McNair had read Robinson’s work in his early years, and like Robinson (1869-1935), who was raised in Gardiner, his poetry focuses on northern New England, she said.
But, despite the sizable recognition and having a body of work safely tucked under the wing of a well-endowed college, McNair still suffers from writer’s angst.
“For me, it’s less about celebrity than it is about lasting, being able to last,” he said, referring to the way poems can quickly fade from collective memory.
“It’s nice to have awards, literary prizes. The woods are full of people who got those things, and it didn’t, in the end, add up. It’s a sobering thing to think about. … You have to wear these awards lightly. It’s your job to disbelieve and remain discontent and to avoid silly smugness that comes from a triumph.”
His advice for himself and other poets:
“Be true to what poetry comes from. … the pain, wishes and longing. It doesn’t mean you just write poems about despair. Even poems that praise and celebrate come from those things.
“Poetry wants you to be who you are. It wants you to be your natural and whole self, free from compartmentalizing and denying,” he said.
Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, gardener and freelance writer who lives in Freedom.