Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Godine Poets at the University of the South

by Wesley McNair ~ February 18, 2010 ~

Today, my friend Donald Hall is to read his poems as the recipient of The Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, and I’ve flown down with my wife Diane to introduce him. But just after our arrival, we get some bad news. Don’s friend Linda tells us he’s been sick all night with the grippe. Now everyone is worried he won’t be able to give his reading after all, particularly George Core, the editor of The Sewanee Review, who has invited us all to the University of the South for the event. George asks me to arrange a fall-back group reading of Don’s poems in case he isn’t available.

But never mind. As I unlock my door at the Inn, a bedraggled Don comes out of his room wearing dress pants and a freshly laundered shirt. Could I button the top button of his shirt? he wants to know. “Linda can’t do it,“ he says. “Now she’s feeling sick.”

They both manage to appear at Convocation Hall an hour later, and after a large crowd fills the auditorium, George starts the show, introducing the University president, Joel Cunningham, who gives Don his check. Then George calls me up to introduce Don.

What could I say about him that hasn’t already been said in a thousand introductions? I choose to tell the audience about Don’s help to me as a mentor, quoting his letters from the late 70s and early 80s about the poems I sent him.

One of the letters I quote questions my use in a poem of the word “yearning.” “Can’t you hear Bing Crosby sing it?” Don asks. “It’s Tin Pan Alley. And the word reminds me of the most prosperous poet ever to emerge from Tin Pan Alley . . . I mean Rod McKuen.” In another letter, he recommends the poetic practice of waiting: “hold poems back for a long time before sending them to a friend, because a poem “has a way of changing on its own, before anybody else’s words get into it.” Later, after seeing an extensive and self-adoring biographical note I had sent to Poetry Magazine to accompany two poems I published there, Don writes: “I think it is wise not to load on the fellowships and academic appointments. Try something that is quite reticent, non-academic and non-‘successful,’ like, ‘Wesley McNair lives in New Hampshire, where he raises goats with eyes in the middle of their foreheads.’ ”

Throughout the period, I tell my listeners, Don encouraged me about my first book of poems in progress. “Keep getting better, and improve the manuscript every time it comes back, and you will win through,” one letter remarks. Another adds, “Continue to change it. Make it the best book possible.” I explain that when my collection was at last accepted by the University of Missouri Press for its Devins Award, Don was as excited as I was. “Wes,” he said, “I could kiss you.”

I conclude my introduction by saying that today, on the occasion of Donald Hall’s prestigious award, I could kiss him. As our paths cross, he walking to the table where he is to read, I on my way back to my seat, I do kiss him.

Then Don begins, the old lion roaring a loud roar despite the residue of illness he still carries. As he reads to the rapt crowd, a table lamp illuminates his face as well as the books he holds in his hand. His first poem is a new pantoum about the horrors of 9/11. He goes on to a mixture of earlier pieces, one an elegy for farm horses, another about the suicide wish of a respected and apparently wholesome town elder, others about the long illness and death of Jane Kenyon. Above him hover portraits of Episcopal clergy from the early history of the university, wearing their vestments and expressions of devotion. At his table below the poet Donald Hall continues on, his illuminated face ragged with beard, bringing news from the broken world.

[Wesley McNair’s brand-new volume of poems, Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems, is very nearly available from Godine.]

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