Book Review: A Hard Childhood, And Then a Poet’s Life; Wesley McNair's Road Began in Claremont
The poet Wesley McNair’s teen years fell during the 1950s, when popular culture presented American family life as a dreamland of lovely moms who stayed home baking pies and sage, reliable dads who dispensed wisdom from behind the evening paper.
For McNair, the disconnect between the televised art and his real life, on his family’s small farm in Claremont, was deep and wide, perhaps unbridgeable. While Ward and June Cleaver and their sons were gathered around the dinner table, McNair suffered constant verbal and physical abuse.
And in a way, he’s grateful for it. In a recently released memoir, The Words I Chose, McNair writes about how his troubled childhood led him to poetry. The memoir is set almost entirely in the Upper Valley. McNair was born in Newport and grew up in Springfield, Vt., and Claremont. He went on to teach high school and college, mainly in New London, and learned of his first publication as a poet while living in Enfield. McNair went on to become a prominent poet, a voice of New England’s working class, and the author or editor of 18 books.
The story he tells in his memoir is introspective, focused tightly on the events that shaped him as a writer. His parents were refugees from Depression-era farm families, and his father Wilbur McNair, a writer and labor organizer, left his wife and three sons when Wesley was 7.
His mother, nee Ruth Willard, grew up in abusive homes in Arkansas and Texas. When her husband ran off with another woman, she vented her anger at her children.
“Whippings were constant, the earliest ones dispensed with a switch, the later and worse ones with yardsticks my mother replaced as she broke them,” McNair writes. These episodes deepened his despair at his father’s departure: Wilbur had been the lenient parent.
His mother eventually remarried, and the new family settled on a rural plot in West Claremont where they started work on a house and opened a plant nursery. His stepfather, Paul Joly, was the sort of disciplinarian Ruth esteemed.
“(D)uring the decade of the happy families on American television, with their laugh tracks and cheeful outcomes, all families put on a good front,” McNair writes. “None of my friends would have guessed my own problems as a teenager at home — for instance, that I faced my stepfather’s belt each time I brought home a report card with a C on it, or that in my first week of ninth grade, I was whipped on three consecutive afternoons for forgetting my lunchbox at school.”
These early passages suggest a Dickensian tale, full of woe and perseverence. But McNair leaves a question hovering over the narrative: How did these experiences make me who I am?
“And what did my father, so quickly gone from my life, contribute to me as a writer? His most obvious contribution was his disappearnce itself, for it showed me once and for all that the world is a broken place, and filled me with the need to mend it.”
McNair’s resilience, as it emerges, is very powerful. He made the most of early mentoring experiences. A summer camp friend and Columbia University student, John Huot, mailed McNair a box of books, and his reading of Faulkner, Hemingway, Cummings and Frost fortified his desire to write.
He went on to what was then still called Keene Teachers College, where he studied literature. He met his future wife, Diane, while washing dishes to pay his bills. Together, they muddled through, raising her two sons from a previous marriage and their own two kids while McNair worked as a teacher — at public schools in Newport and New London, among other places, and at what was then called Colby Junior College — and Diane waited tables.
After trying to write short stories and draw one-panel cartoons, McNair returned to poetry, finding in free verse a form that suited his narrative style, which is at once personal and observant. He broke through in the early 1970s after showing his work to poet and critic Donald Hall. After publishing two collections, McNair was hired to teach poetry writing at the University of Maine at Farmington. They moved to Maine, where they still reside. Paul Joly died years ago and Ruth passed away last year. The rest is epilogue.
The Words I Chose is an absorbing read, but it has a hurried quality, and there are a few curiosities of fact, such as the statement that McNair’s older brother went to work on a farm in “Lyme, Vermont.” I sometimes found myself wishing that McNair had opened his lens a bit wider and let more of the scene into the story. A paragraph of description of the landscape or the social milieu here or there might have helped the reader situate the budding writer in the windy, flat farm fields of West Claremont or the streets of the mill town where he went to school.
His tale also put me in mind of two other New Hampshire stories. The first, Finding the Words, former Dartmouth President James O. Freedman’s memoir, had a similarly cloistered vision. Freedman, who died in 2006, described his experience through the writings of other people, a narrative strategy that made sense for a great scholar, at the expense of finding his own words for his thoughts and feelings.
And the second is from Robert Frost’s New Hampshire, a better poem than any state deserves. Frost wrote in defending the state’s people that “For art’s sake one could almost wish them worse/Rather than better.”
McNair’s book, a memoir of the intertwining of hard times and success in poetry, seems to prove Frost right.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.