We poets donâ€™t have much to say, so you must save your visions for special occasions,â€ remarked prestigious American poet Wesley McNair when I met him last year. He was in news that year for being on the Nominating Jury for Pulitzer Prize in poetry for the second time.
McNair, from New Hampshire, with his tall figure and grey beard made him look like an Asian bard. Because of his New England upbringing, his associations with Robert Lowell, Robert Frost and Donald Hall were unmistakable. As we took a round of the Italian town by Lake Bellagio and Lecko, he pointed to the Alps covered in snow and read out Emily Dickinsonâ€™s poem on the mountain ranges. Dickinson had never seen the Alps in real life, but her metaphors employing Alps were amazingly ingenious.
â€œLandscape mirrors the mind,â€ Wesley observed.
On asking how he got the prestigious position of being on the Nominating Jury of the Pulitzer, he said, â€œWhen you work in a field for long, people start noticing you.â€ Why is Pulitzer given to the American citizens only? Amused by my inquiry, he answered, â€œHavenâ€™t we left the Nobel for you?â€ Over the weeks I entered McNairâ€™s private and creative world and I realised his current status of being a major American voice hadnâ€™t come without much struggle. It dawned upon me that his affinities with his Asian counterparts were alarming and dramatic. McNair was brought up in a tenement house in Newport, New Hampshire and when his father deserted the family, his mother had to work hard, sewing and cutting hair. Later when she remarried a French Canadian, they had to move to country, near Cornish, NH where McNair as a boy had to work on a farm and lead a harsh life.
â€œMy poverty didnâ€™t stop with my boyhood,â€ he said. He married early, his wife brought two children to the marriage, and they had two of their own. McNair had to teach at a school while going to college and was paid $200 above poverty level for a family of six. They were perpetually broke and in debt.
McNairâ€™s life reminded me of the fragile life of a writer on my own subcontinent. Very much like his Asian counterparts, he had to find a strategy to keep the flame of poetry alive. â€œIf you want to become a poet, youâ€™ve got to fight against the academy and never let it make you a company man.â€
McNairâ€™s handling of his impecunious upbringing and fretful efforts to survive in the back pockets of America make him a true democratic poet in a special way. His writing celebrates the hardscrabble life of the ordinary American he grew up with. Thus, poor people driving Cadillacs, tenement dwellers, distracted farmers, disabled, misfits and eccentrics found in the ignored towns of New England populate his creative world. But at the same time he seems to be in rapt dialogue with the mass culture of his times. His long epoch making poem My Brother Running of his brother running away from life towards death has the mass culture of 80â€™s with Ronald Regan, Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Tragedy in the background.
His poem Big Cars might seem very evocative in Nepal at the moment. It shows a Cuban dictator driving one of Americaâ€™s big cars down a boulevard with poor people walking alongside it, trying to reach out for â€˜the great plenty of the New Worldâ€™. The blending of comic and sad remains a recurrent feature of McNairâ€™s poetry. In When Paul Flew Away, he weaves humour into a very sad situation where his brother Paul has to undergo a fatal operation. Here gullible wife imagines Paul pumping his accordion and slowing lifting out of his chair and flying out of the window. The wife finds it funny and laughs till she realises Paul has flown far away to vanish in the clouds forever.
By employing the idiosyncrasies of ordinary characters of his region against the great global culture of the US, McNair creates compassion for their ordinary lives and in the process honours the ordinary selves of his readers. â€œAs a poet,â€ he says in one of his recent interviews, â€œmay be Iâ€™m right back where I was at 15 â€” part of me in the farmhouse, and the other part in the culture on Everywhere, USA.â€
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)