January 27, 2013

This poet's life

Wesley McNair's new memoir charts the writer's course from demanding childhood to recognition as a leading poetic voice of his generation and Maine's poet laureate.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Wesley McNair, at home in Mercer, this week releases “The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry.”

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Wesley McNair with his new memoir.

Additional Photos Below


WESLEY McNAIR will read from "The Words I Chose" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Portland Public Library and at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington.

And without an open heart, there would be no poetry. "That's where my poems come from."

McNair was born in 1941 in New Hampshire. According to his account, his parents were not happy. His father, Wilbur, abandoned his family and left his mother at home with three children.

But Ruth didn't stay single long. Three months before her divorce was official, she met McNair's stepfather, a man named Paul. They married in 1952.

With a family reformed, McNair and his siblings yearned for the life they saw on TV in the early 1950s, the perfect Ozzie and Harriet family or the one depicted in "Father Knows Best."

They didn't get it.

His mother and stepfather relocated the family to a farm in Claremont, N.H. With Ruth's approval, Paul told the kids they would earn their keep by completing farm chores.

Instead of wearing a suit and tie like the dads on TV, McNair's stepfather wore T-shirts and shop pants, he writes. Paul worked nights in a machine shop, often waking in the afternoon. Ruth worked the farm, and boys contributed labor in exchange for room and board.

School was not a priority, and discipline was used as a behavioral tool.

Of his stepfather, McNair writes, "love was never part of the contract he announced when he became the father in our family, any more than it was a guiding principal for his own father."

As a teenager, McNair was grounded for one summer for transgressions of minor consequence: He walked home with a girl hand-in-hand, and kissed her. In doing so, he missed a ride from his mother. Later, he left his lunch box at school and faced three days of punishment. Another time, his parents grounded him for eight months.

In 1959, he ran away from home, spending two weeks at a friend's house until he decided to return home one more time. Whatever harmony he achieved was short-lived. Later that year, he left for good.

A gift from a friend at Columbia University gave McNair the courage to find his liberation. In the fall of his senior year of high school, his friend, John Huot, shipped him a heavy box from New York. The box contained "an extraordinary gift" of novels by William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, plays by Arthur Miller and poetry by Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"Poring over these volumes at age seventeen in rural New Hampshire, I got a sense of the modern tradition in America that would otherwise have taken years to acquire," McNair writes in his memoir. "And reading the literary magazine from Columbia that John had included, containing poems he himself had written, I began to imagine I might one day publish by own poetry."

It was, in every respect, a monumental moment.

The books and the stories they told gave McNair the courage to imagine a different life. "What freed me was this gift of a box of books," he says.

The grounding felt less harsh than it might have otherwise, because it afforded him solitary time.

"I could read and read. Looking back now, I can see clearly how it worked. All my friends were out on Saturday night, including my younger brother. But I was home with my books. If poetry can matter to a kid like that, why can't it relate to everybody?"

That question lies at the heart of McNair's mission as Maine's poet laureate.



McNair's goal is to restore the connection between poetry and it audience, which is broken. If he, as a teenager in rural New Hampshire in the 1950s, found purpose in life by reading the words of Frost and Sandburg, why can't a kid in Sanford or Presque Isle find something similar today?

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Additional Photos

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Wesley McNair at home in Mercer with his dogs Gus, left, and Rosie.


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