It’s appropriate that the final stop on Wesley McNair’s “Last Hurrah” tour as Maine poet laureate is the Chebeague Island Library in Casco Bay on Dec. 6. As Maine’s poetry ambassador, McNair has tried to remove the stuffiness that sometimes surrounds poetry and put it in the hands of everyday people.

For five years, McNair has visited cities and towns across Maine – 175 in all – to read poems he’s written as well as works by others, focusing on the imperfection of life and celebrating its joys and sorrows. But Chebeague is special. “It’s the only town in Maine, or the only place in Maine, where there is a weekly poetry group, not to write poetry, but to appreciate it,” said McNair, a retired university professor from Mercer.

“That’s why I’ve spent the last nearly five years doing the things I do,” he said. “One of the encouraging things I’ve discovered is how much the people of Maine seem to really like poems and poetry, especially poems that come out of life experiences and help us have insight and help us understand our lives and live them more truly.”

As poet laureate, McNair has used his post to improve the lives of Mainers by introducing them to and reminding them of the reward of a few well-chosen words, smartly arranged in lines and conveying observations and commentary with emotion and humor. He has stumped for poetry like a politician, speaking at any library, school or grange hall where he’s invited, and at agricultural fairs and churches. He introduced a weekly poetry column in newspapers around Maine, edited two anthologies of poems and rescued Maine’s illustrious poets of the past – Longfellow, Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson – from what he calls their “wax museum” status by reading their poems and putting their lives in context.

His five-year term ends this winter.

McNair is a regular guy, said Chebeague library director Deborah A. Bowman. He could be anybody’s father or grandfather, with his cajoling demeanor and friendly white beard. He smiles a lot, likes to laugh and never comes across as smarter than the person he’s talking with, Bowman said.

“When he comes to Chebeague, he’s a Chebeaguer,” she said. “He will sit and talk with anybody, and he gives you his full attention. His poetry is so Maine, it’s so local.”

She observed the depth of McNair’s humility when he shared a work-in-progress with his island friends. He wanted their feedback. Hearing him read unfinished pieces and making edits on the fly “was like watching someone paint,” Bowman said.

Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, said McNair’s success as poet laureate is communication. McNair is a good listener and understands people’s motivations and inspirations. Those attributes make him a good poet, Bodwell said.

“Wes’ poetry has always eschewed obscurity in favor of accessibility. He has sought to say difficult things in simple ways,” Bodwell said. “As the poet laureate, Wes has followed this same instinct of communication and walked a line to both honor poets and poetry, and to bring poetry to people as a sort of conversation in which they feel included.”

Last May, McNair read from the pulpit of a Unitarian church in Sangerville, framed by a mural that featured Plato, Moses and Jesus Christ. McNair noted the name of the mural: “Christianity Triumphant.”

“Standing in front of it while I read poems in my high pulpit, I felt a little triumphant, too,” he said.

– Bob Keyes

Read all of our profiles of Mainers to be thankful for in 2015.

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