Ten years or so ago, before William Hathaway had moved from Surry to Pennsylvania for the purpose of outdistancing various Maine-centric aggravations, including winter and isolation, he and I were walking along the riverfront in Bangor talking about poetry and its discontents. What the worldwide web had done to its physical presence. Whether there is any such thing as “great poetry.” Whether that question even matters. Whether the young guys who asked him to submit poems for their website saw the same things I saw when they read it. And where, in the hell, decades along, did we fit in with whatever was going on?

“We’re the gray eminences now, you know,” he said. “We’re the ones they come to for answers to questions like this.”

This seemed funny to me. He was the eminence, not me. His father, Cornell University professor Baxter Hathaway, was one of the pioneers in the 1940s and ’50s of the academic writing program as we know it. Young “Kit” had a taste for poetry from the time he was a teenager, and made his own twisting, turning, turbulent way through the creative writing industry with stops as a student in the iconic Iowa writers workshop, as program director at Louisiana State University, and in teaching stints at Cornell, Union College, Southampton College, the University of Maine and finally Gettysburg College. Along the way dozens of high-profile literary journals and anthologies published his poems; “Dawn Chorus” is his 10th collection. The 20th century American literary circuits felt his presence.

But combing through what the “gray eminences” actually know revealed: not much that matters to anybody nowadays. What you are left with is the poetry. What you do with it is up to you. Those circumstances and others have left the twilight of a raucous career at a strange remove.

The poetry speaks for itself. In its weirdly intricate syntax. In its self-contradictions that are so true to life they should be coming through as paradoxes, but are so uncomfortable they’re not. In its reverence and distrust for nature, human and otherwise. In its expansive moral vision and embrace of squalor. In its vein-opening humor. “From Blue Hill Mountain” begins:

“Without recourse to oxygen,” I replied

to the new elite who’d just congratulated me

for “finally making it” to a bare granite

summit. Snark for snark, as snot now is said.

To suck the smazy vista into his tablet,

he saluted the sky as if gesticulating

to a Great Spirit in mute beseechment.

He’d strode up past me halfway up

the zig-zag trail, where I’d paused to peer

at a red eft curled in stiff half-ellipse

atop beech leaf detritus …

and leaning down in mid-pace he’d waved

his phone across the eft to add it

to a cloud where eternal forms reside.

“Smazy.” Not enough space on this newspaper page to detail the extraordinary deftness of this language. The narrator goes on to ruminate on the “blood-wearied Brahmins” who came to write poetry in Hancock County before him, “now long gone,” and then on his own little place, where:

… I wrote sober verses

in lonely woods about the woods

I might as well have tacked to trees

but for a hesitancy to make litter.

And then hesitates to strike up any friendly chatter with the becellphoned snot, “while he thumbed a world turned to scenery / off to other worlds in thin boxes / not here, or there, or anywhere. Nowhere / to go but down, I turned then to go there.”

And here we are. The house in the woods in Surry began to feel remote, not just from Blue Hill but from whatever is going on in the poetry world now, several decades after the quality and force of the language were assigned permanent back seats to sociopolitical and moral prescriptions. “Who are we, where are we,” to bring Henry David Thoreau into this, even though, despite numerous sharp-toned poems on spiders, birds, trees, flowers and snakes, updates on transcendentalism are targets of Hathaway’s critique. Wherever we are, it’s a wilderness of spirit-withering commercialism that includes robbery by insurance company, supply-side drivel, socialist drivel, the industrialization of poetry, and the inevitable, pathetic snobbery that goes with it even in outback Maine.

Hathaway left the lonely woods for Pennsylvania, where it turns out the Civil War is still smoldering. “Common Wintercress at Gettysburg” opens: “In April the battlefield meadows / are smeared with mustard.”

“Smeared.” I love this poetry. It’s as if Wallace Stevens and Gregory Corso got William Meredith down and dared him to set something on fire. “Dawn Chorus” takes you backwards on the whole trip, from newer poems through “The Right No” (2012), “Sightseer” (2000) and all the way to “True Confessions & False Romances” (1972).

“Dawn Chorus” is available through online book sellers. Hathaway’s website is William Hathaway, Poet (www.williamhathawaypoet.com).

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.