April 2, 1969

Dear Fiona:

I hope it hasn’t been a mistake to come here. As an Irishman, I feel so out of place in Illinois. Even my long-lost cousin, Mr. Haney, has changed the spelling of our name, and seems somewhat adrift himself. He has recently sold Haney Farm to a pair of city people, and it disturbs me that my cousin’s connection with the land has all but ceased.

- - -

May 4

What an expensive place America is, Fiona. Mr. Haney has been selling me — at a loss, I’m assured — the essentials I need for my daily life. Who would think that an ordinary No. 2 pencil would run five dollars? If you notice a new, less wordy style in my poems, you’ll know exactly what to attribute it to.

- - -

May 13

Discussed Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” with Doris and Fred Ziffel today. Fred had some unexpected insights on “Hero and Leander.” I’m grateful to both Ziffels for a better understanding of the works from an animal husbandry perspective.

- - -

May 29

I have an admirer here, can you believe it? Her name is Mrs. Douglas, the woman who along with her husband bought Haney Farm. She’s very nice, and asked me to sign her well-thumbed copy of “Death of a Naturalist.” She describes my poems as having “an abrupt tactile vocabulary of moisture, stickiness, and fullness.”

Either she genuinely enjoys my writing, or she was making a pass at me.

- - -

June 14

Had a lovely supper at the Shady Rest Hotel in nearby Petticoat Junction with Elizabeth Bishop.

- - -

July 1

Mr. Haney suggested I submit some of my latest poems to a company searching for new talent, the American Fine Poetry Foundation. Publication in America would be thrill enough, but there is a chance to win $20,000 as well. Those kinds of earnings would be fortunate — I’d be able to get out of debt with Mr. Haney.

- - -

August 30

I’ve been running a little poetry clinic this summer in the village. It’s been well attended. My latest work, inspired by a brave emigrant ancestor, has been greeted enthusiastically by the class. I hope you won’t mind if I share it with you.

Plowing through the Past

My great-grandfather could plow the rich loam
of the Land of Lincoln
faster than any two men.
Then the winds would come and blow
the earth away but for the dirt
under his fingernails
and my forebear would lie on the bed,
as fallow as a field gleaned in October by
Arnold the Pig.

It goes on, Fiona — I hope the parallels to Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” aren’t too belabored.

- - -

October 30

Now that the weather’s turned chilly, I find myself longing for the peat fires of home. They have nothing at all like it here; the closest I’ve come is spreading peat moss amongst the Ziffel’s flower beds, in a desperate effort to earn a few dollars. I sense Mr. Haney is growing restless with the amount I owe him. I suppose even great men have their limits.

By the way, peat moss is not at all combustible. I’ve tried, and only made a mess of the fireplace.

- - -

December 22

Wonderful news. One of the poems I submitted to the AFPF will be included in their new collection of the best poetry in this country. All I have to do is buy a copy. Perhaps Mr. Haney will consider lending me the $125 I need to make this handsome leather-bound volume a treasured part of my personal library.

- - -

January 15

It snowed today, reminding me of Robert Frost’s lovely poem about the woods. Oliver Douglas told me he heard Frost speak while a student at Harvard, and that Frost professed he hated snow, especially shoveling it. He hated the salt used on the roads to melt it, as it affected the finish of his cars’ paint. He was mad about keeping his cars perfectly spotless, and never owned a horse in his life. Frost told Douglas that horses frightened him, “always wanting sugar, never enough sugar.”

- - -

March 23

Mr. Haney let it drop that he actually owns the American Fine Poetry Foundation! And that I’ve won the $20,000 first prize!

Luckily for me, the money I won comes to precisely what I owe him.

I can’t go on using my cousin as a patron, though. It’s time to return to my beloved Derry, to witness firsthand the excitements and transformations poetic activity promotes, as I have here in this charming American hamlet.

Mr. Haney even wants me to open an Irish Fine Poetry Foundation, but I’m not so sure. As the owner of the franchise he’ll naturally need to receive what he calls a cut of the take.

Anyway, can you imagine winning big money from a poetry prize?