July 2, 1992
We’re back from Maine, after much turmoil—and the apartment here having finally been painted in our absence, turmoil is what we’re still in. Bit by bit, things are getting back into place, but the books and records that made the whole prospect such a nightmare are still mostly in boxes and dozens of shopping bags. The thing about apartment living that maddens us is having no attic or cellar to stow things in. Well. That situation, in a manner of speaking, seems to be about to change. Part of the turmoil just now has to do with what Hal and I have just done: WE HAVE BOUGHT A HOUSE! More precisely, we’ve made an offer and it has been accepted, but of course there turn out to be some hitches, having to do with zoning and variances, which a lawyer is dealing with (we hope) at this very moment. [ . . . ]
In the meantime, there has been quite a lot of excitement. Over a month ago now—though for some reason it doesn’t seem all that long—I caught a bus up to Portland for the Bowdoin commencement, where I did have a perfectly delightful time. That was largely because of L & J’s [brother Larry and his wife Jeanne] having paved the way, so to speak (actually, the honorary degree was a total surprise to them). And anyhow there seem to be an unusual number of pleasant people on that campus and in the town. During the procession across the campus, a faculty member who teaches ornithology turned to me and said, "Hear that? Rose-breasted grosbeak singing up there." (You all know—a robin with a cold.) It was that kind of atmosphere. The other honorees turned out to be especially congenial (a Maine painter, Katherine Porter; Franklyn Jenifer, who is president of Howard University; and James Michener, the novelist, who is eighty-five but as sharp as he turned out to be friendly). We all had a fine time at lunch after the degree-giving was over. The weather was glorious though unseasonably warm. Lilacs were in bloom. Bobolinks were singing in the meadow. The next day turned cold and rainy, but by then I was on my way back to New York—to begin to get organized for driving back that way the next weekend. We stopped on the way with our friends in Lenox, Mass.—a couple we met at Bellagio a year ago, whom we’ve since gotten to know very well and had a lot of fun with. We’d already been toying with the notion of some day looking for a house up there—but might never have gotten around to more than talking about it, up until the morning the news finally came through (since I hadn’t gotten around to returning a call that would have tipped me off) about this-here MacArthur award. It was a call from Karen [Chase] in Lenox, all excited, that finally got me to return that call—and the man who made it turned out to have connections in South Bristol, and didn’t wonder at all about not returning calls when you’re on the coast of Maine. I’ll enclose a piece that came out of a long telephone conversation with a reporter in Bangor, who got it pretty much the way I told it, so far as I can remember.
Anyhow, we drove back by way of Lenox, where in the meantime Karen had been out with a real estate agent she knows, screening possible houses. The one we think we’re buying sits on a little over half an acre, in a very grassy and bucolic section, within (brisk, uphill) walking distance of the center of Lenox. It’s not huge, but has a couple of spare bedrooms. Tanglewood is about fifteen minutes away. If all goes well, we’ll hope to be issuing invitations to visit within a year or so. We have no plans to move out of New York completely—just to have a place to go to on weekends and in the summer, and eventually to retire into. About Maine, we can’t imagine that we’d stop going there altogether. All this is very, very contingent, but exciting.
About the MacArthur Foundation—it was set up by a Chicago banker and his wife to avoid having all the money they’d made go to the IRS, and every year or so a batch of thirty or forty people are awarded a nice chunk, to arrive over a five-year period, with absolutely no strings attached. The only other poet this time round is named Irving Feldman, and probably no better known than I am. Twyla Tharp, the dancer, was one, and so was the first black woman mayor of a Southern town, Unita Blackwell. An ecologist and geologist named Geerat Vermeij, who studies marine life and is a professor at the University of California, and has been blind since the age of three (he relies on touch for his researches) is another. My favorite is Wes Jackson, who founded the Land Institute out in Kansas, and whose birthday turns out to be the same as mine. You’ll gather that the list tends to be a bit offbeat. Very nice company to be in. Oh yes, Barbara Fields, the historian you may have seen on the TV series about the Civil War, is another I’m especially pleased to be associated with.
This does seem to be a year of windfalls. A couple of months ago there came an invitation—which is what Jeanne was referring to—to spend a semester on the campus at Smith, as the first Grace Hazard Conkling Poet in Residence. I’ll teach one course, and there is a nice stipend attached.