In 1953, Thomas McGrath, a little-known poet, college English teacher, and World War II veteran, was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had published three volumes of poetry, and his "unaffiliated far-left political feelings," as McGrath would later call them, were the subject of much of his verse. Unwilling to cooperate, he lost his job at the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences, and remained blacklisted from academia for the remainder of the decade.
McGrath, or "Tommy the Commie" as he was called by some antagonists, was born on the prairie in 1916, near the small town of Sheldon, N.D., to a family of poor Irish farmers. He formulated his politics early: In the dust-bowl '30s, as the family struggled to keep afloat, McGrath's father became a Wobbly--a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. The farm eventually went bust, and the younger McGrath hit the road, supporting his writing through a variety of menial jobs. By the early '40s, he'd made it to New York's Chelsea waterfront, where he distributed leaflets and had some close calls with the management goons hired to keep agitators like him at bay.
McGrath's face-off with HUAC impeded, but failed to halt, his writing career. Between 1954 and his death in Minneapolis in 1990 (where he retired in 1982, after 13 years of teaching at Moorhead State University), McGrath published 17 collections of poetry, two children's books, and two novels. Along the way, he garnered a host of awards, including a Guggenheim, two Bushes, three NEA fellowships, and the prestigious Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize for Poetry.
Still, McGrath never rose to high prominence in the American pantheon of contemporary poetry. He remains little known outside of narrow literary circles, where approving critics have called him "the most famous neglected poet of recent decades" (David Mason in the Hudson Review), "as close to Whitman as anyone since Whitman himself" (Terrence Des Pres in TriQuarterly) and "the most important American poet who can lay claim to the title 'radical'" (Frederick C. Stern in Southwest Review).
Some blame McGrath's Marxist leanings for the relative obscurity of his work (had he been writing in the then-Soviet Union, he would have been the subject of thick, adoring biographies), but the claim solves only half the equation. Dig up, if you will, from the local library, Selected Poems 1938-1988 (Copper Canyon Press) and lay your eyes on haiku-like gems such as this:
The long wound of summer--
Or flip back to "In Praise of Necessity," a fierce, ominous poem about the annihilation of tradition in the name of progress, or to "Celebration for June 24," a love poem for his first wife Marian. All of these works offer a taste of McGrath's nonpolitical poetry. Throughout his 50-year writing life, McGrath produced two kinds of verse: one angry and polemical, steeped in sympathy for the oppressed; and the other resonantly descriptive, quiet, and, above all, personal. The two strains conjoin with some difficulty, but it is a testament to McGrath's formal strengths and fondness of language that they consort at all.
The passion for language and radicalism comes from the same source, it seems, and in that sense, McGrath is perhaps best labeled a language revolutionary. In a 1990 PBS documentary about his life and work, titled The Movie at the End of the World, McGrath said:
If the language were new, if it weren't so beat-up and worn-out, everything we'd say would be a piece of a poem, wouldn't it? That's the kind of world we'd want. That's real Communism--when we own the language, which would probably be the last thing to be owned by the people. It's easier to take over General Motors. We gotta take over the dictionaries--destroy the goddamn things!
In Letter to an Imaginary Friend, the hitherto strained alliance between the personal and the political in McGrath's verse reaches a thrilling union. Letter (definitively reissued in 1998 by Copper Canyon Press), which McGrath began soon after being blacklisted and took three decades to complete, is an enormous, Odyssey-like epic with a little bit of everything thrown in: sublime images, personal history, wide-ranging anger, erudite references, prophetic incantations, personal history, Hopi mythology, the North Dakota prairie, and much more. The terrain is sometimes treacherous, not least because McGrath's erudition is vast and a good dictionary is a necessity. Further, Letter careens back and forth through time so freely that it appears to have swallowed its tail. By continuously flashing forward and back from scenes of childhood and adolescence to various periods in his adult life, and by countering each howling political incantation with a richly lyrical description, McGrath weaves an intricate web. A description of Los Angeles, in the second of Letter's four parts, is one of the most stinging impressions of that city in recent memory:
Windless city built on decaying granite, loose ends Without end or beginning and nothing to tie to, city downhill From the high mania of our nineteenth century destiny -what's loose Rolls there, what's square slides, anything not tied down Flies in...
Kind of petrified shitstorm.
At the bottom of the American night refugees tourists elastic Watches...
With the exception of a few long-winded passages, Letter is a gripping read, a kind of train journey of the mind through 50 years of American history, as seen through the eyes of someone trying to derail the engine every moment. "I think of Letter as a kind of rescue mission," McGrath explains in The Movie at the End of the World. "I want to rescue the past, and then control it, in order to do something about the future.... If you don't know the past, the future just becomes a matter of pragmatism."
For most of us, the future already is a matter of pragmatism, but McGrath's insights at least offer hope that reading poetry will delay our resigned arrival at that place.
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