Gift and Gear: The Work of Thomas McGrath

I met Thomas McGrath in the summer of 1987.  I was writing a master’s thesis on him, and had traveled by train to Minneapolis with a six-pack of Buckhorn beer — godawful beer favored by McGrath — to meet him for an interview.  McGrath was living alone in a modest apartment complex across the street from The Loft Literary Center; folks there were helping him out from time to time to get along physically. At age 71, he suffered from terrible arthritis in his hands; sometimes, he told me, it was so bad he couldn’t bear to hold a piece of paper.  When he opened the door to my knock, he was wearing a pair of ski gloves—the temperature was in the 80’s—and he held a spatula dripping greasy falafel crumbs.  A little TV in the cramped kitchen behind him was blaring next to the frying falafel.  From the doorway I could make out the military haircut of Oliver North, the National Security Council staffer whose smooth calm calculated dissembling I could hear even from a distance, from inside the wee squawkbox. McGrath was watching the Iran-Contra hearings, Congress’ attempt to determine Ronald Reagan’s involvement in the illegal sale of weapons to Iran to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. McGrath quickly greeted me, then turned back to the stove, loudly cursing the slippery testifying mastermind behind the counter-revolutionary scandal with a string of fierce obscenities inspired, I could only imagine, by his Irish ancestors.  He turned off the stove, joined me in the small living room, expressed pleasure in the beer, and we sat for the next three hours while he drank the six-pack and answered my questions. And I had a lot of them.

Letter to an Imaginary Friend: Parts I-IV, Copper Canyon Press, 1997, 375 pages
Letter to an Imaginary Friend: Parts I-IV
Copper Canyon Press, 1997, 375 pages

Reginald Gibbons had introduced me a year earlier to the poetry of Letter to an Imaginary Friend, McGrath’s great ‘pseudo-autobiographical’ long poem that captures aspects of class history and class consciousness in the U.S. in the 20th century as it intersects, energizes, and shapes a single representative life, the life of the poet as it expresses what McGrath called ‘the fabrication of the legend.’  But such a characterization hardly even begins to describe one of the great personal epics of American poetry, as varied in its range and interests as it has been neglected by readers and scholars, a poem that, in 1987, the critic Terrence Des Pres called ‘the last unexplored continent on the map of the literary world.’  I was immediately taken by this poem, as one can only be taken by a poem.  The force and buoyancy of the accumulating rhythms in McGrath’s variable six-beat line; the charged intricacy of acoustic effects; the complex style that fluctuates so easily between tasty verbal density and a kind of prose breathing that never lapses into the prosaic; the command of naturalistic detail that glows with a mythic correspondence; its feeling for social reality enlivened by the life of dream-mind; the richness of figurative phrase-making; its humor and verbal brio; its dynamic interplay of praise, elegy, celebration, and political critique; its sympathy as well as its symphony.  It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before, but it sounded like poetry alright.  At the time, I found it more exciting than Whitman, because of its energetic verse movement; I found it as allusive as Eliot, but it didn’t make me feel stupid.  Like Blake, it married heaven and hell, put the Tyger of Wrath next to the Lamb of Love.  It hit me as high verbal performance infused with an American spirit of the West, of wide-open spaces, but without any spiritualist posturing.  Such attributes were immediately impressive upon a first reading.  What deepened was my growing recognition of the poem’s ethos: a credible vision of radical egalitarianism informed by a Marxist understanding of the international cash nexus and its distortion of human relations.

The initiating force of that understanding is not an abstraction in the poem, but rather a dramatized personal scene of instruction in the story of the poet’s childhood on his family’s North Dakota farm, where a strike breaks out and pits his farm boss uncle against a favorite farm hand who has stepped forward as a kind of impromptu spokesman for the other workers.  A physical fight becomes a trauma, rendering the fabric of childhood innocence and launching the poet on a life-long quest to understand human nature, the shape of history, and deep psychic life through the prism of labor.  What makes it an American story is the great breadth and flexibility of McGrath’s idiom, which captures the full register of American speech, from high lyric to discursive expansiveness, slang and cursing, carnivalesque satire, and elegiac eloquence.

Here’s a favorite passage of mine, from early in the poem.  The poet is nine years old, and he has replaced an injured farmhand.  It’s harvest time, and the work on the farm has to be done.  The work he’s to do, on a team manning the threshing machine, would be difficult for anyone; for a boy, it would be a real test, exhausting however invigorating.

The rites of passage toward the stranger’s country,
The secret language foreign as a beard . . .
I turned in the machine-made circles: first from the screaming red
Weather where the straw stack grew and the rattling thresher mourned;
Then to the rocking engine where the fly-wheel flashed and labored
And the drive-belt waxed and waned, the splices clapped at its cross
Ebbing and flowing, slack or taut as the spikers
Dropped the bivouacked wheat in the feeder’s revolving throat.

Feathered in steam like a great tormented beast
The engine roared and laughed, dreamed and complained,
And the pet-cocks dripped and sizzled; and under its fiery gut
Stalactites formed from the hand-hold’s rheumy slobbers.
Mane of sparks, metallic spike of its voice,
The mile-long bacony cackle of burning grease!
There the engineer sat, on the high drivers,
Aloof as a God.  Filthy.  A hunk of waste
Clutched in one gauntleted hand, in the other the oil can
Beaked and long-necked as some exotic bird;
Wreathed in smoke, in the clatter of loose eccentrics.
And the water-monkey, back from the green quiet of the river
With a full tank, was rolling a brown quirrly
(A high school boy) hunkered in the dripping shade
Of the water-tender, in the tall talk and acrid sweat
Of the circle of spitting stiffs whose cloud-topped bundle-racks
Waited their turns at the feeder.
And the fireman: goggled, shirtless, a flashing three-tined fork,
Its handle charred, stuck through the shiny metallic
Lip of the engine, into the flaming, smoky
Fire-box of its heart.
Myself: straw-monkey.  Jester at court.

So, dawn to dusk, dark to dark, hurried
From the booming furious brume of the thresher’s back
To the antipodean panting engine. Caught in the first

[ . . . . ]

To quit was impossible once you had started.
All you could do was somehow learn the ropes.
No one could teach you.
When you were late the whistle
Blasted you into the kingly estate
Of the daylight man.  Responsibility.  The hot foundries
Of the will.
                    But when, your load up, you squatted
In the spitting circle of stiffs, in the hot shade
Under the sky-piled bundle-racks waiting their turn at the feeder,
Chewing on rose apples and bumming a smoke—
You were no man there.
A man to the engine’s hunger, to the lash of the whistle,
But not to the tough young punks from Detroit or Chicago
Drifting the tide of the harvest the first time
And jealous of manhood.
                                                                                  Not to the old stiffs
Smoke shooters, their bindles weighted with dust
From Kansas to Calgary.
                                                                          Not to your uncle surely
Boss of the rig who slapped you once when you swore,
Before the ritual was known or the language of men.

O great port of the Dream!  Gate to the fearful country,
So near and magically far, what key will open?
Their alien smell, their talk, their foreign hungers,
And something awful, secret: I saw them, lost,
Borne on the fearful stream in a sinful valor
And longed to enter.  To know.  To burn in that fire.

(Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part One / III.3)

About the arduous, dangerous, deafening work of harvest threshing, a reporter for Appleton’s Journal, a widely read magazine in turn-of-the-century America, wrote that ‘There is no suggestion of gentleness, or grace, or poetry, in the whole field.  All is ingenuity, precision, order, force.’  The agricultural scene, in other words, is not a pastoral ideal, but rather full of what Thomas Hardy calls ‘the ache of modernism.’  But there is exuberant poetry there for a modern poet, and McGrath taps into the infernal and magically transforming power of its figurations, that also capture, in the specific language of the threshing machine and its surrounding culture, something of the poetry running beneath the history of farm work in the early 20th century American heartland.  And he finds something deeper still: the community that comes with his initiation into the male world of hard physical labor, and more specifically, the labor of the harvest, which brings people together to achieve a common task that life depends on; and something even more essential for his becoming a poet: an initiation into unsanctioned speech, the proverbial life-blood of poetry and also, as it turns out, union organizing.  The life of verbal imagination and also political resistance.  Poetry and rebellion as pure potentiality—what McGrath elsewhere calls ‘eating the pure light’—comes together in his work with urgency, invention, power, sadness, anger, tenderness, and ludic joy.

Twenty five years ago, when I was still just learning how to write a poem, and trying to locate the deeper sources for the poetry I wanted to write, Thomas McGrath’s example stood as a sign post.  Here was a poet who could write any kind of poem he wanted, from a long poem that took decades, to quick haiku-like improvisations; from some of the most heart-breaking and hard-hitting war elegies in 20th century Anglophone poetry to ribald satiric songs and political sloganeering; in tight meters and rhyming stanzas that rang with rhetorical and acoustic exactness to finely muscled free verse that captured with immediacy the physical life and the psychic dream life of a hopeful politics.  (No other American poet has been so influenced by the formal poetic virtuosity of Bertolt Brecht and the purposes to which he put poetry, nor used that influence to such powerful effect).

For McGrath, poems had a use: to change consciousness.  Kantian idealizations were anathema.  McGrath’s futurism was humanist.  It was grounded in the possibilities of realizing an inheritance.  ‘To free what’s trapped or bound,’ he writes in his poem, ‘The Use of Books,’ ‘Is my whole law and ground: / Since it’s myself I find / Out on the rough roads travelling blind.’

            Yet, for another’s use
            I bind what I let loose
            So others may make free
            Of those lost finds no longer use to me.

One of the defining tensions in McGrath’s work emerges from an intriguing tension in his life.  Just as the conflict between his boss uncle and the solidarity-inspired farmhand created a rift out of which the poet’s revolutionary politics began to grow, so too did the poet’s convictions create further rifts between him and others on the radical left he disagreed with, even as he continued to feel keenly that the left offered the only best hope for the future.  His break from within the ranks was absolute; his solidarity converted to a sense of belonging to what he called ‘the unaffiliated far-left.’  But McGrath was never a political poet.  He was a poet, period.  Like all good poets and many great ones he had developed precociously a point of view of the world based on his observations and experiences.  Then he worked on his chops.  He became a poet.  His beliefs were ratified by his life.  Ideology was only part of a foundation for a life’s work of writing.  McGrath’s radical individualism was always the flipside of his radical collectivism.  It was ever always one coin, and it paid his way.  Here it is, pocket size, a poetic statement and a question, a paradox, one of the later tokens:


            You out there, so secret.
            What makes you think you’re alone.

— Joshua Weiner

Watch a documentary on Thomas McGrath by Mike Hazzard:


More by Joshua Weiner :

Review of Uljana Wolf & Christian Hawkey’s Sonne from Ort in the April 2013 Issue
Poem in the March 2015 Issue
Poem in the October 2012 Issue
Two poems in the September 2012 Issue