Wednesday, March 26, 2008


In memory's country

Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era edited by Estelle Gershgoren Novak (University of New Mexico Press, 2002) is an anthology of Thomas McGrath and a number of the poets who gathered around him during the years he lived in Los Angeles during the 1950's and early 1960's. It's an indispensable collection of work, from a highly energetic and loosely constituted grouping of poets whose significance has generally been neglected by critics and historians of the literary-industrial factory. In the particular currents of the poetry world where I've spent much of my writing life, many of the poets in this book are beyond legend.

The poet central to the anthology, Thomas McGrath, is one of the poets whose work has been most important to me since I first read him and heard him read in sometime around 1971 when I was in high school. The range of his life and work is larger than I can convey adequately here. Born in North Dakota in 1916, he grew up on a farm there, worked as a farm laborer, went to college in North Dakota and Louisiana, became a Rhodes scholar (which he had to postpone till after the Second World War ended).

Someplace along the way McGrath joined the Communist Party; he worked as a logger, a shipyard welder on the New York waterfront, wrote articles for a seaman's union newspaper. He taught college at a couple places, and while teaching at Los Angeles State College during the '50's he was fired and blacklisted during the anti-communist purges of those years. In later years years he taught at North Dakota State University in Fargo, and at Moorhead State University in Minnesota (just across the state line from Fargo). He lived the last years of his life in Minneapolis, in declining health (caused in part by surgery that left him partially paralyzed). He died in Minneapolis in 1990.

In the range of effect of his poems, the layers of knowledge and history carried in them, the astonishing array of language, the unleashed fire of his political invective and the unbridled joy of his high and low humor, Thomas McGrath is unparalleled.

While hung upon the blue wall of the air
The hawk stared down into a sea of fire,
Where, salamanders in our element,
We ate the summer like a sacrament.

That was in memory's country, and is lost.
The roads lead nowhere. Aloof in his field of fire
The hawk wheels pitiless. Alone, afar,
The skirmishers of childhood hurry past,
Hunting a future that they cannot will.
Children of light, travelling our darkened years
We cannot warn them. Distant, they have no ears
For those they will become. Across a wall

Of terror and innocence we hear the voice,
The air-gun in the land of all mock choice;
Around us not the game of fox and pheasant,
But the gunfire of the real and terrible present.
(From McGrath's poem "The Roads into the Country." This excerpt, and all others quoted here, are taken from Poets of the Non-Existent City.)

During the years covered by the anthology, a group of poets met regularly at Tom McGrath's house on Marsh Street in Los Angeles, to read their work and talk about it; they came to refer to themselves sometimes as the "Marsh Street Irregulars." They shared a common desire to write and act with social conscience, however variously each of them expressed that in their lives and work. Two poetry magazines, The California Quarterly (1951-1956) and Coastlines (1955-1964) emerged from the efforts of the Marsh Street crowd and poets in the wider orbits around them.

Besides Tom McGrath, other poets in the anthology include Edwin Rolfe, Don Gordon, Naomi Replansky, William Pillin, Henri Coulette, Curtis Zahn, Lawrence Spingarn, Bert Meyers, Mel Weisburd, Eugene Frumkin, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Stanley Kiesel, Josephine Ain, Sid Gershgoren, Estelle Gershgoren Novak, and Ann Stanford; also included, maybe in part by virtue of their having been contributors to the magazines mentioned above, are Lawrence Lipton and the infamous Charles Bukowski.

When in the hour of night the windows are lit
in the famous buildings,
A cold wave crosses the frontier of a generation
in its sleep,
The coyote howls, the vulture comes down
from the sky.
It is the hour of fever, the hour to study
the nature of love.
(Don Gordon, from his poem "Consider the Meaning of Love.")

The anthology includes much besides the great poetry: it also has editorials, essays, book reviews, and artwork from The California Quarterly and Coastlines; a complete list of Coastlines contributors from the full run of the magazine; useful bio notes for each poet in the anthology; and an excellent in-depth introduction by editor Estelle Gershgoren Novak, giving further biography of several of the contributors, and much history of the literary and cultural scene in Los Angeles in those years, and the political conditions of the times.

Among the prose scattered through the book, I especially enjoyed Mel Weisburd's hilarious account (originally published in 1957) of taking LSD as a volunteer test subject under the supervision of a doctor. He described the experience as "the happiest day of my life."

Machinist in the pillow's grip,
Be clumsy and be blind
And let the gear spin free, and turn
No metal in your mind.

Long, long may the actress lie
In slumber like a stone,
The helpless words that rise from sleep
Be no words but her own.

Laborer, drift through a dark
Remote from clay and lime.
O do not tunnel through the night
In unpaid overtime.
(Naomi Replansky, from her poem "Night Prayer for Various Trades.")

We speak again to all in the city built on a swamp:
To priests, money-lenders, brigands, the horde of women
Who suck on the corpse of love before the god of flies
Where the wind perishes in little mounds of sandalwood.
We have gathered from many lands these jars of myrrh,
These pots of basil, and ambergris shaking like pampered flesh,
The virgins, and the carpets that plead quiet,
Clocks that run through the drunken days and night
Winding themselves, and silks that polish the skin.
It was the rare brain in the lonely skull
That looked from the Great Wall and dreamed of this city:
Each man could name his price, each woman her hour or place.
The scrolls would be read backward. Nobody would need them,
Shrined in the Porcelain Tower by the Peacock Pool forever,
And the feeble king, fanned by the desirous eunuchs,
Would sleep in the tub of his fat till gongs sound alarm.
(Lawrence Spingarn, from his poem "an imperial fragment.")

I knew Tom McGrath just a little during the last years of his life; several of my good poet friends have been at one time or another students of his, and some of them knew him much better than I did. Over the years I've become familiar the the names and poetry of several of the poets in the anthology, and have met a couple of them. It's a joy and a pleasure to find them gathered here in one place.

If you're not familiar with Thomas McGrath's poetry, a good place to start might be the Selected Poems 1938-1988 published by Copper Canyon Press with an introduction by Sam Hamill. McGrath spent more than 30 years working on what became an epic poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend; sections were published from time to time over the years, and later larger portions were published in separate book volumes; in 1998 Copper Canyon published a definitive single-volume edition of the book, with careful text editing by poet Dale Jacobson (a student and friend of McGrath's), based on McGrath's notes and on years of conversations with McGrath about details in the poem. Both books are listed in the Copper Canyon online catalog, here. There's a good webpage for Tom McGrath in the Modern American Poetry website hosted by Cary Nelson at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, here.

Most of the other poets in Poets of the Non-Existent City have published work available as well, if you go looking.

Then, khaki colored leaves
fell from the public trees.
I saw that we'd all come
to the corner to say: Peace.

At last the generals
were beaten with ploughshares
and you and I became
two hammers with one blow that builds.
From time to time giants walk among us on the earth: they stand as examples, show us paths that we can walk, a place for our own footsteps, a song by which our voices might find wings, a road and a life and a work through which we ourselves may become greater. Some of them can be found in Poets of the Non-Existent City. Come walk with them for a while.

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