Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The footsteps of early workers

I talked about poet Thomas McGrath in the previous post in this blog, and I'll say some more about him here. His work is groundwater for me, essential to everything I conceive of about writing poetry. McGrath's poetry always astonishes me in its range of language and aesthetic effect, the constant flexibility, the music and the drumbeat. His left-wing politics are integral to all of his work, whether the actual content of any given poem shouts from a picket line or eases in with subtlety, or pieces together carefully made argument, or heckles from the back rows.

I knew Tom just a little, in the last years of his life. We met from time to time, corresponded in the mail once of twice. Several of my friends knew him well and for a long time. I've been reading his poetry and other writing since I was about 16, for most of the time I've been writing. No single-volume collected poems exists for his work at present, though a large portion of it can be found in a few books published in the later years of his life, some of which are in print.

The Movie at the End of the World (Swallow Press, ca. 1972) -- published as a "collected poems" at the time -- is actually a large and carefully chosen selection from earlier books, including work dating back to the late 1930's. From the poem "The Topography of History" in the above collection:
Beyond the corrosive ironies of prairies,
Midnight savannas, open vowels of the flat country,
The moonstruck waters of the Kansas bays
Where the Dakotas bell and nuzzle at the north coast,
The nay-saying desolation where the mind is lost
In the mean acres and the wind comes down for a thousand miles
Smelling of the stars' high pastures, and speaking a strange language--
There is the direct action of mountains, a revolution,
A revelation in stone, the solid decrees of past history,
A soviet of language not yet cooled nor understood clearly:
The voice from underground, the granite vocables.
There shall that voice crying for justice be heard,
But the local colorist, broken on cliffs of laughter,
At the late dew point of pity collect only the irony of serene stars.
McGrath was stationed on an army air base on Amchitka island in the Aleutians, where he worked on the base newspaper. (Among the other newspaper staff was the detective novelist Dashiell Hammett.) Tom McGrath's poems from his experiences during the second world war are among the most potently moving and politically keen-edged poems we have from those years. From the poem "Blues for Warren" (with a note under the title, "killed spring 1942, north sea"), in The Movie at the End of the World:
Spotlight on midnight Europe: the furred boreal gleams
Of names on fallen monuments. A shaft of stallion's shriek
Nailed in the naked sheen of indifferent weather,
A weather of starvation. And among the ruins and the broken columns,
The betrayals, incrustations, the harps of the Nineteenth Century,
And among the treachery and hideous moneys of the world,
The Judas flags, the parliaments of beasts,
Devils with Oxford diplomas and diplomats' visas

He moved to the accompaniment of dispossessed angels:
The Angel of Love who issued no marriage licenses
The Angel of Reason with the brutal face of a child
The Angel of Hope who carried a gun in his fist
The Angel of the Fifth Season with his red flag
The Angel of Your Death who looks like your friend or your lover.
A kid knee-deep in the rotting dreams of dead statesmen,
In the First Imperialist War, thinking of home.
A more recent general gathering of McGrath's work is Selected Poems 1938-1988 (Copper Canyon Press, 1988; at the above link, scroll down to McGrath's books, then click on the title), a generous and well-chosen selection with a sensitive and intelligent introduction by Sam Hamill.
And now, putting off its suit of lights, its electric mythologies,
The platonic city floats up out of the dark: insubstantial
Structures, framework of dream and nightmare, a honeyed static
Incorporeal which the light condenses. A thin dust
The fictions of time and custom, is clothing its mineral bones;

Out of the vapors of rent and habit the walls regain
Their untransparent strength; an ectoplasm of time and money
Crystallizes into roofs and dock; the bells collect
Around their bronze and song the cages of shimmering towers
And the footsteps of early workers are building the streets to the river.
(From the poem "Dawn Song" in Selected Poems.)
The great all-consuming, all-encompassing work of McGrath's life was his epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, on which he worked for some 30 years and finished in the last years of his life: partially autobiographical, gathering in history ancient and modern, mythologies of all sorts, farm work on the North Dakota prairie where he was born and grew up, his experiences during the war and later with labor organizing; written in a dazzling weave of high drama, prophetic oration, heartbreaking tenderness, and wild raucous humor. The poem is too great in scope to treat adequately here with a short quote; I'll write about it at greater length at another time.

Letter to an Imaginary Friend was published in sections over the years as McGrath completed portions of it; the first two overall sections were published by Swallow Press, and the third and fourth sections later by Copper Canyon Press. In 1998 Copper Canyon published a definitive single-volume edition (see the webpage at the link in the above paragraph), with detailed editing by poet Dale Jacobson -- a student and longtime friend and colleague of McGrath's -- based on McGraths notes and on Jacobson's own long intimate knowledge of the poem.

I heard Tom McGrath read portions of Letter from time to time at readings, as he progressed working on it. On a howling cold night in January in the late 1980's, I took a bus across town to St. Paul, to hear McGrath read at a bookstore; and what he brought to read that evening, to the two dozen of us who braved the weather, was the final section of the poem, finished after 30 years.

McGrath also wrote two novels: The Gates of Ivory, The Gates of Horn (originally pubished by Masses & Mainstream in the 1950, later edition from Another Chicago Press) is a wickedly satirical look into daily life in an impersonal and intrusive high-tech society of the fairly near future; This Coffin Has No Handles (first published as an issue of North Dakota Quarterly, subsequently published by Thunder's Mouth Press) is a lyrical impressionistic account of people and events during a labor strike on the New York waterfront. (It appears both are out of print at present; interested readers can go searching for used copies.)

Not all of McGrath's poetry speaks in a large voice. He was also capable of great delicacy and gentleness; a thread running through much of his work is the alchemical transformation of weariness into wonder. In my cubicle at work I have a short poem of his, "Route Song and Epitaph," which is in The Movie at the End of the World, and is also included as the next-to-last poem in his last book, Death Song (Copper Canyon Press), published after he died. I quote it here in full:
Living on catastrophe, eating the pure light
What have we come to but the mother dark?
Over our heads, obscurely, the stars work
Heedless. They did not invent the night.
McGrath didn't do a great deal of theoretical writing about poetry, though the small amount he did I've found highly perceptive. An essay of his, "Problems of the Revolutionary Poet in Contemporary Times," lays out in a plain straightforward manner his general take on the mix -- and sometime clash -- of poetry and politics in the modern world.

Poem after poem, that continues to offer light and fire, no matter after how many readings. I consider myself fortunate to have found and lived with the poetry of Thomas McGrath, to have heard him read more than once, to have known him personally even if only a little. His poetry is a well of replenishing water than never runs dry.
The Puritans at Plymouth stayed
Drunk all year in the tropic weather.
They set their phallic may-poles up
And danced all night with Increase Mather.
And thus, says Michael Wigglesworth,
The Pagan Fathers brought to birth
The freest culture known on earth. [...]

[...] Then why does each madhouse, every jail
Fill up while through th' indifferent sky
(Where glow the heavens with last steps of day)
The bombers and the generals fly?
Bemused across the campus grass,
Seeing darkly, as through a glass,
The earnest history students pass.
(From the poem "Mottoes for a Sampler on Historical Subjects," in The Movie at the End of the World.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?