McGrath as Contemporary Poet's Consciousness, Political Consciousness:
Unwanted: Open All Night
of a tribute to Thomas McGrath, partly I started to consider
what he was up against as a leftist radical and as an open
form poet"open form" in the sense that Whitman
meant it when he spoke of his remarkable long poem, "Song
of my Myself," as a "language experiment."
And then what was Whitman up against that led him from his
own radical irritability to make the condemnatory statement
that the United States was "a nation of lunatics"?
Whitman's nineteenth century society of African-American slaves,
slave labor, unequal rights of women, decimated Indian populations,
sexual intolerance for homosexuals and lesbians, Lincoln's
assassination, the civil war with over one million casualties
and over 600,000 dead, Southern plantation owners and big
business food producers starving out the working people of
the southern states right through the civil war, the majority
of the soldiers coerced into fighting to protect entrenched
plantation and business wealth (1). The robber barons that
preceded the bailout barons. By McGrath's time, the "lunacy"
translates into WWI (estimated 16 million dead, 21 million
wounded); imprisonment under the Espionage Act of war resisters
including WWI protester-socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and
U.S. poet e.e. cummings; the murder, imprisonment, or exile
of members of the most radical and socially conscious union
in U.S. labor historythe Industrial Workers of the World,
the Wobblies; WWII (estimated 72 million dead), the creation
of the CIA, the Korean War, McCarthyism, Vietnam, the smaller
undeclared global secret wars primarily in east Asia and Latin
Whitman and McGrath were up against was historical circumstance
and how to respond ethically, as poets; that is, not to deny
these circumstances as inappropriate subject matter for poetry.
McGrath had the capacious sensibility to make contemporary
history inclusive in his poetry in a way that shames Ezra
Pound's glib and at times libelous statement about his own
long poem The Cantos as "a poem that includes history"though
McGrath, and I'm guessing many people in this audience, and
probably the entire neighborhood I grew up in, would agree
with Pound when he stated, "The real trouble with war
(modern war) is that it gives no one a chance to kill the
the exception of "the hell Cantos," in most ways
contrary to Pound, McGrath's poetry personally and crucially
encompasses the historical realities of the period. His writing
about the crude, the back-breaking, the exploitative in the
alienating forms of laborand the mystically initiating
and communally enlivening experience of labor are written
about from direct experience. He didn't write from a distance
about his experiencehe was frontal and plunging. In
his essential message and lyrical outcry he is too proletarian
for the comfortably genteel or any other genre of the genteelyet
the writing, with qualities of sound, diction, multiplicity
of themes, and poetic design comparable to Whitman and Joycehe
could be thought of as too sophisticated for "the proletarian."
The only irony I find in such a conclusion is not that a poet
with a critical and compassionate grasp of the human condition
is too demanding for certain readers, but the fact that it
is the willful and outright failure of our education system,
and the manipulative designers behind it, that prevent working-people/people
in general from having the learning necessary, the vocabulary
full enough, the curiosity about unknown words urgent enough,
the mind free and critically absorbent enough not to find
such poetry or any other worthy work of literature "too
sophisticated," especially when it might inform readers
about their false understanding of the educational and economic
rut they find themselves in.
revolving graves and the grass pastures of the fined-down
diamond- cutting sea" (LIF 9).
"Where a man chants like a bird in the brilliant boney/
Lightening of his tree" (42).
"From the Pentecostal cloud chambers of the sex-charged
off, there's an experience of distinct elegance in McGrath's
language. He also had a remarkable ear for the American vernacular
of his particular time, and his poems bristle and flow with
obscenities; his vulgarities are not marginally acceptable
"fleeting expletives," they are part of his precise
uncensored directness, and like other masters of what we call
"the whole lexicon"Chaucer, Rabelais, Villon,
Henry Miller, he had a knowing way of how to characterize
through the use of obscenity; for example, in the following
passage when, attempting as a young man to go to college,
he meets with "some kind of dean," a man he refers
to as a "chilly Lutheran Buddha," and, after realizing
he won't be able to afford going to the school, he concludes
that's how that goes.
bastard sat there
Like a man with a paper asshole, like a man
With his head under water, talking talking.
last his words
Said nothing but money money. A conversation
We could not enter.
"Somebody should set fire to the son of a bitch."
I hear Mac saying.
Street is jammed
With flags and seamen. May Day, '46.
"Somebody should tamp up on the hyperborean bugger!"
And my father says "The dirty muzzler!"
the flags toss
As we go out in a storm that's ten years strong,
Where the freight cars rattle and the vigorous dead of the
Ride reefers, preserved in invisible ice.
along the wind
Those dirty slogans
confidence of those lines, when the language tools, the man,
and the materials sing with bitter or gleeful accusationfulfill
the complete function of his speech, the whole lexicon, which
for the hypocritical, that is, the mainstream, or not the
mainstream but simply readers retardedly bored or worn-out
too easily by the discipline it takes to understand the links
a writer of McGrath's quality has made with Chaucer, Shakespeare,
the Biblical Prophets, Marx, Whitman, Joyce, Miller, Travento
come away free with a voice of his own. But he had the
nerve to write this way, and his conviction to the way he
expressed himself was natural and exuberant.
is known or, in some cases, branded hotly as a political poet.
That's a true enough truism about his work, and I've touched
on that subject here briefly. But there are, as we say, political
poets and there are political poets. The playwright and poet
Bertolt Brecht proclaimed that "complex seeing must be
practiced" (99). In McGrath's complex vision there's
an inter-related botanical, fraternal, domestic, communal
complexity that is part of his lyrical fantasy and reality
of a world relieved of the violent realism it occupies and
destroys itself within. That is, there are rituals of vitality,
marital and familial, and those also are contained in labor
producing meaningful works. And there is of course, pleasure,
not only artistic, not only erotic, not only through the joy
of raising a child. During an informal interview at the end
of Mike Hazard's and Paul Burtness's documentary, The Movie
at the End of the World: Thomas McGrathMcGrath talks
about the anger and invective he used throughout his poetry,
that there was a satisfaction to expressing his rage against
a violently alienating and corrupt system
but he would
liked to have written more poems of praise, he said; he wasn't
sentimental about it, there wasn't really a trace of self-pity
about not having praised more often in his writing, he knew
what he was about, he knew his temperamentand in his
language of lucid anger, in a time diseased with radical timidity
and suppression of civil libertieshe raised his voice.
It was a time, after all, when the source of praise was denied
by the economic and military catastrophes of the twentieth
century. But, whatever the ineluctable ruins awaiting McGrath's
dynamic fantasy of a communal society, the regret McGrath
expresses as the documentary ends is not only the regret that
the world, the variety of corrupt states, religious institutions,
corporations, and the military institutions and secret military
institutions that protect them will not relent in our lifetimesthe
regret reflected, in part, is how much it takes over a lifetime
to actively respond to this malicious violence and willful
injustice. And he speaks his response of regret with a tone
of impacted understanding, a facial expression of severe tenderness,
his face expresses a kind of bewilderment, because he knows
he could've gone down in WWII, he wrote about Korea and Vietnam,
he wrote about Auschwitz, he wrote about Chile and El Salvador,
he wrote about U.S. workers killed in the labor wars, he knew
the "otherwise" of others' lives. The regret is
over the failure of civilized societywhat the wars,
the racism, the concentration camps, and World exploitation
symbolize. That this reality and its symbolism, the source
of his invective and his compassion, is the dominant theme
of our time is what the regret is about. The documentary,
however, ends with a reading of the poem "Praises,"
which is a celebration of life and fertility, it is a poem
in the company of Whitman's celebrations, particularly his
poem "Infinite Buds," and Pablo Neruda' s celebrations
in Odas Elementales (particularly several of them).
In spite of the testifying social consciousness that substantiates
the accountability of poets like Whitman, Neruda, and McGrath,
they were also praisers of what actually and symbolically
exists in the dynamic of botanical abundance (which reflects
our emotional abundance), and the pleasure of observing the
cycles of its sustenant creation (which correlates with our
own varying interior cycles), and the pleasure of its lasting
and complete sensory stimulation (which is the sanity of our
vegetables please us with their modes and virtues.
Of lettuce inside its circular court, baroque ear
Of quiet under its rustling house of lace, pleases
behold the strength of the celery, its green Hispanic
¡Shout! Its explanatory confetti.
the analogue that is Onion:
Ptolemaic astronomy and tearful allegory, the Platonic circles
Of his inexhaustible soul!
and the straightforwardness
In the labyrinth of Cabbage, the infallible rectitude of Homegrown
Under its cone of silence like a papal hat-
the syllabus of corn,
Roads leading out of the wigwams of its silky and youthful
The nobility of the dill, cool in its silence and cathedrals;
Tomatoes five-alarm fires in their musky barrios, peas
Asleep in their cartridge clips,
of the imperial
Cauliflower, and Buddha-like seeds of the pepper
Turning their prayerwheels in the green gloom of their caves.
All these we praise: they please us all ways: these smallest
All these earth-given:
the heaven-hung fruit also
Banana which continually makes angelic ears out of sour
Purses, or the winy abacus of the holy grape on its cross
Of alcohol, or the peach with its fur like a young girl's
All these we praise: the winter in the flesh of the apple,
and the sun
Domesticated under the orange's rind.
By the skin of our teeth, Persimmon, and Pawpaw's constant
Affair with gravity, and the proletariat of the pomegranate
Inside its leathery city.
let us praise all these
As they please us: skin, flesh, flower, and the flowering
Bones of their seeds: from which come orchards: bees: honey:
Flowers, love's language, love, heart's ease, poems, praise.
(1) See David Williams' Peoples' History of the Civil War
with its documentation of elections fixed for secession not
only to protect labor and sex slavery, but to maximize its
exploitation of working-class and poor Southern whites.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Threepenny Opera . In "Notes
to The Threepenny Opera."
New York: Grove, 1964.
McGrath, Thomas. Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part I
and II. Chicago; Swallow,
. The Movie at the
End of the World. Swallow, 1972. "Praises"
The Movie at the End of the World. Dir. Mike Hazard
and Paul Burtness. The
Center for International Education. 1990.