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MCGRATH, THOMAS (1916-1990) Thomas
McGrath represents the powerful convergence of the personal and the political in verse. An eccentric mix of pastoral and beat radical sensibility, his poetic voice is rooted in the American soil and spirit and speaks out against economic and political injustice. Donald hall has called McGrath the best American poet of public denunciation and invective (qtd. in Whitehead 90-91). Far from being merely denunciatory, however, his verse projects the optimism of cultural healing. Attempting to refashion the American perspective on community, work, and nation, McGrath summons us back to a cultural wholeness out of what he sees as the devastation of capitalist corruption. Propelled by an active imagination assuming myriad shapes, his poetry is marked by formal, linguistic, and stylistic unpredictability, from haikulike poems in Passages toward the Dark (1982) to his freewheeling, six-beat-lined epic Letter to an imaginary Friend (1970).
McGrath was born near Sheldon, North Dakota, to Irish-Catholic homesteaders. As a child he labored on steam rigs with migrant Wobbly labor crews, exposed to an often violent labor unrest that became the source of his visionary poetry's working-class consciousness. In spite of his family's financial hardship, he studied at the University of North Dakota, Louisiana State University, and, with a Rhodes scholarship, New College, Oxford. McGrath held many jobs throughout his lifetime: union organizer, documentary-film writer, soldier in the Aleutians during World War II, editor and founding-editor, respectively, of California Quarterly and Crazy Horse, and college teacher in Maine, New York, North Dakota, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. In the 1950s he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted as a communist, an event that sharpened his socialist resolve. Despite his leftist leaning, he was awarded a number of prestigious prizes during his lifetime. In 1990 he was presented the distinguished achievement award by the Society for Western Literature.
Beginning with Longshot O'Leary's Garland of Practical Poesie (1940), the book with which he first achieved recognition, McGrath tried to create a poetry in which private reminiscence mirrors the often tumultuous unfolding of social and political history. Autobiographical moments are never merely confessional in his work; they also reflect the universal: The memory of a foreman's swing at a seasonal farm laborer, for example, effects the collapse of American community and shared labor in the wake of industrial corporatism. But if McGrath's poetry seethes with anger at what is lost to the profit and exploitation of modern America—tradition, family, compassion—he counters this rage with redemptive, visionary alternatives. Work, love, poetry, and, above all, the human imagination represent, for McGrath, the ultimate remedies for an ailing America; vivid, shamanistic dream-visions serve as liberating forces for social and political revolution.
McGrath's expansive range of tone shifts from didacticism to eloquent lyricism to satiric wit. His vocabulary, including neologisms that Reginald Gibbons calls "glossological wonders" (Gibbons and Des Pres 10), mingles patois, slang, and the tall tale with a more traditional "poetic" voice: Packy o'Sullivan of New York shipyard fame interrupts a reflective passage in Letter to sputter, "Doublebarreled shitepoke sheepcroakes, swillbelly like a poison pup!" Compounding these vocal pyrotechnics are images of hyperbolic exaggeration and distortion. Into a worker's rainy-day breakfast strides the beautiful Jenny, apotheosized by Letter's exhausted workers: "Jenny! / Entering, the light swarms around her!" Wild, extravagant, and excessive, McGrath's world is stunningly fantastical, brimming with possibility. Infused with a carnivalesque energy, his verse showcases new and dizzying perspectives that upend "official" culture and lend credibility to his own insurrectionary politics.
McGrath's poetry is, above all, a call to action, to social apocalypse. Its linguistic puns, inversions, and echoes contribute to the imperative for newness and movement. In McGrath's masterpiece, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, this new order is inspired by Hopi prophecy. A personal and political journey to an American utopia, Letter is characteristically chaotic and disorderly, moving geographically between North Dakota, Louisiana, New York, California, Alaska, and Greece and stylistically between hard, biting parody, bawdy humor, and dreamy self-expression, as well as between the lilt of local Irish idiom and the invective of communist agitation. Written over 30 years and adopting the forms of autobiography, Catholic sacrament, and American political history, the epic ends in the fiery blaze of the Kachina, the Hopi blue star that signals the Saquadohuh, or Fifth World, which is to emerge from the dark womb of the earth. Part 4's apocalyptic dream vision, in which the speaker roars through myriad hallucinatory realms to arrive at this new order of solidarity, shared labor, and love, exemplifies McGrath's embracing of violence and chaos as tools to reshape a world gone mad. His poetry surges with fury for the America that once was and, it this fury is turned to productive use, can be again.
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