Thomas McGrath Essay - Critical Essays


Any glance at Thomas McGrath’s oeuvre reveals him to be a poet of formal playfulness. Though his work through the years shows contemporary influences, he never slips into any predictable mode or style and never abandons the concerns he embraced so passionately as a young student in the Depression. His key concerns seem to be human suffering brought about by political and economic oppression, a desire for transformation, and the exile that results from efforts to bring about change. His astounding output—including the two-volume epic Letter to an Imaginary Friend—is far too much to examine in a brief overview.

“A Little Song About Charity”

In his earliest work, McGrath’s key themes appear mainly in political terms. Indeed, his first several books, selections from which were gathered in The Movie at the End of the World, are unarguably Marxist and at times didactic. Each poem has aesthetic integrity, its political concerns being integral rather than extraneous or imposed. Nevertheless, those interests are, in many of these earlier works, particularly overt. An extreme example is “A Little Song About Charity,” from Longshot O’Leary’s Garland of Practical Poesie. In this playful satire with its songlike refrain, the speaker mocks the so-called charity of bourgeois capitalists:

The boss came around at Christmas—Oh smiling like a lamb—He made me a pair of glovesAnd then cut off my hands.

This boss comes around again to give the speaker shoes for his birthday, only to cut off the speaker’s feet as well. By the end, the readers are told that if they care about their family and about the working class, they must carefully reserve their affections: “Don’t waste it on the cockroach boss/ But keep your love at home.”

“A Little Song About Charity” is one of the most message-oriented and two-dimensional of McGrath’s earliest works. Certainly the whole of Longshot O’Leary’s Garland of Practical Poesie is “practical” or utilitarian, as its title suggests and as the Marxist view of art instructs. Yet a number of the early poems reveal as well the complexities with which McGrath struggled throughout his writing career.

“The Dialectics of Love”

“The Dialectics of Love” shows a merging of traditional poetic concerns, private dilemmas, and political ideology. The poem is made up of rhymed couplets, a pattern traditionally suited to poems of wit (such as those of Alexander Pope). Section 1 describes an unfaithful lover’s corpse, the earth above him ironically pressing “closer . . . than any lover.” The man who in life sought freedom from permanence now experiences the most terrible permanence. In section 2, the perspective widens to include “the human winter,/ And civil war in every sector.” Typically for McGrath, personal concerns in and of themselves are not worthy material for poetry (his own marriage was very likely failing at about the time this poem was written). He resists the merely personal, and where it does appear, he connects it nearly always to larger, universal concerns. In “The Dialectics of Love,” infidelity in an individual relationship becomes emblematic of an essential human conflict: the desire for security and permanence versus the contrasting desire for freedom. While section 1 derides the changeable lover, section 2 works its way to a realization of the world’s inherent mutability. Therefore, “He must seem false who would be true.” In other words, the one who is faithful, who is always the same, now seems to this speaker false to life itself.

Characteristically, McGrath next relates this “dialectic” between conflicting human needs to the Marxist dialectic, or class struggle. Section 3 sees “Over the public eye and lip/ The seal of personal ownership.” The desire to own property is like the wish to keep a relationship constant, or the desire to resist time’s havoc. Because such constancy is folly, “personal love/ Changes, if it is pure enough.” In the last lines of the poem, the corpse seen earlier, lying in the permanence of death, is now viewed instead as subject to constant change, “the transience of the winding year.” The idea in section 1 is thus neatly reversed in section 3: In death people are given over entirely to the changes that natural forces inflict.

“The Dialectics of Love,” with its metaphysical wit and proper dose of ambiguity, demonstrates the influence of its literary period and of McGrath’s graduate study. Its archaic inversions and poeticizing (“When right hand and left divided are/ And the split heart cannot love the more”) further shows it to be an immature work. Typically, however, McGrath is more than competent with whatever style he chooses, and “The Dialectics of Love” is no exception.


Other poems of The Movie at the End of the World reveal McGrath’s themes somewhat more characteristically. The metaphysical permanence versus flux dialectic often transmutes into the more earthy conflict of community membership versus exile. The speaker of these poems is solitary, one who watches from a distance, excluded. The sometimes desperately poor young man who left his Irish family’s farm for college must indeed have felt a rift: While his education separated him to some extent...

(The entire section is 2266 words.)