Thomas McGrath’s Selected Poems: 1938-1988 is taken from three prior volumes of his poetry: Movie at the End of the World (1972), Passages Toward the Dark (1982), and Echoes Inside the Labyrinth (1983). Some of the poems predate World War II, and new poems are added to the book at the end. Throughout his career, McGrath has taken the side of society’s victims (the worker, for example, and the common soldier) and taken to task those who have power and those who support the powerful. He is angry and saddened that society has not improved in the twentieth century and that America has not been amenable to the revolution of the proletariat. He also finds the poetry of his time wanting in vision and style, and he is at pains to find a cure for the despair in himself and those with whom he sympathizes.
Those who have power are hypocrites to McGrath. They insist that all is well as they send soldiers off to die in the wars from which they themselves profit. The boss in “A Little Song About Charity” is generous to his workers at Christmas, but brutalizes them the rest of the time. In “An Incident in the Life of a Prophet,” the liberal tells the oppressed not to make a fuss, and the doctor cares less about his patients than about his profit. An especially nasty form of hypocrisy is exposed in “Deep South,” where whites “whose motives are blonder than Hitler’s choir boys” mask their cruelty to blacks with a romantic view of themselves—their past, their sex drive, and their death.
Sometimes McGrath wonders why American society itself does not care about its ills. In “The Seekers,” he suggests that the myth of self-interest is to blame, and in “The Heroes of Childhood,” he faults his compatriots’ naïve hero-worship. In any case, he finds Americans indifferent, frightened, or overwhelmed. The neighbors in “The End of the World” shrug off the destruction about to engulf them, and the tourists in “Tourists at Ensenada,” fascinated only by “the blackening jail/ And American motels,” fear the poor settlements through which they pass. Some of McGrath’s poems are love poems, but “The Excursion: or: O Columbus” is not. The women in this poem begin as impassioned explorers of the world and end as dreary suburban housewives, prisoners of their fear and discontent. He sums up the plight of the body politic in “Political Song for the Year’s End”:
The Worker snores; the Poet drowsesThrough all his literary Houses;... the Wife lays low,And all the children are on Snow.
When poetry serves social justice, it is doing its job, according to McGrath. Pablo Neruda is his model, in his opposition to dictators and in the stand he takes with their victims (“Lament for Pablo Neruda”). This social concern underlies “Against the False Magicians,” where McGrath says, “It is the charm which the potential has/ That is the proper aura for the poem.” Too often, though, poets fail this potential; either they have something to say but say it badly (as in McGrath’s parody of Allen Ginsberg, “You Can Start the Poetry Now”), or they have little to say but say it well (as in his parody of Robert Bly, “Driving Toward Boston”). That a poet should have little or nothing to say prompts McGrath to take aim at William Carlos Williams’ dictum, “No ideas but in things”; he says in “The Underground,” “NO THINGS WITHOUT SOME GODDAMN KIND/ OF IDEA ABOUT THEM!”
Despite the stance that he takes against the way poets abuse their art, McGrath admits that their lot is not an easy one. They may do their best to interest the public in their work, offering them the truth about oppression, poverty, and the passionate enterprise that life itself is. The public, however, does not want to think; it wants art to be sentimental. In America, as “Ars Poetica: or: Who Lives in the Ivory Tower?” points out, even the “liberal editor” is afraid to publish anything that might get him in trouble, and ordinary people regard...
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