Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1570
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 the true poet as a grim, self-indulgent, impractical pariah. Still, this is no excuse for the poet who, having once been stirred by an event as bloody as war, puts away his passion afterward and “reads by firelight as the nations burn” (“Ordonnance”).
The poet may change his ways for the better, but what about the ordinary citizen? What can he do about rising rents, the spread of crime and poverty, the closing down of the local bar, market, and theater—these familiar supports for simple needs and pleasures? Where can a social radical such as McGrath himself find hope? His vision has isolated and disappointed him.
Not one to give up easily, McGrath poses love as an antidote to despair. Because of the love he shares with others for various cities, in “The Migration of Cities” he imagines these places “sailing out/ On the heart-stopping sea toward the Revolutionary Country” and, having rid themselves of the garbage of capitalism, arriving at “ports where the Red flag has secretly flown for years.” The love he shares with the oppressed in “Triumphal March” is what makes the failure of their cause bearable; indeed, he seems to suggest here that the excitement of such communal feeling is worth any price.
On a more private level, he sees the love between men and women in a hopeful light. The soldier sent to an outpost of World War II in “A Letter for Marian” relies on his memory of his lover to keep him going. In “The World; the Lovers: Falling Stars,” the passion of lovers, though brief, occurs again and again, bringing some brilliance to a desolate world. “Praises IV,” humorous and exhilarated, also proposes sexual love as a solution to society’s dismal condition. McGrath believes that love is the true revolution.
In his own case, McGrath relies on not only sexual love but also family love as his guide through hard times. In “Afternoon of a McGrath,” he is imprisoned in the winter of his soul, but his son Tomasito uplifts him and gives new meaning to the very town in which he lives, which bears the McGrath name. His son is the “ship of light” that comes for him in “Passages,” and in “Offering,” he praises his father as the “Helmsman” who gave all he was and had for his family.
Nature as well as love gives McGrath hope, or at least comfort. In “Beyond the Red River,” it is unclear what he means by “my possibilities are all packed up”: Does he mean that he has put them away, or that he is ready to move on with them? In any event, he continues, “I am happy enough here, where Dakota drifts wild in the universe.” Nature, like him, is always changing, but it is always there, inviting him into it, toward its steadiest part, the trees, which are like “old mothers” to him. As a form of simple nourishment, not only for the bodies but also for the soul, nature appeals to him; the vegetables in “Praises” provide “orchards: bees: honey:/ Flowers, love’s language, love, heart’s ease, poems, praise.”
As analogy as well as subject, nature does indeed find its way into McGrath’s poems. The snow in “Afternoon of a McGrath” stands for the tyranny of time, and stone in “Passages” dramatizes the narrator’s sense of being crippled. In “Mediterranean” (the last poem in the book), McGrath addresses the olive tree as “Old guerilla: charging slow motion to take high ground,” alluding to himself in this way, and seeing in the tree a lesson in endurance.
The fifty years spanned by the poems in this book have been marked by revolution, economic failure, and war. None of these historic troubles has been lost on McGrath, and in fact they are, in one way or another, the source of much of his work. They have led him to focus on American society as a whole, and in this respect he is Walt Whitman’s heir, though Whitman wrote paeans to the body politic, while McGrath indicts it and grieves for it. Beyond this, McGrath is eclectic. Meter, rhyme, and free verse all find a place in his work, which is sometimes strenuous as an ode and at other times suggestive as an epigram. In addition, the tone of his poetry, though it is never without irony and seldom without humor, is bitter and ebullient by turns. Sam Hamill, in his introduction to the book, notes the variety in it, but mostly sees McGrath as another Tu Fu, the classical Chinese poet. There is some truth in this comparison when one looks at McGrath’s shorter poems, especially those that describe elements in nature. The voice in the bulk of the poems, though, is clearly American—idiomatic, outgoing, maverick. True, his earlier work is sometimes disfigured by the rhetoric of its time. For example, in “The Little Odyssey of Jason Quint of Science, Doctor,” he writes, “The punctual goddess blossoms on his brow—/ Pragmatic emblem of the daylit need.” His later work is mostly free of such melodrama. To be sure, his work as a whole is full of idealism and commitment, and these—though the one is disappointed and the other difficult—make him a rarity among his peers.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Booklist. LXXXIV, May 1, 1988, p. 1473.
Poetry. CXLIII, November, 1988, p. 108.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, March 18, 1988, p. 79.