Thomas McGrath McGrath, Thomas - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas McGrath 1916–

American poet, novelist, scriptwriter, young adult writer, and editor.

Although McGrath has been cited by such noted critics as Kenneth Rexroth and Donald Hall for being a distinctive and important voice in contemporary American poetry, his readership has been surprisingly small. The themes McGrath introduced in To Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), his first volume of poetry, are mentioned by critics as factors which have contributed to his relative obscurity. In this book, McGrath expresses anger toward the dehumanizing effect of American life, which he views as corrupted by such elements as technology, capitalism, and social class struggle. McGrath has described his political stance as "unaffiliated far Left."

McGrath often writes about his native North Dakota, but, more than that, he strives to capture the expansiveness of the American West in his poems. Some of his techniques for broadening the scope of his poetry include kaleidoscopic surrealism and cataloging. Although McGrath's poetry is often unstructured, critics have praised its ability to lead the reader back to the main theme or image.

Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts I & II (1962, 1970) is considered McGrath's most important work to date. A long autobiographical poetic narrative, it is a tapestry of personal experience, history, myth, and concrete physical description held together by a powerful, masculine voice. McGrath's recent collection, Waiting for the Angel (1979), displays much the same technique as Letter, but possesses a more solemn tone and a darker vision of the loss motif which is present in all of McGrath's poetry.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6.)

Hugh Gibb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In To Walk a Crooked Mile, McGrath] has continued the tradition of the English poets of the Thirties with their deep concern for those disturbing elements of social life—poverty, injustice and war. But he does not suffer from some of their weaknesses which Virginia Woolf describes in her essay on poets of the "Leaning Tower." In the first place, when contemplating a harsh and chaotic world, he never allows his genuine pity for the oppressed to degenerate into self-pity; and secondly, he is never forced to retreat into a world of private fantasy and introspection. In consequence he has been able not only to sustain the tradition which would otherwise appear to be almost extinct, but has brought to it a new and vigorous honesty.

Most of this collection are poems of "occasion" in which McGrath uses a very great variety of vivid images….

But the often surrealistic imagery is never allowed to distract the imagination by making it fly off at wild tangents and nearly always succeeds in reinforcing the main meaning of the poem. Moreover, by the subtle use of recurrent symbols which run like threads through all the poems, he contrives to bind them together as a whole.

In the central section of the book, "The Dialectics of Love," the poems still appear to be "occasional," but in point of fact they all form part of a prolonged attempt to study and resolve the rival claims of personal love and love for humanity in...

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Gerard Previn Meyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Surrealism can be fun; it can shake us out of grooves of convention. But it cannot go ahead—or lift up, either: what momentary exultations it achieves are fast and forgettable, the effects of a jag. The "new myth" does not come.

Nevertheless, [it is apparent in To Walk a Crooked Mile that] Thomas McGrath, a likable and ingenious young poet very largely under the sway of two established "myths"—the Whitman-democratic and the Marxist-revolutionary—has allowed himself to be lured into the camp of the surrealists, apparently by his reading of the current English school of poetry—the same group aptly characterized by W. Y. Tindall as having "achieved a confusion of Marx with Freud." The chances are that this is only a passing allegiance. While it lasts, however, McGrath rattles off such stanzas as this:

    Remember the blind harp tethered in the bathroom?
    Or earlier the surrealist station where,
    Fenced with false faces, and brushing off the eyes
    Which stuck to our naked suits we dined upon the air.

This is rather good, of its sort; but what can one say for something like this?

    Maine is a map of Freud with feminine fine lakes
    And phallic forests wherever the blind eye looks.
    Here the last century exists on rubber crutches,
    And the hours and the enigmas multiply in hutches.

It is really painful to see a poet of real talent occupying himself with these three-finger exercises, which any reasonably fair student can turn out. McGrath has a "line" of his own, based on genuine Western folk-speech …; he hardly needs to lean on such worn props as Dali's crutches. When he wants to, he can find the right words for love, or command anger and revulsion, irony and wit. (pp. 51-2)

In so far as he directs his poetry toward political action, McGrath simplifies too much (as when he exalts the pure love of vagrants above the corrupt love of the rich) and loses his grip as an artist, permitting banalities of diction ("comradeship," "brotherhood," "bourgeois," "upper class," and the like)….

But there is a great deal of life in this poetry, for which one can forgive the lapses into crutches or class-war. (p. 52)

Gerard Previn Meyer, "Enigmas in Hutches," in The Saturday Review of Literature (© 1948 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 16, April 17, 1948, pp. 51-2.

Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Probably it is those distinguished blacklists, and just living in Los Angeles, where everybody is on somebody's blacklist, that has kept Thomas McGrath from his due. For all its tremendous expense of spirit, the Proletarian Thirties produced almost no verse which can be read today without a blush—Edwin Rolfe, Don Gordon, Charles Humboldt, Walter Lowenfels, that's about it. McGrath is a decade younger than most of those people, and, excepting for Lowenfels, more skilled. Further, he is a lot less "cooked." Few of these poems [in New and Selected Poems] are about issues—except the abiding issue of being Thomas McGrath. Poets are most effective in politics when they write-in their own names on all ballots. Whatever his opinions have been, McGrath has always known this. It is the other peoples' opinions which have kept him from being as well known as he deserves, for he is a most accomplished and committed poet.

Kenneth Rexroth, "Written in American," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 21, 1965, pp. 4, 14.∗

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Part I of this extraordinary autobiographical poem [Letter to an Imaginary Friend] was first published in 1962…. McGrath has grown measurably since he wrote that first volume with its hairy nimbus of half-shaken memories of a Dakota youth, of friends half-forgotten or dead, of groping first-doubts stiffened by war experiences. Here the stylistic overtones are Thomas Wolfe without Wolfe's purified identity or fictional frame of reference. But Part II, here published in its entirety for the first time, shows a remarkable gain; McGrath suddenly stands "naked as a studhorse in a rhubarb patch," delivering himself with sharp, stinging certainty. He is proclaiming our lost heritage, naming our traumas—"The Indian is the first wound," and money. McGrath is a writer of long poems, labyrinthine as his life; but in many passages and in the terrible statement of desolation toward the close of Part II he merits rank with the best American poets writing today.

A review of "Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts I and II," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the March 2, 1970 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copy right © 1970 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 197, No. 9, March 2, 1970, p. 79.

The Antioch Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Trying to reconstitute and renew the soured American Dream, Thomas McGrath hopes to move, in life as well as in art, for he is a political man, "beyond history to Origin / To build that Legend where all journies [sic] are one / where Identity / Exists / where speech becomes song." This means he must replace the historical and diseased idea of manifest destiny, individual and national, which gave us Los Angeles, with the communal myth of unitary voyages that end by bringing us together. Unhappily McGrath succeeds no better than other politicians at this hard task, but not, unlike those others, for want of sincerity or passionate devotion. No, [Letter to an Imaginary Friend] is not hypocritical, just very hard to write; for, having chosen the autobiographical form, the poet must, given his theme, make his life the nation's, make us believe that "North Dakota [his boyhood home] is / Everywhere." Too often, though, the personal details do not explode into myth, so that the letter is not written to an imaginary friend but to "Those I have named and the others—flowers of a bitter season—/ They'll know who I mean."

A review of "Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Parts I and II," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1971 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall Winter, 1970–71, p. 465.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Written mostly in long cadenced lines reminiscent of Jeffers, [Letter to an Imaginary Friend] constitutes a loose framework in which anything and everything can be developed as semiautonomous sections. In a medley of memory and observation, the poet ranges back and forth over past and present. Episodes of childhood, youth, today mingle with reflections on social and political events. One moment he describes his first job or the dawning awareness of the nubility of girls, the next he narrates how "The leather priests of the hieratic dollar enclave to bless / The lushworking washing machines of the Protestant Ethic ecumenical / Laundries: to steam the blood from the bills…." There is a Bunyan-sized quality about the book—its length, the vigor and vividness of the infinitely varied sections, the kaleidoscopic picture it gives of mid-century America and one man's response to the spectacle. Both as poetry and as social history, it invites fascinated browsing, and then sustained reading.

A review of "Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts I and II," in Choice (copyright © 1971 by American Library Association; reprinted by permission of the American Library Association), Vol. 8, No. 4, June, 1971, p. 552.

James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas McGrath is an older poet … and the astonishing document of his life, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, illuminates much of what has been forgotten by this generation. Parts I and II of what promises to be an unending chronicle are presented here in 214 wide pages. This project is astonishing, and I find it hard to believe so little attention has been drawn to it…. McGrath's Letter is an incessant, grieving lyric, obsessive and polemical, euphoric and bereaved. The long six-stress line he has chosen acts as an incantation; lines are broken up, dispersed, orchestrated…. It is the narrative of a joyous, terrible journey, during which the poet, like Jacob, finds himself abandoned and blessed.

Throughout, the resonance of personal history is drowned out by the larger concerns of American life during the Depression and World War II. As a boy from a desolate farm in North Dakota driving off to college, McGrath recalls the lean years, the men, his family, girls…. Nothing has been excluded in the telling, because nothing is irrelevant. Solipsism is absent from the Letter because McGrath endured an era when America seemed to be collapsing, not as now, in chaos, but in a grand apocalypse of hope and dread.

Certain things are mentioned in the Letter, not as expiation, but out of need; workers, Party meetings, strikes, polemics against capitalism and its ravages, the dull pathos of alienating labor, old Communist songs are mingled in a collective impulse to claim the world. Not having lived through that period, I feel tempted to search in those arduous times for a passion missing from this enervated decade. (pp. 47-8)

James Atlas, "What Is To Be Done?" (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXIX, No. 1, October, 1971, pp. 45-51.∗

James N. Naiden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Movie At The End Of The World, is a collection of poems written over the past three decades or so that the author wishes to preserve for a contemporary audience. As Franklin Brainard recently pointed out in his review of this book in The Minnesota Daily, McGrath could have profited greatly by "trimming" the contents, by weeding out the less significant poems and thereby giving the reader a leaner, but stronger, collection in terms of the over-all result. But I must agree further with Brainard's assessment that if one reads the book from cover to cover and judges it as a book, the results will be very rewarding. McGrath's efforts over this long span of time reveal a highly accomplished poet, a...

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Charles Potts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

any of u, lost in wundrland, or perfektly aware of wher u r, in th vicinity of a good library, a good bookstore, or a good frends stash on th intellekt, cd perhaps in thos locashns lokate, The Movie at the End of the World … for th quikest way tu th nuclear minimum essential McGrath. not tu imply that Movie … is a huge book and one u cdnt find yr way in for it is a refreshingly slendr undr 200 pages of mor than 30 years of th best short work of one mans publishing history. if u kan read [a] dozen or th entire book and remain as u wer bfor thers litl i kan du for u. i just re read them and hav red th book a fu times bfor and they remain as good as i thot them th first time i tried them….

thes poems r capable of breaking out in such satirik sharpness that i'd guffaw if they hadnt taken mi breath away…. ther is ample musikashn in thes poems. "Gone Away Blues" cd b set tu musik and sung. im opposing mi desire tu quote a lot, prefering u tu go tu th text. he klaims tu c th city blinking in a neon code he reads all tu klearly, going down with all hands. i shd hope so. sumtimes i get th feeling that sum of th poetry puts unecessary formalistik yokes on itself but when its good it makes th format sing and at its best transforms it purely into McGraths own voice…. ther is a place in amerika for McGraths poetry, rite up front with th best of it. (p. 22)

Charles Potts, "Thomas McGrath: Native Son," in Small Press Review (© 1974 by Dustbooks), Vol. 6, No. 2, October, 1974, pp. 21-3.

John Jacob

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McGrath is best known for his great long-poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a work whose epic regional, artistic, and political sweep has extremely affected American poetry. [The poems in Open Songs: Sixty Short Poems] lack the room McGrath sometimes needs to sweep perceptive powers about him, the sense of history that makes him great. They are valuable because they contain the lesson of how a good poet slowly and deliberately fashions the detail of a poetic world, strand by strand, word by word.

John Jacob, in a review of "Open Songs: Sixty Short Poems," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1978 by the...

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Donald Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Curse and invective are strangely missing from American poetry. Poets save their invective for other poets, in hate mail that causes short circuits in post offices all over the country. After Pound slammed out at Wall Street bankers, what is there? You can find a little in Allen Ginsberg, a little in Robert Bly. But for the most part our poets are public lovers and private haters. We lack public denunciation, like this:

And these but the stammering simulacra of the Rand Corpse wise men—
Scientists who have lost the good of the intellect, mechanico-humanoids
Antiseptically manufactured by the Faustian humunculus process.
And how they dream in...

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Frederick C. Stern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Waiting for the Angel, Thomas McGrath's most recent book of poems, is about the past and about the expectation of death, among other things. It is also about an effort to "angelize the demons," as McGrath says in an as yet unpublished portion of the third part of his Letter to an Imaginary Friend…. The past as shaping force, death as personal and political fact, the horror and loneliness of living in an inhuman and dehumanizing society—all these have been the stuff of McGrath's twelve or more volumes of published poetry. In Waiting for the Angel these themes remain, though some new ones are added, and the effort is to make much that is demonic in the world McGrath perceives more "angelic,"...

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Roger Mitchell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I think of some of the better-known poetry of the early fifties, I think first of Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke and of a poetry that was intensely, sometimes cloyingly, personal….

The thirties were not just over in the fifties: they were devalidated…. The loss of faith in the public life and in progress in general was wide and deep, and it provided a rich ground for the cultivation of conservative social and political ideas. After the war there was an eager return to "normality" in human affairs, a normality that neatly ignored the Depression in fashioning fantasies about what was, in fact, a new sociological occurrence, the suburb. It was also a time of an...

(The entire section is 843 words.)