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.)
[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 general. Of these, perhaps the most remarkable individual poem is an ode entitled: "The Drowned Man: Death Between Two Rivers," in which the Leaning Man, symbol of indecision, discovers himself in that Waste Land which fringes all industrial civilizations. This ode, however, is not a dry statement of observations, as in T. S. Eliot's famous poem, but has all the excitement of a constantly searching intelligence.
In his wartime poems, collected under the heading "Wounds in the Rain," McGrath displays much anger against the senseless forces that have produced so brutal a situation, but at the same time he succeeds in capturing with ruthless accuracy the disturbing atmosphere of war and the conflicting emotions of the active soldier. If judged by these war poems alone he would clearly have established himself as one of the more vital and...
(The entire section is 5,374 words.)