Thomas McGrath Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Conquering Horse, Choruses for the City, and Paradise (all undated) are three of more than a dozen screenplays completed by Thomas McGrath. These are primarily sociopolitical documentaries, written for such noted directors as Mike Cimino. McGrath was the author of two novels—The Gates of Ivory, the Gates of Horn (1957, 1987) and This Coffin Has No Handles (1985, serial; 1988, book)—and completed a number of interviews and brief biographical and nonfiction prose pieces, as well as short literary essays. He helped to found or served as editor of Crazy Horse, Masses and Mainstream, and the California Quarterly.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Well into his lifetime, Thomas McGrath began to receive recognition in the upper Midwest. Some readers have complained, however, of critical neglect on a wider scale, which they attribute to literary and political biases. (A few of McGrath’s works were initially received more positively outside the United States than within it.) His incredible formal range may have precluded his neat assimilation into any particular literary camp. He produced traditional folk ballads, surrealist free verse, narrative blank verse, and prose poems; he published a collection of very short, haiku-like lyrics, as well as a sprawling, two-volume, experimental autobiography in verse, comparable to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958), and Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930). He wrote social satire and political invective as well as intimate, personal meditations.

Despite his somewhat ambiguous or incomplete critical acceptance, however, McGrath was awarded—primarily late in his career—a number of distinguished prizes and honors: the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1989), the Shelley Memorial Award (1989), a Rhodes Scholarship, an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship in Poetry, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Bush Fellowships. Not long before his death, he was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and was presented the Distinguished Achievement Award by the Society for Western Literature.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Cohen, Marty. “The Imaginary Friendships of Thomas McGrath.” Parnassus 21, nos. 1/2 (1996): 193-212. An extensive review of books by and on McGrath.

Di Piero, W. S. “Politics in Poetry: The Case of Thomas McGrath.” New England Review 17, no. 4 (Fall, 1995): 41. An analysis of the political aspects of McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend.

Gibbons, Reginald, and Terrence Des Pres, eds. Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Originally published as a special issue of TriQuarterly in 1987, contains some valuable biographical information on McGrath, including a firsthand account of his waterfront years as a labor organizer and agitator. It includes the reminiscences of former students as well.

McGrath, Thomas. “Surviving as a Writer: The Politics of Poetry/The Poetry of Politics.” Interview by Jim Dochniak. Sez: A Multi-Racial Journal of Poetry and People’s Culture 2/3 (1981): A-L, special section. A twelve-page transcript of an informal interview at the University of Minnesota. McGrath here touches on the childhood sources of his writing, his socialist politics, and his international travels. He distinguishes between tactical and strategic poetry and discusses his struggle to survive financially.

McKenzie, James, comp. “Conversations with Thomas McGrath.” North Dakota Quarterly 56 (Fall, 1988): 135-150. Compiled here are anecdotes and excerpts from McGrath discussions, interviews, and panel events at the University of North Dakota throughout the years. Topics include McGrath’s association with the Beat poets and the autobiographical background to Letter to an Imaginary Friend. His former wife Alice McGrath joins in.

North Dakota Quarterly 50 (Fall, 1982). In this special issue, an assortment of writers, students, and friends reflect, sometimes whimsically, on McGrath and his work. Edited by Robert W. Lewis, it includes poems written in honor of McGrath and important essays on his career and his politics, as well as McGrath’s “Statement to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.”

Stern, Frederick, ed. The Revolutionary Poet in the United States. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. A two-hundred-page collection of critical essays, retrospectives, and scholarship on McGrath. This book includes work by Diane Wakoski, Hayden Carruth, Studs Terkel, and E. P. Thompson. The volume is a good collection of supplementary material as well, including a chronology of works, biographical sketch, and complete bibliography.