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Thomas McGrath on Language

Thomas McGrath
Manifesto: No More Cattlemen or Sheepmen--We Want Outlaws!!

What is Crazy Horse trying to do?

We are hunting for the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine of the Authentic Resistance. We are following the Wilderness Trace toward the rebels of the present and the future. We are trying to organize spontaneous insurrectionary lobotomies to remove man-eating spinning-wheels from the heads of our native capitalists. In short, we are the Ghost Dancers of man's central Solidarity.

What kind of poetry to put in the Medicine Bundle?

In the first place a poetry where the surrealist lions of Lorca and the classically magnetic lambs of Marvell and Crane fly up together: as a great beast of affirmation: absolute light. A poetry grand, armored, bawdy, seditious of death; of a violent elegance; as of clouds full of diamonds and lightning; of suicidal assaults on new states of being; of ultimate daring; of love, rage, generosity, failure, truth.

And, at the other pole, the lone crow and darkness: Basho, Issa, the poetry of the moon.

In between, the destructive element of a practical poesy--everything to help blow up the system: satire, japery, extravagance, humor, Brecht, case histories, parody, practical jokes, criticism. Everything against God, against Hollywood.

We, the Irregulars of Crazy Horse, Ghost Dancers of the essential existential Solidarity, now summon into being the hosts of the new resistance. Give up those bird-cages built for lions! Alienation is not enough! Jawsmiths, nightwalkers, moonbirds: Unite!

From North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982)

Thomas McGrath

Language is always a little out of date and so it always needs reforming: because the world changes: because the real landscape that underlies the landscape of the poem erodes and alters; because our consciousness changes to catch up with the changes in the world; because the world is never adequate to our needs and desires and so we must change it--and by doing so change our needs and desires. The best poets find the new words for this new world of change and need. They may not be understood or felt until we see that the world is changing and "filling in" their words. Then "illusion" is transformed into "reality."

The search for purity and limit in language is often a hedge against anxiety--anxiety that results from a glimpse of the flux and change that is the world. A poet feeling this often sets up a metaphysical system of absolutes, values derived from picking the bones of various systems, to set against the flux. Or, if less honest, he buries his absolutes. His poems, like the pointer on a compass, always turn to these magnets. True North is always under our feet! He has found the still point of the turning world and there, locked in the chastity belt of "purified" language, he remains.

I prefer the impure. There is, after all, in our time, another tradition--that leading from Hart Crane and others. What we want and need, in my view, now, is not this questionable purity but a language, to paraphrase Louis Simpson, like the belly of a shark, a language that can digest anything.

Language is part of the forces of production, for the poet--it is what he uses to create his poetic "goods." The language chosen by or given to some poets, like certain kinds of machines, can produce variety: "aphorisms, epigrams, songs, song-like poems and so on" as Roethke had it, the tremendous range of "impure poetry" in Neruda's term. Alas, our time tends toward specialization. But if you want to make wood for the winter, a chain saw is better than a stone axe.

If we continue the analogy we will see that even more important than the forces are relations of production. If the poet thinks he owns the means of production (that language factory where the private vision must be socialized into the public myth) when in fact he only uses what has been given to him (any tradition within the bourgeois limit) he will produce a consciousness that is at least in part false. The American worker thinks he is free, but he is chained to the machine. "So politics must be in command." We must try to find our real relationship to things.

* * * * * *

Language gives us perception and orientation--which includes the possibility of lying signposts, false consciousness. Through language we appropriate the world and our selves, existence creating essence in a process that can never be complete. History, that is class struggle, begins with alienation and exile when we were cast out of "Eden." History is alienation as it appears to consciousness. it is the sense of division, of duality, which the fig leaves symbolized, the pain of being incomplete. When we return to Eden we will possess full consciousness and alienation will end.

Satori, those "mystical" returns to what was and will be, can only be realized individually. They are returns to the Eden of before the snake. They are brief because Eden is not big enough for all of us, and complete consciousness cannot be merely personal--the appropriation and internalization of the world through action, art, and language is a social process. What we feel now is the pain of duality and conflict: Man vs. the World (which is men struggling with themselves, nature and other men). In the beginning was the world. But in the transcendence subject and object will become the Word: Mannature. Then love must change its form--when the Flesh is made Word--and death, for the unalienated will have to be reinvented.

From North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982)

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