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Thomas McGrath's Life and Career

Fredrick C. Stern
A Biographical Sketch of Thomas McGrath

THOMAS McGRATH WAS born in 1916, the oldest son of James and Catherine (Shea) McGrath. There were four younger brothers, Jim (killed in World War II), Joe, Martin, and the youngest, Jack. His sister Kathleen was born between Joe and Martin. His parents were farmers, the second generation of them, working the land in Ransom County, North Dakota, near the town of Sheldon, about forty miles west of the Minnesota border, between the Maple and Sheyenne Rivers.

McGrath went to grade and high school in Sheldon, and then started somewhat delayed and intermittent University studies at Moorhead State University. Eventually, he attended the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, where he earned a B.A. in 1939. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he found that he could not use it immediately, because of the outbreak of World War II. He had received offers from a number of universities to begin work on an advanced degree—as had the other Rhodes Scholars that year—and accepted an offer from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. There he studied, most intensely with Cleanth Brooks, was involved in radical political activity, wrote, and met Alan Swallow, who published McGrath's first book of poems as part of the development of The Swallow Press.

In the 1940-1941 academic year McGrath taught at Colby College in Maine, but he did not find teaching there entirely satisfactory and thus left at the end of the academic year to go to New York City. There he wrote, organized, did legal research for attorneys engaged in "political" cases, and worked at the Kearney Shipyards, until he entered the armed forces in 1942. Most of his time in the service was spent on Amchitka Island. He was discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1945. After a period of adjustment he was finally able to undertake the year of study provided by the Rhodes Scholarship and spent 1947-1948 at New College, Oxford, England.

Returning to the United States after some travel, McGrath engaged in various occupations and eventually found a faculty position at Los Angeles State University, where he taught from 1951 to 1954. His dismissal from this institution was directly connected with his appearance as an unfriendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, when that infamous body brought its hearings to Los Angeles in 1953.

From 1954 to 1960 McGrath worked variously as a secondary school teacher at a private institution, for a company that manufactured carved wooden animals, and at other jobs that might earn him his keep. He wrote film and television scripts from time to time, several of the former for director Mike Cimino. In 1960 he resumed his academic career, teaching at C. W. Post College (now part of Long Island University) in New York. At about this time he founded, with his wife Genia, the journal Crazy Horse.

In 1962 he returned to North Dakota, where he taught for five years at North Dakota State University at Fargo. In 1969 McGrath accepted a faculty position at Moorhead State University in Minnesota, where he had first begun his studies as an undergraduate. At the end of the 1982- 1983 academic year, he retired from Moorhead State and moved to Minneapolis, where he now lives.

McGrath has held a variety of significant editorial positions and has been awarded a variety of distinguished prizes and fellowships for his work as a poet. Among the former, in addition to his founding editorship of Crazy Horse, he has been a contributing editor of Mainstream (later Masses and Mainstream) and has served on the editorial board of the California Quarterly. He has held an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship in Poetry (1965), has twice been awarded National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1974, 1982), was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1967, and was twice a Bush Fellow (1976, 1981). In May 1981 the University of North Dakota awarded him a Doctorate of Letters. In 1977 he received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for Western Literature. In 1986, The Associated Writing Programs presented McGrath an award at a dinner in Chicago, at which tributes to him were presented by author "Studs" Terkel and poets Philip Levine and Michael Anania. In the same year, a "Ceili" was held by Minneapolis's "the loft," at which many distinguished poets and writers celebrated McGrath's seventieth birthday.

McGrath has been married three times, to Marion, Alice, and Eugenia (Genia), all of whom appear in his poetry. He is the father of a son, Tomasito, to whom much poetry from McGrath's later work is addressed and dedicated.

from The Revolutionary Poet in the United States: The Poetry of Thomas McGrath. Copyright 1988 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

Thomas McGrath

My mother's father came to North Dakota around the tail end of the '70's, maybe it was '80. He came in working on the railroad--that would be the Northern Pacific and, I believe, the Great Northern--they both come into Fargo. He came to Fargo and he homesteaded, right in the center--practically the center of Fargo, so the story goes. But he was broke, so he got a job freighting from Fargo to Winnipeg, and according to him, he used to drive these old Red River oxcarts with the wheels about as high as the ceiling, because it was a gumbo mud there. And oxen. And he'd make that trip up to Winnipeg from Fargo, until ... Well, it was when the seasons made it possible. I don't suppose he could have done that in the winter--probably would have frozen to death. And there were still a few Indians around, not that they were killing people, but they were there--enough to ride in on my grandfather halfway up to Winnipeg and want to take some of his flour. Which he did not refuse to give them--they scared the shit out of him. And he was an anti-Indian man from that point on. He had an old Civil War, I suppose, Remington.

In any case, he did this for a while, I don't know for how long. Then he traded off this place in what is now more or less the center of Fargo this is the story [laughs]--because the land was too low-lying. The Red River, in winter, or at the end of summer, is thirty--oh, it may be fifty feet wide, around Fargo, something like that. You couldn't drown in it, probably it's too thick with mud--that's why it's called the Red River (though people did use to swim in it when I was a kid; I remember coming into Fargo once and seeing people swimming near a dam, which is no longer there). So, he trades this off. In the spring, see, the river would--it's in a valley, it's the center of what was an old glacial lake bottom, Lake Agassiz. So the land is lake bottom, it's one of the three richest places in the world, and when the river gets over its banks, which are no more than about twenty feet up, it's got nothing to stop it and it can be thirty miles wide, practically! And about so deep [measures inches with his hand--and laughs]. I mean it just rolls out in the fields and that's it. I'm exaggerating a bit, but I mean it is something.

He didn't think that was a good place to farm, so he traded off and got a place out on the Maple River, which is outside the valley, about sixty-some miles from Fargo. And that's where he started out. He sent back to Ireland and he got a wife who was about three times his size from over the Shannon, where the English said they would drive the Irish to hell or Connacht. And so, he got one of those beauties from over there (and probably she was). She was a Gaelic speaker, whereas his Gaelic was very, very little. And so here he is, about this tall [indicating very short stature], and here she is, a giantess! And then they produced two sons and four daughters. He parlayed that bit of land--because the times were good, the prices were good--to a point where he owned, I don't know, a couple of thousand acres of land, which was big in those days. He gave a section of land (640 acres), buildings, cattle, horses and a huge threshing machine, to his oldest son, and the same thing minus the threshing machine to his other son, and nothing to his daughters until much later, because they were getting married.

He became very rich on paper, as a lot of people did out there who got there early. He lost his ass, totally, and one of his sons lost all that land and all his stuff. At the end, when I knew him, when I was going to high school and when I was staying with them, he had one miserable little farm left, and, I don't know--he owned a few acres, some of which he gave to his daughters, split up a half-section among four daughters.

So eventually my father, after years--a lifetime--of renting land, managed to--as a result of the war, the Second World War, good times, good crops and good pay--managed to own that land. So, he wound up, my father--when he was, oh God, must have been around sixty or so at that time--a landowner, after all those years! I think it really sort of amazed him. He always seemed to think it was kind of funny, that he had this. He had worked in the woods and to a limited degree on railroads, so he was more cosmopolitan [laughs] than most of the people around, most of his contemporaries. And then, in the woods he encountered the Wobblies. And that's where he picked up a certain point of view.

From Thomas McGrath: Life and The Poem. Ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres. A Special Issue of TriQuarterly magazine. 1987, Northwestern University Press. Copyright 1987 by Triquarterly.

Terrence Des Pres

Thomas McGrath was born in 1916 on a farm near Sheldon, North Dakota, of Irish Catholic parents. Every aspect of this heritage--the place, the hard times, the religious and political culture--informs his art in a multitude of ways. His religious upbringing figures centrally in Part Three--'the Christmas section"--of Letter, and in his poetry at large there is a steady preference for the ritualistic forms and sacramental language of the Church. Being Irish also worked in his favor when, in 1941, he entered the maritime world of seamen and longshoremen--the Irish community that worked Manhattan's West Side docks--where the fight for reform went forward on the piers and in the bars and walkups of Chelsea. There McGrath worked as a labor organizer and, briefly, as a shipyard welder. His politics led him into a world of experience that, in turn, backed up his political beliefs in concrete ways. To be a Red on the waterfront was to be the natural prey of goon squads patrolling the docks for the bosses and the racketeers. It was also to see the world of industrial work at firsthand. In Part Two of Letter McGrath recalls his job as a welder at Federal Drydock & Shipyard:

"After the war we'll get them," Packy says.
                                                                He dives
Into the iron bosque to bring me another knickknack.
The other helpers swarm into it. Pipes are swinging
As the chain-falls move on their rails in.
                                                            Moment of peace.
The welders stand and stretch, their masks lifted, palefaced.
Then the iron comes onto the stands; the helpers turn to the wheels;
The welders, like horses in fly-time, jerk their heads and the masks
Drop. Now demon-dark they sit at the wheeled turntables,
Strike their arcs and light spurts out of their hands.

The war we'll shake the bosses' tree till the money rains
Like crab-apples. Faith, we'll put them under the ground."
After the war.
                                Left wing of the IRA
That one,
                    Still dreaming of dynamite.
                                                            I nod my head,
The mask falls.
                            Our little smokes rise into roaring heaven.

These lines are full of commotion and wordplay, for example the double meanings in "faith" and "war" and the "nod" at the end. The scene itself suggests McGrath's larger figure of the "round-dance," his emblem of communal action wherein his double vision--materialist and sacramentalist at once--is reconciled with itself. In the passage above, the rites of work become an act of prayer, a moment of working together beneath the hegemony of a faith now defeated. After the war the bosses had won and it was Packy O'Sullivan gone, him with his curse on capital. McGrath returned to Chelsea to find everything changed, his friends dead or departed, the vigorous radicalism of the National Maritime Union bought off and a new breed of "labor-fakers" running the show:

And the talking walls had forgotten our names, down at the Front,
Where the seamen fought and the longshoremen struck the great ships
In the War of the Poor.
                                And the NMU had moved to the deep south
(Below Fourteenth) and built them a kind of Moorish whorehouse
For a union hall. And the lads who built that union are gone.
Dead. Deep sixed. Read out of the books. Expelled.

McGrath's family immigrated from Ireland and the Shea's (his mother's side) were Gaelic-speaking. Some arrived by way of Ellis Island, others through Canada. Both grandfathers worked their way west as immigrant laborers on the railroad. They got as far as the Dakota frontier and settled as homesteaders, living at first in the ubiquitous dirtbuilt "soddies." For young McGrath, the specific gifts of family and place included the liturgical richness of Catholicism to fill up frontier emptiness, but also the political richness of farming in a part of the country and at a time when the broad-based Farmers' Alliance was strong enough (during the 1880's and early 1890's) to pursue the first and only nationwide attempt at a national third party, the People's Party, thereby awakening radical consciousness and endorsing a spirit of grassroots insurgency. From Texas up through Kansas and into the great northwest, the Farmers' Alliance gave rural populations their first taste of dignity. For the first time power was more than a courthouse coterie. Decent life for a while looked possible. And from early on, this unique addition to American political culture, now called Populism, was strong in the Dakotas.

Neighborhood, for McGrath growing up, was part of an adversary culture with collective traditions including self-help and sharing. This state-within-a-state gave countless small farmers a defense against the unchecked plundering of grain companies, banks and the baronial railroads. When McGrath curses wealth and the money system, we should keep in mind that his family was working to get a foothold in America during the depths of the Gilded Age, our most ruthless era of capital accumulation. Boom and bust were the signs of the time, when economic depression and political helplessness ruined "plain folks" by hundreds of thousands and, an important point, made every year's harvest--each autumn's race with nature and the money supply--a time of national crisis.

The glory days of the Farmers' Alliance were over by McGrath's time, but the political imagination of the populist tradition was ingrained and open to new forms of expression each time economic disaster shredded the nation. Until World War I, members of the Industrial Workers of the World--the Wobblies--were a strong and often strong-armed force in key sectors of labor (lumber and mining most firmly), carrying forward the tradition of "agrarian revolt." After the war the Non-Partisan League (started in 1916, the year of McGrath's birth) organized the vote and worked toward the public ownership of vital facilities. In North Dakota the League came to control the state legislature and established a public granary system. The populist spirit thrived on these successes; it also counted on a tradition of communal work that rural peoples have known since the dawn, maybe, of independent yeomanry. This broader background, as McGrath suggests in an interview, underwrites his own kind of visionary populism:

The primary experience out in these states, originally, anyway, was an experience of loneliness, because the people were so far away from everything. They had come out here and left behind whatever was familiar, and you find this again and again in letters that women wrote out here. The other side of that loneliness was a sense of community, which was much more developed--even as late as thirty or forty years ago--than it is now. The community of swapped labor. This was a standard thing on the frontier; everybody got together and helped put up a house or put up a soddy when a new family came along. You helped with this, that or the other, and you swapped labor back and forth all the time and that community was never defined. It wasn't a geographical thing; it was a sort of commune of people who got along well together, and right in the same actual neighborhood there might be two or three of these.... This sense of solidarity ... is one of the richest experiences that people can have. It's the only true shield against alienation and deracination and it was much more developed in the past than it is now.

In McGrath's poetry this "community of swapped labor" and the populist sentiment rising from it, cannot be overestimated. This was the political milieu, or simply the spirit of place, that he inherited. Parts One and Two of Letter to an Imaginary Friend, in which McGrath evokes his roots, are devoted to moments of compact drama recalling the populist legacy as it spun itself out and into his soul. The Great Depression was the definitive learning experience for McGrath's own generation, the testing ground for political belief of any kind and, as it seemed to him from his own encounters, the historical proof of populism's capacity to endure as a force. Drifters of every sort filled the land, men from different backgrounds, some of them schooled, others not, all of them angry and talking politics nonstop. Companionship with laborers like these provided the forum for McGrath's education--working, for example, with a logging team:

All that winter in the black cold, the buzz-saw screamed and whistled,
And the rhyming hills complained. In the noontime stillness,
Thawing our frozen beans at the raw face of a fire,
We heard the frost-bound tree-boles booming like cannon,
A wooden thunder, snapping the chains of the frost.

Those were the last years of the Agrarian City
City of swapped labor
Circle of warmth and work
Frontier's end and last wood-chopping bee
The last collectivity stamping its feet in the cold. [. . .]

The weedy sons of midnight enterprise:
Stump-jumpers and hog-callers from the downwind counties
The noonday mopus and the coffee guzzling Swedes
Prairie mules
Moonfaced Irish from up-country farms
Sand-hill cranes
And lonesome deadbeats from a buck brush parish.

So, worked together.

Diction shoves and bristles within a theme of solidarity, affording McGrath's figuration of harmony-in-conflict another lively
example. The object of praise is again a community united through work--a further glimpse of "the round-dance"--and again,the world it comes from is gone. Some hundred lines later McGrath's mood turns elegiac as he remembers the collective rapport of a time when people of all sorts came together in common need to help out; and then how they lost and disappeared. I quote the following passage at length to discover the tonal shifts, the conjunction of blessing and cursing, the reach of language and then the historical complexity of events being rendered:

The talk flickered like fires.
The gist of it was, it was a bad world and we were the boys to change it.
And it was a bad world; and we might have.

In that round song, Marx lifted his ruddy
Flag; and Bakunin danced (And the Technocrats
Were hatching their ergs . . .)
                                                        A mile east, in the dark,
The hunger marchers slept in the court house lobby
After its capture: where Webster and Boudreaux
Bricklayer, watchmaker, Communists, hoped they were building
The new society, inside the shell of the old--
Where the cops came in in the dark and we fought down the stairs.

That was the talk of the states those years, that winter.
Conversations of east and west, palaver
Borne coast-to-coast on the midnight freights where Cal was riding
The icy red-balls.
                                Music under the dogged-down
Dead lights of the beached caboose
Wild talk, and easy enough now to laugh.
That's not the point and never was the point.
What was real was the generosity, expectant hope,
The open and true desire to create the good.

Passages of this kind epitomize McGrath's poetic enterprise. No mere catalog, this is a kind of lyrical documentation at which McGrath excels, and through which he preserves his firsthand sense of the nation at odds with itself. He bears witness to "the generous wish," and curses the McCarthy plague ("the hunting" conducted by HUAC) that put an end to "talk of the states those years":

Now, in another autumn, in our new dispensation
Of an ancient, man-chilling dark, the frost drops over
My garden's starry wreckage.
                                            Over my hope.
The generous dead of my years.
                                                    Now, in the chill streets
I hear the hunting, the long thunder of money.
A queer parade goes past: Informers, shit-eaters, fetishists,
Punkin-faced cretins, and the little deformed traders
In lunar nutmegs and submarine bibles.
And the parlor anarchist comes by, to hang in my ear
His tiny diseased pearls like the guano of meat-eating birds.
But then was a different country, though the children of light,
                                                                                        gone out
To the dark people in the villages, did not come back . . .
But what was real, in all that unreal talk
Of ergs and of middle peasants (perhaps someone born
Between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, the unmapped country)
Was the generous wish.
                                                        To talk of the People
Is to be a fool. But they were the sign of the People,
Those talkers.

The parts of Letter I've been quoting give the poem its authority. They mark episodes of personal importance to McGrath's political development. They are also--the impassioned talk of the Depression years, the welders on nightshift during the war--representative moments in the life of the nation. McGrath has deliberately stationed himself to document the populist spirit in action from the thirties on through the forties and fifties, and then beyond into our own time. He is on the lookout for evidence of political promise, and a witness to communal possibilities. His care is for people working and living together--the productive spirit of Communitas. Without question, this is McGrath's grand theme, based on his poetry's recollection of his own experience as a boy, as a young man and then active poet. His art is motivated by a visionary care for the future, but also by "grief for a lost world: that round song and commune / When work was a handclasp."

When McGrath began publishing in the early forties, his work was shaped by the strain and agitation of the thirties. For political visionaries it had been a painful but exciting time to come of age. On the disheartening evidence of events, the future was bound to be a glory. After the lament, the exaltation. This doubling--first the bad news, then the good--is the form of the American jeremiad, a type of political-visionary stance that thrives on unfulfillment. It owes much to our founding fathers and little to Marx, but yields an enlarged notion of consensus when recast in Marxist terms. For McGrath, in any case, the jeremiad is a natural vehicle; it allows him to rail and reconfirm, to deplore the failures and backsliding of his tribe without abandoning hope.

In the poems of the forties, McGrath announces and proclaims. His language is abstract and mythic, a style distinct from the kind of line and language in Letter. Repeatedly, in these early poems, the poet calls to his tribe and predicts redemptive apocalypse. In "Blues for Warren," a poem of 197 lines with the inscription "killed spring 1942, north sea," the dead man is praised as one "who descended into hell for our sakes; awakener / Of the hanging man, the Man of the Third Millenium." A political prophecy is informed by traditional archetypes, while Marx and the Church are made to join in common cause. Here the hero, a "Scapegoat and Savior;' is united--in spirit and in body--with the dispossessed multitudes his death will help redeem:

Those summers he rode the freights between Boston and Frisco
With the cargoes of derelicts, garlands of misery,
The human surplus, the interest on dishonor,
And the raw recruits of a new century.

Much of McGrath's work in his early style--collected in The Movie at the End of the World--declares belief, addresses action and actors in the political arena, blesses and blames. Many of these poems are informed by a sense of humor that is tough and playful at once, a manner that reaches a comic highpoint and takes on a new, easy-going confidence with a little volume of poems printed by International Publishers in 1949. Entitled Longshot O'Leary's Garland of Practical Poesie, the book is dedicated to the friends of McGrath's waterfront days in New York. Most of these poems express the spirit enacted by the title. The centerpiece is a ballad of nineteen stanzas, "He's a Real Gone Guy: A Short Requiem for Percival Angleman," celebrating the death of a local gangster. Like Brecht, from whom he learned a great deal, McGrath often praises renegades and losers, figures that rebuke the prevailing order as part of capital's bad conscience. "Short Requiem" is an exercise, so to say, in jocular realism, a satire that goes to the tune of "The Streets of Laredo." The violence of the west comes east and this is stanza one:

As I walked out in the streets of Chicago,
As I stopped in a bar in Manhattan one day,
I saw a poor weedhead dressed up like a sharpie,
Dressed up like a sharpie all muggled and fey.

The poem portrays a man who was a worker getting nowhere and who turned, therefore, to the profits of crime. Here is the core of the dialogue between the poet and the crook:

"Oh I once was a worker and had to keep scuffling;
I fought for my scoff with the wolf at the door.
But I made the connection and got in the racket,
Stopped being a business man's charity whore.

"You'll never get yours if you work for a living,
But you may make a million for somebody else.
You buy him his women, his trips to Miami,
And all he expects is the loan of yourself."

"I'm with you," I said, "but here's what you've forgotten;
A working stiffs helpless to fight on his own,
But united with others he's stronger than numbers.
We can win when we learn that we can't win alone."

In the uproar and aftermath of the Depression, a poem like this would find its grateful audience. But by the time it appeared in 1949, labor was damping down and in the schools the New Criticism was setting narrower, more cautious standards of literary judgment. McGrath, with his Brechtian huff, was out in the cold, although any reader nursed on Eliot might still appreciate the poem's hollow-man ending:

He turned and went out to the darkness inside him
To the Hollywood world where believers die rich,
Where free enterprise and the ties of his childhood
Were preparing his kingdom in some midnight ditch.

I have cited this poem because I like it, but also because in ways not expected it surpasses its Marxist scene (the world as classes in conflict) with a vision of community (the workers of the world united) that in the last stanza translates a political predicament into spiritual terms. I take it that McGrath, in Longshot O'Leary, was after a style at once streetwise and jubilant. He begins to count on slang and local patois more directly to invigorate his diction. A distinctly "Irish" note (nearly always at play in the later poetry) is struck in namings, allusions and parody. Humor becomes a leavening element, and the comedy of wordplay keeps the spirit agile in hard situations. And now McGrath can imagine his audience, lost though it might be. His model derives from the men and women he worked with in New York before the war, tough-minded socialists devoted day by day to the cause, a working commune worth tribal regard. To call this tribe back into action, to witness its past and praise its future, becomes McGrath's poetic task.

In 1954 McGrath took a job at Los Angeles State College, a teaching position that did not last long. The spirit of McCarthy was closing down "the generous wish," and McGrath, after declaring to a HUAC committee that he would "prefer to take [his] stand with Marvell, Blake, Shelley and Garcia Lorca," found himself jobless and without recourse. Being blacklisted was an honor of sorts, but money and prospects were in short supply. So was hope for a better world. It was then that McGrath began his thirty-years' work on Letter. It was then, too, that the earlier, more formal style gave way to the lyrical expansiveness, rooted in his Dakota heritage, that marks McGrath's best poetry. As a friendly critic puts it, "we can at least make an honest guess that McGrath's direct experience of repression in the early fifties threw him back into touch with his earlier experiences." Counting his losses, it must have seemed that praise and blame were not enough, that the defense of his art would require enlargement of resources as a witness--some way, that is, of speaking for the nation as well as for himself, a song of self valid for all. What he discovered is that each of us lives twice: not only that we are first in the world and then make of it what we can through the word, but also that each of us bears a representative (political) as well as an individual (private) life. The representative parts occur when self and history intersect, and to make these distinctions is to suggest one way that politics and poetry converge. By the time he came to write Letter, McGrath saw that "In the beginning was the world!" and that he would have to locate himself exactly at the crossroads where self and world meet:

All of us live twice at the same time--once uniquely and once representatively. I am interested in those moments when my unique personal life intersects with something bigger, when my small brief moment has a part in "fabricating the legend."

Excerpted from a longer essay in Thomas McGrath: Life and The Poem. Ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres. A Special Issue of TriQuarterly magazine. 1987, Northwestern University Press. Copyright 1987 by Triquarterly.

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