Thomas McGrath's Radicalism
From an interview with Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres
TDP: You spoke of your father as having acquired a kind of gut-level radicalism, or sort of breathing it in with the air, from people around him; and you yourself must have picked up a good deal of that as you worked with field teams and what not. But you say of him that he never had any theory--he just responded in a strongly-formed way which he picked up as a kind of tradition, but he never read any of the classic books.
TDP: But you do have theory. How did you go about getting that, and why?
McGRATH: Well, I guess what happened was that I got a basic kind of radicalization out of my father and out of people around him, and people who passed through when I was a kid, working. Somewhere in high school, I read a little of Marx, and that seemed to pick up these things that my father had talked about, in a different kind of way. My father says, "Can't trust any of those rich sons-of-bitches" and Marx talks about the ruling bourgeoisie. And eventually, I guess, I made some kind of connection. And then I began to read in college, I began to read some of Marx.
TDP: On your own? Or did you take a course?
McGRATH: On my own. No, there were no courses in Marxism. [Laughs.] Later, I did meet an English guy who taught a history-of-modern-Europe kind of stuff. This guy, who was a Marxist, he really opened my eyes. Because he's not just telling me what happened. He wasn't interested in dates, he was interested in what caused this to happen. And so I got to know him, he then gave me some of what were current books of Strachey, for example--not Lytton, but the other guy, John, who was really the most powerful writer of the theorists, and maybe apologists, of the Popular Front times, which was the latter part of the thirties. So, bit by bit, I began to get a sense of where things were at, and I began to read Marx in a fairly persistent and systematic way--and others, Bakunin and all the rest. I began to put together a kind of a Marxist view of things.
And from there, I met some of the people off-campus, radicals, and eventually I was in the Communist Party and I was told, "Now, look, comrade, you ought to read this," and I did. There were some brilliant people there in that little CP group in Grand Forks. Most of them were off-campus, some were students, but most of them were working-class guys--unemployed because, you know, at that time practically everybody was out of work.
TDP: Did you have long talk sessions?
McGRATH: Oh, yeah, right. They were always straightening me out [laughs] because I was always ... [laughs] I tended to be aberrational at that time. [Laughs.]
TDP: How did you move from campus to off-campus?--the average student wouldn't.
McGRATH: Well, it happened this way. At the very beginning of the war in Spain, I wasn't in college; I was out for a year because I didn't have the money, and I had reached the point of Wobbly anarchic notions that all newspapers were just a pack of lies, and they were put out by the enemy. I never read them. Except once in a while Id see a headline. And I saw a headline, "The Rebels in Spain Do This and That" and I became a rebel. [Laughs.] And a friend of mine came back from college in the spring and we started talking about the war and discovered that we were on the opposite sides. And I couldn't figure how this could be, because we had been in accord, pretty much, up to that point. And so, he said, "Well, you dumb bastard, don't you know who the rebels are? They're Fascists!" [Laughs.] I started reading the papers again! [Laughs.]
So, after that, I began to attend a little bit more. And then, when I was in college I ran into all these people who, to one degree or another, had some political sense, among the students. And then some student group invited a Communist to come and talk. He made it clear what was going on--which had all been fuzzed before that. And we spent a long time, some of us, talking with him afterwards, and went out and drank beer. And eventually he said to a few of us--we'd see him occasionally--"Listen, why don't you come down and talk with some of my fellow comrades here?" And so we said O.K. and we did. And so, some of us, then, after a bit, became party members. They weren't . . . they were kind of slow about taking us in. They said, "Well, let's see here, we'll give you a couple of months and see what you do."
TDP: Were you a student at the time you joined the party?
McGRATH: Yeah, I was a college student. But as I say, they said, "First of all, you're a candidate and we'll see." And so, after a couple of months or so, a couple of us went into the party. Later maybe another one or two--they were very choosy in those days. This was before the American Popular Front thing, which I never approved--voted against in the referendum on it--and among other things, they asked, "Are you willing to do illegal work?" So, I thought that one over and I said, "Yeah, I will." That question, after the Popular Front days, I dont suppose was asked, though I guess it was probably assumed. You know, some of the illegal work didn't amount to a goddamn thing. I mean, you went out and wrote on the walls or plastered up posters. Nothing would happen to you except you get popped in the slammer for overnight, and then they'd probably kick you out, as a public nuisance or something. Though other things could happen, and ... anyway, that was the way it was for me there.
And I went on reading, as best I could, and I read--well, I always had the notion that I wanted to read every book that had ever been written--but didn't get very far. [Laughs.] I wasn't like Thomas Wolfe, of whom it could be said, was said, he never read a book, he read a library [laughs]. And that was a little more than I could manage.
I'd always been writing, been trying to write poetry for years, and writing horrible shit, because until I was a senior in high school I'd never encountered a contemporary or even a modern poem. Then, I began to read some of these people--I read Pound and Eliot, and one of the anthologies I remember was Conrad Aiken's Modem American Poets, or whatever it was called. It was, for a little book, a pretty good sampling. (At that time we didn't have the millions of poets we now have; there were far fewer, and of course, that book was a winnowing out too.) So, I read those and I began to dig into the library. And I was working on NYA, the National Youth Act, fifteen cents an hour, for the head of the department, and I conned him into buying all the books that I wanted out of the department funds, which weren't very big.
But I began to get hold of books, where before I'd only read samples of people. I began to get Eliot and Pound; above all, Hart Crane. I'd run across him somewhere and he was the one I wanted to read. And at that time I could read French well, and I was reading back issues of French literary magazines; I read the surrealists and all that stuff, which was I think very influential. (I didn't know how to use it, I didn't know how to use anything.) Those of us who were writing poetry went through phases, I remember, when we wrote these sort of collage poems; they were essentially Eliot's business of picking up bits and pieces here and there. So, we went him one better, we never even wrote any of our own [laughs], we just got hold of these things and stuck them down and tried to make poems out of them. They were all junk, but it was kind of exciting to do. Then, bit by bit, some of us began to try to do things inside our experience. About three years later, three o'clock in the afternoon, one summer, in a rented room in Grand Forks [laughs], I wrote the first poem that I thought amounted to anything. And the one that I kept--that's where it started for me.
TDP: How many years would you say you felt comfortable, or not in too much conflict at least, with being a good party member? How long before you started to pull away? Was there ever a break?
McGRATH: Well, it was an uneasy relationship for me, beginning almost immediately, with the Popular Front thing. But I accepted that, I accepted the discipline. Besides, the idea was that I was going to Spain, I signed up, and I was supposed to go there when I was in college. A friend and I--both of us had gone into the CP at the same time, and he was somebody who had been in Spain, for a summer--we were both going. And we were supposed to go; but then, there was a kind of arrangement: the idea was, the Italians will take their troops out and the international brigades will be taken out. So the IB's [International Brigades] went back, were taken out.
TDP: You were with the Communist Party for a period of time and then you moved away from it. What was the time span?
McGRATH: Well, the first break was back during the war. In the first place, when you entered the army, the party dropped you out, because they didn't want to create difficulties for you. So I wasn't a member during that time. But I was at odds with it, toward the end of the war when it passed through a period of--this is such ancient history now-Browderism. [Earl] Browder had decided that revolutionary activity would no longer be necessary, that somehow or other there was going to be this wonderful accord between the powers who had defeated the Nazis. And that one might go forward with a kind of ... I don't know, benevolent gradualism. Which I thought was total bullshit. And I think practically everybody in the army felt the same way. And so I was at odds from that point until Browder got his ass thrown out.
RG: Where were you at this time?
McGRATH: I was in New York. Generally speaking, the party was doing what I thought was proper work, and I was doing rank-and-file work with teamsters and with longshoreman groups. Doesn't mean I was in those unions, it means that I worked with the rank-and-file people, some of whom were Communists, some weren't. The point was to put out propaganda. I invented the League of Happy Teamsters. [Laughs.] We used to have parties--"rackets," as they called them--to raise money. Then we'd put out the new issue of the Teamster. And tried to distribute it without getting our heads torn off. [Laughs.]
TDP: Did you, even then, insert little bits of humor, as you went along?
McGRATH: I did my best! I can't remember how often I was successful, but I always thought that there ought to be some little thing put in there, you know? You don't know who's gonna read the paper. [Laughs.] I thought, just one--the right--teamster reads this, and suddenly he'll be transformed and they'll take over the Pistol Local! [Laughs.] There was a Pistol Local, so called, because the way you got elected was, you got a pistol and then you went out and shot whoever was the president of that local, and then you became the president. A guy named Cockeye Dunn--everybody had these marvelous names among the working-class Irish people in Chelsea, they're great for naming people--and so, Cockeye Dunn, one of these people, he was very successful. [Laughs.] And I think he became--had a Pistol Local--probably a labor statesman like Walter Reuther, or J. P. Ryan, or any of those crooks and bastards, you know, tied up with Mafia, the Church and Christ and what else!
TDP: They received names like these, that were given to them by the community--they didn't choose their own names?
McGRATH: Oh, yes, absolutely. No, they didn't choose them, the names were given to them. Sometimes they were given fairly early, you know. Because Cockeye Dunn was not always a high-class gangster. He just began as what they call a "nosy hoople"--a "hoople" is some poor son-of-a-bitch wandering around trying to get himself connected, with a powerful ambition to become a gangster, and even a racketeer, and be totally connected. But at the worst, he hoped, he could make a kind of connection where he could take over a corner. If he had a corner, he could control the whole works on the corner. Not the next corner! [Laughs.] Could be halfway down . . . whatever.
Anyway, that went up to '47. And then I had a letter [about his Rhodes Scholarship, already deferred because of the war] from the warden of Rhodes House, from Oxford, who said, "If you're not going to come this year, forget it." So we went in '47. And I stayed there for a year, and did all the jazz that you do for what I think they called a "B. Litt." So, I did the exams, and then I started fishing around for a thesis. I wanted to write about Christopher Caudwell--because I knew the work and I knew people who knew him. I probably could have gotten some of the manuscripts that hadn't been published yet, that became Further Studies in a Dying Culture, and a few other things. I might have been able to get those, through friends who were friends of the Sprigg family (which was Caudwell's real name).
Right after the war, I read Illusion and Reality, which I take to be the most important book by a Marxist on the subject of the arts. That's what I believe. E. P. Thompson and I have had disputes over this for I don't know for how long. I can't say exactly what the dispute is over; it was long ago with Edward. I think Edward had the feeling that Caudwell was making too much of Freudian/Jungian material. But my own feeling about this is that Caudwell was using this only because it was a useful metaphor, for him, which I think is perfectly legitimate. I don't think that Caudwell was a subscriber to Jung, and I know that in many places he rejects some of the basic notions of what was once called "depth psychology," "psychoanalysis," whatever the hell was the term for it. But he sees certain ways of seeing things through the use of their terminology.
Well, the thesis committee looked at that for a while and then they said, "Well-l-l, you know, Caudwell is terribly recent, we can't really know what value . . . " And so forth. That came back, and I thought, "Well, O.K."--I was still trying to play the game a little bit and I said my next project was, I was going to write a little thesis on T. S. Eliot's criticism of Elizabethan and early seventeenth-century people, because I knew all that, the plays and poetry, I knew that very well! And his essays.
They thought that one over, and then they said, "Well-l-1, Mr. Eliot is certainly an excellent poet, but he is still alive and . . ." So they rejected that. And so I said, "I'll do an edition of William Diaper's translation of Camoens' Lusiads," the great Portuguese epic.
And they said no. So then I said "I'll do a definitive edition of John Duck, the Thresher poet." And my advisor, who was J. B. Leishman, a translator with Spender of Rilke, he came in with this thatched-roof hair and said, "The committee are of the opinion that you should stop making jokes." [Laughs.] So, I said, "O.K., I'll stop making jokes." I went over to the warden of Rhodes House and I said, "I resign. I'm giving up the scholarship." And so I became a dropout, and I went over and stayed in Europe for that year and most of the rest of the next year, and I wrote a novel, This Coffin Has No Handles, which is partly about the New York waterfront thing. I wrote it in the south of France, at Villefranche-surMer. (And then later in Paris for a couple of months, I worked on it.)
And then, I came back to the States and I went out to L.A., because when I was in the Aleutians, wearing all this rain clothing and being soaked all the time, my dream was to go somewhere where I could take off all my clothes and lie in the sun.
I lived out in L.A. for some while, and there I did work. I wasn't a member of the working class, because for one thing, I was blacklisted for. . . I was a kind of a machinist but I was blacklisted for that. What I mean is, if you wanted to get work as a machinist out there, you had to pass some kind of test, you know, because a lot of the work going on at that time was still defense contract work. I mean, the big stuff. So, I couldn't get work there. I did get a job at the Southgate General Motors assembly, because it had such a turnover. It was the kind of place that drove people crazy after a short time--the terrible speed-up. But, the day I got that job, I also got this other job teaching at L.A. State College. And I figured, well, that's likely to be long-term, so that's where I went to work. I still went out and distributed leaflets in the railroad yards, and all that kind of stuff which I had done before. After that, I wasn't in the industrial working class. I wasn't a part of it. I had friends who were, but I wasn't related to them, to the workers, to the working class, industrial types, and so on, the way I had been for some while when I had been in New York. So, I fell into this teaching job, which I had until the House Un-American Activities Committee threw me out. I was blacklisted from teaching and eventually I drifted into this business of doing documentary films and eventually I got blacklisted there, and then I went out to North Dakota. And then, somebody offered me a teaching job there.
During that time in L.A.--since this is the theme we started with--I worked with the party, but I was on the outs on a number of things. One, the cultural line, always on the outs. And I was told by the great Dorothy Healey, who's [laughs] no longer a member of the Communist Party, that I was very presumptuous because I challenged someone--a good guy, but whom she and some others took to be a little too much of a guru then, John Howard Lawson. Also, I was totally opposed to a part of the tactical line, which sometimes dreamed of forming some kind of coalition--as if the Popular Front days might still come into existence--between the left liberals, the liberals, and the left wing--as they thought--of the Democratic Party.
Well, I told them that there was no such thing, and it would never work--can never happen--that I would not support that kind of politics. So, I was put in limbo for some length of time. I was never expelled. I was just sort of lost; and I stayed lost for some time. I did the same things I had done: I worked sometimes with the CP, sometimes with the Progressive Labor Party, which was doing some good things, then. Sometimes with this group and that group and . . . Cisco Houston--a wonderful folk singer, he was the sidekick of Woody Guthrie for years and years--and I and one and two others formed a new party. It was called the "Ramshackle Socialist Victory Party." Because the initials were RSVP and we thought nobody could resist that! But . . . Well, that's in the poem, I guess.
TDP: Were you still a member of the Communist Party?
McGRATH: A card-carrying and dues-paying type.
TDP: But while you still had your card, you started the RSVP?
McGRATH: Ah, I might still have had it, but I wasn't in good standing. [Laughs.] I was lost, I was--those were the years of my wandering in the wilderness; or my days. And then I got fired, and eventually I ran out of work in L.A. and I went to New York again.
So, here I am, I'm betwixt and between, and that's the way it stayed until, after a while, it seemed to me the CP had got itself sorted out and going in the right direction, and somebody came along and said, "Hey, look, you're an old-timer here"--as I was by that time--"how about hooking up with us?" And so, to some degree, I did that. And that's the way it is. I still think and I believe it's doing good and useful work, the party is. I believe that Hall is very bright and sensible. But--it's a very bad period, and not a lot of things are going to happen in a hurry. But that's the way it goes, it's true for all the parties--outside of the Republicrats and the Democrats. And that's where it is. I'm still sort of betwixt and between, but I'm in ... in alliance.
I'm still a revolutionary, absolutely, no less than ever. And while I don't like . . . I've always believed that a revolutionary ought to be somebody who could do something and who did something, and here I am, I'm a cripple now, I can't, there isn't much I can do. Except whatever I can do to piss off [laughs] the opposition or astonish or madden or whatever the hell--be whatever nuisance and whatever witness I can be.
It seems to me that the American CP, of all the parties that call themselves revolutionary and that are interested in the establishment of socialism here and elsewhere in the world, is probably--as weak as it is now--functionally, probably the best. I think their line is a sensible one, and I hope they stay that way. With political parties you can never be sure of these things.
So, I don't think I've ever lost any sense at all of what I wanted: to try to get as much in the world as I could to move. I don't think I've changed that at all.
From Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres. A Special Issue of TriQuarterly Magazine. Northwestern Unviersity, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by TriQuarterly.
"'The Delegate for Poetry': McGrath as Communist
by Fredrick C. Stern
Thomas McGrath is a Communist, and sometimes, more recently, a communist poet. That seems to me the beginning of his art, and, if not its end, its crucial component. It is by no means all of his art. But the many other things one might say about him--that he is a modern poet who works in many traditions and forms, that he is a North Dakota-born American poet, that he is a myth-creating poet--all these things are, as it were, modifiers of my first sentence--that McGrath is a Communist or communist poet. His communism places McGrath in a tradition--other aspects of his writing place him as well, but his communism is very important in placing him--just as surely as being a Christian poet places Eliot or being a Beat-hippie poet places Ginsberg.
It is my intention in this essay to deal with McGrath as communist poet. I want to be very careful about this central aspect of his work, however. It is easily misinterpreted, unless at least some of the modifiers of the statement are also understood. It is also easily misunderstood because the term "communist" or such words as "Marxist" or "radical" can mean a variety of things and are no longer, if they ever were, terms for the monolithic ideology which American cold-war years myth created. I propose in this essay, in the main then, to establish that McGrath is a communist poet and to discuss the relationship between his verse and his communism. In doing so, I will necessarily neglect many other important aspects of McGrath's poetry. That I feel free to carry on such a discussion without fear that I may be doing McGrath harm is, perhaps, a sign of our times, a sign made manifest fairly recently by the death of the ignominious congressional committee which cost Thomas McGrath a teaching job in the fifties. Though Watergate was no watershed, things are a little more open for a while, so that I don't think it will cost McGrath another job to be identified as a communist poet.
In what ways, then, is McGrath a Communist, or communist, poet? We can note first that much of his poetry is concerned with the specific language and experience and with events and personalities related to the life of the American Communist Party. In writing about Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts I & II (Chicago: Swallow, 1962, 1970), McGrath has said that "What difficulties exist in the poem are those of reference (generally not crucial to an understanding of the poem)." But that is only partially true. Some of his references in Letter as well as in other poetry are likely to be quite obscure to those who might not know of the specifics of the life of the Communist party of the United States of America, as obscure as, and more so I should think than, are some of, say, Pound's allusions to historical personages.
One or two examples will demonstrate. Most readers of The Movie at the End of the World are likely to know who the Angela Davis is to whom "The Rituals of the Chapel Perilous" is dedicated. They are less likely to know that Henry Winston, to whom the poem is also dedicated, is the Black National Chairman of the CPUSA, a man who lost his eyesight while in prison on Smith Act and other charges. Winston's name becomes more important yet because "Two Songs from 'The Hunted Revolutionaries'" is also dedicated to Winston, and these poems appear in the 1964 New and Selected Works as "for Harry Winston." There is more involved here than mere "reference" not crucial to understanding. The "Hunted Revolutionaries" songs make best sense when one understands that leaders of the Communist Party had "gone underground" in the early fifties. They were convinced by the pervasiveness of McCarthyism, and especially by their relatively easy convictions during a series of Smith Act trials, that they could not get fair trials--which was certainly true--and convinced that they had to be available outside of prison to their Party and that fascism was a very real and near threat.
These two poems and their dedications, in addition to demonstrating McGrath's involvement with the specifics of Communist Party personalities, both early and late in his work, also show changes in states of feeling about his communism. In the earlier "Song," the conviction of, or at least the hope for, progress of the revolution comes out of the struggle against the repression of the fifties. The later "Chapel Perilous" poem provides for sources of hope in much more personality-embedded feelings. It is the figures of the older revolutionary, Winston, and the younger, exciting, and brilliant Davis, who re-humanize radical politics, gone drab, drear, mechanized in the speaker's view. It is not hope for revolution, but a simpler hope--"the crying became human," "language regained its meaning"--which is here being expressed. I take the last line of the poem to indicate that those attending the "Continuous meeting," having heard the voices of charismatic and humanizing leaders, can now become part of the "popular magic," the on-going political struggles of the sixties, which were not being led by Communists, but by such "new left" forces as SDS.
Examples of the importance of specific reference could easily be multiplied. Many readers will know of Mike Gold, to whom "Men of the Third Millenium" (Movie, p. 35) is dedicated. It is less likely that readers will know of some of the other figures of importance in McGrath's poetry who come from Communist Party cultural activities, such as Charles Humboldt: "--and Charlie kept me alive there:/Humbolt: [sic] the warm current" (Letter, II, p. 130). Humboldt, who died in 1964, was an editor of Mainstream (later to become, for a short time, Masses & Mainstream), was earlier an editor of New Masses, and eventually became an editor of The National Guardian, all journals associated at that time with the Communist Party. Humboldt was a gentle man, highly literate and knowledgeable, something of an "in" legend among Communist and other radical intellectuals in the late forties and fifties.
McGrath's Communism, then, is demonstrable in part because of the direct, frequent references in his verse to figures which come out of the history of the CPUSA and cultural or political groups allied with it.
Places, events, organizations, all play a similar role. McGrath's poetry is frequently involved with the myth that New York's Communist community at times attached to the National Maritime Union. Here was romance, the glory of real proletarians in real struggle, a genuine history of working-class courage in the face of repression. "Showboat" Quinn is easily recognized as a New York NMU leader much admired--apparently rightly so--by the New York left during the earlier forties. But the myth was rather short-lived. After World War II, the NMU held out for some time against the general CIO accommodation to cold-war politics--some time only, however. Joseph Curran, the NMU president, soon made his peace with the CIO leadership and with the State Department, broke with his erstwhile Communist allies, and did little to support such old-time co-workers as the union's Black secretary, Ferdinand Smith, who was eventually deported to the West Indies. Not long after this break, the NMU moved out of its old, dilapidated West Twenties headquarters and built a fancy, new and plush union hall at about 12th Street. This knowledge is needed to understand McGrath's
And the talking walls had forgotten our names, down at the Front,
Where the seamen fought and the longshoremen struck the great
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 hall. And the lads who built that union are gone.
Just a few lines later, further enhancing this picture of the labor movement which is so important to McGrath, we read:
. . . "Business unionism!" says Showboat
(Quinn). "It certainly do hit the spot with the bosses!
Backdoor charters and sweetheart contracts--sell out the workers
And become a by-god proletarian statesman like Sweet Walter.
Takes a liberal kind of stiff to make labor-fakin' a pure art."
The "Walter" in question here is probably Walter Reuther, a favorite Communist Party target. The lines further emphasize the poet's sense of loss at the older, militant, pre-cold war tradition of the labor movement. McGrath's references, then, are frequently most accessible to those familiar with American Communist Party history.
Another aspect of McGrath's communist poetry has to do with his use of the specialized language of Marxism. He uses such language, at least as he knew it and often as the American Communist Party used it, in the materials of his verse, perhaps as a teaching device. Thus, one of his earliest published works is entitled "The Dialectics of Love." A poem first appearing in Figures of the Double World is entitled "The Uneven Development of the Heart" and echoes the Marxist notion known as the uneven development of capitalism. In "Men of the Third Millenium" we find "Knowledge of Necessity, All-freeing Power," language which echoes a Marxist notion about freedom, articulated by the Russian pre-revolutionary philosopher Georgi Plekhanov as "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." Sometimes McGrath uses such language with humor and even with parodic intent, as when he paraphrases Lenin with "And someone is saying/'Sex plus electrification equal socialism.'"
One could multiply these examples, and one can find them throughout McGrath's work, from his earliest to his latest poetry. McGrath then apparently makes a conscious choice to be a Communist and a communist poet. His use of this often jargony language of Marxists in general and American Communists in particular partly reflects the way he thinks, but also has to do with the teaching function, one which McGrath plays for Marxism, as an Eliot plays it for Christianity--each for their own brand.
A far more important component of McGrath's role as communist poet has to do with the intertwining of political and personal experience in such a way that the reader can come to understand the shaping of the politically engaged personality of the persona of the poems. A case in point is the rather novelistic section III of Letter, Part I. The poem recalls the speaker's initiation into the life of work on the farm and the simultaneous initiation into labor struggles. The central figure in that initiation is the farmhand Cal, the young boy's friend and teacher, who is badly beaten by the boy's uncle because of a proposed strike of the traveling farmhands. The strike is lost, the men slink away, and the boy is profoundly upset by the experience. From the dramatic rendering of this past, the poem takes us to the speaker's present, quoting "Showboat" Quinn of the NMU:
Quinn goes by (New York, later) "The fuckin' proletariat
Is in love with its fuckin' chains. How do you put this fuckin'
Strike on a cost-plus basis?"
The strike and Cal's beating are intense personal experiences for the boy. They become, in time, part of his developing radicalism, referred to several times later on in the poem to explain the persona's political actions and convictions.
The interaction of personal and political experience is, perhaps, the most pervasive element of Letter. Thus, the poem's speaker discusses his father's revolutionary proclivities. He connects the break-up of his marriage to the consumerism of the society in which he lives. In his movement from Communism to communism, we come to understand not only the political sources, but also the profoundly personal implications of such an ideological change. In regard to this change, McGrath quite consciously makes his protagonist's experience, perhaps his own experience, the subject of his poetry when he writes near the end of Letter, II:
--and all unchanged in the time of this poem ...
All to be changed.
I offer as guide this total myth,
The legend of my life and time.
A good deal of McGrath's Communism has about it an anachronistic flavor. His character often derive more from the Wobbly heritage, which the Communist Party adopted, than any other. This shows in his language sometimes, in the use of such I.W.W. words as "scissorbills" and "bindlestiffs," words which those in the cultural orbit of the CPUSA might still have recognized in the forties and fifties, when they were used in McGrath's poetry, but which would have been quite foreign to most others, except a few older members of the working class which they seek to describe.
McGrath is at times aware of the anachronism of his position, especially in part II of Letter, and in some of the later poems in Movie, as, for example, in the poem "Something Is Dying Here":
I invoke an image of my strength.
Nothing will come.
Oh--a homing lion perhaps
made entirely of tame bees;
Or the chalice of an old storage battery, loaded
With the rancid electricity of the nineteen thirties
Cloud harps iconographic blood
Rusting in the burnt church of my flesh ...
It should be clear, then, that in language, in reference and allusion, in political attitude, and in the yoking of personal experience with political experience, McGrath is a poet profoundly influenced by the cultural and political ambience of the Communist Party. But I have said earlier that McGrath is, especially lately, a communist rather than a Communist poet. By that change in capitalization I mean to indicate, of course, his move from the Communist Party of the USA to a more independent--and much more lonely--and personal variety of communism. I cannot date precisely, from his poetry, when McGrath switched from his earlier Communist Party allegiances to become a member of the "unaffiliated far left." Nor are the reasons for his change entirely clear from the verse itself. In a 1975 interview, he described himself politically as follows: "I consider myself a social revolutionary. Always have. I want to revolutionize this whole damned social system and substitute socialism for the mess we've got now. I'm not a Socialist, though. When anyone asks my politics, I tell them, Unaffiliated far left. That act got me canned as professor at Los Angeles State College in the 1950s." What is clear from the poetry is that sometime after his appearance before HUAC there is a change in the persona McGrath has created. "The Committee comes by with its masked performers/," he writes, "To fire you out of your job, but that's expected." Later in the same section of Letter, I, however, the image of the lonely, politically isolated person, who will dominate much of Letter, part II, makes his appearance. After invoking the figures of Mac and Cal, who along with Showboat Quinn, are the most "proletarian" of the poem, we read:
I turn away then
Seeing a little piece of the old true unregenerate dark
Extruded into the afternoon classical light--
A little Contra-Terrene matter among the pure shit of the poets--
The world's inescapable evil that we must eat and sing.
And turn away then
From the shop, from the sea,
Toward the desert of the world, the wild garden,
With my politics: to be with the Victims and fighters.
It is not till part II of Letter that we find clear evidence of McGrath's disenchantment with the political forms revolutionary politics have taken in that new moment. Early in part II, one becomes aware of the increasing sense of loss and of remembered sadness, and of an increasing number of images related to darkness, caverns, graves--images of burial, aloneness, and near--despair. These images are often coupled with a desperate salvation of the political view of the protagonist of the poem, and, one may assume, of course the poet as well:
"Ain't no grabirons a man can lay hand to. I tell you it's DARK
DOWN HERE MAN!
I tell you it's hell--"
We must walk up out of this dark using what charms we have.
Hell's everywhere, this only seems like hell, take my hand,
It is only required to open your eyes--
The land as it was
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Unchanged and changed.
I tell you millions
Prague May Day locomotives
With flowers in their teeth!
And now the red ball is hammering in
Spot an empty! Grab an armful of rods!
I'll take you
In the final direction...
Only: open your eyes...
But it's hard, hard, man
I'm standing here, naked
As a studhorse in a rhubarb patch
trouble built for small boys and crazy men!
For my purpose (as I keep saying) is nothing less
To elaborate the iconic dynamite of the authentic class struggle
In other words to change the world
It's hard and I'm
These lines demonstrate the protagonist's despair at the existing political situation in the country and the world as a whole, as well as on the left. The reference to the Prague May Day locomotive, reminder of the fateful Dubcek period in Czechoslovakia, is crucial. The answer for the protagonist of the poem comes here, as in some other sections of Letter, from his personal and individual determination to bring about socialism. While this may be a surprising decision for a former Communist Party adherent, it is not surprising at all for a North Dakota-born and bred American. McGrath's protagonist has shown himself throughout the poem to be a maverick. It is in character, then, that he reverts to a kind of Emersonian self-reliance when the props of the movement with which he was associated are knocked out from under him. The protagonist's fear is a sign of the poet's awareness of the difficulty of "going it alone." He is "scared" not only because the revolutionary task he has set himself is enormous, but also because he is uncertain of his own strength. He is "standing here, naked," he says, and in "Something Is Dying Here" he invokes his strength--but nothing will come.
Thomas McGrath's communism, then, is a little anachronistic, harking back to the earlier day in American radicalism than his present, neither the sophisticated Marxism of the young, the basically unchanged communism of "the Party," nor the spiritual "radicalism" of the "movement" of the sixties. It convinces us of its sincerity and depth. I think it is accurate in its portrayal of the malaise of American life, and it is filled with the righteous anger of an honest man. McGrath's communism must be judged, at least for the purpose of evaluating his poetry, as a vehicle for his art, a framework within which he can build and render the vision of his life. Combined with his love of land, his "outsider" stance, his roots in the American frontier experience, his reversion, when the need arises, to self-reliance, McGrath's politics does for his verse precisely what Eliot's Christianity does for that poet--it provides a framework of conviction and thought and imagery in which he can operate. We need not share fully McGrath's radicalism, any more than we need to share Eliot's Christianity, to appreciate either man's poetry.
From North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982)
Return to Thomas McGrath