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Thomas McGrath on Tactical Poetry

The Frontiers of Language
by Thomas McGrath

... For ten years or more--fifteen years--there's been a big stirring up of the depths, a whole lot of things coming to the surface that weren't around before, and that is a very good thing. Now some of it's good and some of it's lousy, as is always the case everywhere, and all we can hope is that this gets filtered out the best possible way, and that we can learn as much as possible from all these things we do encounter. There's already more goddamn poetry being written in this room than I can comfortably read, and I tend to read quite a lot O.K., but I think that since most of us are either writers or want to write or trying to write or whatever the hell, coming back to the frontiers of language, we can't really know where those frontiers are until we know where we started out from. While there's an awful lot of crap that's taught in the schools, there are a lot of things they won't teach you at all if they can get away with it, oftentimes not because they're trying to conceal, but just because they're lazy or whatever, it means that if you want to write, you have to begin at the beginning and learn every goddamned thing you possibly can.

You want to be a revolutionary writer--take the simplest poem in the world: I am madly in love. I realize this and I wake up with a terrible pain and I say to myself, I must write a poem about this ... I get my paper and I draw a bead on it and I say, how do I feel? And I say: "My heart is breaking." And I write that down and it looks to me like not a bad beginning, and I begin to analyze the first foot: is that really a spondee, or is it ... ? And I think, but shit, there's no news in the goddamned thing. It doesn't matter if my heart is breaking. It doesn't matter if I'm dying for the revolution if I can't say it in some kind of way that's expressive and meaningful. I can die a martyr on all the barricades in the world, and it will not make me a revolutionary poet unless I learn my trade. It isn't just bloody inspiration, or good feeling or high thinking or any of that, it begins first of all in knowing what the trade is, learning what the hell the language has been--it's always changing, dying, being reborn--and then we can begin to think, now what can it possibly be, what are the things I need to try to find to do.

What Meridel [LeSueurl is working on [her "nounless novel"] seems to me a marvelous thing. I don't know where the hell it's going, maybe she doesn't either, but an action like that is a really positive and revolutionary action, because it's an attempt to do something. It isn't just an attempt to say over again the things I've learned to say, even if I've learned to say them fairly well. So we're always right out there, somewhere at the point of production. And as workers, as cultural workers for the revolution and all that jazz, we've got to bloody well produce. The war is always between ourselves and the bloody means of production. We've got to get them into our hands ....

Question: [From audience] Tom, you have sometimes talked about the need for two types of poetry: the tactical and the strategic ... could you elaborate on that for us?

McGrath: One is the kind of poetry that might be called tactical, about some immediate thing: a strike, let's say; some immediate event. The poet should give it as much clarity and strength as he can give it without falling into political slogans, clichés and so on. I also thought we needed another kind of poetry that is not keyed necessarily to immediate events, a poetry in which the writer trusts himself enough to write about whatever comes along, with the assumption that what he is doing will be, in the long run, useful, consciousness raising or enriching. A strategic poetry, let's say. There have been a lot of tactical poems directed to particular things, and those poems now are good in a certain sort of way, but the events they were about have moved out from under them, Somebody asked Engels, "What happened to all the revolutionary poetry of 1848?" He replied: "It died with the political prejudices of the time." That is bound to be the fate of a lot of tactical poetry. But that's O.K. If we have to have somebody give us a guarantee that our work is going to last a thousand years before we'll be willing to write it, we may as well give up the ghost.

The Brecht song from the old Comintern: "And just because he's human,/ he doesn't want a pistol to his head./ He wants no servants under him/ and no boss over his head." That's as direct as you can make it, and it's got imagery to go with it... On the other hand we take a poem like Neruda's Canto General, a marvelous big poem, but it's not there to help in some immediate kind of situation; it's a strategic poem. But anyone who reads it will have his consciousness expanded by the reading of it... The ideal thing of course is to bring the tactical and the strategic together so that they would appear in this massive poem of pure lucidity, full of flying tigers and dedicated to the removal of man-eating spinning wheels from the heads of our native capitalists--absolute lucidity and purest, most marvelous bullshit. That's the poem I would like to have, because there's a place where those two are the same. That's in the archetypal heavens of course... I would like to put them together. We all would.

From North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982)

From a 1987 interview with Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres

McGRATH: Well, it's different in this way: a long time ago, I got the idea that there could be two kinds of poetry for the left wing. I don't know if I ever talked about that to you.

RG: Well, I've read the passage in North Dakota Quarterly.

McGRATH: Yeah, right. And the weakest side of tactical writing is that it becomes--it can at its very worst turn into--simply slogans. May Day comes along and you write some slogans for it. It’s a reduction, a very big reduction. It's not there to expand consciousness but to direct it, to point it, give it focus, and so on. I think that's an honorable thing for a poet to do. A lot of the Nicaraguan stuff now is of that sort. "Exteriorismo" essentially does that. But I always thought that there was another kind of poetry which ought to be much, much richer, to take in as many contradictions as possible, and which ought to have as its purpose the expansion of consciousness, not simply the focusing of it.

RG: But does a materialist point of view explain the difference between the quality of the lowest or most obvious kind of tactical work and Letter? What’s the basis inside materialist philosophy for discriminating between one kind of poem and another in terms of their excellence?

McGRATH: Well, I haven't yet said anything about which is the best, you know.

RG: Are you going to?

McGRATH: [Laughs.] Not at this moment, not at this moment. But I think it depends. It has something to do with the situation, something to do with what's needed at a given time. And then it has something to do with long-run effects as well, and in our--in the English and American--tradition, it's obvious that the strategic kind of poetry is what is assumed to be poetry and the other is assumed to be propaganda--I'm putting it in reductionist terms.

Inside our system, inside the bourgeois intellectual system, poetry is considered ceremonially unclean if it has to do with anything practical unless it might be in the writing of a hymn, something like that, or in the creation of little apothegms, you know, little things--"Thirty days hath September." That's useful, it's O.K., but it's not poetry. There is a place for it, but it's not poetry. The other, the poetry which is considered great, is the poetry which--well, you can't say it in a single word, I suppose. "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," that's one notion of it, and the other one is some kind of leap into the "intense inane." That's what Shelley said. Some seizure, you might say, of a vision, which is or seems at the time to be, to correspond with, some kind of subjective need of the people who clutch that particular poem to their bosom. They wouldn't do it otherwise.

So it's not surprising that the poems of the Romantic period come out of a particular kind of society, and speak for an intelligentsia which is to one degree or another becoming detached from the ruling class, and even becoming revolutionary, like Wordsworth in his early days, or Byron in his odd way, or certainly Blake.

So, that has traditionally been the great poetry; and other poetry, whatever it happens to be, is pretty much relegated to someplace else. Once upon a time there was folk poetry. It never entered the bloodstream of high culture until, well, some of these poems began to be collected in the seventeenth, especially in the eighteenth, century. I'm talking about the English tradition now. And when they were collected, it was because they dealt with "universal themes," which is big stuff--it has been, in our culture, for I don't know how long. And there's a basis for it, true. I mean, human beings have certain projects that transcend the class that they're in. So, a love story, while it may be conditioned by the time and place, is likely to remain real to the degree it has a kind of intensity. Intensity is one of the criteria for the best, the most powerful poetry.

So, I guess, finally what I'm saying is that I do believe that the tactical poetry is the more immediately useful poetry. But you know, somebody asked Engels, "What happened to the poetry of 1848?" And he said, "Most of it is dead with the political prejudices of the time." That was a revolutionary year; and yet, looking back from quite a number of years later, he sees them, even the revolutionary politics of '48, as being simply political prejudice. You know, it was essentially middle-class politics, the '48 revolutions--though there were mixtures, there were other classes involved: but they hadn't got a voice yet, they were just riding along--as happened, for the most part, in the French Revolution, up until you got to a few people like [Louis-Antoine de] Saint-Just, maybe Ancharsis Clootz [laughs], and [Gracchus] Babeuf. He was a speaker for a different kind of French Revolution, for another stage of that revolution.

So, the tactical may die young, but it is honorable to create it. Ideally we want the two kinds of poetry to become one thing. This can and does happen sometimes. It's what I think happens in Letter.

Now that may be taking us quite a long way, but what I'm saying is, I think, something like this: In addition to poetry helping us to see what is the immediate thing that we have to do, poetry--and I think any kind of poetry that does this has a revolutionary element in it--has to--I hate the term, but--expand our consciousness. Actually, create consciousness, is what it's doing. Because the world is whatever it is, out here [gesturing], and we confront that world on all fours all the time. It's always ahead of us, and we're always trying to catch up to it. We try to find out about it through science or we try to know what it feels like to be there, and that's the job of poetry and painting and music and the other arts. I know that T. S. Eliot is a reactionary bastard looked at one way, but it seemed to me that The Waste Land, while it's not his best poem, or work, I think, by a long lot, is the work in which there is a real revolutionary content; not in a positive sense, but because it reports a certain--well, I might as well say it in the old way --breakdown of values. Now, values are always breaking down, naturally. But in Eliot's case, at that particular time, coming as it did at the end of First World War, it gave us a reading on the intellectuals who were in alliance with the ruling class; that was, I think, extremely valuable for us.

This is one of the quarrels that I had with the left, and not just with the CP left--it existed, surely, among Wobblies and the left wing of the socialists. I've known a few of these people. There's a group in Detroit that sends me a little magazine called Struggle, and it is very like the kinds of magazines that in various parts of the left were being put out in the early thirties and to some degree throughout the thirties. They begin by rejecting, bang, out of hand, just about everything that isn't contemporary tactical work. They don't use the term, because they don't, they won't, admit that there could be that kind of division I've talked about.

The left essentially doesn't like to admit that there could be this division. When I sort of invented this theory, in a review in New Masses, sometime shortly after the war, one of these little magazines just clobbered the shit out of me! [Laughs.] I had reviewed a book of poems by Vincent Ferrini; he's a good guy and he's done some really fine stuff. But he had written a book called The Great Strike (I've forgotten what strike it was about)--a little pamphlet of poems. And it was totally with the strike, and everything about it was good; the only thing was that it was written as if it were made out of total shit; and I pointed this out. And this infuriated some of these ultra-proletarians in the Village.

I was to some degree always under fire this way, because I didn't want to reject, and don't want to reject, anything that's of value of the past. I don't think that's a good way of starting into the future--by throwing out the valuables! Maybe if you're crossing the country in a covered wagon and the Indians are following you, you throw everything out--eventually grandma goes out, to the wolves [laughs], and you wind up without a family, the clock is gone, and you arrive at the frontier totally on your own, without anything! That's, in a way, what happened when we crossed the country. And that's one of the reasons why we have a pretty thin culture.

I had a lot of trouble because, on one hand, I was writing the poems that the Left wanted: in Longshot O’Leary's Garland of Practical Poesy, I wrote a lot of poems that were tied to immediate things. Some of those poems are dead and gone, because the things are dead and gone. But I was at odds with some of this feeling, in some parts of the left, which would concentrate completely on what I called "tactical poetry," but they'd just call, you know, le vrai poesie, or "revolutionary poetry," or whatever it was called. And I didn't want to throw out the rest. I didn't want to throw Eliot out, you know? I wanted to keep him, but with reservations. And so on, with many others, like Joyce or Proust, because they've done marvelous things! Even if they were nothing except pictures to put--you know, antique sculpture! We don't throw that out, so I always thought we should keep those things.

And there were problems and mini-wars over these things and it went on, it stayed with me from, God, I don't know, almost from the beginning. I used to send poems to New Masses, when I was out in North Dakota. They were bad poems for the most part, but they were better, I thought, than many that were being published by New Masses. And I would get letters from Norman Rosten, who was one of the editors, and a good guy, and more or less commiserating with me, that he liked the poems and he'd like to publish them, but they had a certain kind of complexity or willfulness or goofiness or whatever the hell, that didn't seem to fit properly.

TDP: Is there a source for your distinctions between tactical and strategic poetry?

McGRATH: No, they came out of my head somehow. But, about a year or two later, there was a pamphlet by Mao called Art for the Masses and Art for the Cadres, which is essentially the same thing. And while Mao was still held in good regard by everybody, I sometimes would point that out, but they would shake their heads. Mao says it, it must be true; McGrath says it, everybody knows he's a lunatic poet. [Laughs.] And after I wrote Longshot O’Leary, I was partly in the good graces, though I had carefully put a few poems into that book that I figured would shake up the comrades. [Laughs.] I really wrote it for a bunch of people I knew on the waterfront who used to come by every day. I was writing junk fiction at the time, which they considered not working at all, so I was just somebody of leisure. And I lived in the same block as the NMU [National Maritime Union], so a lot of these guys would come by in the afternoons and demand coffee, and then they'd go on with their own arguments, which involved union politics. And you know, Christ!--they were Jesuitical and cabalistic, and they just went on up here [gesturing over his head]. And I couldn't work while this was happening. But as far as they were concerned, I wasn't working, anyway. That's not work. [Laughs.]

I was publishing quite a lot in New Masses at that time because the poetry editor had become a guy named Charles Humboldt. He published a lot of my work, and some people liked it and some people thought it was horrible. What would have been the word?--"cosmopolitan" was a bad word at that time. And others thought it was ultra-left and not good that way.

But by and large it was accepted, and I really had--I think I'm the only poet in America who really had an audience. [Laughs.] Not a huge one, but I did have one, for a while. And the most vocal of those were the waterfront radicals who'd come by, drink my coffee, interrupt my day's work, and instruct me how poetry ought to be written. [Laughs.] Because sometimes I wrote in rhyme, and that they liked. Sometimes I didn't, you know--I'd go writing long, loopy lines, and they would shake their heads: "Yes, well, I see what's you're doing, yes, that's good stuff—but that's not the way you do it, comrade!" [Laughs.] They'd all been raised in the tradition, where poetry rhymed, and they had read the Wobblies and the Little Red Book and things like that, and not much more. Except Shelley, they all read Shelley, but they read the "Masque of Anarchy," and things like that. They didn't read "Ode to the West Wind" or some of the other--what they would have thought--more woozy sort of poetry.

In any case, I wrote Longshot O'Leary, in part to show them that it could be written in rhyme, and yet could include in it, in a poem, some kind of zinger, which they might have to think about or look up in the dictionary. Because I always told them, "If you don't know the word, that's not my fault, and there's a book that'll tell you what that word means." And then I threw in a few surrealist poems I'd written earlier, and some more ambitious poems. Anyway, the book was very much liked, and the last time I was back, when I read at the MLA, one of those old NMU guys turned up and started quoting my work! Which he will do--he's memorized that whole book, and he'd quote it at the drop of a hat to anybody who will listen. [Laughs.]

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.

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