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Thomas McGrath on The West

Thomas McGrath

What is there, out here on the edge, that makes our experience different from that of the city poet? First there is the land itself. It has been disciplined by machines, but it is still not dominated. The plow that broke the plains is long gone and the giant tractor and the combine are here, but the process of making a living is still a struggle and a gamble--it is not a matter of putting raw materials in one end of a factory and taking finished products out of the other. Weather, which is only a nuisance in the city, takes on the power of the gods here, and vast cycles of climate, which will one day make all the area a dust bowl again and finally return it to grass, make all man's successes momentary and ambiguous. Here man can never think of himself, as he can in the city, as the master of nature. Like it or not he is subject to the ancient power of seasonal change: he cannot avoid being in nature; he has an heroic adversary that is no abstraction. At a level below immediate consciousness we respond to this, are less alien to our bodies, to human and natural time.

The East is much older than these farther states, has more history. But I believe that that history no longer functions, has been forgotten, has been "paved over." In the East man begins every day for himself. Here, the past is still alive and close at hand--the arrowheads we turn up may have been shot at our grandfathers. I am not thinking of any romantic frontier. The past out here was bloody, and full of injustice, though hopeful and heroic. It is very close here--my father took shelter with his family at Fort Ransom during an Indian scare when he was a boy. Later he heard of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Most of us are haunted by the closeness of that past, and by the fact that we are only a step from the Indian, whose sense of life so many of the younger people are trying to learn.

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Not long ago, if one wanted to be an artist of any king, it was necessary to leave these parts. Lenin spoke of "the idiocy of the villages," and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, if one wanted to experience his own time he had to go to the cities. The city was, in fact, being remade--out of factory production, class struggle, the growth of the city working class, the rise of revolutionary politics. And of course, even if the artist was unaware of these vast and radical social changes, the city was the repository of art and culture. So the artist had to go to the city, where he/she was successful, or failed and disappeared, or returned defeated.

That old pattern has changed. The young would-be artist may still go to the city; but more and more frequently now he returns--to Nebraska or Arizona or wherever. Part of this is the result of our "affluence" and "mobility." If he wants to make another run to San Francisco or Seattle (would-be poets from west of Chicago never seem to go to New York any more) he can always do so, The result of this "return" (a part of all initiation rites) is only now being felt. God knows what will come of it, but the waste places are being populated by longhaired poets, and little magazines turn up like toadstools after a rain.

Why do they return? In part, I think, because they find the unknown lands in which they were born dramatic for the reasons I have tried to sketch out above. Also, I think, they are reacting against the deracination they feel in the city artist who, unless he is a revolutionary or third world person, must find his materials in that very deracination (a field well worked for a century) or in the frayed remnants of a cosmopolitan tradition.

From The North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982).

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