Destroy the dictionaries

by Jelena Petrovic

In 1953, Thomas McGrath, a little-known poet, college English teacher, and

World War II veteran, was called to testify before the House Un-American

Activities Committee. He had published three volumes of poetry, and his

"unaffiliated far-left political feelings," as McGrath would later call

them, were the subject of much of his verse. Unwilling to cooperate, he

lost his job at the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and

Sciences, and remained blacklisted from academia for the remainder of the


McGrath, or "Tommy the Commie" as he was called by some antagonists, was

born on the prairie in 1916, near the small town of Sheldon, N.D., to a

family of poor Irish farmers. He formulated his politics early: In the

dust-bowl '30s, as the family struggled to keep afloat, McGrath's father

became a Wobbly--a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World.

The farm eventually went bust, and the younger McGrath hit the road,

supporting his writing through a variety of menial jobs. By the early

'40s, he'd made it to New York's Chelsea waterfront, where he distributed

leaflets and had some close calls with the management goons hired to keep

agitators like him at bay.

McGrath's face-off with HUAC impeded, but failed to halt, his writing

career. Between 1954 and his death in Minneapolis in 1990 (where he

retired in 1982, after 13 years of teaching at Moorhead State University),

McGrath published 17 collections of poetry, two children's books, and two

novels. Along the way, he garnered a host of awards, including a

Guggenheim, two Bushes, three NEA fellowships, and the prestigious Lenore

Marshall/Nation Prize for Poetry.

Still, McGrath never rose to high prominence in the American pantheon of

contemporary poetry. He remains little known outside of narrow literary

circles, where approving critics have called him "the most famous

neglected poet of recent decades" (David Mason in the Hudson Review), "as

close to Whitman as anyone since Whitman himself" (Terrence Des Pres in

TriQuarterly) and "the most important American poet who can lay claim to

the title 'radical'" (Frederick C. Stern in Southwest Review).

Some blame McGrath's Marxist leanings for the relative obscurity of his

work (had he been writing in the then-Soviet Union, he would have been the

subject of thick, adoring biographies), but the claim solves only half the

equation. Dig up, if you will, from the local library, Selected Poems

1938-1988 (Copper Canyon Press) and lay your eyes on haiku-like gems such

as this:

The long wound of summer--


by cicadas

Or flip back to "In Praise of Necessity," a fierce, ominous poem about the

annihilation of tradition in the name of progress, or to "Celebration for

June 24," a love poem for his first wife Marian. All of these works offer

a taste of McGrath's nonpolitical poetry. Throughout his 50-year writing

life, McGrath produced two kinds of verse: one angry and polemical,

steeped in sympathy for the oppressed; and the other resonantly

descriptive, quiet, and, above all, personal. The two strains conjoin with

some difficulty, but it is a testament to McGrath's formal strengths and

fondness of language that they consort at all.

The passion for language and radicalism comes from the same source, it

seems, and in that sense, McGrath is perhaps best labeled a language

revolutionary. In a 1990 PBS documentary about his life and work, titled

The Movie at the End of the World, McGrath said:

If the language were new, if it weren't so beat-up and worn-out,

everything we'd say would be a piece of a poem, wouldn't it? That's the

kind of world we'd want. That's real Communism--when we own the language,

which would probably be the last thing to be owned by the people. It's

easier to take over General Motors. We gotta take over the

dictionaries--destroy the goddamn things!

In Letter to an Imaginary Friend, the hitherto strained alliance between

the personal and the political in McGrath's verse reaches a thrilling

union. Letter (definitively reissued in 1998 by Copper Canyon Press),

which McGrath began soon after being blacklisted and took three decades to

complete, is an enormous, Odyssey-like epic with a little bit of

everything thrown in: sublime images, personal history, wide-ranging

anger, erudite references, prophetic incantations, personal history, Hopi

mythology, the North Dakota prairie, and much more. The terrain is

sometimes treacherous, not least because McGrath's erudition is vast and a

good dictionary is a necessity. Further, Letter careens back and forth

through time so freely that it appears to have swallowed its tail. By

continuously flashing forward and back from scenes of childhood and

adolescence to various periods in his adult life, and by countering each

howling political incantation with a richly lyrical description, McGrath

weaves an intricate web. A description of Los Angeles, in the second of

Letter's four parts, is one of the most stinging impressions of that city

in recent memory:

Windless city built on decaying granite, loose ends Without end or

beginning and nothing to tie to, city downhill From the high mania of our

nineteenth century destiny -what's loose Rolls there, what's square

slides, anything not tied down Flies in...

Kind of petrified shitstorm.


Swimming pools.

Cancer farms.

Whale Dung.

At the bottom of the American night refugees tourists elastic Watches...

With the exception of a few long-winded passages, Letter is a gripping

read, a kind of train journey of the mind through 50 years of American

history, as seen through the eyes of someone trying to derail the engine

every moment. "I think of Letter as a kind of rescue mission," McGrath

explains in The Movie at the End of the World. "I want to rescue the past,

and then control it, in order to do something about the future.... If you

don't know the past, the future just becomes a matter of pragmatism."

For most of us, the future already is a matter of pragmatism, but

McGrath's insights at least offer hope that reading poetry will delay our

resigned arrival at that place.

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