Holy City Adrift: On the Occasion of Thomas McGrath’s Centenary Year




Image courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota

ON AN OTHERWISE INNOCUOUS SUMMER MORNING in July 2013, a gasoline tanker carrying 8,500 gallons of fuel careened out of control in a tunnel connecting two arterial freeways just a bit north of downtown Los Angeles. Crashing into the tunnel wall, it unleashed a spectacular fireball and a series of terrifying explosions. Improbably, the driver escaped and no one else was seriously injured, but the inferno captured the city’s jaded imagination for a day. The mouth of the tunnel breathed a wall of flame into the open air, gasoline runoff fed fires burning in the nearby Los Angeles River, and smoke belched forth from storm drains for blocks around. The LAFD advised people to avoid manhole covers, lest they erupt into the air from the subterranean force; eyewitnesses pondered the spectacle of rats scrambling to the surface streets in flight. The resulting traffic jam, of course, was all but unspeakable.

This Angeleno version of apocalypse would likely have earned a knowing nod and a wry smile from the radical poet Thomas McGrath, who lived some of the most trying years of his life in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Just over a decade after Nathanael West famously represented the city as a hellish inferno, McGrath expressed his own contempt for Los Angeles in much the same terms. He once derided it as the “largest sewer in the world,” and in his autobiographical masterpiece, the long poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, depicted it via imagery of percolating demonic energies, mostly unrelenting human suffering, and spectacular, fiery depths:

Vertical city shaped like an inverse hell:
At three feet above tide mark, at hunger line, are the lachrymose
Cities of the plain weeping in the sulphurous smog …

The all-but-literal realization of McGrath’s poetic vision of Los Angeles on that day in 2013 is made more remarkable when one considers that the site of the inferno — at the point of intersection between the Golden State and the Glendale Freeways (“The Five” and “The Two” in local parlance) — is almost exactly where McGrath’s house stood before being displaced by the construction of those thoroughfares. The address we know from Letter, which, begun in 1954 as McGrath endured his dark years, occupied him for much of the remaining three decades of his life. “‘From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east,’” the first line reads (borrowing a bit from Kenneth Fearing). “I am in Los Angeles, at 2714 Marsh Street.”

As we observe McGrath’s centenary year in 2016, we might start with those gloomy lines, written about halfway through the decade he spent in Los Angeles, and at almost precisely the midpoint of his life. McGrath himself dismissed his L.A. years as lost “years of wandering in the wilderness,” and the few commentators on his work tend to favor narratives that domesticate him as a Midwestern regional poet. But McGrath’s desperate decade in the city decisively changed him, realigned his left politics, and marked a shift in his poetry. Those difficult times mark the pivot point between the “early” and the “late” McGrath and enable us to better understand his achievement, while opening a portal through which we can apprehend some bleak truths about modern American life and the perseverance of hope.

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At the time of his arrival in Los Angeles, Thomas McGrath was by some accounts the most promising emergent political poet in the United States. His sinuous itinerary toward the nadir on Marsh Street began in 1916, when he was born into an Irish farm family in Sheldon, North Dakota; he was at various times in his life a labor organizer and activist, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, an international spy (who fumblingly completed only one mission), a beloved teacher, a World War II soldier, and by his own account, a “revolutionary.” The childhood experience of agrarian radicalism on the plains — especially the vitality of IWW militancy and the existence of cooperative agricultural infrastructures that predated agribusiness — directed his political trajectory toward the far left, settling him into a loose but lifelong alignment with the Communist Party. He strove to accommodate this radical worldview within his poetry — where one can often feel the tension between his formal rigor and the draw of left sloganeering — as well as within the institutions from which he sought validation. He left Oxford after a year’s study, when his intention to write a thesis on the Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell failed to enthuse his advisors. A decade prior, he had studied with revered formalist Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana State, but, as McGrath later acknowledged, the youthful obstreperousness of his politics blinded him to many valuable lessons he might have gleaned from Brooks’s New Criticism.

While at LSU, McGrath befriended fellow student Alan Swallow, who would later become one of the most legendary figures in American independent publishing. At that time, Swallow was learning the basics of print on a press he operated out of his garage. The two collaborated on the first volume of Swallow’s pamphlet series, inaugurating a long relationship (that initial collection, First Manifesto, appeared in 1940; Swallow would thereafter publish a number of important McGrath efforts, including To Walk a Crooked Mile in 1947, Figures of the Double World in 1955, and, later, the initial sections of Letter to an Imaginary Friend). Meanwhile, McGrath also cultivated contacts within the left-wing print world, placing work in venues such as Mainstream and New Masses, bringing out an accessible book of radical poems entitled Longshot O’Leary’s Garland of Practical Poesie with International Publishers in 1949, and writing a proletarian novel based on his own experiences organizing workers on the New York City waterfront.

But this gathering momentum was derailed after he settled in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. There, while teaching at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) and newly married to prominent activist Alice Greenfield McGrath, he found himself targeted by the McCarthyist inquiry, harassed by FBI surveillance, and called to testify before a HUAC committee in 1953. His recalcitrant response to the hearings, in which he stated, among other things, that as a poet and a teacher he had no choice but to refuse to participate “on esthetic grounds,” earned him a spot on the blacklist, got him briskly terminated from his teaching post, and inaugurated a period of alienation and despair that culminated in his wrenching divorce from Alice and his flight back to the Midwest at decade’s end.

Before that, however, the years were productive. Not only did he set to work on Letter to an Imaginary Friend, but he also emerged as a leader in the Los Angeles poetry scene. He and Alice were a visible cultural and political power couple, and he served on the editorial board at the journal California Quarterly. A circle comprising many of his former students (informally referred to as the “Marsh Street Irregulars”) held regular meetings at his house and collaborated on a short-lived alternative educational experiment called the Sequoia School, with McGrath reprising his teaching role alongside poets Edwin Rolfe and Don Gordon. Among his students and collaborators were notable figures such as Henri Coulette, Gene Frumkin, and Mel Weisburd, the latter two going on to helm the influential California literary journal Coastlines.

Offering a more politically committed and formally disciplined alternative to the Beat enclave, then operating out of Venice on the city’s west side, the Marsh Street crew left an indelible mark on the Los Angeles literary landscape. Throughout all of this activity, however, there persisted in McGrath a fundamental ambivalence, best apprehended in the pages of Letter, between his persistent faith in what he called the “holy city” of shared, collective work and the regressive realities of political conformity, consumerist superficiality, and the cult of the individual in the consolidating late capitalism of the midcentury United States.

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Letter to an Imaginary Friend is regarded by most critics as McGrath’s masterpiece. A sprawling personal document on an epic scale (its final version, finally published in one volume by Sam Hamill’s Copper Canyon Press in 1997, extends over four sections and totals more than 400 pages), Letter reads as at once the chronicle of a frustrated individual life and a testament to the persistence of utopian hope and revolutionary memory despite all odds. This late work earned McGrath his share of professional accolades, in the form of Guggenheim, NEA, and Amy Lowell fellowships, as well as the deep respect of many of his political and literary peers. Studs Terkel called him “one of my very favorite American poets”; Diane Wakoski lauded his work as “some of the most vivid and beautiful writing that has ever been done about the American midwest”; and perhaps a shade too hyperbolically, Frederick Manfred described how Letter “made T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ look like a pale poorly mixed half-baked pancake.” Hayden Carruth described him as “a poet with as great a voice as Whitman’s,” and while McGrath’s own estimation of Whitman was mixed, it is hard not to see something of the latter in McGrath’s celebration of the spiritual and corporeal experience of labor, his sensitivity to the American landscape, and his decades-long commitment to the poem as an organically growing expression of self.

Nevertheless, McGrath has never been embraced by critical or academic (or popular) audiences, and today registers only faintly even with those interested in American poetry. One prominent advocate for McGrath’s work, Frederick C. Stern, attributes this neglect to the poetry’s formal difficulty and its unrepentantly radical politics, as well as to McGrath’s hailing from and returning to the upper plains, far from the coastal centers of literary taste-making. Ironically, McGrath’s single most quoted line, “North Dakota is everywhere” (from Part II of Letter), has been chiefly used to confine him within that Midwestern context, when in fact its intent is to reveal the way that the destruction of traditional collective life by capital is not just local, but axiomatic and global. The poem explicitly tells us that the lesson of North Dakota is one of “this dialectic of money — / Dakota is everywhere. / A condition.”

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Letter uses an array of devices that fragment and distort its autobiographical conceit and produce a panoptic plurality of space-times; the reader confronts brief, rhythmic catalogs of places, seemingly unrelated to each other except by virtue of the poetic line that renders them adjacent: the line, “Greenwich, Baton Rouge, Sheldon, Rome,” for example, draws an improbable equivalence between Rome, the “eternal city,” and McGrath’s Dakota birthplace. This is coupled with seemingly random and unannounced displacements of scene, in which the reader following the action only belatedly realizes that though the characters and events seem continuous, the setting has shifted — to Alaska, Greece, Baton Rouge, London, New York, Grand Forks, and beyond. Complicating this further are invocations of impossible times (like “I live in the distant present” and “seasons too soon or too late”) and descriptions of paradoxical movements: “And at the age of five ran away from home. (I have never been back. Never left.)”

The poem’s toggling between historical remembrance and utopian anticipation, between North Dakota and the world, produces a sense of continuous, circuitous, and sometimes vertiginous movement. But undergirding all of its dynamism is a sense of political incompleteness, the conviction that all of this ceaseless movement is propelled by a yearning to progress toward something as-yet unrealized. Set adrift on the hazardous landscape of the midcentury United States, the poem’s speaker recognizes that those political hopes can only manifest as latent potentials and not realities.

People on the roads — that was my true country:
And still is so — the commune: of pure potential,
To be in love then was a desperate business.
….
It was a pledge to revolts that never come.
It guaranteed a future that could not exist.
And so many were in love then. Really in love. Curious —
Like a disease …
The life of a dangerous time.

The poem thus gives voice to its sender’s exile and even homelessness, while representing the fruits of McGrath’s experimentation with a more personal and sensitive set of tools for advancing his political position. Moreover, it engenders curiosity about the addressee of this poetic Letter. How might we conceive of a letter issued to a lost home that is “everywhere,” and to a recipient that must remain “imaginary?” Such might be the only politically appropriate destinations for such a communistic communiqué — it is a universal address, postmarked “Los Angeles,” that speaks to and about the shared potential of an international fraternity.

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I was a teenager when the name Thomas McGrath first came to have dim meaning for me. My parents both worked at the state university in Moorhead, Minnesota, where McGrath ended his career in the 1980s, and they arranged a gig for me doing odd jobs for Patricia Hansen, an English professor friend of theirs. In between bursts of activity rendering her windows streak-free, or cleaning out stacks of old papers and assorted knick-knacks from a dusty storage unit, Pat would sit across from me at her condo’s kitchen table, telling me stories and asking me questions about myself and who I thought I was. She was among the first adults to do the latter, I think, but it is less her questions than her stories that I remember — they often narrated the story of Tom McGrath, who had just retired, and whose charisma, humor, and political courage were frankly related in the reflective but mostly unsentimental way old lefties sometimes have. In retrospect, I have come to recognize that those sessions provoked my first awareness that maybe it could be a cool thing to grow up to be an English professor.

It wasn’t so much the details that stuck with me from those conversations — I wasn’t equipped to compass her nuanced accounts of HUAC, and poetry, and solidarity — but rather the affect that shrouded her McGrath stories. I have encountered that same energy in other people’s narratives about him. Alice Greenfield McGrath, for one, expressed it in her recollection of first encountering the man at a political fundraiser, immediately responding to his magnetism, and feeling an instantaneous love. At a recent conference, a poet from Indiana told me that McGrath had saved his life, and that in his bleakest moment he had slept with Letter under his pillow. My own mother gets uncharacteristically moony and rhapsodic when she recalls McGrath entertaining her while the two sat cross-legged on the floor at a labor function in the early ’70s (my father, reliably less sentimental, interrupts her account to insist that it was in fact he who was sitting cross-legged on the floor at that event; some facts are irrevocably lost to history).

McGrath’s wellspring of affective energy eventually seized me, too, though those first conversations with Pat were decades past before he reentered my consciousness, and it was only by happenstance that I renewed my indirect acquaintance with him. A colleague of mine at Cal State LA had pulled out an old university catalog from the early 1950s to make a point about our curriculum, and from the roster of forgotten department faculty listed there, McGrath’s name leapt out and rattled the gates of my involuntary memory. As I followed up on this resonance in my research, I discovered what felt like uncanny connections between my life and his. Our childhood homes are about a 45-minute drive from each other across the North Dakota plains, with his in Sheldon, North Dakota (population today: 116) and mine on the border in Wolverton, Minnesota (pop. 142). After studying at Moorhead State, I too left the Red River Valley and, like him, eventually ended up more or less accidentally teaching English in California in my mid-30s — and moreover at the same deeply flawed institution that had fired him 50 years prior (and thus in a weird way he was a remote academic colleague of both myself and my father). The earliest Los Angeles address I have found for him, marked on an application for a taxi-driver’s license, is on Mohawk in Echo Park, directly across the street from the first apartment I rented when I got to L.A. Not far from there, he set to work on Letter to an Imaginary Friend, in which the politics of his poetry broadened so that the world-historical could coincide with the personal. It is as if a decade of L.A. hope and heartbreak required him to learn how to write in the first person. And at that juncture, too, am I.

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More precisely: here, too, are we. Because the “I” in the late McGrath is never the isolated monad of bourgeois common sense. To borrow a recent comment made by Fred Moten (in an entirely different context), McGrath’s “I” is an emanation from the collective, rather than a liberation from it. McGrath said as much in his late reflections on the spirit of Letter, arguing that “the poem is not my poem … there was a kind of consciousness in it that wasn’t my personal product at all, but which time and circumstance had, in a way, given to me.” In 1982, looking back at the poem’s progress, he insisted that it was something other than mere autobiography. “I believe that all of us live twice: once personally and once as a representative man or woman. I am interested in those moments when my life line crosses through the concentration points of the history of my time. Then I live both personally and representatively.”

Thus does the poem not only introduce us to the poet’s complicated life, but also to our own being as participants in the project of creating our history. Accordingly, while the poem is at times a lament, it is also buoyed by a profound hopefulness, something that pours forth in its inventive coinages, its festive play of allusions, and its sometimes ribald humor (it is, as one commentator put it, a poem that “licks its fingers and burps at the table”). It mourns neither the poet’s own past,

(Nor my future, which is assured, and in which I sing more cold
And passionate still as the passing years swing over my deadheading
Mortal part

heart at home on the wind

borne

In the blood of strangers …

carried

forward forever

this song …)

The poet’s task is thus not only that of documenting and preserving the fragile histories that progress is content to ignore, but also to direct his song forward and to disseminate the seeds of anticipation.

Even during his personal, political, and poetic crisis in the infernal Los Angeles of the mid-1950s, McGrath’s work registered a conviction that even here, adjacent to the Hollywood fantasy factory, were the obscure outlines of a not-yet realizable future, the prospect of an “angelizing of the demonic,” as he put it. He is reported to have once commented to Garrison Keillor that the latter was a sad man with a happy life, but that McGrath himself was a happy man with a sad life. It is that profoundly productive ambivalence that resonates with us as we revisit his work this year — occasions to do so include a planned celebration and marathon reading of Letter at Beyond Baroque on November 12, and an exhibition, entitled “Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath’s Los Angeles” on display at Cal State LA’s JFK Library through July 30 (the latter accompanied by a virtual exhibition which can be visited from afar via Facebook).

E. P. Thompson, the eminent historian and longtime comrade of the poet, once suggested that “McGrath’s poetry will be remembered in one hundred years when many more fashionable voices have been forgotten.” And while we are here beginning that predicted remembrance a bit early, McGrath’s centenary year affords us the perfect opportunity to hear his song anew, and to recognize ourselves as the addressees tasked with carrying it forward.

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Andrew Lyndon Knighton teaches at Cal State LA and is currently writing a biography of Thomas McGrath.


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