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MPR’s Bill Siemering has a conversation with poet Thomas McGrath about poetry and politics. McGrath also reads his poetry.


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SPEAKER: Tom McGrath has been described in one review in The New Republic as one of the best American poets extant, but he is of the wrong political and aesthetic camp and, therefore, consistently neglected by our literary power brokers. Tom, you've been a political writer. You've had that label, at least, I think in recent time, there's been a discussion in Mark Windsor's review of your work about the strategic and the tactical--




SPEAKER: Could you describe that a little bit?

THOMAS MCGRATH: Yes. Well, that's an old notion that I had years back, and I suppose maybe I still have it. I, for whatever reason, began to be compelled to write poems at a fairly early age. And also, I was political at a fairly early age.

It always seemed to me that politics was a legitimate subject for poetry. The problem was how to make use of it because a political poem has certain problems about it, like a religious poem-- I've said this before-- problems of doctrine, problems of belief, and so on.

And as a result of that, well, a bad political poem or a bad religious poem simply leans back into the arms of doctrine, and then the faithful accept it. And so I never thought of that as being a possible way or a proper way of trying to write either a religious poem, if I had ever been moved to write one, or a political poem. So my early political poetry was either considered not political enough or too personal or something for at least some left magazines and editors at that time.

Anyway, to cut it short, somewhere along the way, I developed the idea that there might be two kinds of poetry, one, a poetry which was very overtly and directly political and tied to immediate situations, immediate events, really, a kind of occasional poetry, you might say, not necessarily always occasional, of course. And it seemed to me that a poetry of that sort probably ought to make use of traditional forms. And if possible, it should be singable because a poem that turns into a song, of course, takes on a whole other life and a much fuller life, usually, richer.

Anyway, this was part of my theory at that time. And I had been told this by all kinds of working-class intellectuals whose idea of poetry was that it rhymed, and so on, who were completely traditional in their view of poetry. Anyway, I did at one time in my life a book, which was called Longshot O'Leary's Garland of Practical Poesie. And it contained a lot of poetry, which was of this sort that I call tactical, keyed to immediate things and so on.

At the same time, I had the feeling that political poetry was also a matter of what has come to be called consciousness raising, let's say, and that such a poetry was strategic in nature, that it might truly expand consciousness, but it wouldn't direct it into immediate uses as the practical or tactical poetry. Auden had said of poetry like that that its purpose was to make action urgent and its purpose clear. That was what he said of poetry generally at a particular time when he himself was a revolutionary.

So anyway, I did that book. Most of the poems in the book were of that sort. And then, as I say, I developed this theory of tactical and strategic poetry, which caused all kinds of people in the left to scream and yell. Later, I discovered that Mao had already invented this some time before and that it appeared in a book called, in the first translation anyway, On Art and Literature, I think it was called, translated in the '50s, if I'm not mistaken, where he talks about art for the masses and art for the cadres, assuming, again, the same kind of thing that I was assuming.

Ideally, of course, the point would be to bring these masses and the cadres together. Anyway, that was the theory that I had. But in the actual writing of poems, you don't consider a theory at all. For me anyway, what happens is that I get a few lines or a line of a poem, and I don't know anything more about it than that.

And then I wait and see what the hell else comes along because there's a poem buried somewhere, and that line is just what has surfaced. And so I try to dig around and find out what's down below. But as to worrying whether the poem is political or not while I'm involved with it, of course, I don't. And I suppose perhaps when I was doing that series of poems that I called practical poetry, I may have had that idea in the back of my head, but it never appeared at the time of a given poem.

And so my work, as it's continued, has fallen, I suppose, into these two camps, some of it very open, direct, overtly political, some of it perhaps not political at all. Though I think it's difficult to avoid politics, even when you're writing about a flower probably. In fact, I've had people tell me it's reactionary to write about flowers these days. And I have to leave it at times.

SPEAKER: Some feel that all art is political, that is that the role of the artist in society is to be outside of the mainstream to point out certain things about society to the rest of society. McLuhan talks about the artist as being a criminal that way.

THOMAS MCGRATH: Yeah. Well, serious politics is always criminal too, I suppose. At least, the ruling class is likely to try to make it criminal. Yeah, I think it's true that all art is political but at different levels and in different ways, and the artist himself might not be at all aware that he's being political. Marx and Engels both admired Balzac very much.

Balzac was a realist, but he was also the greatest novelist of his time and, probably as a result of his realist, was capable of seeing certain things about the French middle class and the French bourgeoisie that he might not have seen if he had had a different point of view. Sometimes a reactionary point of view in a particular time may be a vantage point in a certain sense.

I think there is a sense in which a reactionary like Eliot was allowed, I think, enabled to see certain things because he's entering-- he's looking at the 20th century not even from a 19th century standpoint, not merely old fashioned. That's no good. But he's looking at it from somewhere back in an idealized, say, 11th or 13th century or something like that. And so I take it that there's a very large political element in his poetry, though it's--

When I talk about politics, it's my own politics. I'm talking about revolutionary working-class politics. And he is simply taking a look at what he sees as the culture around him and declaring that it's bankrupt, which I would agree to.

SPEAKER: When you began writing in the '30s, there were a lot more injustices apparent--

THOMAS MCGRATH: Than now? I don't think so.


THOMAS MCGRATH: Maybe apparent.

SPEAKER: There were the economic kinds of--

THOMAS MCGRATH: Yeah. Yeah, I guess you're right in saying that they were more apparent than now. Though I don't think that they were essentially much greater than now.

SPEAKER: What do you see as some of the injustices now?

THOMAS MCGRATH: Well, the same ones that existed then. Poverty, which was out in the open then. And it was quite allowable to be poor. Now it's all been swept under the rug. And it's become somehow a shameful thing to be poor here. The whole business of ethnic groups and minority groups, and so forth, and so on I see as basically unchanged from those times. I know that there have been changes, but I don't think that the changes have been basic ones.

And so the injustice that is at the base of all capitalist society has, of course, not changed at all. And, in fact, the workers are more exploited now. I'm using this in an economic sense, more exploited now than then, that is they get less return for-- they sell their labor power for less now than they did before. The productivity of labor has increased, in other words, and so has the surplus value.

So I don't see that there's been any basic changes. Though there have been surface changes and that sort of thing. I've not even talked about the bloody wars which have been going on now since whenever we got into the Second World War.

SPEAKER: It was interesting. I don't know how best to describe this, but there's also perhaps a poverty of the spirit. There was a migrant who spoke at a conference recently here in Moorhead. And he said, we can afford to buy a new car now or buy a house, but we have no dignity.


SPEAKER: And it seems to me we're entering a new era, that is the consumer goods are available at low prices, and so on. But perhaps the poverty of the spirit is even more widespread. I don't know how you get at that, though.

THOMAS MCGRATH: That may be. The fetishism of gadgets has grown a great deal. That's true. As to poverty of spirit, I don't know, that's a big term. I think that, again, it seems very apparent that that's true, but I don't know that it's true.

I think that there's still a great-- that people have a sense of dignity, which, for some reason or other, they can't express any longer. Maybe we're saying the same thing in a different way. I don't think it's been eroded away completely. If it has, God help us. That's all.

I don't think it has, but that's one man's impression. I think it's just that in the homogenization of our culture, the middle-class ideal has become so widespread that it cloaks many differences, but the differences, I think, are still there. You can't tell the difference in many places between a working man's house and a middle-class guy's house or the automobile either.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a very, very profound difference underneath, which the working man doesn't know anything about. He's not aware, in a sense, the worst thing of all, that he's been robbed of his own feeling, his consciousness, in other words, a total false consciousness-- not total. But anyway, there's an enormous apparatus, churches, schools, all of the information media and misinformation media.

All of these are there to produce a false consciousness, a false view of the world. What we need is the little boy to say, the king is naked, but we haven't got enough of those little boys. But I think that's what's happened. But underneath that, there's still something else that I believe. I have to take that as an article of faith, though I think I could offer you evidences that it does exist.

Though we see those evidences only when people are pushed into extremes. A strike will bring it out, for example. People will discover that they don't really feel the way the middle class or the-- that they aren't really the same as the boss, and so on. I don't know. It's been a long time since I've done industrial work. I don't have a sense of knowing the industrial worker in the way that I once upon a time did.

I figure that's a great loss too. And it's something I'd like to repair, but I don't know how to repair it. I'm too old to work in those factories anymore. And I have no trade, and so I'm reduced to teaching.


SPEAKER: We talked earlier about your being really a revolutionary in many ways, with social concerns as one of the constants throughout your life. And in the '60s, there was great turmoil in the country, a feeling of revolution imminent. Now we've entered a period when everything is calm, apparently, on the surface. Do you feel that the problems have been resolved?

THOMAS MCGRATH: Not at all. No, I don't see that any of them have. The only thing that's been resolved is, more or less, that the war has come to a stop, more or less, and the draft has stopped. And so a lot of middle-class kids that were agitated by the war on moral grounds and standing behind those moral grounds with the possibility of getting their heads blown off, which sharpened their consciousness considerably, that situation has disappeared, and so along with it, a lot of the so-called radicalization, which I never thought was very deep in any case.

One of the things is that so few of these people had any sense of their own history, again. Suddenly, they're throwing off this false consciousness. And suddenly, they've become revolutionary, and so on, so they say, but without some sense of what the hell has happened in the past without some sense of revolutionary priorities, without some sense of where is the lever, which, if you can pull it, will start the whole machine moving.

Then no amount of revolutionary posturing will do any good, and most of it was posturing, I'm afraid. Still, I think that there were a lot of things that were of great value that came out of that. It was a great educational period, I think, one of the greatest revolutionary periods in our history. And the effects of it are going to go on for a long time, I think. As you say, it looks as if everybody's very calm now, and so on.

But something was learned, and I don't believe that all of that will be dissipated. I don't believe that all of those sleepwalkers who woke up into somebody else's nightmare in the '60s are going to fall back to sleep again. Not all of them. Some have, no doubt. A lot of them will make their peace, one way or another, with the system, that is they'll somehow come to some kind of terms with it. They'll have to live in it. If they're not going to change it, they'll have to live in it.

But I think it will have long-term political effects. I think that the '70s is going to be a very liberal period. Now, I'm not interested in liberalism as such, but I'm just trying to see what I think is likely to come. And I think that one of the things that is going to come is that the Democrats, probably, will once again become the kind of party that they were, let's say, at the time of Roosevelt, and with all the contradictions that the party had at that time, leaving that out of account.

I think that will happen. Now, that's not my ideal of what ought to happen at all, but I think it will happen. I think, in other words, that we might begin to have a second political party instead of two wings of one political party, that one-- and this could only be the Democrats-- will begin to gather into itself a lot of the power from these people whose consciousness has been raised somewhat in the '60s.

And I expect that that's probably the next thing that will happen as a result of that. And At the edges of a movement like that, there will be radicalization going on. I consider that the country will continue to radicalize itself. That great wave of false radicalism has disappeared, but I think that there will continue to be a growth of radicalism, not anything so dramatic as the '60s appeared. But I think that it will continue.

And of course, if there is some kind of big bust or something, then, of course, everything can change quite fast. A lot of these people who were radicalized and who disappeared now will suddenly discover that they were old radicals once upon a time and might begin to act again. Anyway, this is a supposition, but that's my notion of a possibility, in any case.

SPEAKER: Do you think the Watergate business will have any far-reaching effect or--

THOMAS MCGRATH: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I think so. The Watergate thing is, of course, nothing at all. It's only business as usual. That's all that's been shown, is something that has happened again and again and again in government and continually in business, and so forth, and so on. But this is the first time that the curtain has been pulled back very far.

And because it reaches right into the White House, it's very difficult for people just to say, though many of them are still saying, well, it's all politics, meaning all politicians are crooks and politics is hypocrisy, idiocy, and who knows what else. But I think it will have a big effect. Yeah.

SPEAKER: How about the sense of justice? I wonder how somebody that has been sent up for five years for robbing a liquor store looks upon some of the-- the whole idea that some people are above the law, I think, is one of the business as usual, perhaps, that--

THOMAS MCGRATH: Yeah. Well, all of these ironies are turning up, Reagan saying, these men are not criminals. Well, what the hell are if they're not criminals? And here is some poor bastard, as you say, who goes out and sticks up a liquor store or, to use the older one, steals a loaf of bread for his hungry children. And for Ronald Reagan, he's a criminal.

Well, the only thing that these people didn't commit, I guess, were real acts against property, and that's the Holy Ghost of the system. So if you don't touch property, you're not a criminal. You're just a misguided patriot, something of that sort. I think that these ironies surely are going home. For a lot of people, it's old news. I mean, I can't imagine, for instance, any Black being very surprised at this because he's assumed the worst from the beginning.

It's no news, certainly, to anybody who was ever a radical of any sort. It's just rather surprising that it turned up and that it hasn't all been put under the rug. And, in fact, it may well be put under the rug yet because again and again-- I've been watching these hearings. It's hard not to. Again and again, you see where one of the questioners has got somebody right over the barrel, and then he lets him off.

The only one of the lot that really seems to have some sense of real anger is Weicker. You can see that he really is angry sometimes. He's furious. He's been betrayed by his party. Well, it would be very interesting if that committee had on it one left-winger. Then we would see some questions asked, I think, that would dramatize the whole bit of skullduggery, and so on, more than is being done now. But even so, it's highly educational.

SPEAKER: I wonder if we might share some of your poems in your latest book, The Movie at the End of the World.

THOMAS MCGRATH: Mm-hmm. Yeah. If you have any particular ones that you'd like me to read, I will. Otherwise, I'll just pick up and read whatever comes along.

SPEAKER: I enjoyed the one to your son. Is that "Tomasito"?

THOMAS MCGRATH: "Tomasito," yes. Yeah, I'll see if I can find that. Sometimes it takes longer to find the poem than to read it. Well, it will in this case because the "Tomasito" poem is quite short. There are several "Tomasito" poems, but this is the first one that I wrote when he was just a baby. It's called "For Tomasito."

"My son is a tiny blast furnace that burns nothing but his mother's milk,

A little fire in the barrio of hunger in the coldest city in the land.

But he'll keep us warm in Dakota in the all-American winter, in the blizzards at Wounded Knee, even beyond the Missouri."

Well, I may as well read this one, "A Cold Fire in Winter." This I wrote when we had left-- turned out we had left New York. I guess we left, more or less, for good because we'd never lived there on any-- we did live there again for a year, but we'd come out, and we were living in the old farmhouse. And it's called "A Cold Fire in Winter."

"Something old and tyrannical burning there,

Not like a wood fire, which is only the end of a summer or a life,

But something of darkness, heat from the time before there was fire.

And I have come here to warm that blackness into forms of light,

To set free a captive prince from the sunken kingdom of the father, cold.

A warming company of the cold-blooded,

These carbon serpents of bituminous gardens,

These inflammable tunnels of dead song from the black pit,

This sparkling end of the great beasts,

These blazing stone flowers, diamond fire, incandescent fruit.

And out of all that death now,

At midnight, my love and I are riding down the old high roads of inexhaustible light."

It's hard to know which of these poems to read. Here's a poem I'll read. It's called "Used Up." And it has to do with some things that I saw when I was a boy were common. And it also has, I suppose, a more extended meaning. It's called "Used Up."

"I remember the new dropped colts in the time when I was a boy,

The steam of their bodies in the cold morning like a visible soul,

And the crimped hairy ring of warmed grass first circle of sleep.

Spider-legged later, they ate sugar from my shaken, scary hand.

In a few more years, they were broken.

Their necks were circled with a farmer's need with dead leather legends and collars of their kin.

Gelded, their wild years cut out of them, harnessed to the world,

They walked the bright days, black furrows, and gilded seasons of use.

Now dead, swung from the haymow track with block and tackle,

Gut slit, blood in a tub for pigs,

Their skin dragged over their heads by a team of mules,

A circlet of crows, coyote song, and bones,

Rusting coolie moonlight, lush greenest spring grass where the body leaped.

Three acts in death, the horse rides into the Earth."

And this is one-- oh, maybe that's too long. Here's a little one called "Evening Prayers," and it has to do with our politics and what we were talking about. And it was one of the poems, I suppose, that I wrote maybe during that time, maybe later. Anyway, "Evening Prayers."

"Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the mighty peace to keep,

That they let neither fire nor bomb send me dreaming to kingdom come,

And that his surplus value will take only sweat and leave my soul.

If you please, sir, give me this.

Oh, bless our ancient liberties."

Or here's an odd one, maybe. It's called "A Sixth Heresy of Parson Chance." I wrote a bunch of poems at one time over a period of a year or more with various names of people, I mean, names that I invented, that were supposed to give some sort of angle on the poem. And this is called "A Sixth Heresy of Parson Chance."

"The strong men flat upon their backs, any dwarf looks Bunyanesque.

The idiot with love to pass seems wider than an odalisque to eunuchs.

And the verb to find is lost in the countries of the blind.

The issue of the bloodless men is a whinnying and warlike clamor.

Faster than compound interest, awakens General Doppelganger,

The pope of oil, the editor's whore trumpet the master's man to war.

The crooked and concupiscent and the man with the bull ring in his nose,

Praise a Roman circus where only the poor must pay.

The rose is thornless, fire chills, man is free,

And the fish are harping in the sea."

The poem is called "Ars Poetica" or "The Art of Poetry" and is subtitled "Or Who Lives in the Ivory Tower?" And it's a poem which takes up the whole question of, who wants what kind of poetry or art? It goes like this.

"Perhaps you'd like a marching song for the embattled proletariat,

Or a realistic novel, the hopeful poet said,

Or a slice of actual life with the hot red heart's blood running,

The simple tale of a working stiff, but better than Jack London.

Nobody wants your roundelay.

Nobody wants your sestina, said the housewife.

We want Hedy Lamarr and Gable at the cinema.

Get out of my technicolor dream with your tragic view

And your verses down with iambic pentameter and hurrah for Louella Parsons.

Of course, you're free to write as you please, the liberal editor answered.

But take the red flags out of your poem.

We mustn't offend the censor.

And change this stanza to mean the reverse.

And you must tone down this passage.

Thank God for the freedom of the press and a poem with a message.

Life is lousy enough.

You should put it into a sonnet, said the man in the street.

So keep it out of the novel, the poem, the drama.

Give us a pan of murder and rape or the lay of a willing maiden.

And to hell with the Bard of Avon.

And to hell with Eliot Auden.

Recite the damn things all day long.

Get drunk on smoke come Sunday.

I respect your profession as much as my own,

But it don't pay off when you're hungry.

You'll have to carry the banner instead, said the hobo in the jungle, if you want to eat.

And don't forget, it's my bridge you're sleeping under.

Oh, it's down with art and down with life.

And give us another reefer, they all said.

Give us a South Sea isle, where, light, my love lies dreaming.

And who is that poet coming off the streets with a look on Lille and Lourdes.

Your feet are muddy, you son of a bitch.

Get out of our ivory tower."

Well, in there, you can also see some of the things that happen when you write a poem that has anything topical in it. People will want to know, who is Gable?

SPEAKER: It also is saying that it's pretty hard to reach the working class.

THOMAS MCGRATH: It's pretty hard to reach anybody.


Yes, and I agree. I don't think the working class is quite in here. The man in the street, I don't know who he is, and the hobo. Anyway, it was a sort of a japery, but it's a point of view that I feel just to one degree or another sometimes. I think it's quite true. There are no grand demands for poetry. People aren't screaming, for God's sake, write some more poems.

But it's a point of view. It's not necessarily a permanent attitude that I have. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I have to write, whether or not people want the poems or not. As I say, it's a compulsion, really. Here's a poem. It's called "Something Is Dying Here." I'm going to read it because it has to do with the Vietnamese War and this place, and so on. And it's become a fairly well-known poem. It's called "Something Is Dying Here."

"In 100 places in North Dakota, tame locomotives are sleeping inside the barricades of bourgeois flowers."

Now, I'm going to stop and start over because I should say, maybe for some people who might be listening, that I'm thinking of those old retired locomotives, the steam locomotives, that they took off and put in parks oftentimes. Very nice thing to do. So here's the poem "Something Is Dying Here."

In 100 places in North Dakota, tame locomotives are sleeping inside the barricades of bourgeois flowers.

Zinnias, petunias, Johnny jump-ups,

Their once-wild fir warming the public squares.

Something is dying here, and perhaps I too.

My brain already full of the cloudy lignite of eternity,

I evoke 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 1930s,

Cloud harps, iconographic blood rusting in the burnt church of my flesh.

But nothing goes forward.

The locomotive never strays out of the flower corral.

The Mustang is inventing barbed wire.

The bulls have put rings in their noses.

The dead here will leave behind a ring of auto bodies,

Weather-eaten bones of cars where the standoff failed.

Stranger, go tell among the companions,

These dead weren't put down by Shyam or red Chinese.

The poison of their own sweet country has brought them here."

SPEAKER: That whole business with the blacklisting must have been a pretty difficult thing to go through. I mean, that's putting it mildly.

THOMAS MCGRATH: Well, it was much easier for me than for many people. But it wasn't easy or a pleasure. That's true. No.

SPEAKER: Is that where some of the inspiration for "Ars Poetica" came from?

THOMAS MCGRATH: It was around about that time, yes. It was around about that time. I don't know quite what set it off. The blacklist, I don't know, I don't think I've ever written anything about it. I've written some poems that deal with it to one degree or another. Here's a poem that does in a way.

It's called "Political Song for the Year's End." And it is a poem which makes use of certain symbols, very old ones and some of them Christian ones, the idea of a savior, the idea of there being a summer king and a winter king. You kill off the old king in order to make the crops grow, and so on.

Sometimes they have been symbolized as birds, who killed Cock Robin. So I have read is a story about the killing of one of these half-year kings. Anyway, this is called "Political Song for the Year's End." This would have been written about 1954, maybe '5.

"The darkness of the year begins in which we hunt the summer kings.

Who will kill Cock Robin when his breast is cheery with his sin?

And when transfigured in the skies, the starry hunted hero dies.

The redemptive reign of his golden blood quickens the barley of the good.

Sing to the moon for every change must come.

The democratic senator is conjunctive to the warrior star.

And market waivers into trine as the geared heavens tick and shine.

The worker snores.

The poet browses through all his literary houses.

The goose hangs high.

The wife lays low.

And all the children are on snow.

Sing to the moon for every change is known.

Each role must change.

Each change must come.

Turning, we make the great wheel turn in a rage of impotence forth and back,

Through the stations of history's Zodiac.

Caught in the trap of our daily bread, a hopeful stumbling multitude,

We surrender and struggle, save and slay,

Turning the wheel in the ancient way.

Sing to the moon for every change must pass.

And now, with an indifferent eye, we see our savior hunted by,

Into that furious dark of time, his only death may all redeem.

And when at last that time is come,

When all the great shall be cast down,

We rejoice to praise who now is slain,

For the darkness of the years come.

Sing to the moon for every change is known."

That poem has something to do with the murder of the Rosenbergs by Eisenhower and company. I suppose that the saviors are people like the Rosenbergs, some of them killed and some of them not. But anyway, it's a poem I like very much, but I haven't read-- I don't read it very often. I don't know why I read some. Some of them are much easier to read than others. That's one of the things.

SPEAKER: Do you think poetry should be read or is some of it really better to read on the page?

THOMAS MCGRATH: On the page? Well, both, absolutely. There is a lot in contemporary poetry that's difficult enough. Modern poetry anyway, not contemporary poetry. I mean, the poetry of the last few years hasn't been anywhere nearly as difficult as the poetry, say, of the '50s or the '40s or the poetry of the old early modernists, like Eliot in some poems, and so on.

But I believe poetry-- I think it ought to be read aloud. I don't get any great pleasure out of doing it. I have mixed feelings about it. It's easier reading here when there's just the two of us and we're rapping. But to read to an audience is harder. But I think a poet ought to do it because there's something in the poem that will only come out, I think, if they hear how he's trying to read it.

Sometimes, of course, he has a voice that's awful. I've got a pretty bad one. But anyway, even so, I believe that certain things come through. But then there are many poems that need also to be read off the page, where you'll miss a lot just by taking it in by ear because the ear is slower in understanding than the eye. And you can't go back. You haven't got instant replay.

I'll read you a little poem here. Well, here are two little ones. This is a poem called "You, Yannis Ritsos." It's written for a great Greek poet who was arrested by the fascist colonels when they took over Greece some years ago and is still under arrest as far as I know and quite ill. He had been imprisoned by the Germans also during the war, and so on. Anyway, I wrote this little poem. I have another poem for him also, but this is called "You, Yannis Ritsos."

"A born hero to rake the barren infertile salt,

An or stuck into the sand above the tidemark."

And here's another little short poem. It's called "The Deaths of the Poets" and dated winter 1972. Well, last year was a bad year for poets, a number of deaths. I think this may have been set off by the death of Kenneth Patchen. There was the death of Patchen and the death of-- well, Marianne Moore died, I guess, and Padraic Colum.

But the poets that I was thinking of particularly, I suppose, were Patchen and Berryman, who committed suicide last winter, I think, I guess it was, or toward last spring or something. The poem is called "The Deaths of the Poets." And it goes like this.

"They went away in the cold in the time when the nights are long,

Flying in the nearest direction to where all months are south.

Leaving behind their scouting reports from our old war,

They parachute forever toward fields as white and blank as a page."

And then here's one. I don't know what this poem means at all. And it was lost and found, and I decided after that that I'd better keep it. It's called "And Elegy for Hart Crane," another who was a really great American poet, one whose work I like very much, another suicide back in the '30s. And this is called "An Elegy for Hart Crane," though it doesn't sound very elegiac now I think of it. This is quite surrealist a poem, I guess, you'd say.

"The fifth angel blows, and a star falls in the bottomless pit.

The armless postcard blows along on the wind.

One star comes out to unlock the gate of midnight.

In the drunken ocean, the islands are walking in their sleep.

Walking the slack wire between dark and dark,

A tree forgets itself,

Lets fall blue eggs, which opening let loose Simple Simon,

Who turns a machine gun on the chocolate sheep.

And the sixth angel blows,

And a light of arrows feathered with eyes falls from the angry moon.

If help is coming, it better be coming soon.

When Euclid dances, algebra falls at his feet."

I don't know quite what that means. Euclid is associated with geometry.

SPEAKER: Poets seem to have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

THOMAS MCGRATH: I guess that's true.

SPEAKER: Is that because of a greater sensitivity?

THOMAS MCGRATH: I don't know. I don't know. It would be easy to say, and maybe it's true. But, I don't know, I think a lot of poets would be very wary about claiming for themselves a greater sensitivity than other people. I don't think that poets feel that they're necessarily-- or that they are sensitive plants, which is the old cliché about poets.

I don't think most poets feel that way. But it may be, in a sense, that they are nevertheless whether they feel it or not. And then there's a lot of exacerbation in the whole business of writing poetry since you haven't a hope in hell of making a living at it, which you might as a novelist, let's say. A serious novelist might still make a living at it. But the more serious the poet, the less likelihood of his making a living at it.

And so he's always up against the business of time and of trying to find time for him to do the work that he was born to do, while every day, he's got to go out into the world-- or many poets have to anyway-- and try to battle the wolf from the door and make his daily bread, and so on, and so on. You really ought, if you're going to be a poet, to be born with a large annuity.

And somebody says, one of the reasons why there were so many marvelous romantic English poets in the 19th century is because either they had independent incomes or they had TB, [CHUCKLES] sometimes known as-- it used to be called the poets disease also. I don't know, but there is a higher rate, I suppose. I guess it's true. It may not be higher than some other professions, but it's fairly high anyway.

I'll read now then this poem, the "Gone Away Blues" poem, which I usually read last when I'm doing readings. And this is a secessionist poem, I guess, you'd say. It's a disaffiliation from just about everything.

SPEAKER: When did you write it?

THOMAS MCGRATH: I wrote it about 1957 or '8. And I really wrote it because I was doing some things at that time for-- well, I had a very close friend, who was Cisco Houston, the folk singer-- you probably know him-- who was a very close friend of Woody Guthrie. In fact, they were buddies and traveled about, and so on. Anyway, Cisco and I were close friends.

After years when he hadn't been doing anything, he was starting to sing again and to start up a career that he had folded up once upon a time. And for what reason, I don't know, but he was starting up again. And he was singing traditional folk songs, but he was also interested in finding new ones. And Guthrie wasn't around to be writing them. So it seemed for a time that I might do some things for him.

And I wrote a couple of things, and this is one of them. He never sang it. I don't know whether I had finished it by the time he left LA and went East or what. But in any case, I don't even know if it is singable, but it's chantable. And this one requires a different situation because it really ought to be wailed. And that's more than I really can do now. But it's called "Gone Away Blues."

"Sirs, when you are in your last extremity,

When your admirals are drowning in the grass-green sea,

When your generals are preparing the total catastrophe,

I just want you to know you cannot count on me.

I have ridden to hounds through my ancestral halls.

I have picked the eternal crocus on the ultimate hill.

I have fallen through the window of the highest room.

But don't ask me to help you because I never will.

Sirs, when you move that map pin, how many souls must dance?

I don't think all those soldiers have died by happenstance.

The inscrutable look on your scrutable face I can read at a glance.

And I'm cutting out of here at the first chance.

I have been wounded climbing the second stair.

I have crossed the ocean in the hull of a live wire.

I have eaten the asphodel of the dark side of the moon.

But you can call me all day, and I just won't hear.

Oh, patriotic mister, with your big ear to the ground,

Sweet old curly scientist wiring the birds for sound,

Old lady with the Steuben glass heart and your heels so rich and round,

I'll send you a picture postcard from somewhere I can't be found.

I have discovered the grammar of the public good.

I have invented a language that can be understood.

I have found the map of where the body is hid.

And I won't be caught dead in your neighborhood.

Oh, Hygienic inventor of the bomb that's so clean,

Oh, lily-white senator from East Turnip Green,

Oh, celestial mechanic of the money machine,

I'm going someplace where nobody makes your scene.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Adios, au revoir, so long.

Sayonara, dosvedanya, ciao.

Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye."

SPEAKER: That was Tom McGrath, considered one of our country's best poets and author of Letters to an Imaginary Friend. He's also professor of English at Moorhead State College. That conversation was recorded last summer in his office.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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