If Thomas McGrath were a painter, he would apply fat brushes to giant canvasses in complex color and texture. Gershwin’s gloss and the landscape of Copland are tame music compared to his. McGrath writes in the dissonance of Ives – American cacophony in contrasting threads of autobiography and cause, the red-white-and-blue Midwest against a vein of committed activism. Rhythm and line length mandated Letter to An Imaginary Friend into a unique (square) form factor (containing parts I and II) that accommodates rollicking lines in a sprawling ninety-nine page poem (Part I ) that is autobiographical and laced with social justice topics of his day – injustices that we would do well to remember.
His is the generation of the dustbowl thirties, farmers losing their homesteads, the Depression. The country lurched from Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot – car in every garage” to the Great Depression, to the singular focus on World War II in two geographic theaters to the cozy “Eisenhower prosperity.” McGrath’s telling peels away political gloss with such physical momentum that one wonders how the language produced such rhythms – and one suspects that it could be the other way around – that the poet’s somatic rhythm funneled mere words into a rocking, epic poem. The section titled “III.” is a miniature of what it is to read McGrath.
His legendary six beat line opens the poem’s narration, “Out of the whirring lamp-hung dusk my mother calls.” Absence of commas feeds his momentum. How much more powerful a mother’s call out of a whirring lamp-hunk dusk than out of a kitchen door. And, one might think a rhythm is established yet six lines down in the opening stanza, he describes fields, “Where the thresher mourns and showers on the morning stillness/a bright fistful of whistles.” So much for cockadoodle-doo on the farm! His grandfather dances as his mother polishes a pan on her apron and feeds the stove, “It’s iron, round crackling mouth and throat full of bristling flame” – conceivably eight down beats in that line. We’re proverbially off to the races on this farm – a race of rhythm, language, imagery and a sense that everything in the story is in motion.
The part of the story that is autobiographical – which Letter to an Imaginary Friend combines with poetry of witness and cause – keeps us on the farm for breakfast, the sleepy eyed awakening of younger siblings, goodbye kisses of mother as “I drove the big roan team through the grey of the chill morning…” Another cacophonic line with complex rhythm that heralds great change placed as it is situated among much shorter lines and structures for the mother’s goodbyes. This is not just a boy going to work on a farm. It is a rite of passage to adulthood where he will encounter people and injustices that are beyond his knowledge. With a pronounced indentation, he begins the precise narrative, “Entered too soon, too young/ Bobbing along on the lines, dragged by a team of roans,/ (Whose names should have been Poverty and Pride)/ Into the world of men at the age of nine”
The complexity defies a short review. “The rites of passage toward the stranger’s country,/ the secret language foreign as a beard…” tell in two succinct lines that poet/narrator is growing into puberty as he discovers a broader country that is his home.
He whirrs us through a rocking engine, an extraordinary sensualization of a feeder’s function to his conclusion. “Was it hard? I don’t know. It was terrifying.” A very young man’s try at toughness and denial only to come up with a poet’s honesty. He worked on the farm, a summer in which his father took him to the edges of a new world. “But mostly Cal, one of the bundle teamsters,/ My sun-blackened Virgil of the spitting circle,/ Led me from depth to depth. (Note the wide indentation here like a deep breath or a sigh). / Toward the light/ I was too young to enter.”
The immersion of the young man into a new world. Only a line later he refers to The Industrial Worker and the Wobs. Wikipedia describes “”the voice of revolutionary industrial unionism,” as the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union…(sic) referred to as the Wobblies.” The young farm boy has traveled to the destiny of his voice. The stanza progresses to “The last of the real Wobs – that, too, I didn’t know,/Couldn’t.”
These are pivotal moments when McGrath as a boy gains foundation for the larger world he will travel.
Labor troubles began on the rigs, “ Into the blackened stubble that shut like a fan toward the headland -/ the strike started then. Why then I didn’t know./ Cal spoke for the men and my uncle cursed him.” Here the poet, who will take strong positions later in his narrative, is taking the reader autobiographically through his own confusion and immersion. The next sections of III. are gorgeous young poet-man escaping-ruminating-absorbing and being absorbed in detail of nature, the surrounding of his life.
Cal is destined for a bad end. (Deep indent) “Along toward morning/ I heard the rattle of Fords. They had left Cal there/ in the bloody dust that day but they wouldn’t work after that./ ‘The folded arms of the workers’ I heard Warren saying, / Sometime in the future where Mister Peets Lies dreaming/ Of a universal voting machine…” Cal becomes a symbol of injustice – and this only the beginning of McGrath’s epic.
I believe we are still working on the ‘universal voting machine.’