thomas mcgrath | death song poems

24 06 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 244 | June 24 2008

Thomas McGrath

I have been a long time in this emptiness
Most of it wasted…
Out here it is so easy for the fool,
Mad in his isolation,
To mistake the solitude of his own poor soul for a diamond

I’ve mentioned my old bookseller-friend from Chicago, Paul Romaine on other occasions (profiled in CHI TOWN), a mentor of sorts, who put the books of numerous socially conscious writers into my hands, suggesting: to be a real writer in America you must engage yourself with larger issues…matters of injustice…racial intolerance, “big business” (as it was called then), war, labor, the plight of the working class.

One of these writers was the poet Tom McGrath and his book LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND. I remember buying the paperback when it first came out in 1962 (Swallow Press), and finding it tough going. I was just a kid, wanting to write. What the hell did I know? An entire book, one long autobiographical poem that was all over the place, every direction in America and beyond… The language both lyrical and hard as nails.

I was not ready for McGrath. Some writers you have to grow into. Wait to find. Wait till they find you. So true of the ones who remain hidden to so many In their lifetime. It would take McGrath thirty years (1962 to1985) to complete his epic. He died in 1990 and is still waiting to be discovered in America. Partly because he criticized it so severely. There are ways here to keep a writer’s voice down.

“I hope I can someday give this country or the few poetry lovers of this country something as large, soulful, honest and beautiful as McGrath’s great and still unappreciated epic of our mad and lyric century, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a book from which we can draw hope and sustenance for as long as we last.”Philip Levine

McGrath, an outstanding lyric poet, was also one of America’s great revolutionary poets. Maybe its only true one. He hated ‘the system.’ Hated what it did to our humanity. He grew up working class poor in North Dakota, his father a farmer. Never forgot it. Saw and tasted poverty at an early age. And took his stand when the time came—never flinching till the time of his death. There are a lot of writers who claim to be revolutionaries. A lot of talk. A lot of dramatics. A lot of words. But damn few who lay it on the line the way McGrath did.

DEATH SONG, published posthumously, from which the poems below were excerpted, is a beautiful mix of the many wonders of Tom McGrath’s way with poems. I can’t think of a better introduction than this final cry and whisper. —Norbert Blei

P.S. I’d like to dedicate this Poetry Dispatch #244 in memory of writer, publisher, friend, Curt Johnson / december press, who loved everything McGrath stood for in America and wrote about.


On Monday he died.
A few heard of it and were shocked but not surprised.

On Tuesday
A newspaper noted his passing.

On Wednesday
There was a small service and some people came.

On Friday
They buried or burned him at the beginning of a long weekend.

On Saturday
They went to the beach, doped, drank, fornicated, had a “good

On Sunday
With headaches, a few went to a bar and one remembered a line
of a poem.

He would have understood perfectly the “human condition.”

“War is the continuation of policy by other means.” So said Von Clausewitz.

But war is also
The continuation of false consciousness
And falsified policy and politics
And greed masked as bourgeois generosity
By the falsified desires of American imperialism
By presidents wedded to cowboys and missiles
By chauvinist beer salesmen peddling the stars and stripes by
the six-pack
By the trained psychopathic liars of the State Department
By simple-minded sods in all fifty states
By the born-simple clergy and suckers of religion
By the bearded dons and Ph.D. dumdums of Academia
By painters selling third-hand Da Da at fancy prices
By poets who have forgot their songs in their gilded cages
By farmers sold out and put on the road and still finding their enemy
in Nicaragua or El Salvador
By workers given their walking papers for life and their heads still so
unscrewed they think the enemy is Russia or Communism
By housewives pissing their pants and dreaming of Red Terror
Or hijackers invading Podunk

By other means.
Politics is the continuation of war by other means.
And now, you celebrated American jackasses:
You still want war?
Go let a hole in the head shed light on your darkling brain-
Remember Vietnam?

Go and be damned!
But don’t count on me for nothing you righteous
stupid sons of bitches !

Fargo-Moorhead, about 1980

Friends, I am old and poor.
The ones who lived in my house have gone out into the world.
My dogs are all dead and the bones of my horses
Whiten the hillsides.

All my books are forgotten.
My poems
Are asleep, though they dream in many languages.
The ones I love are carrying the Revolution
In far away places.

This little house has few comforts-but it is yours.
Come and see me here-
I’ve got plenty of time and love!


After working a long time at my desk near the window
I turn out the lamp

but eventually
the dark sky and the page I have been working on
are flooded
with light!

Let us turn the page
And see what is written
On the other side of the night.

from Death Song, Copper Canyon Press, 1991