thomas mcgrath | letters to an imaginary friend

1 09 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 250 | September 1, 2008

The Poet Working: Labor Day, 2008

(In Praise of American Poet, Thomas McGrath)

Unions, blue-collar workers, straw bosses, graveyard shifts, punching a time-clock, piece-work, AFL, CIO, Teamsters, IWW, coal miners, time-and-a-half and overtime, sick-pay, work clothes, work boots, work gloves, strikes, scabs, farm workers, supervisors, break-time, Thermos jugs, lunch buckets, walking-the-picket-line…the whole lexicon of the way work once was…was once described in America where ‘labor’ today seems almost undercover. Something whispered, out-of-sight…not to be mentioned (except in terms of migrant workers) in these days of factory closings, outsourcing, unemployment, minimum wages…used-to-be American dreams, dreams deferred.

Readers of this site may recall previous dispatches and high praise of a most neglected American poet, Thomas McGrath, who both worked and stood for that old fashioned American dream machine—in a union-of-humanity sort of way.

I still hold that his book, LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND is a literary classic of first rank, as significant a part of our American culture as Thoreau’s WALDEN POND, Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, Sandburg’s, THE PEOPLE YES, Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. It has been side-stepped, looked over, lost and kept out of our classrooms far too long—for political reasons.

Here’s an excerpt…a small sense of the grand sweep, beautiful language, of a book that still rings true, captures and holds up to the light the spirit of who we are, or once were.

Take your time. Give every word and line your attention. On this day above all days, listen to what McGrath has to say for himself, for us. – Norbert Blei

by Thomas McGrath


That was the year, too, of the labor troubles on the rigs—

The first, or the last maybe. I heard the talk.

It was dull. Then, one day—windy—

We were threshing flax I remember, toward the end of the run

After quarter-time I think—the slant light falling

Into the blackened stubble that shut like a fan toward the headland—

The strike started then. Why then I don’t know.

Cal spoke for the men and my uncle cursed him.

I remember that ugly sound, like some animal cry touching me

Deep and cold, and I ran toward them.

And the fighting started.

My uncle punched him. I heard the breaking crunch

Of his teeth going and the blood leaped out of his mouth

Over his neck and shirt—I heard their gruntings and strainings

Like love at night or men working hard together,

And heard the meaty thumpings, like beating a grain sack

As my uncle punched his body—I remember the dust

Jumped from his shirt,

He fell in the blackened stubble


Was smashed in the face

Stumbled up



Lay on his side in the harsh long slanting sun

And the blood ran out of his mouth and onto his shoulder.

Then I heard the quiet and that I was crying-

They had shut down the engine.

The last of the bundle-teams

Was coming in at a gallop.

Crying and cursing

Yelled at the crew: “Can’t you jump the son-of-a-bitch!

Cal ! Cal ! get up”

But he didn’t get up.

None of them moved.

Raging at my uncle I ran.

Got slapped,

Ran sobbing straight to the engine.

I don’t know what I intended. To start the thing maybe,

To run her straight down the belt and into the feeder

Like a vast iron bundle.

I jammed the drive-lever over, lashed back on the throttle,

And the drive belt popped and jumped and the thresher groaned,

The beaters clutched at the air, knives flashed,

And I wrestled the clutch.

Far away, I heard them

Yelling my name, but it didn’t sound like my own,

And the clutch stuck. (Did I want it to stick?) I hammered it

And the fireman came on a run and grabbed me and held me

Sobbing and screaming and fighting, my hand clenched

On the whistle rope while it screamed down all of our noises

Stampeding a couple of empties into the field—

A long, long blast, hoarse, with the falling, brazen

Melancholy of engines when the pressure’s falling.

Quiet then. My uncle was cursing the Reds,

Ordering the rig to start, but no one started.

The men drifted away.

The water monkey

Came in with his load.


He got no answer.

Cal’s buddy and someone else got him up

On an empty rack and they started out for home,

Him lying on the flat rack-bed.

Still crying, I picked up his hat that lay in the churned up dust,

And left my rack and team and my uncle’s threats,

And cut for home across the river quarter.


Green permission

Dusk of the brass whistle . .

Gooseberry dark.

Green moonlight of willow.

Ironwood, basswood and the horny elm. ; :

June berry; box-elder; thick in the thorny brake

The black choke cherry, the high broken ash and the slick

White bark of poplar.

I called the king of the woods,

The wind-sprung oak.

I called the queen of ivy,

Maharani to his rut-barked duchies;

Summoned the foxgrape, the lank woodbine,

And the small flowers: the wood violets, the cold

Spears of the iris, the spikes of the ghostflower

It was before the alphabet of trees

Or later.

Runeless I stood in the green rain

Of the leaves.



Echo of distant horns.


Under the hush and whisper of the wood,

I heard the echoes of the little war.

A fox barked in the hills; and a red hawk boomed

Down on the darkening flats in a feathery splash of hunger.

Silence and waiting.

The rivery rustle

Of a hunting mink.

Upstream in the chuckling shallows

A beaver spanked the water where, in its time,

The dam would be where my brother, now in his diapers,

Would trap for the beaver’s grandsons.

I could not

See in that green dark.

I went downstream

Below the crossing where I’d swum the midnight river

On my way home from a move.

I put my clothes

Stinking with sweat and dusty (I thought:

How the dust had jumped from Cal’s shirt!)

I put them on the broken stump.

I dived from the hummock where the cut-bank crumbled.

Under the river the silence was humming, singing:


In the arrest and glaucous light

Delicate, snake-like, the water-weed waved and retracted.

The water sang. The blood in my ears whistled.

I roared up out of the river into the last of the sunlight.

Then: I heard the green singing of the leaves;

The water-mystery,

The night-deep and teasing terror on the lone river

Sang in my bones,

And under its eves and seas I broke my weeping,

In that deeper grieving,

The long, halting—the halt and the long hurry—

Toward the heaving, harsh, the green blurring of the salt

mysterious sea.


Later, climbing the coulee hills in the sandy dusk,

After sundown in the long northern twilight,

The night hawk circling where the ragamuffin crows

Steered for the cloudy wood;

In that dead calm, in that flat light,

(The water darkening where the cattle stood to their knees)

I heard the singing of the little clan.

Comfort of crickets and a thrum of frogs.

Sleepy rustle of birds.

In the dusk the bats hustled.

The hawk wheeled and whirled on the tall perch of the air;

Whirled, fell

Down a long cliff of light, sliding from day into dusk.

Something squealed in the brake.

The crickets were silent.

The cattle lifted their blank and unregardant

Gaze to the hills.

Then, up the long slope of air on his stony, unwavering wing

The hawk plunged upward into a shower of light.

The crickets sang. The frogs

Were weaving their tweeds in the river shallows.

Hawk swoop.



The formal calls of a round-dance.

This riddling of the river-mystery I could not read.

Then, climbing the high pass of my loss, I tramped

Up the dark coulee.

The farmyard dark was dappled

With yellowy ponds of light, where the lanterns hung.

It was quiet and empty.

In the hot clutter

Of the kitchen my mother was weeping. “He wouldn’t eat.”

She said, meaning Cal.

She had a womanly notion

(Which she didn’t really believe) that all man’s troubles

Could be ended by eating—it was a gesture she made

To soothe the world.

My father had driven my uncle out of the yard

Because Cal was our man, and not to be mistreated

Any more than horses or dogs. He was also my father’s friend.

I got some supper and took it out to the barn.

In the lemony pale light of a lantern, at the tar end,

He lay in a stall. His partner sat in the straw

Beside him, whittling, not looking at me. I didn’t ask

Where his gun was, that slept in an oily rag

In his suitcase.

I put the food beside him

As I’d done with sick dogs.

He was gone where my love

Nor my partisanship could reach him.

Outside the barn my father knelt in the dust

In the lantern light, fixing a harness. Wanting

Just to be around, I suppose, to try to show Cal

He couldn’t desert him.

He held the tubular punch

With its spur-like rowle, punching a worn hame strap

And shook the bright copper rivets out of a box.

“Hard lines, Tom,” he said. “Hard lines, Old Timer.”

I sat in the lantern’s circle, the world of men,

And heard Gal breathe in his stall.

An army of crickets

Rasped in my ear.

“Don’t hate anybody.”

My father said. `

I went toward the house through the dark.

That night the men all left.

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.

And Showboat

Quinn goes by (New York, later) “The fuckin’ proletariat

Is in love with its fuckin chains. How do you put this fuckin

Strike on a cost-plus basis?”

There were strikes on other rigs that day, most of them lost,

And, on the second night, a few barns burned.

After that a scattering of flat alky bottles,

Gasoline filled, were found, buried in bundles.

“The folded arms of the workers.”

I see Sodaberg

Organizing the tow boats.

I see him on Brooklyn Bridge,

The fizzing dynamite fuse as it drops on the barges.

Then Mac with his mournful face comes round the corner

(New York) up from the blazing waterfront, preaching

His strikes.

And my neighbors are striking on Marsh Street.

(L.A., and later)

And the hawk falls.

A dream-borne singing troubles my still boy’s sleep

In the high night where Cal had gone:

They came through

The high passes, they crossed the darl mountains

In a month of snow.

Finding the plain, the bitter water, the iron

Rivers of the black north


in the high plateaus of that country

Climbing toward sleep

But far

from the laughter.

[excerpt, from Part III, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Alan Swallow Press, 1962]

Much more on Thomas McGrath can be found here…

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