Thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, two poetry anthologies published in the last year and a few recently written histories on Los Angeles Poetry, there has been a widespread interest in the legacy of Los Angeles Poetry in the literary world over the last few years. As much as many of these accounts have focused on the Venice Beats, Charles Bukowski, Beyond Baroque and the Watts Writers Workshop, a poet named Thomas McGrath predates all of the above mentioned.
Thomas McGrath is one of the most significant poets in the annals of Los Angeles Literature, but his legacy has almost been forgotten over the last few decades. Born in 1916, the North Dakota-born poet McGrath lived in Los Angeles only for a decade, but during his time in the city from 1950 to 1960, McGrath actively published with several literary journals, taught at Los Angeles State College, now known as California State University Los Angeles for three years and spearheaded a cadre of poets from his home in Elysian Valley, the neighborhood often called “Frogtown,” just east of Atwater Village. McGrath’s legacy is currently being honored in an exhibit in the Cal State LA Library titled, “Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath’s Los Angeles.” The exhibit will be up until July 30th, though there are efforts by a group of students to make it a permanent part of the library.
The exhibit was initiated by Cal State L.A. English Professor Dr. Andrew Lyndon Knighton and a team of graduate and undergraduate students that included Salvador Ayala, Jorge Contreras, Francisco Gutierrez, Amanda Kong and Gabriela Valenzuela. The team is collectively known as the “McGrath Working Group.” Knighton started researching McGrath in 2013 and over the last three years he has continued to find more and more information about this fascinating poet. His interest is equally biographical, geographical and personal. “McGrath and I were born in the same stretch of the northern plains,” Knighton says, “with both of us finding our way to LA, and to CSULA/LASC, in our thirties.”
As we speak, Knighton is working on a book about McGrath and he has spent a lot of time recently in the McGrath archives reading old letters and manuscripts. Excerpts of Knighton’s research appear in an essay for the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, titled, “The Life of A Dangerous Time: Thomas McGrath and the Potential of Poetry.” The exhibition in the Cal State L.A. Library offers a great starting point on McGrath and clearly illustrates the potential of McGrath’s lifetime of work. Aficionados of American Poetry and Literary Los Angeles will find a reservoir of insight in this exhibit.
Because Nothing Endures
The 12 glass cases displaying McGrath’s books, various literary journals with his work, quote excerpts, rare photos, maps and other ephemera, go a long way to demonstrate his prowess as one of the most important Mid-Century poets of Southern California. The large titles written at the top of each of the 12 display cases reveal the trajectory of McGrath’s career. A few of the most explicit titles include, “North Dakota is Everywhere,” “Because Nothing Endures,” “The Ivory Tower,” and “Academic (Un) Freedom.” Excerpts of McGrath’s poetry accompany the maps, photos and other artifacts culminating into a three-dimensional literary history with the same effectiveness and veracity present at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, along California’s Central Coast.
McGrath was closely associated with local 1950s poetry publications like California Quarterly and Coastlines and was also the faculty advisor for a few years of Statement, Cal State LA’s literary journal that is still going strong after 67 years. In recent years, McGrath’s legacy and influence on literary Los Angeles has been resurrected and reconsidered by literary scholars like Estelle Gershgoren Novak, Laurence Goldstein and William Mohr.
“Thomas McGrath stood at the center of the community of poets in Los Angeles in the 1950s and of the community of poets that continued after his departure into the early 1970s,” writes Estelle Gershgoren Novak in her seminal anthology from 2002, Poets of the Nonexistent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era. Novak’s book includes several McGrath poems and includes an extended essay that explicates the particulars of the community he was at the center of. She also briefly contrasts McGrath’s cadre of Los Angeles poets from the Venice West Beat poets. She reveals that there was some rivalry between the groups and some of McGrath’s protégés like Mel Weisburd thought some of the Venice West poets like Lawrence Lipton were charlatans and more concerned with fame than poetry. The glass case labeled, “East Versus West,” in the Cal State L.A. Library also addresses this. The same display also discusses a time when McGrath met Allan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. McGrath enjoyed meeting them and they all spent an evening together talking poetry.
A product of an Irish farming family, McGrath was a political poet and his work tackled the military-industrial complex, the mass media, university bureaucracies and labor issues. Simultaneously, McGrath’s work also included existential aims addressing loneliness and community with both an acerbic wit and caustic tone. His most famous work, Letter To An Imaginary Friend, is where all of these elements come together especially well in an epic book-length poem just over 400 pages. McGrath spent over 30 years completing the project, first publishing Part One in 1963 and finishing with Part Four in 1985.
Prior to coming to Southern California, McGrath earned a B.A. from the University of North Dakota and was then awarded a Rhodes scholarship. Before accepting his Rhodes scholarship, he went to Louisiana State University for an M.A. where he studied with Cleanth Brooks, Alan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, the esteemed professors and literary scholars known as the Southern Agrarians and also recognized for their prominent role as the progenitors of the “New Critics.” McGrath went into the army after L.S.U. and served in World War II before finally pursuing his Rhodes scholarship at New College. Oxford in 1947.
Not an Academic Poet
As Novak explains in her illuminating book, McGrath never considered himself an academic because in addition to fighting in the War, “he had worked on the West Side docks of Manhattan in 1941 and had been a farmworker, logger and shipyard welder, and though often referred to as a union organizer, what he really did was write for a union newspaper.” Inevitably what happened was that McGrath’s work synthesized all of these influences reflecting Depression-era left-wing politics, the voices of ordinary people he had worked with along with elements of traditional English poetry going all the way back to the Metaphysical poets from the 16th Century. Essentially, his poetry blended classical, colloquial and Marxist terminology seamlessly.
McGrath moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and stayed for a decade. Nonetheless, his influence was huge on the local literary scene in spite of the relatively short time he spent in Southern California. Even after her left Los Angeles for good in 1960, as Novak writes, “he continued to exercise that influence from a long distance. He was a poet whom the poetry establishment refused to acknowledge because he was antiestablishment, because he was a communist, or because he was irreverent.” His influence was felt equally as a poet, editor and professor. Prior to being hired at Cal State L.A. in 1951, McGrath had already been playing an important role assisting in editing at the California Quarterly. One of his closest associates during this time was the poet Edwin Rolfe who was a military veteran from the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s. Though Rolfe died of a heart attack at 45 in 1954, his incendiary, political poems about his time in Spain and the state of oppressive American politics that were published in California Quarterly were a source of inspiration for McGrath. Rolfe’s courageous stance encouraged McGrath take more chances in his poems and express what was really on his mind.
Henri Coulette and Statement
Before going further, some words need to be expressed about McGrath’s influence at Cal State L.A. Though McGrath was only at Cal State L.A. for three years, his influence lasted much longer. Two of the key factors for this include him mentoring Henri Coulette while Coulette was an undergraduate and his role as faculty advisor of Statement magazine. The Los Angeles born Coulette went on to become an award-winning poet, get his Ph.D. at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then taught at Cal State L.A. for 31 years until he passed in 1988. Coulette’s 1965 poetry book, The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems, won the Lamont Poetry Prize. Cal State L.A.’s English Department has a storied legacy that not only includes McGrath and Coulette, it also includes Christopher Isherwood and Dorothy Parker, who both taught there in the 1960s. Isherwood’s classic novel, A Single Man was written about his time at Cal State L.A. Nonetheless, Coulette is considered a truly seminal figure at Cal State L.A. because he was there for 31 years.
The great Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman told me in 2013 that Coulette was the first academic to ever encourage her and also offer her valuable constructive criticism in her formative days in the late 1960s when she attended the school. Eric Priestley, one of the founding members of the Watts Writers Workshop told me the same thing in 2012 about his time at Cal State L.A. around the same period as Coleman. The Los Angeles poet Don Campbell, founder of the San Gabriel Valley Poetry Festival studied with Henri Coulette in the early 1980s. Campbell has many fond recollections of studying with Coulette. “My most vivid memory of Dr. Henri Coulette discussing his mentor Thomas McGrath’s poetry,” Campbell says, “was his reading of his poems. He read them with a reverence for conveying each line’s visual message. It taught me to write poetry in which every line had an imagistic meaning that could be taken on its own or enjambed. This definitely upped the intensity of my writing, and has stayed with me ever since.” The Cal State L.A. English Department has honored Coulette by awarding “the Henri Coulette Poetry Prize,” every year. As great as Coulette became, as Don Campbell tells me, he always paid homage to Thomas McGrath.
In addition to mentoring Coulette, McGrath helped form the foundation for Cal State L.A.’s literary journal Statement as the faculty advisor during its early years. McGrath would definitely be happy to know that six decades later Statement continues and is one of the oldest run university literary magazines in the nation. Over the last 65 years, its’ pages have been graced by US Poet Laureate Rita Dove and Los Angeles’s Poet Laureates Eloise Klein Healy and Luis Rodriguez along with countless others including McGrath, Coulette, Coleman, Charles Bukowski, Ai, Carolyn See, Sesshu Foster and Jervey Tervalon among hundreds of others. As the names above demonstrate, major national and international writers and artists appear in its pages side by side with gifted students, many of whom have gone on to become highly respected figured themselves. This legacy was initiated by McGrath.
Due to the hysteria of the McCarthy era, McGrath’s influence and radical politics caused his presence to make him appear prominently on the radar of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC’s) Investigation of Communist Activities in the Los Angeles region. In 1953 HUAC interviewed McGrath and he refused to cooperate with their questions. In a widely quoted paragraph McGrath states: “As a poet I must refuse to cooperate with the committee on what I call esthetic grounds. The view of life which we receive through the great works of art is a privileged one—it is a view of life according to probability or necessity, not subject to the chance and accident of our real world and therefore in a sense truer than the life we see lived all around us. . . . Then, too, poets have been notorious non-cooperators where committees of this sort are concerned. As a traditionalist, I would prefer to take my stand with Marvell, Blake, Shelley and García Lorca. . . . I do not wish to bring dishonor to my tribe.” This quote along with his much longer statement to HUAC is shown in the glass case at the Cal State Library that is titled, “Academic (Un) Freedom.”
Needless to say, in spite of his eloquence, McGrath was blacklisted and eventually fired by Cal State L.A. in 1954 for this statement and refusing to comply with HUAC. After he was fired, many students were outraged, staged several protests and formed a committee to defend academic freedom. The students even created a volume of poetry, Witness to the Times! that they published to honor McGrath and record the moment. One of McGrath’s protégés, Mel Weisburd went on to become the new advisor for Statement. McGrath continued his association with his former students by hosting weekly poetry meetings at his home on Marsh Street every Wednesday night. Furthermore, he also started an alternative learning community from his home called the Sequoia School. In the late 1950s, two former students of McGrath, Weisburd and Gene Frumkin started the influential poetry journal, Coastlines and they published McGrath along with many others in there.
Letter To An Imaginary Friend
Following his dismissal from Cal State L.A., McGrath dove deeper into his poetry, using it as a vehicle to pontificate on McCarthy era America, the changing American landscape both physically and politically as well as his own personal setbacks like his divorce. As noted above, it was his long poem Letter To An Imaginary Friend, where he tackled these issues. Andrew Knighton explicates how this poem was McGrath’s counter-attack to McCarthyism and adhered to a technique McGrath called, “strategic poetry.” Knighton explains, “A strategic poetry thus engenders a broader revolutionary consciousness that is always temporally disjoint with regard to the concrete world it confronts, even as its poetic tools race to cultivate a sensorium prepared to harness that world and transform it.” McGrath’s poem, Knighton states, utilizes, “an array of techniques deployed throughout to radically dislocate time and space, subjecting its ostensibly autobiographical narrative time to an array of doublings, foldings, and indeterminate blurrings. Shifts of scenes occur without warning.” McGrath’s complex and strategic techniques mirror the disjunctive nature of the era he was writing in. McGrath’s poetry, similar to Walt Whitman’s speaks for the masses at large and, “contains multitudes.”
McGrath’s poetry oscillates between concrete and abstract ideas, tackling political issues with the intention of initiating alchemy. McGrath’s work has been called difficult, but upon close inspection, his community minded intentions become evident. Knighton explains further, “I have a political interest in making sure that his collectivist politics are remembered and carried forward; meanwhile, I think it is lamentable that he’s been generally neglected by academic critics of poetry and would like to make a small contribution to riddling through some of the difficulties posed by his work.” Perhaps one of the most concrete, contemporary and easily relatable elements of McGrath’s work, Knighton tells me are his many references to the temporary nature of the Los Angeles landscape in Part One of his epic poem.
Folklore of the Freeway
In the glass case titled, “Because Nothing Endures,” two maps are used to show where McGrath’s former 1950s Los Angeles home was on Marsh Street in the Elysian Valley neighborhood, known by many colloquially as the “Frogtown,” district. This home was demolished for the construction of Interstate 5. No more than a mile north of Dodger Stadium, McGrath’s home on Marsh had been an epicenter of literary activity for a cadre of writers. McGrath frequently refers to Los Angeles geography in the early section of his book-length poem, Letter To An Imaginary Friend. The poem begins with a reference to the Marsh Street home and the Los Angeles River is often mentioned throughout the beginning of the piece. McGrath also refers to the construction of freeways near his former home. Early on the piece he celebrates the greenery of the Marsh Street area and proximity to the River, but as the poem and time goes on, the destruction of his home and the trimming of the lush vegetation near the river represent the despair and impending doom his poem foretells. McGrath has a poem, “Return to Marsh Street,” that tackles this topic as well.
Eric Avila’s 2014 book, The Folklore of the Freeway, maps the creative strategies devised by various urban communities across America in the 1960s and 1970s to document and protest the construction of the interstate highway program across America. Avila does not mention McGrath, but he does note the efforts that took place in Boyle Heights in this era to stop the freeways. In 1956, a group of residents called the Boyle-Hollenbeck Anti-Golden State Freeway Committee organized to attempt to stop the construction of Interstate 5, but their efforts were no match for the state and the freeway was built by the early 1960s. The committee protested that the freeways were purposely destroying neighborhoods of people of color and as anyone that knows Los Angeles geography can attest to, the committee was right.
Hollenbeck Park was chopped in half by Interstate 5 and is now half the size it once was. Five different freeways cut through Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles and three more do the same in South Los Angeles. The decimation of neighborhoods of color by the interstate system has now been widely acknowledged. McGrath alludes to the destruction of his neighborhood and construction of the freeway several times throughout the poem. He also uses this imagery to make bigger statements about America at large.
Circling Back to Ourselves
At the very end of Letter To An Imaginary Friend, is a short essay about the book and McGrath by his longtime friend and associate Dale Jacobsen titled, “Circling Back to Ourselves.” Among the many poignant insights Jacobsen offers about the poem and McGrath, one statement stands out especially. Jacobsen writes, “The poem suggests the need for a rebirth, a necessary awakening of consciousness to invent a new history that will involve us as more than objects, as more than bodies, but rather, as the poem suggests, its authors. McGrath certainly intended the poem to accomplish this feat, since he thought of poetry as a vehicle for consciousness.” Jacobsen continues in this short essay to remark about McGrath’s focus on “circularity.” Jacobsen also notes how McGrath utilized Hopi mythology and other old school systems of thought to suggest the potential of a new world. These metaphors and the use of extensive symbolism according to Jacobsen, “serves to help dismantle to bankrupt hierarchal mythology of Christianity and western class history while at the same time presenting a metaphor of a better future. His hope, then, for his sleeping son, for all children, for the sleeping world, is that we will awaken to and from history, into the potentials of a new world.”
McGrath’s strong inclination to present a vision of the new world was clearly inspired by his own frustrations from the world he inhabited. In retrospect, his achievements seem all the more impressive when looked at objectively. His body of work, particularly Letter To An Imaginary Friend, reveal an ambitious and prolific poet that tackled a project much more complicated than his contemporaries. Perhaps only William Carlos Williams’s Patterson is comparable. McGrath dared to go where very few have gone before.
After McGrath left Los Angeles he worked various teaching jobs around America and continued to write. In the 1960s, he founded an influential poetry journal, Crazyhorse that continues to this day. In addition to writing a lot of poetry, he also wrote a novel and two children’s books. His Selected Poems 1938-1988 won two book awards and he eventually died in 1990. For those that knew his work, he remained in high esteem, but the blacklisting during the 1950s prevented him from being as well recognized as he could have been. This is why Andrew Knighton and his team of students are motivated to tell McGrath’s story. Furthermore, the depth and complexity of his poetry holds up and in many ways resonates even more now than when he originally wrote it.
One more reason Knighton is especially inspired to tell McGrath’s story, he says because, “it is important to be considering the issue of academic freedom at this moment, when the increasingly corporate model of university administration has further curtailed faculty governance of these institutions and presented new obstacles to critical, humanistic, thinking.” In addition to the spirit of academic freedom, Knighton is also inspired by the camaraderie that McGrath incited in his students. Knighton made sure that I understood that, “the design of the exhibition was a collective endeavor — the students in the working group were absolutely instrumental, and the final product reflects our shared vision and our collective labor. And that seems appropriate to McGrath’s legacy.”
All and all, three decades after he passed, Thomas McGrath remains more relevant than ever for so many reasons. Much of the interest in Los Angeles literary history and specifically its Poetry, often focuses more on the Venice Beats and other more well celebrated movements, but McGrath existed during this same period and was truly a heavyweight in all regards. Furthermore, as academic freedom faces challenges in the 21st Century and the landscape of Los Angeles continues to transform due to overdevelopment and gentrification, the poetry of McGrath and his life-story remains relevant because he grappled with these issues a half century ago and still speaks to their unsolved state.
As noted in the beginning of this essay, the exhibit honoring McGrath in the Cal State L.A. will be up until July 30th, though there are efforts by a group of students to make it a permanent part of the library. The case for making the McGrath exhibit a permanent display in the Cal State L.A.’s Library is strong because McGrath’s work remains relevant. The issues this visionary poet grappled with a half century ago remain unsettled. McGrath’s potent work calling for academic freedom and the preservation of our landscape is truly prophetic. Thomas McGrath urges us to keep circling back to ourselves.
Images courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota