Home / Collections / Podcast & Blog » A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be


Collections Up Close

May 15, 2009

A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 2:21 pm

First I’ll begin with an apology to the faithful readers of this blog. It has been too long between entries and I promise that will not happen again. There was an unusual confluence of good news leading me to rest on my laurels and bad news resulting in a furlough here at the MHS. [Op-ed: Please feel free to contact your elected officials to lobby for the resources necessary to maintain the high quality of the Historical Society.]

We also apologize for missing National Poetry Month and will make up for that by nominating an extraordinary work that qualifies for our canon; for anyone’s canon.

Thomas McGrath. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1962.

Born in North Dakota in 1916, McGrath became our Walt Whitman with the publication of his “pseudo-autobiography,” Letters. McGrath was a working class, radical, political poet, which usually damns one to obscurity, and this may explain why his work is not better known. But most critics agree that McGrath’s politics do not interfere with his art and in fact his experience as a farm boy, logger, rider of rails, shipyard welder, labor organizer, and soldier (as well as Rhodes Scholar) provide him with the raw material to write work that is as historic as it is insightful. The work is sensual, lusty, and manly (just in case you, dear male reader, might be poetry adverse). “Love and hunger!-that is my whole story” is a line from the book. Nature also plays an important part in McGrath’s poetry as it did in his life.

Sometimes at evening with the dusk sifting down through the
And the trees like a smudge on the white hills and the hills
Into the hushed light, into the huge, the looming, holy
Night:–sometimes, then, in the pause and balance
Between dark and day, with the noise of our labor stilled,
And still in ourselves we felt our kinship, our commune
Against the cold.

McGrath would go on to add parts II, III, and, in 1985, part IV to this narrative epic poem. All four parts were published in a definitive text edition by Copper Canyon Press in 1997, seven years after the poet’s death in Minneapolis.

To further entice you to read McGrath see the article about him from the New York Times Review of Books.

Bookmark and Share

4 Responses to “A Working Class Poet Is Something to Be”

  1. Patzer Says:

    Thanks for the McGrath poem. I share his thoughts about the dark and light meeting–a powerful time occurs when opposites come together. I heard of him sometime ago but he has slipped away; I will have to reacquaint myself.

    Patrick Coleman reply on May 28th, 2009:

    Thanks for the note but KEEP YOUR HAT ON!!!!! Wanda is coming. Emma Brock too. Do you know her work?

  2. Media Mike Hazard Says:

    Thanks, Patrick, for this one in particular.

    LETTER is large. This passage haunts:

    From Indians we learned a toughness and a strength; and we gained
    A freedom: by taking theirs: but a real freedom: born
    From the wild and open land our grandfathers heroically stole.
    But we took a wound at Indian hands: a part of our soul scabbed over:
    We learned the pious and patriotic art of extermination
    And no uneasy conscience where the man’s skin was the wrong
    Color; or his vowels shaped wrong; or his haircut; or his country possessed of
    Oil; or holding the wrong place on the map–whatever
    The master race wants it will find good reasons for having.

    Readers of LETTER might wish to see a film about McGrath in the collection of MHS, THE MOVIE AT THE END OF THE WORLD.

    Patrick Coleman reply on June 8th, 2009:

    Thanks Mike. Great reminder. I too recommend the movie. It is fabulous and can be easily viewed during library hours here at the History Center.

An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs