The American Long Poem Goes West: Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend

Charlotte Mandel

I want to focus attention upon critical slighting of an American epic force in the poetry of Thomas McGrath, a self-styled political revolutionary born in rural North Dakota (b. 1916, d. 1990). McGrath’s 400-page long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, takes us to America’s Midwestern frontier and beyond. The poem was begun in 1957 and published piecemeal until completion thirty years later. Thanks to painstaking editing by Sam Hamill and Dale Jacobson, all four parts of McGrath’s long poem were posthumously brought together as one volume in 1997; the design of the 8 by 8½-inch paperback edition assures visual access to the flow of the poet’s long lines and rhythmic spacing. A journey of quest, Letter portrays what McGrath characterized as “pseudo-autobiography”: although based upon details of his life, the poem reverses the confessional stance: its narrative subject is the world encountered and operative through the quester’s individual self.

Profoundly political, yet lyrical in vision, the poem sweeps from realities of frontier immigrant homesteaders to 1930’s dust-bowl Depression; from left-wing labor wars and “communitas” spirit of a work crew, to discovery of classical literature; from lush sexual awakenings to sawing timber alone at forty degrees below zero; from McCarthy-era persecution to Dantean surreal circles of ascent towards the fifth—or ideal future world—of Hopi Indian myth.  McGrath’s range of language is extraordinarily bold, free and musical. Letter sings in (mostly) long six-stress lines, often broken across the page, the first word of each line capitalized in keeping with poetic convention. Polemical outrage at injustice is tempered by his talent for hilarious satire; exaggerated similes display a childhood of listening to tales told by his father and Irish immigrant grandparents along with the songs brought over. Working class dictions interweave with an astonishingly erudite vocabulary, alliterative compound words fresh as Hopkins’s, puns worthy of James Joyce. Although comparable to Paterson, the Cantos, The Bridge, Kaddish, and a few other long poems of the twentieth century, Letter to an Imaginary Friend has remained at the periphery of critical discussion.  
Letter fulfills McGrath’s calling as a “revolutionary poet.” He grew up among family and neighbors who labored in fields and with heavy farm machinery. One of the most vivid sections of Letter enacts his tension, exhaustion, and sheer manly pride at the age of nine as “straw monkey” on a threshing machine.  In the 1930’s, McGrath’s identification with labor struggles drew him to work actively for the American Communist party; he refused to follow their later directives but maintained lifelong belief in the party’s potential. The disenchantment he felt with capitalist/government institutions was underscored by his assignment to an Army base in the Aleutians during World War II. Sections of Letter to an Imaginary Friend evoke the particular kinds of wastage of mind and body coeval with wartime.

In midlife, during the McCarthy era, McGrath suffered personal inquisitorial persecution. Summoned before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he read an unusual statement which included “esthetic ground” as one of his reasons for refusing to cooperate: “I believe that one of the things required of us is to try to give life an esthetic ground, to give it some of the pattern and beauty of art….not subject to chance and accident of our real world.” Consequently blacklisted and fired from his teaching position at Los Angeles State University, he was forced to seek his livelihood at various kinds of jobs for several years. Bitterness at the academy’s support of the “witch hunt” was catalytic; shortly after his expulsion from Los Angeles State, McGrath embarked upon Letter to an Imaginary Friend.

McGrath’s poetics are consistent with and inseparable from his revolutionary stance.  Letter is no “outsider” art—the term lately given to unschooled “folk” artists—but a highly sophisticated literary work. McGrath’s way is that of a teacher: “I offer as guide this total myth, / The legend of my life and time.”                                                                                                                                                                 
McGrath opposes an exploitative system where delusions of language override and supplant true reality.  His coinage for such a self-perpetuating system is “the hornacle mine”—based on a true incident where a garbled military requisition for “hornacles” impelled a nationwide search for the nonexistent items. McGrath takes down poets who “went off to the war…And (properly bitter) wrote like the minor versers of 1916”; meanwhile soldiers in freezing tents wake each day to go “down to the hornacle mine / under the arch of the tracers to dig for the faery gold.” Their war is a ”Cold cave, rough womb, from which we could not be born.”
McGrath’s long poem mines energy from the land of his specific birthplace, North Dakota. Here the settlers drove the native population westward, to be, in turn, driven off by the land’s agrarian ruin brought about by unheeding greedy development. Motion—constant journey and movement inform our historical images of the West. McGrath’s interpositions of voices, shifts in time, locale and diction do not break into the flow or diminish awareness of journey. Part One opens with a line made ambiguous by quotation marks that may represent an excerpt from some historical journal, or the poet writing in his own notebook; the second line, after grounding itself by street and number, goes into unexpected orbit:
“From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east.”
I am in Los Angeles, at 2714 Marsh Street,
Writing, rolling east with the earth, drifting toward Scorpio,
. . .       
—And at the age of five ran away from home.
(I have never been back.  Never left.)

A few pages later, the poet elucidates his “pseudo-autobiography”: 

“Out of imperfect confusion, to argue a purer chaos. / I’ve lived, truly, in a Custer’s Massacre of sad sacks / Who sang in my ear their histories and my own. / And out of these ghosts I bring these harvest dead / Into the light of speech. . .Borne beyond Libra / Southward / Borne toward the Gulf, the whole shooting match of these times / In the hiss and jostle of the Mississippi / The living and the dead / To the revolving graves and the glass pastures of the fined-down diamond-cutting Sea.”
At times, the language of his questing journey recalls the alliterations and tone of Anglo-Saxon saga, pulsing to McGrath’s Celtic heritage (one set of grandparents Gaelic-speaking):  “There the piled salmon shoaled at stream-mouth, / And the dreamy, fishing bear hoisted the old, melancholy, / Great, hairy, disguising, joke of his head. / He stroked the sea with his enormous paw. / Silver and red the dull light gleamed on the bloodied salmon!”
And at all times, the long poem’s language conveys the actual feel of motion. In McGrath’s American western existence, the past is immediate and imminent with future, present not as nostalgic illusion, but active as potential in its very landscape. The Midwest found its epic voice in the poetry of Thomas McGrath.          

Charlotte Mandel‘s ninth book of poetry, Through a Garden Gate with color photographs by Vincent Covello, is published by David Robert Books (reviewed in the most recent Poets Quarterly).  An independent scholar, her published critical essays include a series of articles on the role of cinema in the life and work of H.D., as well as articles on May Sarton, Muriel Rukeyser, Hayden Carruth.  Visit her at