Listen: 9451_197396mcgrath_64

Poet Jim Moore compares Walt Whitman's "The Role of the Poet" with the poetry of Tom McGrath, specifically the "Letter to an Imaginary Friend." Moore reads aloud from both poems.

This recording was made available through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.


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SPEAKER: The 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman has come to be a sort of Bible for many contemporary poets. And in fact, it's no doubt true that people would read more poetry if they took seriously Whitman's vision of the role of the poet as he saw it over 100 years ago. A vision that is impossible to live up to, but also impossible to ignore once it has been heard.

"This is what you shall do", he says. "Love the Earth and sun and the animals. Despise riches. Give alms to every one that asks. Stand up for the stupid and crazy. Devote your income and labor to others. Hate tyrants. Argue not concerning God. Have patience and indulgence towards the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men. Go freely with powerful, uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families.

Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life. Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body."

What Whitman's words amount to is a kind of manifesto, a belief that the poet's function is not simply to entertain or put beautiful words together in a novel way, but to supply real and valuable information, images, ideas, and details to help us live our lives, information every bit is essential as a good road map or a Sears and Roebuck catalog.

Not all poets, of course, share this vision, nor can all poets have the sheer imaginative stamina necessary to live up to Whitman's words. But Minnesota has been lucky in this respect. Several of its poets have given and continue to give us the kind of crucial information Whitman speaks of.

One of these Minnesota poets is Tom McGrath. The information he brings, especially in his long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, is uncannily close to home, much of the poem, which reads with the same culminating excitement as a good novel. It centers around his childhood on a farm just over the border in North Dakota and later his college experiences in Moorhead.

It does not only deal with the outer geography of Minnesota and Dakota, but also with the inner terrain, what it means spiritually, psychically, and psychologically to have one's roots in this area. These roots in turn are often tied to a political history, which has been buried for many years now, but thanks to poets like McGrath, is being rediscovered again.

Here then is McGrath remembering Cal, one of the itinerant workers on the farm that he met as a boy. The wobs mentioned in this section of the poem are the Wobblies, otherwise known as the IWW, an early radical union.

"He must have been about 30, as thin as a post, as tough as Wang leather with a brick topped mulish face, a quiet talker. He read the industrial worker. Though I didn't know what the paper was at the time, the last of the real wobs. That too, I didn't know. I couldn't. Played a harmonica, sat after supper in the lantern smell and late bat whickering dusk playing mumbly peg and talked of wages and hours at the bunkhouse door.

What he tried to teach me was how to take my time, not to be impatient, not to shy at the fences, not to push on the reins, not to balk nor pull leather. He tried to teach me when to laugh and when to be serious, when to laugh at the serious, be serious in my laughter, to laugh at myself and to be serious with myself. He wanted me to grow without growing too fast for myself. A good teacher, a brother."

This is a small portion from a Letter to an Imaginary Friend. A sample of the kind of information at once political, spiritual, and psychological that is so often found in McGrath's poetry.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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