A MEMOIR OF THOMAS McGRATH
Copyright 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 by Dale Jacobson (all rights reserved)
I was nineteen. I knocked and a man in his fifties opened the door. I might have stammered “Are you Thomas McGrath?” I wanted an override into his creative writing class. I remember a feeling of warmth emanated from his face. His eyes gave me his complete attention. I was shy and hesitant and he seemed to read my feelings instantly, his face kindly, welcoming, his eyes shining and alert with interest. He took immediate charge of the conversation, putting me at ease. Not until he’d seen some of my work would he allow me into the class, though. Of course, I had in hand my life’s work, some twenty poems.
Some losses are so powerful they change our world. However we try to avoid them, they ambush our solitude. A voice is suddenly flung out of a wall, or a sense of absence so immediate it overwhelms the moment. Our perspective seems permanently altered in vague ways. Intuition, fear, or simple sense tells us the loss of a great teacher and friend shakes all youthful certainties, someone we have trusted like Dante’s Virgil to guide us through our deepest labyrinths, whose shadow touched our shadow and light widened our own. And now a “black train” may enter the living room at any time and questions that were always fragments on the edge of our lives suddenly speak: why should the stars, planets, hours be ordered the way they are, why does chaos lurk in the night beyond the circle of the street lamp, why do we meet together a little while “passing through,” as Thomas McGrath put it. These are no longer the questions of curious children who expect answers but don’t care if none arrive. They are not questions that live in usual time, but they arrive when moments dilate, as Whitman would have it, and we feel how ancient the earth is and how precarious our lives are. They take on an urgency because without the answers something within us is gasping for oxygen.
When he opened the door, I remember how engaging he seemed, his expression direct and open, as if to say: “I am genuinely interested in hearing who you are.” McGrath, then 53, took my sheaf of poems, scanned them, and gave me an override into his class. He apparently quickly saw something, though he kept them to comment on further. Later, when I received them back, I saw “g”s and “ng”s in the margins, many more of the latter. He asked me if I needed an explanation and then, when I said nothing, he answered his own question: “Probably”. “G,” he explained, meant good, “ng” no good. Still, he said there were three real poems and he was glad to have me in his class. I was torn between anger and elation. Robert Bly, whom I had met in my home town, had already demolished my life’s work the spring before. He had suggested that I seek out McGrath. I was nineteen. I proceeded to criticize one of Tom’s poems. Tom nodded politely, listening. I don’t know what he really thought, but I believe he understood what I was telling him, even through my ignorance and arrogance. He might be right, but what I would learn from him still must become my own. My brashness didn’t deter him at all. Instead, he invited me to let him see more work when I had it.
And then a part of our world has fallen away, our side has been ripped open like a great mouth of silent surprise, or perhaps a space in the night like a fierce vortex opens, they are the same thing-- and by day the familiar world is no longer dependable, the old wheel barrel was never really a wheel barrel, and even when we use it to haul dirt, we are no longer sure we were really hauling dirt... but something nameless, even dangerous... and perhaps all we hauled was silence from one moment to another and perhaps the wheel barrel never existed at all, having already been rusted away years into the future. The Unknown passed too close during sleep, the shadow of an ancient glacier. And there is knowledge we won’t be the same, almost as if our electromagnetic energy has been permanently shifted and the familiar world is unreliable. We’ve been given a glimpse into the abyss where nothing life clings to survives. It is indeed odd to realize so absolutely that the only world we are given to know doesn’t last. When our sense of fatality becomes more than an idea, but as real as the world we perceive, we have the distinct awareness that we may not accurately perceive the world at all.
Thomas McGrath was born in 1916 and died in 1990 at the age of 74, twenty one years after I met him. For many readers his passing was the loss of one of America’s most vital and encompassing poets. For those who knew him the world seemed more alive with him in it.
Moorhead, Minnesota was a center for Tom. It was near Sheldon, North Dakota, where his family farmed and he farmed his youth and learned the history of his country, not from books but the labor struggles of the Midwest. Books might provide understanding of the world, but the world, whether social or natural, was there first.
Once, when I worried to Tom about ending up homeless, fearing in my youth my ability to support myself, he assured me that so long as he had a place to live, so did I. His comment was a valuable gift! In fact, on numerous occasions, when I was too close to the edge of my finances, being something of a fierce drinker in those days, I did stay with him, and also when I taught at Moorhead State College, as the State University was then called. Tom told me he hoped I might “take over” his job there when he retired but the Chairwoman, a witty academic poet of rhyme, effectively “unhired” me (universities never fire anyone), and then gave herself the creative writing classes. Tom had the capacity to see potential where no one else did. In fact, the world of potential was more real to him than the existing one, as a reader can see from the conclusion of his long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend. He saw the world stripped of pretenses, a creative act. Certifications and titles, dead labels, didn’t compete with talent and potential. What people were doing or trying to do was more important than the definitions provided by institutions, which he knew were often frozen by the past. Without question, I would never have become a poet of worth had I not come under Tom’s guidance, friendship, and nurturing. He gave me and others belief in the essential necessity of the creative act in a world that had very little belief in anything except the rigor mortis of dogma and the accumulation of power and status. For Tom, the world was most accurately perceived to be in flux, a place of possibility to be enhanced and constructed and, for that matter, discovered, because we had not yet fully created ourselves: poet, maker. In this sense, discovery and creation were the same for him. The status quo was the enemy, the ice age, a metaphor he had developed in his master’s thesis.
Tom was careful with words and knew their value. One particular comment he made has functioned like a talisman, encouraging me to pursue my creative intuitions, to dare to challenge convention even as American poetry was shrinking to a fashionable solitary voice which Tom objected to as solipsistic. His son Tomasito, as Tom then called Tom Jr. at his age of five or six, was in the car with Tom and me and decided, in the nature of children, that I was boring, as I tended toward silence in the automobile. “Dale, you’re so boring. Dale, you’re so boring. Dale, you’re so boring,” he nagged, as though it was his job to dutifully provide information in a manner whose delivery fit the message. I began to understand what Christ meant by “suffer the children.” I thought he could at least drop the adverb but I said nothing.
Tom let this uninterrupted harassment continue for a while, taking it in, curious I suppose how I might respond to the challenge of a child, which is one task that Hercules was exempted from. When I didn’t respond, hoping Tomasito would simply get bored with his obsession with boredom, Tom countered with a comment that absolutely surprised me! In a low voice, he said: “Dale might be a genius.” Tomasito, not to be deterred by small distractions, continued in the unrelenting manner of a child’s fixation: “Dale, you’re so boring. Dale, you’re so boring...” (Tom once noted that children are so interested in power because they have so little of it.) After a pause, Tom again suggested, in a barely audible voice that somehow made the words sound like they were coming across a great gulf of careful consideration: “Yes... I think Dale is a genius,” as he pulled the car into the garage. The word was intended for me rather than to rebuke Tomasito, who Tom certainly believed always had a right to his opinion.
Tom’s words are his, not mine, and though a reader might find this anecdote bordering on self-commendation (unlike the standard use of book blurbs?), it illustrates his belief in promoting potential. Perhaps he was trying to counter the elitist arrogance he knew awaited me, though I’m not so vain as to think, as some academics seem to believe, that talent and intelligence are omnidirectional. Whatever truth his comment held, it is a limited one. Still, the remark struck me because it was a possible relationship with the world I'd never considered, in effect suggesting that I could offer something no one else could, a quality essentially true of everyone if they are allowed. In a Blakean sense, any real imagination is an act of genius, which is one of the communal aspects of Blake’s Jesus and it is scary to think of the great reservoirs of wasted genius among workers who must devote their lives to the urgent task of survival, a theme captured so well in Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills. All this said, there is no denying that Tom’s word was a tremendous gift. He allowed me to presume to think in terms beyond current restrictions. In a sort of cautious way, his casting of this one word in my direction allowed me to survive obtuse criticism, providing me a great buttress against debilitating internal censorship or sophistry of small critics who locate themselves in conventional thinking absent creativity. It was the equivalent of suggesting that I might see color where others saw black and white and by giving me that possibility, I was freed to work beyond the existing definitions. Potential... the freedom to explore... this is one of the central motifs I tried to highlight in my commentary on McGrath's work. For Tom, to become an original voice was equal to genesis. Being gifted was, after all, a gift from the great Mystery. He sometimes talked about his own poetry as if he were taking dictation from “the old lady,” as he referred reverently to the Muse.
I have always been generally befuddled by the question of an underlying spiritual order to the universe, though also attracted to the beauty of such a possibility, but when I forget my ambivalence concerning chaos and order, I have at times wondered, as much as Tom gave me and as much as I needed what he gave, if our two-decade encounter wasn’t somehow intended, student and teacher fit so well together. I can’t say I have any confidence in such things but I have wondered. Parts of my long poems Shouting At Midnight (a title he suggested) and Factories and Cities, as well as many other poems and essays, were written in the basement room at 615 Eleventh Street South, his home across from Moorhead State College where he taught. Another long poem, A Walk by the River, was initiated in part as a response to his death, though its themes had long lived with me. He came to call me “Uncle Dale” in Tomasito’s presence and invited me to accompany him and his son to a trip to Russia he was considering but never took. He probably thought it would be useful to my work. He offered to help fund a trip to Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were in power for the same reason, though I was reluctant to accept his generosity. We were close. He once wrote a “little letter” in my copy of his poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend:
Dear Dale: You know you are my spiritual son or brother--
both I think, if that is possible to anyone except the Holy
Ghost. (That would make you Christ, a fate I’d wish on no
one). However, you are one of the few poets I have known
who is all poet. Almost as bad as being Christ! Let the sons-
of-bitches-bring their own nails and don’t carry the cross! Try
to be cooler. Try to find the serenity bird and more into
the nest! Above all fare forward, Companero! Love Tom--
in the 2nd terrible summer 1975.
That was the summer that eventually, in August, found Tom and me driving toward Onamia, where the house of Tom’s separated wife, Eugenia, had been wrecked by someone who turned out to be a lover upset with her plans to move away. The day ended much worse.
THE VIET NAM WAR DAYS: TOM
AS TEACHER AND ACTIVIST
The first class I had with Tom met in the evening in the faculty lounge. He sat on a chair at the edge of a long table, while many students simply sat on the carpeted floor. In some strange way his voice seemed to emanate from a cave, as though he spoke out of a place he retreated to when he was just a bit nervous, but the words came with authority and deliberation as he told us we should read everything, we should know everything, and we were in competition with all the great writers who had ever written, and not just in English but in all languages. But if he was nervous, I couldn’t tell if it was because he was meeting a new group of people who expected something from him, or because he knew that what he was saying was important-- and he wondered how many of us would understand that importance. As I came to know Tom, I learned that he spoke with great consideration and respect for his message. The role of the poet, after all, was to transmit the message of the Muse and that role required a certain humility. In some way he also seemed to read his own poems as though they weren’t his words at all.
In this same session, after soliciting thoughts from the class, he then proceeded to demolish a piece I had written which was permeated with the pessimism of T.S. Eliot, whom I had recently discovered. I can’t recall anything of the piece now except that it had a lot of ashes in it, but I do know what he said was justified. He was honest about poetry: there was nothing to be gained by saying a piece of writing was more accomplished than it was. Still, the second half of the teaching occurred during the break. He approached as though we needed to finish a conversation that had been interrupted and offered me a cigarette (smoking in class was common then), then asked if the class had been “too hard” on my poem. When he found that I had difficulty responding out of shyness, he merely talked for a while about how the poem was comprised of “the words that were on the paper” and those could be changed, encouraging me to show more material and come by to see him whenever I wanted to talk. I was struck by his interest. Tom always knew that teaching writing was not merely good criticism, but good encouragement and while he could be uncompromising in the former, he gentled criticism with the latter. Several years later, as we were walking out of another creative writing class in which he had characterized a poem I’d written under the influence of Rilke as “impenetrable,” he went out of his way to ask me what I was trying to accomplish with the piece. He said it was a “huge” poem I was working on and it would likely return later when I could manage it better. Then he asked if I was alright and offered me a full pack of cigarettes.
These were wild years and it was a good moment to know Tom. Because of the general interest among the young people in the imagination, poetry gained an audience that was wider than its usual academic domain. It was common for college students to carry around books they were reading purely out of their own interest. Literature had taken on a life within the culture, or more accurately, within the counterculture and poetry was influenced by this vitality. A lot was possible in poetry then that the present guardians censor. Poetry was experimenting with rich, metaphorical, imagistic or surreal language and it seemed interested in threatening middle-class mediocrity, mendacity and spiritual emptiness. At least among ourselves as young writers, we thought we were creating a new voice in poetry which was rebellious, relevant, and signaling a new culture.
Tom was interested in this culture, particularly its rebelliousness, and he encouraged us to trust the spirit within ourselves both by the personal example of his life and by invoking historical illustrations. Any casual reader of Letter to an Imaginary Friend will easily notice the same tactics used in his poetry. But even while he tried to teach us the true nature of the beast we were rebelling against, he had his suspicions about the pseudo-political poetry, which soon disappeared with the end of the Viet Nam War. As early as 1973 he remarked: “And out of so much of this temporary ‘war politics’ rises a terrible spiritual smell which signals to the enemy: ‘I’m not really like this’” (Epoch, winter 1973, 214). And in fact, he was right. The dominant poetry returned to the halls of academia where it cloistered itself in preoccupations with how the personal and private world was also political, at most allowing politics from the aloof vantage of the self-aggrandizing nobility of the “poetry of witness” that came in the eighties. In the early eighties one of the most famous (and awarded) poets of St. Paul had apparently already decided even witness was too much, proclaiming on a panel that she thought the silent meditations of contemplative nuns were the greatest political protest. A truly secret weapon. Signs of the changing times, though not quite as Bob Dylan had meant.
No doubt the American definition of communism as Stalinism was useful for divorcing politics from poetry for those who sought an excuse to not confront the class history of their own country. The Stalinist depiction prevailed despite the Khrushchev revelations and policies proving that communism was not monolithic. The Communist Party USA’s inability to sufficiently acknowledge the vicious criminal record of Stalinism did not help matters, and eventually, under the pressures of Gorbachev’s efforts to democratize communism in the USSR, helped cause the CPUSA to splinter at its Cleveland Convention in 1991. And yet it seemed to me that the Soviet history, whatever it was or wasn’t, remained essentially irrelevant to politics in my own country since my country’s class history was hardly the consequence of the evils of Stalinism. How the crimes of Stalin diminished those of capitalism has never been clear to me, even though there are many who continue to make that curious argument. Robert Bly was in fact one of the poets able to see through this obfuscation, noting that America was essentially “projecting” its own repressed failings onto the Soviet Union. While Bly’s psychological analysis was likely true and interesting enough, Tom understood most clearly the class nature of our own history, which had its own roots.
Perhaps most insidious to political poetry-- or simply the spirit of poetry that wanted more range than would eventually be allowed-- was the burgeoning arts industry that brought the careerists of poetry, which I have come to call, in my satirical irreverence, the poetry mafia. In the Midwest a kind of romantic poetry of the land and its frontier mythos grew up that for the most part ignored the real history of the area, as well as the politics of the wider nation and world that contributed to this history. Enraptured within the chaotic and creative energies of the times of the Viet Nam War, when some of us thought real cultural change was possible, even inevitable, we had no idea how quickly poetry would abandon those energies. Nevertheless, Tom was indefatigable in promoting revolutionary change against the status quo of the imagination. The national imagination, he claimed, was false, excluding the poor, the oppressed, the minorities, the working class. The romanticized “poetry of place,” by which was meant the nostalgic past without its most gruesome struggles, might take the writer out of the office into nature and the superficial past, but it couldn’t confront the times or the real urgencies of history pressing against the moment. There is no question that Tom thought having a sense of one’s place was important. As he noted: “Every time the poet touches the earth-- that is, touches what he knows-- he gets strength out of it.” Still, while Tom certainly maintained that “you have to know your own turf and you have to know it well, the security of knowing where you start from,” he also stated that “North Dakota is everywhere, a condition” that was defined by the wider political world and its history, which the most regional (parochial, provincial) writers, in talking about “place,” seemed comfortable ignoring as if homesteading a separate enclave within the nation. Tom warned that a sense of place without its history would only create what he called “local color.” “You can’t understand the past without some politics.”
Perhaps it was the desperation of the times that called me away from romanticism. There was an urgency in the protests and culture of the young and Tom always acknowledged and appreciated those of us who took it seriously, despite our sometimes naive efforts to change the world, even as he pointed out the limitations of our politics. While he often instructed that it was “better to organize than mourn,” as Joe Hill advised, he also understood the necessity of desperation in intense political times. “Revolutionary consciousness has its beginnings in despair,” he noted. He was very accepting of the darkness that inhabited my poetry, though at times he would suggest that perhaps I’d written enough about “the soul turning inward on itself.” We were fighting our own cynicism and the political darkness of our country. As Jim Morrison put it: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” On the other side of that warning was the desire of a generation to fully celebrate life: “We want the world and we want it now.”
The sixties came like a crack in the door of time, and through that crack emanated a strange brilliant light of potential for a different world, both frightening and elating. The corrupt and poisonous oppressions of history, the long-buried discontents in the soul of the nation were illuminated briefly before the door closed again upon a long sleep. It was as though being exposed to this intense and brief light gave birth to a creative energy in us that only Tom could fully see and nurture. Unfortunately most of the work by his best students, not only from Moorhead but also from the West Coast, still remains unknown in the current restrictive climate.
It became fashionable to view the youth movement as naive idealism, but in its objections to the Viet Nam War and civil oppressions, it was part of a historical process. Many of the slogans of the time are part of an older tradition. As far back as the thirteenth century, the Oxford Franciscan Roger Bacon, in contesting the absolute authority of the Church of Rome, decried four modes of ignorance. These were too great a loyalty to authority, too much respect for custom, too great a submission to the righteous mandate of the crowd, and the vain pride of intractability. All of these limitations in thinking interfered with learning. Bacon said, “Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities: look at the world!” The young certainly challenged social customs and traditions and two of the slogans of the time were: “Do your own thing” and “Question authority.” Aside from the focused political issues of civil rights and the Viet Nam War, the whole point of the sixties was an effort to open up new ways of looking at the world.
Tom's encouragement, despite all the follies of the young, arose from the most fundamental recognition that life should express itself and in a world that is oppressive, life should rebel. He always promoted protest against the status quo, which he saw too much as being without spirit, without enthusiasm, without celebration. But he also had a tremendous ability to remain detached and involved simultaneously. After the murders at Kent State University by the National Guard, when the mask of the State for an instant fell, he walked into our creative writing class and mentioned that it was better to organize than mourn, concluding with the comment, “Well, as the Chinese say, may you live in interesting times.” It wasn’t until later when I learned that the Chinese meant this as a curse that I understood the dialectical wit of the remark. When some of us students marched to the administration building to demand a campus-wide moratorium on classes in protest to the murders, I was surprised to see him holding the door open for us, the only teacher around. He cautioned, “Be careful, you might get shot.” The realities of history and class conflict were never far beneath the surface of “civilization,” as he reminded us. We later discovered that the Governor had been in touch with the campus officials, ready to offer the “assistance” of the Guard should it be requested. Our good university president, Roland Dille, refused them. Thirty years later, Governor Rhodes of Ohio died, not questioning that his action at Kent State was necessary: “It was people who thought something was wrong with America.”
It was always curious to me that Tom maintained that “the revolution should be fun,” especially as I was locked in my deep seriousness. Again, this comment is illustrative of his dialectical nature. Humor was allowed; in fact, it was part of the celebration. More than once he commented that communists he had known were too serious and straitlaced. He at one time advised students to pelt the National Guard with marshmallows as an act of protest. Absurdity could be a weapon. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find any National Guard to pelt so they rained their terrible soft fury down upon the President of the University, who later noted that it was impossible to become indignant. He often expressed a genuine respect for McGrath.
It was McGrath who talked me out of enlisting for the Viet Nam War to assist the wounded. While I was deeply opposed to the war, I was also afflicted with a guilt deriving from my academic deferment while others, mostly the poor, were conscripted. My parents were working class, but had promoted our education. As we know, one third of the casualties were black soldiers while black people comprised a little more than one tenth of the U.S. population. I thought that entering the war for the purpose of saving lives would resolve my moral crisis, but Tom, quietly listening behind his desk, pointed out that even in this capacity I would be supporting the war effort with my presence, noting that the military function of a medic was to return soldiers as quickly as possible to combat. He also pointed out that the real battle for ending the war was occurring at home, where one’s presence at demonstrations would be politically useful. He further noted that while it was sometimes useful for a writer to witness a war, he did not believe this war was worth seeing, especially as I would be on the wrong side. I suppose he was thinking of World War II by way of contrast. It was a brief but crucial conversation for me. He managed to resolve my dilemma and lift the burden of my (too moralistic) class guilt.
These were years of terrific debates, contention, and exploration. They were a time of justified fear and distrust of the State, especially for men, who were one postage stamp removed from Viet Nam, jail, or exile in Canada, all options that would alter one’s life forever. The Chicago police and F.B.I., in one of their joint adventures, had outright murdered Fred Hampton and others. Nixon’s no-knock law prevailed, as did other Constitutional violations such as surveillance and mail-tampering. Police and drug agents conducted violent raids on communal houses. In one of the great historical “Freudian” slips of all time, Mayor Richard Daley, the infamous boss of Chicago, declared that the police were not present “to create disorder but to preserve disorder.” He was defending what an official investigation later called “a police riot” during the 1968 Democratic Convention. The war, which anyone with eyes saw was an imperialist neocolonial effort, was also a domestic war against the civil and Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, targeting the young who were challenging the system on two fronts, the war abroad and puritanical constrictions at home. Jazz had always rebelled against puritanism and rock music continued that spirit but at the same time expressed political rebellion. Implicit in the rejection of puritanism was a threat to the status quo more profound than simply Eros unleashed as hedonism, as the media liked to portray the “sexual revolution,” but an urge long buried in the culture going back to Christ and before: agape; universal communion; love of life unburdened of Christian masochism and puritanical guilt, repression and original sin. It was an assertion of the essential goodness of human nature, a view generally foreign to the governing ideologies throughout human history. These values and attitudes, vaguely articulated in some of the music, were in direct contradiction to an economic system of exploitation. The sixties "idealism," as it has been called, had no political force and wasn’t formulated in real revolutionary terms, but it existed: at Woodstock in 1969 among the thousands who attended no fights broke out, though the second version 30 years later proved the same communal sensibility lacking. Old mores were questioned and new ones explored. The counterculture was loose and chaotic, a national movement without organization, and so from the point of view of the existing powers, dangerous since it must have seemed absolutely unpredictable. But its idealism was also its weakness, which McGrath saw clearly enough. The movement never looked past the war, its music, its feeling. McGrath kept pointing out to us the larger labor history of the nation, the economic realities, the fact that the banks would not simply volunteer to be socialized in the name of brotherly love.
He initiated me into political understanding by suggesting historical and political works to read. I recall when he suggested that it would be useful for me to read Marx. He was listing some books when I peremptorily declared that I already knew Marx, thinking as most people do in the United States (including most academics I’ve met) that all a person needs to know to be conversant in Marx are the basic tenets, the concepts of the proletarian and bourgeois classes in conflict and the notion of wealth deriving from labor (as Abraham Lincoln and others also asserted). Kenneth Rexroth in an essay dismissed Marx in a single sentence in such an arbitrary way it is clear he knew next to nothing about him, though his dismissal was certainly in vogue. Americans too often reduce complexities to dogma, which is one reason I think Tom used as an epigraph to Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part III, the statement by Einstein: “Make it as simple as possible-- but no simpler!”
When I made my thoughtless remark, Tom didn’t criticize me for it, or sigh in exasperation, or show any sign of displeasure. He looked at me carefully for a moment and asked, “What have you read?” When I tried to defend myself by saying that I “knew” Marxism, he simply asked, in a tone of genuine curiosity with no hint of rebuke, “Why do you say such a thing, Dale, when it’s not so? Why do you say that?” At the time I couldn’t articulate that I lived in a culture that reduces complexities to simplistic attributes, so I said nothing. Tom proceeded on with his initial instruction as if I hadn’t interrupted him. He was a patient teacher and his purpose wasn’t to prove me wrong but to plant an inquiry like a seed. Many academics of my generation could learn from his example.
I don’t think Tom paid much attention to the use of psychedelic drugs prevalent during these times. He certainly wasn’t morally opposed to them unless they became personally destructive but he didn’t see them as we did, organic gateways into the psyche, a way of jolting the mind and senses out of the old patterns of seeing the world so that its “spiritual” nature could be revealed. As young explorers (who were unaware of how much had already been explored), we sought an altered perception just as we sought to alter the world, and while Tom certainly didn’t object to altering perception as exploration, since imagination did this all the time anyway, he didn’t see any ultimate value to drug use, even for writing. Tom’s politics were too grounded and pragmatic for the supposed “spiritual” idealism of drug-induced experiences. Still, he wasn’t opposed to experiences that were “interesting,” though marijuana was the only drug I ever knew him, occasionally, to indulge at all, usually in a social setting when it was offered. For the sixties and seventies generation, marijuana was essentially a socializing tool, used in part to ameliorate the anxiety of young people alienated from each other, as American society trains them to be, who were suddenly flung together into their own communal culture. It was a kind of social glue and the need for it at all is perhaps indicative of the damage our culture inflicts upon its young. The yearning for communal connection was openly displayed in the peace sign.
I was impressed with how little marijuana seemed to affect Tom, his essential manner remaining unchanged. Perhaps the reason was his ability to remain involved and detached at the same time. Marijuana usually influences people in one of two ways: they tend to become either very quiet or very loquacious.
On one occasion a half-dozen of us were visiting a friend and Tom was with us. This friend got us all extremely stoned, and Tom smoked too. One among us was a recently returned Viet Nam War veteran, who had become very cynical and was often sarcastic. He made a light joke about the way our host had said something. He satirized our friend’s manner, in a good-natured way, and under the influence of marijuana, the satire became excessively funny and contagious, though initially didn’t rise to ridicule. But the laughter escalated beyond its initial friendly jest. As can happen on marijuana, hyperbolizing took on a life of its own like an enormous ship set in its course. Marijuana exaggerated the power of the group and no one wanted to be responsible for changing the subject.
I noticed that Tom watched the group for a while as the laughter built. People added to the razzing of our host and no one was willing to try to stop it. Finally, a shock in the midst of our desperate joviality! Tom interjected: “Why? Are you all stoned?” --harshly emphasizing “stoned” to show us our lack of grace toward our host. The group fell instantly quiet, deeply ashamed, aware that we had been out of control. We felt the ship jolt. No one among us knew how to break the oppressive silence, which was the actual reason the joke had been prolonged.
Tom, undaunted, looked directly at the initiator of the joke and asked him if he had been in Viet Nam. He replied in perhaps the most genuine voice I’d heard from him, a simple yes. It was as if he understood that Tom was acknowledging the source of his cynicism and pain. Tom then proceeded to tell a long story about the Air Force in World War II. He chuckled, though none of us did, when he told how the planes were lost or shot down because the navigators, who were from cities, would get confused. His right hand gestured easily with a cigarette to punctuate a chuckle or a word. Planes kept flying off in all sorts of directions. The Air Force was losing so many planes that it finally decided to use farm kids as navigators, because someone suggested, probably a farm kid, that they could keep direction. On the farm everyone knew where north was and watched time by the position of the sun. We all listened, captivated as much by the story as the fact that Tom seemed indifferent to the power of the group, seemed in fact unaffected by the power of the drug. But more, he had rescued us from our own fear of ourselves and we were grateful. Tom wasn’t about to allow a drug to be more powerful than the most obvious-- and necessary-- of human powers, within grasp if only we insisted upon it: the capacity to save each other and create the human family, in Christian terms called agape, in Tom’s political and more pragmatic terms called solidarity. There also seemed to be an implicit lesson directed toward the young Viet Nam War veteran: while war was gruesome, it was also possible to detach oneself from the absolute horror of it-- to find some distance for the sake of personal survival.
Tom once described himself to me as “an indefatigable teacher,” with one of his sly smiles and a glint in his eyes as if he were divulging a secret, His main lesson was that we should care for each other. Everything, his politics, his poetry, his conversation, was focused on how we could make that happen. But it required a little courage. In those ancient Greek plays, the chorus sang simply of what had already occurred, what it had witnessed, the voice of refrain. Tom promoted potential in each of us, the courage to step beyond “the mandate of the crowd” and sing our own aria, not merely a refrain of politics as tragedy or grief as determined by history, but to acclaim a reality yet to be invented, the human spirit raised up beyond the limitations of the moment and its restrictive past, a song of our mutual world and light.
TOM’S CHARACTER AND FRIENDSHIP
Tom’s voice called down the stairwell and into the deep cellar of my sleep. “Dale. Dale.” His call wasn’t too loud but enough to pull me awake. He said he’d called me earlier for supper but had received no response. “I thought, the man’s tired. Let him sleep.” I was living somewhere, I can’t recall where, but it was noisy and I needed rest. About mid-afternoon I had gone to Tom’s house. Tom wasn’t home but I asked his wife, Eugenia, if I could use their basement room to get some sleep-- she said absolutely, I looked terrible. This was the first of many times I would stay at Tom’s home as, at least in his eyes, I became part of his family. We were just beginning to cultivate our friendship but something told me I could seek refuge there, a bit like a cat in the rain knows by instinct a friend.
Tom must have sensed early on that I was a desperate sort. Once when I received a traffic ticket that I vowed not to pay, he joked, “All these years you’ve been searching for an identity, Dale. Now you have one. A scofflaw.” Whenever he read in public his little poem, “You out there, so secret. What makes you think you’re alone?” --he would glance in my direction. Despite my personal turmoil, and being so shy I was nearly incapable of talking in any group, rather than keep me at a distance, he embraced my company, as he did others who were troubled by what little nurturing American culture had given them.
He tried to be helpful. Later he inscribed notes of his friendship and encouragement to me in his books: “the best and most serious in that terrible place” (1974), “a large part of my life support system this and other years” (1980), “my dear friend and Helper, who is already one of our best poets” (1983), “longtime dear friend and one of the best poets in these parlous times” (1988), “my most knowledgeable critic but don’t waste your time-- write your poems” (1988). It is impossible to write this memoir and not mention these gifts.
Tom, who like anyone could be callous, sometimes as a method of shaking someone out of complacent delusion, could also be extraordinarily tender and I still recall a farewell on the phone long distance: “You take care of yourself, now, Dale. If I could, I would give you a kiss on the top of your head just like I would Tomasito.” For Tom, the top of the head (the fontanel) was a metaphor for the gate of the awareness, a notion that derives from Buddhism. I’ve been lucky to have some close camaraderie, fraternal fellowship, brotherhood in my life, but I’ve always been prepared to relinquish such friendships, having found them also unreliable. Tom was the exception, who became family for me.
There were occasions, though rare, when he wasn’t so accepting. Once when I called collect from a pay phone, living without a phone myself, he responded with a surprising cool detachment, the sound of a jaw breaker rolling between his words, which made them sound all the more unforgiving: “Have you any idea how many people’s money you are using?” I caught him in the wrong mood and later, when I sent him a mail order to pay for the call, he paid it back, clearly regretting his remark. When he moved to Minneapolis he told me after each call to be sure to call him, and call collect. “There are many people I don’t want to hear from, Dale, but I always want to hear from you.”
We sometimes had disputes, though surprisingly few over so many years. One spring he wanted me to chip built-up ice from the edge and valley of his roof after seeing his neighbor pounding away with a hatchet. He wouldn’t accept my assessment that the shingles could easily be damaged. He was understandably concerned because the previous spring water had backed up under the ice dam of the shingles and leaked through the ceiling, causing some water damage that I had repaired. When I argued with him about the wisdom of chopping the ice, suggesting that cutting some channels was best, he abruptly left the house for work, announcing: “I must be too fucking stupid to understand!” I was a little surprised by his retort. At the time I was working in the same English Department at Moorhead and later that day he walked right past my open door without bothering to look over, he was so miffed. In the evening, when he broached the subject again, he asked me to explain once more. I told him that I had chipped out some channels for the water to flow, but doing more might well damage the shingles and then he would be looking at repair. He seemed more inclined to accept what I said, perhaps having consulted with someone else in the interim, or perhaps merely because my opinion remained steady. After spring finally arrived and the ice was gone, he remembered the dispute and apologized. “I just had this horrible image of the ceiling coming down again.” He had a strong sense of fairness.
He was irritated when I didn’t remember on one occasion who had called, though I told him I had the number. After informing me emphatically to write down the name of any future caller and even request that it be spelled if I had doubts, he forgot to retrieve the number from me. I became irritated myself enough to not bother giving him the number until later that evening when I returned, when he found a more respectful voice. I refused to be bossed no matter how good our friendship. We had some other rare and minor squabbles, but given my youth I believe we would probably have had more except for his wisdom, which gave him a patience that only occasionally lapsed, and even when it did, he often had cause.
Tom and I were both stubborn. I was perhaps the most stubborn because I had learned this was my last real weapon to preserve autonomy and protect myself from stupid aggression and rudeness, being in those days otherwise too shy to summon effective verbal defenses. I could lock up and simply not respond, a clam no raccoon could pry open. And so, it was usually Tom who broke an impasse, not that there were many to overcome. On the other hand, there were a few times when friends of mine and I were possessed of youthful rampant energies that he tolerated without complaint.
Our first dispute occurred after the first year that I met him. We had established a friendship by then and I had visited his home a number of times. However, during his creative writing class, we “locked horns,” as Tom might put it, when he asked for my help judging some high school student poems for a writing contest. I replied that I was too busy with a Shakespeare paper and declined. Afterwards, he saw me chatting with another student in the teacher’s lounge. “I thought you were too busy,” he said. I tried to say that I had merely been “thinking out loud.” “Thinking or finking?” he retorted and abruptly left. After this incident, I continued to visit his class out of simple interest, having taken all I could for credit, but refused to talk to him. Finally, after several weeks, he asked to talk with me after class. He said he was having a gathering of friends and wondered if I would like to attend. He also said that if I were free, he wanted to invite me for supper that evening. As we walked to his house from the campus, he observed, as though the comment followed logically from questions he had been asking about my current reading, that he had “always felt very brotherly” toward me and wanted to continue to see my writing. The remark took me by surprise but I also received it with gratitude because, even though I was stubborn and refused to be judged if I was convinced I was “right,” I knew I had a deep respect for him, as he must have known. It occurs to me now, as I write this anecdote some thirty years later, that he had cause to be miffed at my turning him down. He had done a lot for me and others, by way of encouraging us, taking us “under his wing,” helping us in various ways well beyond the requirements of a teacher, as a friend and mentor who embraced our humanity in a world that generally did not. He had reason to expect that I might be a coadjutant for the greater cause on occasion. While I was quick to defend myself by retreat into intransigence, I was also often slow to realize his patience and understanding. Now, reviewing my youth, I recognize his capacity to overlook unimportant moments that a lesser friend and teacher might take umbrage from.
There is no question that Tom could be trenchant with his tongue, and even near the end when he lay in the hospital or nursing home, slipping in and out of consciousness, he remained very quick. If his remarks surpassed the usual diplomacy of conversation, those of us who surrounded him in our young years, students or former students, understood-- or should have-- that his sometimes quick rejoinders were usually keen and intended to say what he thought we needed to hear as provocation or challenge to our unexamined beliefs. Tom had patience for many things, but he saw little value in delusion, even the naive way the young can sincerely fool themselves, and sometimes he brought us back to earth abruptly. Though his remarks might cause a twinge, or sometimes a deep shock like an electric charge, they were always honest and if laden with annoyance, the impatience of someone who knew more, I can think of no instance when he was mean spirited. In part, he was trying to “de-romanticize” us from the American disease of perpetual middle class optimism and detachment, that sentimental dream whose foundation is ignorance of history. His method seemed to suggest that if a way of perceiving was true, it would not suffer from being challenged, but if it could not be sustained, “the doors of perception [should be] cleansed.” He wanted us to confront the world as it existed, not as we had been told to dream its existence. Any dreams should involve overturning the false consciousness that society instills to obfuscate our true birth right, which is freedom, the great central theme explored in Letter.
Thinking back, in some ways I wasn’t an easy friend and I’m now amazed at how good he was to me and others, tolerant, generous and caring. I remain astounded at the degree to which his sympathies overlooked people’s limitations, one time even extending to Ronald Reagan, who aside from his own policies of ruin, set the stage for those of Bush One and Bush the Minor. When I made a joke about Reagan’s cancerous nose, suggesting that we might get rid of him a piece at a time, Tom, though he laughed at my joke, said, “I wouldn’t wish cancer on anybody.” As fierce as Tom could be, particularly regarding the crimes of the rulers, he had a generous benevolence and gentleness beneath it all. When in my rash young years I had written an editor to explain that he had the ego of a hippopotamus, Tom gently rebuked me, saying, “You know, Dale, I don’t try to hurt people’s feelings.” Another time, when I related how a well-known poet had abruptly walked out of an academic lecture, proclaiming to the audience that he saw no reason he should listen further, Tom said he thought it would have been a good opportunity to sit quietly and meditate upon the moon.
At that time in my life I was susceptible to powerful personalities, not yet realizing how little literary value that criterion really holds. Tom was impressive, though sometimes a little shy in public. The poet Robert Bly, who was doing a lot of anti-war readings then, was also impressive, and both writers gave me a sense that poetry derived from conviction, which seems an obvious necessary ingredient and yet, too often I find a genuine voice lacking.
As much as I admired both poets, I was sometimes surprised by the great difference between Bly and McGrath. An example is a gathering one evening at Tom’s house after Robert Bly had given a reading, sometime in the mid-seventies. Someone who had been tagging along with the group wanted the famous poet to sign a bottle of wine, which Bly refused to do, though he offered to sign a book of English “versions” of poems by Rumi for him. The young presumptuous man then pressed the question to Bly whether he thought himself self-actualized, as Maslow characterized complete consciousness. Well, I thought: someone who is presumptuous might as well use a presumptuous hierarchal classification to ask a presumptuous question! After some not-artful-enough dodging, Bly, who clearly preferred to not answer, finally acknowledged that he thought, yes, he was self-actualized. I admired Bly’s honesty– but I was struck by his confidence.
Tom would have said something witty, such as how it was impossible to avoid being stupid even after a thousand years, which in an interview he did say. I left the gathering early but Tom told me the next morning with an amused glee that David Martinson, one of Tom’s most talented students and a long time friend, did most of the talking. “I just sat back and listened. I thought it was David’s time to sing.” Tom’s patience was melded with his generosity. He had the ability to step out of the way for the benefit of others. My wife the painter, Therese, who never met him but observed him on video years later, commented, “His love for others comes through so much in his face.”
More than once he mentioned that he was trying to find someone a job. He let unemployed students stay at his house. He would lend them money, knowing he was unlikely to be reimbursed.
He tried to help us find ourselves. He played the role of surrogate father seriously, if there were those who seemed to need it, and certainly I was one. He even tried to play matchmaker for me on several occasions and once left his house for a weekend so I could be alone with my girl friend before she left for London for a teaching job. He allowed me to use his phone to call London, despite the nuisance of tallying up the separate expenses on his bill. He could be very protective and when I later broke up with her, she commented that she felt he was not very friendly toward her, likely true. Even so, he was tolerant, with a sense of propriety about people’s rights to make mistakes. He directed another former girl friend who showed up drunk in the middle of the night into my basement room. I talked with her a while until I ushered her out. I’m sure we kept him awake. The next morning he said: “I thought you should be the one to tell her to leave.” When, upon returning from London, I decided to quit drinking entirely, he stopped keeping any beer in the “reefer,” as he called the refrigerator, so I wouldn’t be tempted. When I had no vehicle he often lent me his car.
He made people feel welcome. When he cooked, noticing my habit of nervousness, he would command: “Dale, sit. What would you like to drink? Can I get you some coffee or a beer?” (The latter became a “near beer” later on.) Then he would proceed to converse while he prepared supper. He had a manner about him that was extremely kind and if I was concerned with some small self-perceived mistake or potential misunderstanding, he often would say: “Dale, don’t fret.” If I were doing some work on or around the house, he insisted on frequent breaks to relax and chat. He was always appreciative when I did some maintenance in exchange for staying at his house, often paying me something even though he never accepted rent, and he sometimes “fretted,” to use his word, about whether I was being paid fairly. But mostly, he instilled in me belief in my own work, enough to last a lifetime even when few acknowledged it had worth, as if aware how long the prejudice against political poetry would last and in this sense, though other poets hold equal or greater influence over my language, I am his poetic son as I am convinced very little I’ve written would exist without his nurturing. When I finally moved to St. Paul, restless and feeling I’d worn out Moorhead, in a moment of depression and loneliness, I called him to complain how the “literati” of the place simply ignored me (as they later did him for the most part), the infamous Loft twice refusing me a reading. He kept repeating: “You’re young, Dale. You have many years. You have time. Be grateful for the years you have. You could become the great American Revolutionary poet. Think of what you can still do.” Whether he nurtured or provoked, his purpose was the same: to invoke our potential. Knowing Tom was to be challenged but also to know someone who gave a damn.
Part of Tom’s appeal for us students, and especially those of us who were young rebels of the early seventies, was his personality-- it seemed his personality and revolutionary politics fit each other. With a word he was capable of demolishing social taboos and sacred restrictions. Outside Ralph’s Corner Bar, with its mix of a working class and college clientele, he noticed a biker gang, whose members were also sometime regulars. It was around that time that a gang had engaged in a gun fight on NP Avenue in Fargo, across the river from Moorhead, until the Fargo police showed up with their guns. Sometimes one might think the Midwest isn’t far from the old West until we think of the gun violence common in nearly all American cities. One biker approached a cop with both forearms bent up, grabbing air while grunting like a third grader having a tantrum. The officer pumped his twelve gauge once and the man discovered the ability to stop abruptly. The gangs in Fargo/Moorhead at the time had their reputation for masculine toughness and I wasn’t very smart with them sometimes. I once woke one up from his drunken stupor on a bench in the bar and asked if he wanted to buy my 100 cc Yamaha. He merely grunted “No,” and went back to sleep. Another time I commented to several who had the word “Minnesota” printed on their jackets that I didn’t need a label to know where I was from. Not smart. That time the younger one wanted to beat me up, which he no doubt could have done, but the other restrained him. When Tom noticed the biker gang revving their engines outside the bar, he took one glance at them from his car and made his views clear: “Those are the real queers!” In one sentence he challenged two sides of a socially powerful myth, the ideal of masculine toughness that has crippled male self-image (and helped pull our nation into any number of wars—“Bring it on”) while allowing prejudice to remain against gays and women. His capacity to challenge gave us a sense of the freedom we sought, to think and feel beyond imposed conventions, which despite all the historical condescension toward the sixties, was one of the worthy motivations behind the protests of the time.
Camus makes an interesting observation that when a slave physically attacks the master, all the differences in status are instantly negated, no doubt the reason Rome took such serious notice of Spartacus and responded so brutally, crucifixions lining the highways into Rome for miles. Those who advocate class structure overlook that biology doesn’t recognize, and ultimately defeats, class distinction, despite the great pretenses of that unscientific notion called Social Darwinism. Just as a slave can physically cancel class distinction, Tom had the capacity to speak with people in a way that eliminated hierarchy or status. He didn’t wait for the protest to gather in the street but walked through the world demanding that it listen, the same as we young were asking in the sixties, even if McGrath, as we didn’t then quite realize, was saying much more historically necessary things. He had noted once that his experience with satori had made him aware that everyone was “equally alone.”
Tom put people at ease. The novelist Frederick Manfred once commented to me that he always felt comfortable around him. He always insisted on the need to speak out. One time, when he complained about his creative writing students who seemed uninterested in the world, a young man asked him, as though Tom were simply being unreasonable, “Well, what do you expect from them?” Without hesitation he responded, “I expect them to bow down when I enter the room as if they were in the presence of divinity and begin singing a mantra they didn’t know they knew.”
I recall one occasion that exemplified his insistence on being heard. He created interest where none existed. In 1977 I had helped organize a poetry reading in a bar in Grand Forks, which Tom participated in more or less as a favor, though he also loved curious situations. It was a bar frequented by a mix of working class and college students and so we had thought the owner would situate us in the rear room separate from those who didn’t want poetry to interfere with their tearful country music. Instead the proprietor placed us up front. I recall one reader, who was having difficulty competing with the noise, saying that he wanted to read some poems but he needed the help of the audience. Someone said sardonically, “Well, it is a bar!” I tried to read, without much success, even with the microphone. I remember Tom’s prompting: “Sing, Dale!” Next, Tom rose to read, refused the mike, which was really unnecessary for the size of the place. I was curious as to how he would handle the situation, knowing that he wouldn’t let himself be ignored. He said in a clear voice that he was happy to read with us and he thought we had both read well. Then, in a voice with a hint of indifference, mixed with castigation and slight annoyance, he said, “I have two poems I want to read at you. The first one is titled SHIT. The second one is titled FUCK.” Without exception, everyone turned to give their attention. This, apparently, was interesting language. Then a pause. He said, “Now that I have your attention, I’m going to read...” Even the seriously inebriated patrons gave him attention. Whether or not they understood the words, his manner was interesting, the pure force of his presence.
When I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, with its ambiance and design that allowed an audience of 400 to feel cozy, communal and even informal while inside a space that also seemed to capture the openness of the universe, and yet everything so equally arranged that anyone could speak from virtually anywhere in the room or the balconies without the need to speak loudly or use a mike, I thought that Wright had accomplished with his masterpiece what Tom’s personality could accomplish in his capacity to make people feel relaxed. When he read he seemed to invite participation and people felt as if they had met for casual conversation at a street corner. He would use wit or jokes and little tricks, such as asking that someone tell him when a certain time arrived. If he knew people in the audience, he would greet them. If he were in the audience himself, he would often discuss or debate with the speakers as if he were sitting across a table from them.
Rarely was anyone offended by his manner, though I did on occasion hear a negative remark from someone who thought it offensive for anyone to violate decorum. Once when he read in the basement of what he called “the little library,” which was the city library of Moorhead where he would often go to write, he asked the audience if he could smoke a cigarette. No one objected but apparently the chief librarian secretly smoldered long after the cigarette was extinguished. Several days later Tom sent the library a note of thanks for the reading, addressed to all the staff, but the chief librarian, according to someone I knew who worked there, ridiculed the note and Tom’s act of smoking a cigarette, and then tossed it into the trash. The staff retrieved it and posted it to the bulletin board. The staff knew him from his visits when he went there to write.
Tom had returned from England and surprised everyone by showing up at the 1974 Beat Poetry Conference at the University of North Dakota, though he wasn’t on the program. A discussion panel included Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky (who had been walking among the audience telling smokers to quit and “just turn on”), and Gregory Corso (who kept reminding Ginsberg: “Allen, no one is interested in your condition”).
Sometime before I had already asked Tom how the Beats could take themselves seriously, half hyperbolizing but also half serious. I received only a noncommittal look, as though he didn’t quite agree with the question, though he later criticized “that big fat book” by Ginsberg. No doubt he saw “good things,” as he might say. He kept up with their work. But I was questioning to myself the limitations of Beat poetry, its sometimes staccato, sometimes relentless rhythms as a method of propelling snapshot details interspersed with or building toward an ideological message, often an intellectual overlay invoked from the Buddhist traditions. Whether the issue was method or tone for me, its openness often seemed a trap for authorial indulgence. Much of the poetry was inventive and fresh, anti-academic, “fresh air,” but it also seemed restricted in feeling. What I objected to most was its idiosyncratic voice, as if the personal view was the entire horizon, as if we were locked in stream of consciousness. Metaphorical content was sparse or developed obliquely, often more intellectual than emotional, truncated by a fragmented or disjointed language that presented the world as if we were blinking our eyes quickly. An aversion to metaphor is a characteristic I’ve long associated with an American puritanical fear of emotion. The pathos seemed to me detached, guarded and aloof. Perhaps the problem I encountered was that however useful and good the message, it seemed to remain individual rather than collective, unlike the work the America’s poetic father, Whitman, but then, this is hardly an observation unique to Beat poetry when we look at 20th century American poetry, with some important exceptions. One reason I like Wallace Stevens, for example, is because his themes are really communal and despite his recognition of subjective imagination, there is something objective and beyond the writer in his work. Hart Crane is another. An underlying tone of Beat poetry often struck me as self-conscious rebellion, certainly an objection to American commodity culture, but also limited by its own sense that it discovered rebellion, as if Blake, for example, had never existed, though I also wonder if this last assessment might not be my own bias and blindness because I see its sense of rebellion, generally, as not communally developed. Obviously, these observations are not without significant exceptions, nor applicable only to Beat poetry. Still, while Whitman, who also created litanies of detail, went deeper into the nation’s experience, the Beats seemed to ultimately rise above and reject it rather than lay a foundation for its transformation. Tom had criticized “Howl,” as I discovered from his papers, as a poem that failed to develop, much as Dickens criticized Robinson Crusoe: nothing changed from beginning to end. In Ginsberg and others, sometimes the Buddhist message seemed almost a willed purpose, obvious in a poem like Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra, which Tom in an act of brisk criticism renamed “Wichita Cortex Sutra,” as opposed to the genuine feeling Ginsberg captured in Kaddish, which remains for me Ginsberg’s best poem, one of the occasions where his words really rise from a terrible depth.
Well, my views are mine, and whatever Tom’s were, he apparently had some critical thoughts about the Beats. There are several shots at Ginsberg as “prophet” in Letter. At the Beat Poetry Conference, Tom’s voice rose from the back of the auditorium, directed toward Rexroth. “Kenneth,” he began coolly, “was the Beat Poetry Movement something you invented one Sunday morning in a state of passionate indifference when you would have been better off making pancakes?” A silence fell over the audience. Rexroth replied over the great audience: “Is that the voice of Tom McGrath I hear?” Then Corso, who was practicing a kind of powerful incoherence and had been threatening to commit suicide throughout the conference, while also bragging about being the first “poet streaker,” having stripped naked one evening at a party to prove it (perhaps to compete with Ginsberg’s legend?), unleashed a tangled string of verbiage like someone speaking in tongues, but the tone was clearly a challenge to McGrath even if the actual words challenged syntactical organization. Tom instantly shot back! “Gregory, twenty years ago you said when you stopped being beautiful you were going to shoot yourself-- and I’ve been waiting for the sound of that pistol ever since.” That comment was the only one I can recall during the entire conference that had a truly gentling effect on Corso and when Tom and his small son joined the panel at Rexroth’s invitation, Corso walked over to Tomasito and tenderly patted the boy on his head, as if to offer evidence of his continued human affinity-- or perhaps a symbolic apology. Rexroth then explained to the audience: “You have to excuse Tom. He’s been reading Finnegans Wake,” an excuse I’ve always wanted to save for some unrelated problem, such as not paying taxes. Later, when Rexroth and Tom went out for lunch, Rexroth looked at Tom like the victim of a practical joke from a good friend: “Tom, you really are unscrupulous. You know perfectly well I didn’t invent the Beat Movement.”
That evening during the reading by Peter Orlovsky a confrontation developed that illustrates Tom’s commitment to his friends, his solidarity, one reason we young students and writers extended to him so much of our trust. I was standing in the back of the auditorium, drinking from a half pint of whiskey. The times were wild during the early seventies, and social convention was being ignored everywhere and so I didn’t think anything about an occasional sip. One of the security personnel apparently did and approached to warn me that I needed to put away the bottle, which I did but every so often I would still sneak a quick nip. He warned me again, but it did no good. I wasn’t really bothering anyone. Next I knew, Tom walked over. “Get rid of the bottle! The police are here!” I started walking fast, and passing Corso, offered him the bottle, saying: “Here, take this,” but with greater clarity than he had been displaying, he refused. Next I knew, two policemen had me out in the lobby with the young security man, not much more than my own age. McGrath, Corso, Ferlinghetti and Rexroth all converged as well. The police confiscated the bottle but I kept asking if I could finish it first-- there was only a drink or two left anyway and I’ve always hated to waste. Ferlinghetti insisted to the police that I had not been causing trouble and was bothering no one, as did the others, but the security man wanted to press charges and have me arrested, rebuffed that I had ignored his authority. Tom, however, made it clear he wasn’t going to stand by and watch that happen. He looked the policeman who was in charge directly in the eye and said: “If you arrest him, you will have to arrest me too.” This was delivered emphatically, but simply, as though Tom were saying: you can trust me on this information, which should be useful to you. The policeman looked as if he wished he were someplace else. Immediately Corso echoed with a blunt declaration, “If you arrest McGrath, you will have to arrest me too.” Then Ferlinghetti joined in: “If you arrest Corso, you will have to arrest me too.” They were going in order around the circle, as though that was the proper way. Rexroth ended the refrain, almost as a formality: “You’re going to have to arrest me too, if you arrest Ferlinghetti.” I was heartened by this sudden solidarity of poets who hadn’t been shy about sniping at one another earlier, but then I wasn’t really surprised by it either. I even felt a twinge of sympathy for the security man, who I’m sure was surprised by the turn of events. How could it not be embarrassing for the University to have four nationally-known writers arrested at its own Writers Conference? He had to be satisfied that I wouldn’t drink further that evening, and Gregory Corso took it upon himself to volunteer “to be responsible” for my behavior, though there had been no behavior to be concerned with other than the unceremonious drinking. True to his word, he sat behind me during the rest of the reading, which I took as a wonderful act of kindness. For my part, I thought that I didn’t know many teachers willing to go to jail for their students-- or even willing to debate with the police. But then, Tom didn’t seem to talk to police as police. He talked to them as human beings capable of wisdom.
Tom had the ability to read people and understand what they felt. On an occasion when I accompanied him and his son on a walk through Buffalo State Park, a beautiful place with a river, a dam, a pond, and many trees, he noticed how quiet I was, in a kind of meditation. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous if they played Bach here?” he asked.
“DON’T THINK YOU KNOW MY NAME!” –HIS
CONTENTIONS WITH THE GRAND ESTHETIC
The poet Adrienne Rich called Tom “the great Midwestern radical workingclass poet.” Unfortunately, Tom wasn’t one to cultivate a public face in an age when promoting one’s own work seems more important than the work itself. He enjoyed being provocative, challenging complacency and convention, at times in a very abrupt and startling way, but there was a part of him that was always restrained, as if he saw the world from two directions like Janus, and one of those directions led to a solitude that always called him, which he seemed to need as protection from the public world.
Pablo Neruda talked about the natural shyness of poets. Larry Woiwode, Poet Laureate of North Dakota, wrote that he once told Tom, “You’re a fox,” to which Tom responded, “Where did you get that?” I could see where Larry Woiwode might come to that totem metaphor: Tom could be playful in a somewhat secretive way, his wit making a point you might not figure out until later. Tom could be strategic in what he said, casting out words like bait to see how someone might take them. Larry Woiwode later explained that he thought of Tom this way because of his capacity to draw on so many traditions of poetry. Still, I found Woiwode’s comment interesting because one of Tom’s students had made precisely the same observation to Tom and I was intrigued that Tom, who put a premium on everything authentic and genuine, seemed irritated by the label. What some might see as a trickster nature I believe was more a method for resisting definition, as if he were suspicious of stepping too far beyond that center in himself where mystery reigned, his center of solitude. Though Tom was very sociable, he seemed protective of a country within himself only close friends might glimpse, where his muse resided. I sometimes felt that I was provided a passport to that country when we spent time together in silence, and then he would make a profound observation that would jolt you in the way a good poem did. We shared this kind of communication from each other’s creative center and for Tom, citizenship in that place was always equal, even holy, if that word is still allowed. This solitary place was where he heard and saw clearly, removed from public scrutiny, and probably, from his own public sense of himself. He once said that writing a poem was an “absolutely selfless act.”
He could become nervous before readings, though mostly he always seemed relaxed giving them. He was interested in engaging people, but in conversation with him, a person felt a draw to someplace where he “meditated on the moon,” where dark, terrible or gentle shadows danced, and he was never far from that mysterious place. I had always suspected that his poem about aging, “Don’t Think You Know My Name!” was partially a reply to the student calling him “a fox,” an insistence upon freedom from being defined by the permanence of a noun, a rebellion against any imposed limitations on interpreting or creating the world. Tom resisted transfixing labels that seemed fatal to imagination like the stare of a cobra. There was always a part of him that seemed within whispering distance of his muse.
None of this is to say that Tom was difficult to know. In fact, he was quite open and exceedingly loyal to his friends. One mercurial student characterized him as mercurial but I find that word more projection than accurate. Rather, I saw him as deliberate and careful.
Whether from inherent shyness about public exposure or from a need to touch what was genuine in himself and the world, while other poets committed themselves to promoting their work through stage performances, often utilizing dramatic devices such as masks, dance, or even creating their own accompanying bands, or in some cases, poems that seemed more comedy acts to entertain than enlighten, Tom either would or could not effectively do so. When he did present his poems, he would merely read as he had intended the words to sound when he authored them, allowing the poem to live on its own music. (When Tom was in L.A. in the fifties, he wrote a review about the use of jazz with poetry, in which he makes these conclusions: “1. Poetry-and-jazz can be very moving and beautiful when it works. 2. It hasn’t worked very often so far.”)
I’ve wondered if part of his personal reluctance to promote himself might have been his suspicions of its effect on his work. There is a lot of pressure in networking to accommodate middle class beliefs and Tom was certainly opposed to middle class complacency. One questions how much great work in America is not known because writers have failed to “network” or otherwise promote their work. If there is an inverse relationship between mediocre work widely known and great work that should be, one might reasonable fear that great works pass unknown while lesser ones dominate. I know of several such poets, Floyce Alexander for one, and Don Gordon, whom Tom calls “the Master” in Letter, whose name is hardly known, an oversight Tom called a literary scandal. When I was in Dublin I asked the librarian at Trinity College if he’d heard of Thomas McGrath or Robert Bly. He knew of Robert Bly but not McGrath. When Yevtushenko, the Russian poet of the wonderful poem Bratsk Station, visited Minneapolis where Tom was then living, it was Robert Bly who ushered him around. Later, when I met Yevtushenko in Grand Forks, who was very pleased with a poster of himself and kept remarking what a great photograph it was, he told me he had not heard of McGrath. Apparently no one had suggested the two meet even though he certainly would have had more in common with McGrath as a political writer, who did in fact support socialism, than with Robert Bly, who felt it necessary to announce at one of his own readings that Marx didn’t have all the answers (he knew I was in the audience). I don’t know that anyone necessarily said Marx did have all the answers. Tom suspected that Yevtushenko was “being used” by American culture as an advertisement to promote the cold war, but I suspected Yevtushenko was adept at using American culture. The Minneapolis culture itself, with a few exceptions, largely ignored McGrath when he was there, and so no one invited his involvement during Yevtushenko’s visit.
Even some whom Tom had thought his friends ignored him when he moved to the Cities. Regarding one in particular, Tom remarked: “A very good friend hasn’t looked me up since I moved here,” evidence that Tom was not always the best judge of faux friendship where more could be less and omission could say everything. Ignoring Tom in the same city did not deter this same poet and supposedly former friend from including several of his own poems in an anthology in Tom’s honor years after his death. The legend is always better than the man, and safer to embrace.
While he lived in the Cities, Tom seemed almost invisible to the enterprising literary powers. Perhaps their caution of him involved whether he was considered “useful capital” after the incident at Onamia, of which I speak later. Perhaps the problem was his politics, which were more acceptable at a distance of 300 miles when he lived in Moorhead, where some of these writers did visit him. The ironies of being a political poet in the United States are hard enough to sharpen knives on, and on occasion some of those knives flashed in Tom’s sharp wit. The literary potentates of North Dakota, McGrath’s home state, even managed to avoid naming him their state’s poet laureate, the literary equivalent of negligent homicide, an act of omission North Dakota novelist Larry Woiwode vehemently objected to. I don’t doubt unease with his politics was one reason for this neglect, North Dakota’s Venerables not only dismissing their own son but the state’s past as well, the only state to have founded a state-owned bank and elevator out of its socialist radical history during the early twentieth century. Both operate very well a century later and in a nation whose politics were based on reasoned economic criteria, would become models for other states. The gatekeepers of culture also ignored Tom for the state’s “Centennial Poet,” evidence that academics should never be put in charge of anything important.
Tom’s response to being overlooked as North Dakota’s Centennial Poet was a poem entitled “A Fable for Poets” in which, we should note, wealth and power are separated from the ability to sing. At the very least, these examples illustrate two main reasons that Tom’s work has been ignored, his politics and his inability to “network.”
A third reason is that his language is too rich, not pared down, not properly minimalist. In response to a piece on his work by Diane Wakoski, Tom wrote in one letter: “Meant to write Wakoski and point out that there are two language traditions in Am. poetry-- not only WCW & Co. but Hart Crane also. Also, I don’t think letter [Letter to an Imaginary Friend] is just a midwest poem-- what about NY & LA & the South & Aleutians?” The danger of naming is that it can exclude so much and yet such a shorthand is often our critical method.
All of these limiting impulses in American poetry have continued into the next millennium. Indeed, cultural control, largely through the academies, remains well entrenched. How can I ignore the irony of North Dakota’s academic powers denying a grant to write this memoir, even as they provided the exact same grant to one of Tom’s students whose ph.d. dissertation on McGrath converted his Marxist politics into a hybrid Catholic-Hopi religion, making McGrath an unwilling devotee, even while admitting that Tom himself would object? Academic scholarship after Roland Barthes: the reader becomes the author, making the actual author the reader’s puppet. As Tom put the issue in a letter to me: “The tendency is, so many people now, writing about my work, whenever they do (which is not very often), is to try to dehydrate me or emasculate the poems or transform me into a liberal or some kind of mad anarchist who can be dismissed as simply a maverick and let it go at that. That’s the thing I dislike the most.”
Ideology, esthetics (“pretending to politics”), networking... I don’t know which to place second and third, but certainly Tom’s politics were primary in his literary exclusion, belying the sacred credendum of freedom of speech in American culture.
When Galway Kinnell read at Moorhead, he and Tom clearly did not mesh. Kinnell during his reading even gestured toward Tom as someone “who believed in a system” (meaning socialism or communism, though capitalism, mislabeled the “free market” even as the government continually subsidizes the wealthy, is also a system). Kinnell then went on to read Whitman, supposedly free of a system, though last I had read Whitman, he seemed to believe in American democracy, which I had always supposed was a political system, or at least King George believed it was enough to prosecute a war against it. Any number of writers have explored religious systems, such as Eliot, Blake, Milton, Dante, even the Greek tragedians, whose system of deities closely reflected class hierarchy, and whose ideology of fate eliminated free choice. The difference might be that these systems belong, at least on the surface, to the past and perhaps stepping into the future was McGrath’s true crime against the Theophile Gautier/Walter Pater concept of art for art’s sake, the esthetic of “pure art” with its assumption that it should be free from history and certainly politics. Still, systems are systems and the universe now seems to tell us that even chaos obeys some behaviors as a system, so I don’t know where one goes to be free of a system. Ironically, the concept of pure potential at the conclusion of Letter could be considered wide open. I’m certain Tom’s interpretation of Kinnell’s poem “The Bear” as signaling the birth of the revolution out of the old order didn’t help their rapport, though if the reader makes the bear stand for history, or even nature which history has “hunted,” the interpretation is perfectly sensible. The poem certainly opens this possible view when it equates rebirth out of the bear’s death to “poetry” itself, which must involve consciousness. It is clear in the poem that the bear is not merely a bear.
After the reading, Tom, still furious with Kinnell, asked me what I thought of his poetry. I said I liked The Book of Nightmares, which I still believe was Kinnell’s high poetic moment and most felt work. Tom scowled. He then told the group of us students that we should be the ones to talk with Kinnell rather than the crowd of worshippers besieging him. “After all, you are the poets.”
If there is a literary war in America, a struggle for consciousness as Tom would say, then he was in conflict with the dominant esthetic of academic middle class poetry and its decadent offspring, minimalism and “language poetry” (he retorted that all poetry was made out of language). He wanted all symbols (language, consciousness) shifted “three dreams to the left” toward the working class until there was no class-- and also away from religion (the Trinity), until we were truly free to see ourselves clearly. “God’s Own Monopoly Light, / Has fenced off our fallen world, all... --from our true sight-- Insight.” Nevertheless, he appreciated any well-constructed poem. As he once put it, “It is possible to write a good poem about mother-fucking.” He also wrote “totem” poems for some contemporary poets he admired. Still, there were poets he found wanting. When I criticized William Carlos Williams for his limitations of subject as well as language, Tom’s response was: “He certainly doesn’t make much room for the world, that’s true.”
Tom’s momentum gave rise to the magazine Dacotah Territory that originated with three of Tom’s students, Tim Hagen (an unknown, now deceased artist who illustrated the first issue); Mike Moos, a poet; myself; and a colleague of Tom’s at Moorhead State University, Mark Vinz, who provided guidance, expertise, crucial management, and the excellent title.
I thought of the magazine as an expression (and expansion) of our own rebellious protest, in keeping with the times, against restrictive social and state encroachment on the human spirit, sentiments I expressed in the first somewhat acerbic editorial comment, a section we called “The Outrider.” Tim Hagen had similar rebellious sensibilities, one reason we were friends. I still hold several of his paintings. Mike Moos was kindred in another way with his attraction to nature and love for the land.
One of our core loves for place was our affection for the prairie. Mark Vinz latched onto the notion of “poetry of place,” which was certainly central to our view of the magazine, though as the magazine developed, poetry of place was increasingly displaced by a poetry of small, often personal anecdote less concerned with the history and politics of the land and more centered on complaints of the “alienated” individual. This poetry became “safe,” to invoke a word Tom would use, and it avoided the sense of rebellion Tim and I felt, encouraged by Tom’s politics, in our objection to all we thought to be stale, oppressive, fenced, fettered and for sale. Dacotah Territory, I had thought, alluded to the myth of the “freer” times of the “West” before the reservations, both official and unofficial, created enclaves of poverty. We romanticized the land before government regimentation brought “the Law,” which meant for us oppression as well as repression. Our view was certainly romantic, but at the same time, more politically awake than the poetry of individual complaint, which Tom himself came to characterize as solipsistic. Tom observed several times how he wished American poetry would lose its "whine."
Of course, the struggles of the “West” included mass murder of Indians as well as the murder of pioneers and workers, whoever got in the way of wealth. It included the conflict over the land between the pioneers, most of them poor, and the Indians who lived by its resources. Despite this history, I associated the name with freedoms. Though our sense of the title was hardly true to history, it was true to the feeling of freedom, a sense of the prairie before it was absolutely deeded and restricted as legal property. The myth of freedom was in the land, its open vistas that both pioneers and Indians had once experienced, and briefly shared even while in conflict with each other for the land itself. It was this myth which had survived its own history that we tapped into for a kind of rebellious, romanticized energy. The spirit of the magazine seemed to us like a powerful small literary renaissance, several years before anything really developed in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul), though within the next decade that urban academic culture would dominate, promoted by such publications as The Hungry Mind (later the very domestic sounding The Ruminator). Dacotah Territory would eventually join this culture, which I began to call the poetry mafia, tame and sterile: middle class.
That assimilation was inevitable. How could an academically funded magazine avoid the academic esthetic, as Tom himself was to learn later with his own magazine Crazy Horse. Of course, the Twin City writers couldn’t really overcome their urban oppressions and sensibilities, which led them to see poetry as personal and exclusive of politics, nor could they invoke the spirit of the frontier with its illusion of independence and rebellion as we could, locked within their concrete corral. They were surrounded by financial centers, we by open, if fenced, land. Tim Hagen and I could still go out to the wild sand hills, near Tom’s childhood home, but then, we also discovered that we couldn’t really locate what we felt was the ancient freedom of the land. “North Dakota was everywhere.” People often invoke this line from McGrath, but I’m not sure what they think it means. History, poverty, class struggle, Hamilton’s bank was everywhere, “a condition.” Eventually the magazine and its poetry slid toward money for support and it was more or less divinely assumed into the greater hands of academia, along with the dominant poetry in the nation through university workshops, and our hillside fires and calls and echoes diminished toward extinction, though some of Tom’s students, and other poets influenced by his work, continued to wrestle with politics and history.
Tom became suspicious early, as he was of the anti-war protest poetry, when he complained to me that many of the poems and chapbooks the press was publishing “seemed to made out of Styrofoam.” His criticism could be very efficient. He wanted poetry with spirit but academic poetry had mounted its stuffed horse, as a metaphor from one of his poems described it, self-censoring for acceptable themes and feelings. A decade later when Tom moved to the Cities to be near his son, he found a culture where opportunism was rampant, which had little time for someone from the sand hills of Dakota, especially if he walked out of them with the dangerous words of Bill Dee. Once again he used his wit to maintain his critical perspective. He came to call Minneapolis and St. Paul Mimples and Simples, a label I took to be at least partially a characterization of the culture that dominated the place, against which he was at war in a fundamental way.
The Viet Nam war that had once alerted so many poets to politics was forgotten by then. War mongers such as Reagan and the two Bushes, however, would merely move the war to other locations. I was struck that Robert Bly, who had been politically active against the war, declared by 1980 in a Fargo, N.D. interview that politics were now boring, though to his credit he always found his way back to political protest whenever the next war broke out. Tom had told him in the early seventies that a difference between him and Neruda was that he seemed surprised by the war against Viet Nam, whereas Neruda was not. I think Bly’s comment indicated a lot about the politics of most American poets. In fact, at a celebration for the publication of the definitive edition of Letter after Tom’s death, Bly managed to read one of Tom’s poems backwards, “You Can Start the Poetry Now, Or: News From Crazy Horse.” In the poem, an imagined poet very quietly lists a number of social injustices, such as “I guess all I’m trying to say is I saw Crazy Horse die for / a split level swimming pool,” but every time the poet gets going, the academic audience interrupts to demand that he “start the poetry now,” until they are riotously shouting at him! Bly, however, reversed the roles of the poet and the audience, so that each time Bly read an injustice, he answered it with: “And Tom says: You can start the poetry now.” I thought that Bly ought to have been able to understand this poem, but I also thought the apparently obtuse reversal was revealing, as if Bly thought poetry should not involve itself with the kinds of complaints the imagined poet was listing, an absolute volte-face of Tom’s intent. If, on the other hand, he made the switch purposely, I could only conclude that he was re-writing McGrath to suit his preference. I leaned toward Abigail Potvin Jensen, who had served as Tom’s secretary, and commented, “He’s reading the poem backwards.” She replied, “Yes, I know, but he’s Robert Bly.”
In my years as Tom’s student, he was aware that my primary poetic influences were foreign. One reason is their honesty in confronting oppression as history, not as individual psychology. I came to detest psychological politics. While I certainly believe that psychology has political ramifications, as both Bush the First and his stupendously stupid, if devious, son exemplify, I also believe that psychology can easily be confused as cause rather than effect (which then can indeed become a secondary cause), my main departure from Robert Bly’s approach, as accurate as he is about the national psyche. While the psychology of the characters in King Lear is decisive, the drama itself depends on the King surrendering his kingdom first, that is, his actual wealth and power. Tyrants such as Bush the Minor don’t come to power unless real economic interests want them, though these very supporters may come to regret their decision. Foreign poets seemed more savvy, capable of understanding the primacy of economics and power as political motivator. At the very least, they did not see politics as an issue that needed legitimacy. I also found foreign poets less emotionally puritanical. The fact is, for the next quarter of a century, in terms of politics the entire nation entered a catatonic state, though the poets kept trying to convince themselves otherwise by dutifully debating the place of politics in poetry on a regular basis, hourly it seemed, as if it were assumed that politics and poetry begin on separate planets. The underlying argument is that somehow political themes are separate from and unfit for poetry.
The truth is, however much academia might engage in debating politics, it was fundamentally in favor of the class position it enjoyed, an attitude that translated into the esthetics it would promote. It might make overtures when convenient, but structurally, it was incorrigible.
Esthetics aside, even as represented by its own hierarchal structure, academia is reactionary.
When the University of North Dakota awarded Tom its highest honor, the “Sioux Award,” Tom, who said his doctor would not allow him to travel, wanted me to accept it in his stead, but I was told by the Department Chair that “it should really be someone from the Department.” Apparently, as a non-tenured adjunct, I wasn’t part of the Department, though everyone knew how close Tom and I were. Following that logic, Tom’s own son could not have accepted the award. Tom insisted that I accept for him, but the irony of the Department imposing a class criterion upon an award for McGrath was more than I could ignore and so I yielded in disgust.
Not only did I feel revulsion at the prospect of a ceremony that held such inherent hypocrisy, but I really didn’t want to dine with the ruling class of academia. Later, after I had finished my editorial work on the definitive edition of Letter, I proposed teaching a course on McGrath, who had told me that I was his “best critic.” I thought I might be qualified. My proposal was ignored by the Chair, the Dean, and the Vice President. After all, I was a merely adjunct. I heard no response from any of them. Perhaps the course was considered too high level for an adjunct to teach. The Academic culture was a civilized version of the plantation, without the whips– well, more accurate to say, with “civilized” whips...
Tom had continually promoted my work to The Loft, a center for literature in the Cities, but to no avail. He finally suggested that I go to one of their open readings and “blow them away.” Then, as an afterthought, he noted, “but they might be too fucking stupid to know when they are being blown away.”
When he lived across from The Loft after moving to the Cities, by then using a cane, he at first thought it would be comforting to be near people who cared about literature. One day, sighing deeply, he commented that he had given up on the place. “I thought they might help me if I fell in middle of the street. Now I expect they would merely run out like tiny clowns, baptize me with spoons of herb tea, and then run away.”
Despite his sometimes ferocious wit, Tom, a natural master of bon mot, preferred if possible to be kind, forgiving, generous, but his criticism was really his weapon for assessing reality and not being fooled, and he could be especially sharp-witted about poetry or culture that he regarded as phony. Of course, he was hardly alone in criticizing American poetry for its limited social engagement. Off hand I think of Pablo Neruda who once referred to the "decadent North American poetry," and John Haines who was not enamored with the political limitations of contemporary poetry.
People might fault McGrath for his occasional harsh quip, but one job of poetry must be to assert sanity in a world that mostly lacks it. Someone once asked Tom if his belief in communism wasn’t romantic utopianism (that is, unrealistic). He remarked that maybe it was, but so far as he could see, the world was so insane, the dream of communism didn’t seem any more insane. Poetry was a reply to insanity, opening potential beyond the walls of the madhouse that was our status quo.
Increasingly an ecological collapse and worldwide catastrophe of monumental proportions seems probable as a consequence of the economic forces that are out of control, and yet, the poets in America continue to debate the place of “politics” in poetry, “art” versus “politics,” as though the two are somehow inherently opposite, or even separable. What, for example, has had a greater influence on history than politics? And yet this great influence is somehow not appropriate to poetry on esthetic grounds? If the potential mass extinction of humanity, or even the lesser catastrophe of massive death and suffering, is not an appropriate subject for poetry, then why is love, and yet 14 years after Tom’s death, Patti Rogers, a poet acclaimed for her poems on nature, argued on a panel against politics in poetry, though she talked extensively about the miracle of the birth of a frog, which she found amazing because such a fragile life could be killed, though apparently the potential extinction of the entire frog clan was not amazing enough to be the subject of poetry, not to mention the possible extinction of the human species. Frogs are something like the canaries in the mine shaft and one wonders, were they given a choice, would they argue for politics in poetry? Perhaps American poetry might take a lesson from Justice William O. Douglas, who said trees (and by implication frogs) should be represented in court, where politics are often decided. Even so, it might be that “nature” absent homo sapiens will be all that remains. Who, then, will be left to read poetry about frogs being born, even if the frogs survive? Small questions which could become smaller.
Here we have a clear contrast illustrating Tom’s irreconcilable difference with the academic individualistic esthetic, reflective of capitalist ideology. Tom cared not only for the individual frog but for the species, collectively.
“Don’t Think You Know My Name.” Though the poem of this title is not particularly political, it remains a ferocious declaration of freedom, even in the face of death. Tom was unwilling to be categorized or limited. Nor was he going to be assimilated into a culture he disagreed with. He maintained his freedom to the last.
THE WRITERS CONFERENCE AT MY HOME TOWN
In the summer of “78 Tom, his son and I drove from Moorhead to Marshall, my home town, for a writers conference that included Tom, Meridel LeSueur, Robert Bly, Fred Manfred-- and it seemed every writer from the Twin Cities. Tom was furious at my exclusion from participation and seemed to take personally the irony that I was ignored in my own home town. Glancing at me with dead-serious eyes, he said that Marshall being my home town “would be the only thing this joint would ever be remembered for.”
He knew himself how it was to be ignored, especially in the fifties (“I was totally outside the system [...] years when I was writing poems that nobody wanted to publish.”) He emphasized to Bly several times that I should read at an open reading at a mall in front of a bookstore, to which he himself wasn’t going, desiring a rest. I didn’t read after all, as the number of readers seemed endless. When he saw Bly again, he asked if I’d read, to which Bly responded, kindly, “No one read.” Tom scowled but said nothing.
It was indeed an odd feeling to think of this gathering of writers on the prairie a mile from the soil where my child hands had planted my garden. Southwest State University was built on land where my brother and I once hunted rabbits and wandered the countryside through air the University walls now enclosed, which excluded my voice that had been free under the open sky. I could almost hear our calls in that forbidden space, ghostly resonances. There is a special propriety felt toward the land by those who grow up on it, not of ownership but belonging. Childhood nativity nurtures a knowledge of a place not cerebral but more akin to the deepest feeling we sometimes call the soul. This feeling isn’t the Greek “heart-sickness” of nostalgia, but a primary connection to the earth, something Hemingway observed in For Whom the Bell Tolls. One would think such a connection is central to the concept of a “poetry of place,” widely enough advertised in various forms within the region as not just a virtue but a virtual necessity to culture, and yet curiously, a number of exceptional poets who are really from the place are often missing from notice, some by far among the best, Floyce Alexander and David Martinson to name two of significant accomplishment I know personally.
Mark Vinz edited an anthology of a later 1986 version of the Southwest State proceedings entitled Common Ground. He apologized to me for my exclusion from that anthology, noting that the collection represented only those poets who participated at the writing festival (being invited or not was the equivalent of a runic mystery to me). While that reasoning might explain one exclusion, other regional anthologies edited by Vinz, including one entitled Inheriting the Land, found no place for my work. A couple of my poems did appear in an anniversary issue of Dacotah Territory (pretty much required, as I had been a founding and associate editor for six issues and a contributing editor for one). The irony of being ignored by these and so many other Midwest collections was renewed for me decades later when Vinz argued in an article for the "urgency to find in Tom McGrath's terms, 'the link with the revolutionary past' ... and the need to rediscover those [presumably revolutionary] voices now more than ever.”
Why were revolutionary voices needed now, but not before? Tom, of course, had always promoted those voices, few as they were, the real "outlaws" as he meant the word, by which he meant more than poets who merely happened to live beyond the urban cultural centers and wrote about the Midwest landscape and its difficulties of loneliness, alienation, or the weather; but he was well aware, as was I, of the consistent bias against "the revolutionary past," which had been largely ignored in the prevailing notion of "poetry of place." I do not know precisely why such a great many editors lacked the same interest in my work that Tom, or his closest poet friends, Don Gordon and Jack Beeching, consistently expressed. Perhaps being of older school before the networking craze cast its nearly ubiquitous golden net, they perceived poetry as having a different purpose and vision, but again, Tom’s encouragement and belief in my work was essential to its development against the usual indifference it met.
Tom had tried to help usher my poems into publication, without much success against the gatekeepers. As with so much in the poetry scene generally, acknowledgment came with fame and the proper esthetic was the name of the game, to turn a Skeltonic rhyme. There was no scarcity of editors and publishers who could not determine a good poem from a poor one. What they could determine was the writer's degree of fame and if the poem fit the current esthetic requirements. Genuine political poetry was not the horse to ride in that poetry parade. Protest poetry was acceptable within limits, but not political poetry that argued for systemic change, in other words, revolutionary poetry.
Tom had known censorship of his work and still did in many areas (the Norton anthologies consistently excluded his work). Academic and middle class poets held interminable discussions on the legitimacy of politics in poetry, but usually the argument came down to the mantra that politics should be personal (because, the unstated law dictated, everything was personal). That the personal world was indeed social was not part of the formula, and certainly not the notions of solidarity and class. The concept of a collective voice was nearly anathema. Even so, the social world did determine success, through networking. Networking probably wasn’t more than simple opportunism for most self-promoters, but it still required praise for the poetry in vogue and exclusion of poetry that significantly challenged the middle class esthetic. The primary sacrosanct ingredient was “individualism,” and the primary sin was recognition of class or collectivism. In America all kinds of “isms” are now considered moral and politically incorrect crimes, but classism is still considered acceptable, even invisible.
Networking wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but it still required accepting and rejecting what the crowd dictated, but then, too, opportunism is usually associated with power, and power with money. It meant doing, saying and writing what was required, all the while insisting that the corrupt networking culture promoted artistic freedom. Robert Bly was right to suspect state funding, though private foundations also control the culture.
Many people moved to Minnesota to gain funding, publishing or teaching opportunities. Tom’s view was that the poetry of place was also connected to the wider world, which he stated concisely in his line, “North Dakota is everywhere, a condition,” an observation Kathleen Norris, who later appropriated the first part of the line without giving credit, failed to understand, instead arguing the opposite view, that the Dakotas were unique in impoverishment, culture, and geography, and “Dakota” was everywhere because people tried to escape it. In fact, Tom, who was probably responsible for the idea of “poetry of place,” also noted that there seemed to be young writers capable of “locating on the wind,” a way of talking about the wider world.
Tom would nominate my work for the Pushcart year after year. And year after year he was ignored. I don’t know if Jay Meek, who was a Pushcart co-editor, favored my nomination or not, but as poetry editor of North Dakota Quarterly at the University that had bestowed on McGrath an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, he could not find a way to accept my work for the journal, even excluding it from the Centennial issue. Tom commented to me shortly after Meek’s arrival: “He’s not a bad poet, but he’s too polite.” Perhaps my work was too impolite in Meek’s view. When the department wanted to hire an additional poet, Meek and others were critical of my recommendation of Floyce Alexander, a well-read and accomplished poet. His work submissions were “old material,” Meek arbitrarily declared, based on the inclusion of one reprinted poem in one book. Oddly, one of his graduate students made the exact same point, referring to the same reprinted poem. The department finally hired a woman poet, not surprising as one of the hiring committee said she was looking for a woman, a requirement that I had thought illegal. The following year this poet abandoned her students in the middle of the semester and never returned. The feeble criticism of my recommendation derived, I believe, not from the candidate but from the fact that I was a mere adjunct, viewed as overstepping his place. We couldn’t have the lower classes challenging the aristocrats. Adjuncts were later banned from serving on hiring committees and stripped of their one vote on the Executive Committee, even though they comprised half the department.
When my poems were ignored by North Dakota Quarterly for the State Centennial issue, Tom wrote me to complain: “You have every reason to be there.” Whose judgement on my work should I believe, that of academic editors or Tom’s? I could not help wondering what it was about my poetry that so frightened these people. I had trouble believing it was the quality of the work, as it had been praised by some significant writers beyond McGrath, including Robert Bly (in a letter to me) and W.S. Merwin (in a letter to the publisher about my long poem A Walk by the River). Later, North Dakota’s Poet Laureate Larry Woiwode would name me an Honorary Poet Laureate, which didn’t deter another academic editor of NDQ from rejecting a poem I had written specifically for an issue devoted to McGrath. Tom would have loved the poem and would have been furious at its rejection, but I can only speculate that the poem was too political, or too “visionary” in looking toward a better social world, though it is hard to know what drives academics. Regardless, irony can be hard enough to sharpen knives on. (I include this poem, Dust Devil, as addendum). Tom’s conviction for my work helped provide me the fortitude to look beyond the dominant esthetic, which as Tom once noted was “nearly ubiquitous.” Toward the end of his life Tom congratulated me on my acceptance into Pushcart, as if he had simply decided it had been awarded, even though it hadn’t.
I found one aspect of the middle class esthetic, at least in the Midwest, particularly irksome. Witty, comical work, usually constructed from a clever anecdote, was always welcome and often poetry readings seemed little more than comedy performances, opportunities to find humor in quirky characters or situations. Norwegian jokes are commonplace in Minnesota culture, though if comedy is the preferred genre, I would opt for Lenny Bruce or George Carlin over merely neutral “poking fun” of the sort Garrison Keiller had mastered. Tragedy, which is always close to the land, was less acceptable, despite the vaunted “poetry of place.” Why is it we cannot address suffering straight on? Even one of Tom’s own students criticized poetry that was too serious, singling out one of my own influences, Blas de Otero, and later arguing in print that political poetry “should not be afraid to be entertaining. It should [not make the audience] feel as if it is something to be endured. […] I believe humor is a useful— and often overlooked— device,” echoing Tom’s love of “japeries,” as if Tom’s dead serious poetry didn’t exist. (In The Poetry of Resistance, ed. Fred Whitehead, 50). First, I don’t know how he concluded that humor was overlooked. Second, that he thought tragedy is something to be endured is curious in itself, but isn’t this merely an argument to keep things light? I’m trying to see The Grapes of Wrath as “entertaining.” I don’t know why a sense of tragedy is necessarily something the audience must endure, but if it is, we have just wiped out a lot of Greek literature, not to mention Shakespeare.
Tom was sensitive to this bias not against humor but against a too solemn tone, saying of my work that some readers might be “put off by its seriousness.” I came to suspect that American puritanism kept tragedy at a distance, which I still believe to be somewhat true, though I think it is collective grief that is more often lacking, perhaps related to middle class insistence upon optimism on one hand, but also to our obsessive focus on the individual as all. Of course we have poems of grief such as Williams’ The Widow's Lament in Springtime, and yet I recall speaking with one well recognized poet several years after the turn of the millennium, who said the critics and readers probably would not like one of her poems because it was too negative. Why would a writer have such a thought? I began to understand the isolation that Tom– and other radical writers such as Meridel LeSueur– had endured in the face of an esthetic built on denial of the desperate histories of the poor. The esthetic really came down to one issue: middle class consciousness and themes prevailed, which were generally ahistorical and apolitical, at least beyond a certain depth. And this esthetic, with variations, was national, primarily focused on the individual just as our economic rationale was.
Another factor of the Grand Esthetic I’ve considered is political correctness. This isn’t a new problem, but with the augmented power of identity politics, it has become a greater one. Early in the seventies and eighties Meridel LeSueur benefited from the feminist movement and her work saw publication. She knew my work and invited me to her home for a visit. We had an interesting talk about how best to advance the revolution, whether through Lenin’s notion of professional revolutionaries or the Wobbly method of leaderless organization. I argued for the former, but Meridel said, “The workers don’t need to be taught. They already know how to socialize.” I’ve since come more toward her way of thinking. Despite obvious and clear benefits deriving from feminism, I remain deeply suspicious of the limitations of identity politics foisted upon us by academics. What is missing most is class consciousness. I questioned Tom about the feminist movement adopting Meridel, to which he replied, with no hint of denigration toward her, “She’s bigger than that.” The comment provided an interesting critique of the limitations of ideology. During the French Terror, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities would have been considered reactionary.
With the exception of the events that included Tom, Meridel, Bly, and Manfred, I skipped out on the conference and wandered my home town, a son of the place who wrote out of its memory and energies more directly than anyone at the conference. I felt as though a noisy self-celebrating rabble had entered my home land to claim it as their own. Never had I sensed so powerfully the imperative that academic control of culture needed to be overthrown.
Nevertheless, writing beyond the circle of the Legitimate was to be my fate, along with other writers whose work was, and remains, overlooked. Some presses claimed to want to rectify that situation and then fell into the same middle class esthetic. Even McGrath and LeSueur remain excluded from important venues. Publication of poetry was also becoming extraordinarily competitive as a result of academic dominance and censorship. Academia kept cloning more poets and journals which kept ignoring a world in peril. When Bly, whose admiration of McGrath's work was always clear, suggested Tom for an award, the other members of the selection committee, Robert Pinsky and Helen Vendler, had not read him and so he could not be considered. Becoming familiar with his work was apparently not an option.
I had already experienced what I felt was the diminished potential of our magazine, Dacotah Territory, due to the esthetic pressures that had dulled its content and tamed its fires. No doubt Mark Vinz, who took the sole responsibility for facilitating its publication, understood that the success of the magazine depended upon its reception, a problem all editors must face. Even Tom’s radical magazine didn’t last. Short of someone like Tom at the helm, no one could have halted the magazine’s drift toward the romantic esthetic, which was metastasizing everywhere, something I didn’t quite comprehend at the time. To Mark’s credit, within those constraints, the magazine accomplished a lot. As I later learned from reading letters in the McGrath collection, Tom himself experienced a similar, though deliberate arrogation of his magazine Crazy Horse when he was dislodged from his role as editor by Phil Dacey, who had access to financing the magazine and then abrogated their agreement that Tom would remain chief editor. Dacey, who moved to New York after retiring from Southwest State at Marshall, Minnesota, apparently having mined the Midwest for all its poetry ore, wrote Tom a poem of apology fifteen years after his death and thirty years after the dispute. One of Tom’s former students published the poem in his magazine, an editorial decision I found curious and wondered what Tom himself would have done since Tom wasn’t generally in the practice of providing convenient absolution. Rather than fight with Dacey, Tom simply gave up his magazine, despite Robert Bly’s encouragement that he insist on editing one issue per year. At some point it became clear to me that money and career-interest, not simple truth as Keats had said, determined culture. After Tom surrendered his magazine, I was never published in it again, even as it was transferred to other editors and locations. Phil Dacey was the coordinator of the conference at Marshall but I would never have guessed that he and Tom had “locked horns,” as Tom would say. Still, when Tom tried to locate the Dacey home to which he had been invited along with Bly and others for supper, he kept driving around and getting lost, all the while saying to Tomasito and me: “Maybe we should just skip it and go someplace to get something to eat,” even tempting Tomasito with McDonalds. I had the distinct feeling he didn’t really want to go there, though we finally did arrive.
The next day when Tom took his turn to read with Robert Bly, there was a brief debate between them over whether they should stand or sit. Actually, the debate was a little more than brief since Tom really wanted to sit and Bly really wanted to stand. They resolved that Tom would sit and Bly would stand since, as Tom put it, Bly “needed to move,” apparently a bit like Robert Redford in The Sundance Kid, whose character could hit his target only if he could actually draw his gun. Tom told the audience, “It’s because he’s nervous.” When some looked as though they didn’t believe him, he put his hand up as if taking an oath and emphasized, “I guarantee it.” Before Tom read any of his poems, he introduced my name, announcing that since I had not been invited to participate in a conference which “included everyone in the state except someone who grew up here,” I would be “available to read tomorrow afternoon from a street corner outside the building.” He then read my poem “Ode to the Potato,” an appropriate choice from my perspective: the potatoes I had in mind when I wrote the poem were grown in the soil of my home in Marshall, a mile from the campus. Long live the abundant generous potato!-- which Tom had once called “the king of the vegetable kingdom,” a comment I put in the poem, which made it partially his. Bly, unable to resist a chance to categorize, declared that the poem was “an object poem,” and then proceeded to define what an “object poem” was and how it worked. I wondered if there was anything Bly didn’t have a theory about. I always admired him for his intellectual drive to understand, even when I disagreed with his conclusions. I think Tom delighted in using the opportunity to protest the cliquishness of poetry as well as to illustrate his feelings against academic poetry generally.
Of course, Meridel LeSueur, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred and Tom McGrath are not academic writers, and they were the major writers of the State. Meridel gave away like an expanding circle of light her deep belief that true culture originates from and belongs to the working class, and listening to her was like listening to a future we yearned for but too often despaired was possible. She gave an optimism and faith against the usual (often ironical or witty) cynicism disguised as sophistication that dominates so much of academic poetry, which is different from the genuine despair someone like T. S. Eliot reported, who though he was not a poet of the people, at least paid attention to what surrounded him. Tom once argued that even though Eliot was politically a reactionary, he was revolutionary in exposing the “break down of values” of the old world, and the great Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell argued that Eliot, though wrong in politics, was correct about feeling in the modern world. Meridel answered pessimism, and much later when I complained to her about the general lack of political activity during the Reagan regime, she spoke hopefully still, invoking the seasonal metaphor of the energy that goes into the root in winter and isn’t really lost. If ever I met anyone who actually drew energy direct from the earth, it was she. One time visiting Tom in Moorhead, in an extremely hot summer, she said: “It is Kali, with whom I am allied. She is objecting to the abuse of the earth.” That was in the mid-seventies and capitalism has continued to obstruct sensible responses to the environment, though we are supposed to believe it is the only viable economic system. The way Meridel spoke, I almost believed she had conversations with Kali just as Blake claimed to have conversations with the dead and deities. In a review of her novel The Girl, I contend that it is one of the great contributions to literature, a feminist version of The Grapes of Wrath, insufficiently recognized. Perhaps some day in America, class will become a topic that is given more than a condescending nod. Until that happens, our culture will remain in struggle with itself.
Some time after Tom’s death rumors began to surface that Tom and Meridel disliked, even hated each other. When I saw the two together, I observed mutual respect. In fact, Tom invoked Meridel as an ally in a debate with Bly when, at the Marshall Conference, Bly made the argument that literary criticism comes from “below.” Tom spoke up from the audience. “Bob, I have to categorically disagree with you. Criticism comes from above.” I believe that Tom saw criticism as an intellectual response to creation, not creation itself. It was an act of analysis, and therefore as an intellectual project, it came from “above” its subject. Bly’s notion would only make sense to me if he meant that criticism was more akin to mundane work, unlike the “high” energy of creating poems. I thought the two poets were using the words differently. When Bly maintained his assertion, Tom insisted, “Bob, criticism comes from above. Ask Meridel when she arrives.” Undaunted, Bly went on. Meanwhile, some of Bly’s admirers groaned at Tom’s audacity in challenging Bly because he was, after all, a god. Tom whispered under his breath, “I should keep my god-damned mouth shut!” On the drive back to Moorhead, Tom mused for some time on how Bly could conclude that criticism came from below.
When Meridel arrived, while listening to Bly’s poetry reading, she had her own response to an image in one of his poems of a woman dancing with a bear, (perhaps he meant it to be an archetype of the earth). Meridel snorted, an instant rejection of the absurdity of the image. Bly, who certainly heard it, appeared unfazed. I have always admired Bly’s resilience, his willingness to take risks, though I’ve also wondered at the cost of that to him.
Tom told me that Meridel and he were never close and they certainly emphasized history differently, though they both had a fundamental class view. Tom also indicated to me that he had an enormous respect for her and she spoke at his memorial. When I mentioned a criticism someone had made of her for being too “judgmental,” Tom came instantly to her defense. “She’s had a long, hard, tough life. She has a right to be a little cantankerous.” In fact, her life had been challenging. As a member of the Communist Party, which was after all legal, she was subject to F.B.I. harassment. She told me they would follow her around and when she would apply someplace for work, they would tell the prospective employer not to hire her. This was common practice, apparently. She mentioned a time in Minneapolis when it was very cold. She didn’t want to wait for the bus so she approached their car and asked them if they would give her a ride home, pointing out that it would be quicker and easier for them than following the bus. They agreed and gave her a ride. Fascinating how class enemies can end up in the same vehicle out of convenience. One wonders what necessity might accomplish.
Tom also had an F.B.I. file. When he finally paid to see it under the Freedom of Information Act, he was amused to discover a description of himself as a “self-proclaimed writer.”
I once mentioned to Tom that Meridel seemed to avoid me in my attempt to make her acquaintance. He said that I shouldn’t be put off. “I think Meridel is cautious like an animal who prefers to circle around and get to know you at a distance before she allows you to know her.” I eventually made her acquaintance– at her invitation. “I’ve always felt your presence,” she said. She was extremely gracious and generous, offering to write recommendations for Bush Fellowships for me, though she observed that she was unsure if they would help or hurt my chances. She may have been right. Her recommendations were always ignored, as were Tom’s. She even offered to help fund the publication of my book, Shouting At Midnight, which she eventually did together with Tom. When she ordered a bunch of books to give away, she told me that she had read the hopeful conclusion of the poem at a reading. The encouragement and belief of such writers as Tom, Meridel, Don Gordon and Jack Beeching was invaluable to me. And though our relations seemed sometimes strained, partly because I disagreed with his psychological rather than economic assessment of politics, Robert Bly responded kindly with encouraging critiques of my work.
Obviously, Meridel’s politics were closer to Tom’s than Bly’s but Tom loved Bly’s capacity to explore and challenge, his irreverence for the status quo and his ability to incite controversy, though at the same time he could become irritated with Bly’s dogmatism and even his political naiveté, if not simply the volume of his voice. Once, in exasperation while discussing Neruda, Tom retorted, “What makes you think you own Neruda?” Part of Tom’s exasperation was that, while Bly loved to promote his own ideas, he wasn’t terribly adept at entertaining ideas beyond his own, nor did he like to lose control of the discussion. One time at Tom’s house, as Tom was explaining his belief that the story of Esau and Jacob had its origins in the conflict of a hunting culture being transformed into an agrarian one (Genesis 25: 29-34), Bly simply interrupted to dismiss the Tom’s notion out of hand, stating flatly, “I’m impervious to erudition.” It wasn’t a small point Tom was trying to illustrate, that myth could as easily be rooted in economics as in psychology, the latter being Bly’s emphasis, following Carl Jung’s approach.
Tom understood that Bly had a lot of intuitive brilliance and he made room for it. Bly, who was always generous enough to respond when I sent him a poem, said of a revision of an earlier draft I’d sent him that it was better, but I still hadn’t done the human work of confronting myself, which of course meant in Jungian terms that I should confront my shadow, but at the same time, this wasn’t the purpose of the poem. I was in the first half of Factories and Cities, influenced to some degree by Lorca’s objective perspective in The Gypsy Ballads and other poets such as Brecht who used an intellectual argument, both of which were useful tactics for political poetry. Somewhat distressed because I thought Bly had not seen the poem clearly, I mentioned what he had said to Tom, who simply nudged Bly’s response aside: “Well, you know, Dale, that’s Bly’s thing right now.” There are times in his poetry when Tom responded to Bly, in Letter, referring to him obliquely as “the local colorist still going back: To the Past: to HEADwaters and HEARTlands (he thinks),” though at different places he alludes to him with reverence and in one place names him with clear praise: “Robert Bly of the Misty Isles.” Tom’s poem “There Is Also a Fourth Body” is a direct extension of a poem by Bly that creates a third body between two lovers. In Tom’s poem, the fourth body is the political enemy, capitalism, against which the lovers “must raise their little flag. And the barricades of their bodies.” Tom enlarges the world of the third body of Bly’s poem to embrace the notion of political solidarity. I think of William James’ objection to pietist isolation and renunciation of the world, not that Bly goes anywhere near that extreme. Even so, here perhaps we have one of the best illustrations of the difference between Tom’s esthetic and that of the prevailing one, which focuses on the personal world, to which Bly gives fundamental allegiance, though he jumps the corral when major wars break out. When the personal esthetic does find it necessary to confront the political world, it argues that the personal world is political, its mantric refrain. On the other hand, as Tom argues in his poem above, the political world is an objective reality beyond the personal one and doesn’t really care about personal worlds at all, the problem of a history that uses people as objects, as I’ve already mentioned. Tom would like us to invent the subjective world as communal, not merely personal, emotion. The political world is personal only because it isolates us and nothing we are as individuals can escape it, including personal romantic love, a point Engels also makes. But the same is true of nature if one lacks shelter. The political world, objective and indifferent, exists just as natural law does. Tom would have us make the political world subjective, that is, subject to and the subject of our solidarity. In this way, collectively we can defeat the harsh objectivity of nature, and our own class history.
Tom could be critical of Bly, particularly regarding what Tom saw as his political limitations. He also objected to his tendency to generalize. When Bly read “Counting Small Boned Bodies,” a poem about the Viet Nam war dead, claiming that women had cried at hearing the poem but men don’t cry, Tom’s voice rose over the audience: “Bob, do you want to count my tears?” He also remarked that he thought Bly was at least half right about most things and even the other half was interesting because often “the way he says things was more interesting than what he says.” He was always interested “in how Bob put things.” He also made a comment I’ve always found useful as a kind of special dispensation for the intrepid explorer. Even though Tom had asserted that writers were no more wise about life than anyone else, but only had a special facility for language, he also quipped to me that if someone like Bly said something stupid, it was quite different from the average stupidity. Bly was one of the poets to whom Tom gave a “totem” poem.
One night when I came home after 1:00 a.m. from Ralph’s Corner Bar, my frequent routine in those young terrible years, I saw an unfamiliar somewhat square pair of glasses on the counter in the kitchen. Tom came out from his bedroom and said, in something of a reverent whisper: “Dale, do you know who is here? Robert Bly! He’s sleeping upstairs.” It was one of the qualities about Tom that was always new to me– his capacity to talk in tones of greatness about true poets.
The next morning I was having coffee with Tom when I heard from the upstairs bedroom a huge groan like a bear rousing itself from hibernation. Then Robert Bly came down the stairs, projecting a comical song about how he hated the Catholic Church because you learn to be repressed and end up with “twenty kin.” Tom laughed. Without greeting anyone, Bly went directly into the bathroom. Then he came out singing about how he hated the Protestant Church, because you learn to be repressed and end up with twenty kin. Again he greeted no one, but sang all the way back upstairs. Tom, annoyed, whispered, “It’s like a god damned fucking band!” Finally Bly settled at the dining room table, as though he had managed to gather within himself all the local energies of the neighborhood. He proceeded to tell about his dream of being late for his forthcoming reading at Bismarck, North Dakota. In the dream he was too late to read, but someone told him, “Well, it’s alright, only one person showed up anyway...” Bly was wonderfully amused, as were Tom and I. Bly had a knack for humor that I always enjoyed.
Tom was always energized and little more radiant when Bly visited. After a reading at Moorhead, Bly said that he had read longer than usual because Tom was in the audience.
INCIDENT AT ONAMIA
When I first met Eugenia McGrath, Tom’s wife, she impressed me as an amazing, very personable, free-spirited and gregarious woman, wonderfully vivacious with a great interest in people. She was quick with a refreshing laugh that put people at ease. I admired her generous and warm capacity for bringing people together. She was politically aware and spoke what she thought. Since she had been a very hospitable and good friend who always welcomed me, it wasn’t easy to see the distance rise up between her and Tom. Once these difficulties began to be expressed as her desire for separation, some unfortunate, though I believe avoidable consequences followed. One was that communication with Eugenia became increasingly difficult for Tom, which often exasperated him. Near the end of his life, he told Pam Sund, “I wish I had stayed married to the same woman my entire life,” by whom I believe he meant his first wife, Marian.
After Tom’s death disputes arose between Eugenia and Tom’s brother Martin, whom Tom had designated as executor of his estate and a number of us put forth efforts to retain his papers at the University of North Dakota, being careful to protect his son’s retention of copyright as Tom wanted. However, sides were drawn up and one former student of Tom’s, whom I expected would be helpful, even refused to write a letter of support to keep Tom’s papers from being removed, citing his friendship with Eugenia, though Martin, Tom’s brother, was able to prevail anyway. Many relationships between people who were close to Tom changed after his death, largely dependent upon where their loyalties fell when tested. My own view was that, as a friend, I should continue to honor Tom’s wishes despite the wishes of others.
Moorhead was the primary childhood home of Tomasito, as Tom Jr. was called then, though after Tom and his wife Eugenia separated, he spent considerable time with his mother, who finally moved to St. Paul after a year at Onamia, both places several hundred miles away. After the tragic incident at Onamia, she briefly moved back to the house in Moorhead, improved the furniture, but then departed again, though Tom welcomed her staying. After retiring from Moorhead State College, Tom eventually moved to Minneapolis, across the Mississippi from St. Paul, to be near his son.
I have heard on occasion various accusations against Tom regarding the incident at Onamia. Several people have made inquiries to me as a witness to it and one wanted to construct an entire book around it, suggesting a topic of racism, which is certainly off the mark. I have continued to hear rumors and suggestive questions, often from people who seem to want to fabricate something sensational around Tom’s personal life. Particularly exasperating in this regard are some people Tom knew from the English Department during his Moorhead State University days. Immediately after the incident, one colleague remarked that Tom was no longer someone good to associate with. I have discovered that English departments are rabid places for rumor-mongering, a quality not at all inconsistent with some of their other bad habits. Some people seem attracted to the idea that Tom’s personal life was exceptionally in shambles, implying a lack of good discipline or perhaps even moral character. Apparently the strategy is to enlarge the myth of the man by scandal, easier and more entertaining than assessing his accomplishments. Jack Beeching remarked in correspondence to me that “malicious gossip, malicious memoir, is now big business,”promoted by “ambitious people who became full tenured professors, having died ten years previously.” Some purported friends who have made such judgments were less close to McGrath than they portray themselves, but of course they need to claim close acquaintanceship as authority for their assertions. Some people claiming exceptional friendship have had no qualms about attacking his character, no doubt in the name of “objectivity” (though I’ve wondered if the spirit motivating them isn’t envy), curiously elevating themselves by association while simultaneously demoting McGrath.
I don’t know what basis such people use to come to their judgments-- perhaps they think their own lives are orderly and neat. It is true that Tom was separated from his wife, though at her initiative. It is also true that the separation rate in the United States, whether involving marriages or cohabitation, is about 50%. Using separation as a criterion, the personal lives of half the nation’s adult population are in shambles. In fact, it may be unpleasant to say so, but at the same time it is necessary to say that social forces beyond their management are often at work, given that such numbers make the chance of a union succeeding equal to a coin toss. In Tom’s case, the separation resulted in a death, with all the qualities necessary for lurid and imaginative embellishment by those whose minds move in such directions. As a witness to the incident, and the only one with Tom from the moment he first received news from Eugenia of her wrecked house, I want to present the event for the record, so to speak. I also want to say that Tom and I did everything possible to avoid what occurred, short of abandoning Tom’s wife, who refused to leave her house.
At 11:00 a.m. on August 11, 1975 I took a call from Tom’s wife, Eugenia, at Tom's home in Moorhead. I had been staying with Tom off and on during that summer. Eugenia had been teaching near Onamia and Mille Lacs, Minnesota, about 170 miles from Moorhead. The emotional distance between Tom and Eugenia had become physical distance by this time. The location of her job on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation is the only reason people were later able to impute racial or even racist implications to the shooting, which oddly imply that Tom would somehow not have defended his family in the same way against an aggressor of any race in a similar situation. This is a curious logic to advance, since Tom had no choice about where Eugenia would locate or who the intruder would be.
Tomasito, their son, was then staying with Eugenia. This was a difficult time for Tom. That summer he signed my copy of his book, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, concluding a little note with the line: "in the second terrible summer." When I took the call from Eugenia, she said that her house had been broken into and trashed. There was an urgency in her voice. She wanted Tom to call as soon as he returned. She said a threat had been made against her and she and her neighbor were both thinking of purchasing guns and Tom should bring down as many guns as he could. The entire situation sounded fantastic! She wanted to pack up her belongings and get out. She said she thought she knew who had done the damage to her house, someone she'd met only once or twice. I couldn't imagine what was going on.
Even though Tom was very concerned with what had possibly occurred, very much unclear, and even though he knew he needed someone to accompany him, he was also concerned that he not ask me to sacrifice time that I didn’t have. I was about to begin a teaching job at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for a year, working for Vista, and Tom was worried that I might put this job in jeopardy. He kept saying, “Dale, I know this job is important to you.” He tried to elicit someone else’s aid, a friend and former student a few years younger than myself, but was told he was too busy with schoolwork, though I found this excuse unconvincing, given the circumstances. In the end, I assured Tom that my job was not likely to be jeopardized and I accompanied him. I felt that if Tom were in a potentially dangerous situation, someone needed to be with him, regardless of the job. As it turned out, it was fortunate that I did accompany him, as I ended up taking care of Tomasito for the following week in Moorhead while Tom and his wife engaged a lawyer and worked out the legal requirements for his release from jail. I mention Tom’s concern for my job to indicate that his thinking at the time was not rash, being as concerned with my needs as he was with the situation in Onamia.
Tom and I were on the road about 2:30 that afternoon with two shotguns he had borrowed and a pistol and a lot of silent questions in our heads. We both knew Eugenia could amplify events and we hoped what she had told us was exaggeration. We thought her description of events was bizarre. On the other hand, the talk of threats, guns and the devastation to the house was certainly disturbing. Oddly, we spoke of recipes and cooking a good part of the way. Tom liked to talk about his culinary interests and I think this was an easy topic for him at the time. We finally arrived around 5:30 or 6:00. We talked momentarily with Eugenia, who was waiting for us with her neighbor, the resort owner, whose house was across the road from Eugenia’s rented cabin, which Eugenia was afraid to enter. Then Tom and I went to investigate the situation at her house. First, we cautiously circled it. Next, I went to the back door while Tom went into the house through the front, both of us armed and apprehensive. Since shots had been fired through the house, we had no idea what to expect. According to Eugenia, the damage was simply from an acquaintance who for some enigmatic reason had gone berserk.
We vocally alerted each other as we entered and explored the house, grateful to discover it was empty. Inside, except for the maliciousness of the devastation, it might have looked like a scene from a spy novel where someone has searched endlessly for some valuable item without luck, but has succeeded in near complete demolition. Drawers and their contents were tossed everywhere, furniture upended and torn, everything smashed, even paint sprayed about on walls and belongings. The scene reminded me of Graham Greene’s story “The Destructors.” It seemed too malicious to be simple vandalism. We called the Sheriff's office, which sent over a deputy, who looked around for five minutes, saw our guns, asked whose they were, said that the place was a mess and left, even though we implored him to provide an official presence until some quick packing could be done. He said they would patrol the area but we never saw any police again until it was too late for them to do anything but write their reports and take statements. The officials were completely useless-- we were on our own. Later, when I testified to this fact at the grand jury, some of the jurors frowned.
While we were at the house someone phoned and we wondered if we were being watched. Eugenia spoke with the caller, whom she referred to as Fred. He wanted to come to the house. Eugenia, I recall, asked him if he were the one responsible for trashing her house, which he denied. I also recall her saying to him, as emphatically as possible, that he should not come to the house. She informed him that there were people with guns present. She repeated more than several times that he should not come to the house. After the phone call, Tom suggested that we simply grab some quick things Eugenia might want and leave, to return the next day when there would be light and less chance of a dangerous visit-- or better yet, hire a moving company to do the remaining work. But Eugenia insisted on staying to pack up through the night. She was adamant-- and so after supper, Tom, Tomasito and Eugenia went to the house while I stayed with the neighbor across the way, who was also frightened. She was also armed and concerned for her children. Tom and I kept our guns with us, not knowing what to expect, hoping for a quiet evening.
In the dusk a pickup dropped someone off and sped away. A good sized man, I could ascertain from his movements that he was intoxicated. He began to stumble toward the neighbor's residence where I was located as a presence to provide some protection. The neighbor said, "God, no! He's coming here!" She had children to worry about and she was terrified of dealing with him. It was clear she recognized him as “Fred.” I moved into view of a large picture window and we turned on all the lights so the man would clearly see my shotgun. The neighbor had the pistol, which he might also have seen. After we were certain he had seen our arms, we closed the main door and turned off the lights to indicate to him that he wasn't welcome. A thought went through my head that others in the truck might have parked further up and circled back. The condition of Eugenia’s the house suggested a party of destruction.
The man, unfortunately, reversed direction toward Eugenia's house, as I feared he might. We immediately phoned her house to warn Tom and Eugenia of his approach and then we called the sheriff's office again. The lights went out in Eugenia's house, again an effort to signal to him he wasn’t welcome, but the man stumbled toward it anyway, circled it once and then he came back into view as he approached the front door. I learned later that he had tried to gain entrance through the back door. Meanwhile, we'd called the sheriff's office once more-- they seemed to be taking forever to arrive. The man beat on the door, yanked away the screen door in an instant, and then began pounding on the solid wood door. He put his shoulder and full body into the door, hurling himself into it with absolute ferocity. After what seemed a long while, a shot went off.
The man turned away, staggered down the hill, fell down, got up, staggered toward our place. I wasn't sure if he was stumbling now because he was wounded or drunk. The neighbor said again, “O my God! He's coming here!"-- and I began to ponder what the hell I was going to do-- or have to do-- when he arrived. It was a situation in which you had no concept of what your own response might be, or should be. Though we had the guns, he seemed in control of what would happen, and he seemed completely out of control, unpredictable, it seemed, even to himself! He wasn't a small man and could possess the unpredictable power that goes with intoxication. Nor could anyone know whether or not he was armed. Verbal communication seemed risky at best, given the effort at physical entry he’d already displayed. But he didn't go far before stumbling to the ground. He then rose again and I realized he wasn't wounded at all-- it must have been a warning shot. He turned back toward Eugenia's house and, upon reaching the front door, flung himself into it with a great fury of force, determined to break it down. I could see he had resolved to be completely serious, come what may. As he continued throwing his shoulder into the door, again and again, I had a strange feeling of prescience. I sensed, if he continued much longer, that Tom, with his son in the house, would fire and this time it wouldn't be a warning shot. I could feel the terrible moment arriving, everyone except the man breaking down the door powerless to stop it, and he was so lost in his own storm he showed no signs of abating his efforts to crash through the door. Then I heard it, the blast of the shotgun, which made me shudder partly because I had felt it coming almost as if it were by this time fated. It was like the oldest pronouncement in the world, originating out of our entire human tragedy, the sound of power when language fails. It was trailed by a long stillness like a pause in time, as if the world had come to a halt-- the man who had collapsed on the step, the man defending his family, everything within our bubble of space slowed down as if all the world within our vicinity were taking account of what had happened. I knew at that moment that I didn't want to go up to Eugenia’s house-- and in fact had to fight a kind of terror in approaching the place.
When I got there, I learned my 'prescience,' whether it was true or not, did not explain the second shot, for which a real and clear reason existed: the door was ajar and shattered-- the man, who I learned was the same Fred that had earlier phoned, had been on the verge of entry, while Tom, together with his small son and his wife, huddled behind the couch across from the door. Eugenia told me that Tomasito, who knew Fred, had frantically implored him to go away. Tom, though he shot blind into and through the door, was responding to the reality that the door was no longer an obstacle to this man's fury. He had waited until the last possible moment, unless someone argues that Tom should have waited until the man actually rushed into the room in his full fury.
As Tom sat in the squad car, he insisted that I bring his son to him so he could talk to him immediately. He was very concerned with his son’s emotional welfare. Everyone was in some degree of shock, but Tom knew he needed to speak to his son. He was also concerned for the intruder’s welfare, and implored the authorities to attempt some kind of first aid, though I don’t think any was given. I had a terrible dread of even looking in the direction of the fallen man, though of course I did, seeing him slumped on the stoop, the door ajar from his repeated ramming to break it down, the hole through it from the 12 gauge bird shot, ammunition purchased merely hours previous for that borrowed gun we had thought then only a precaution. I remember a quick question flashing by: was he trying to commit suicide? Was he so given over to feeling fury or other emotions that he wasn’t thinking at all? What awful state of mind must have possessed someone to continue breaking into a house after a shotgun had warned him away? Time seemed slow, almost stilled, yet everything strangely vivid in the deepening dusk. I knew I had to be here, I knew this moment was a fact, and yet I also wondered why any of us needed to be present for such an occurrence. It would have been so simple had none of the participants arrived at this place: the incident would not have occurred. A collision of people’s personal lives had created a fatal intersection.
After, I brought Tom’s six year old son back to Moorhead at Eugenia’s request, where I looked after him. I used Tom’s car. The authorities later asked if I had Tom’s permission to do this, which I hadn’t. Tom and I were so close that I wouldn’t hesitate to do what was best for his son in a crisis situation, knowing I had his trust (he later told me this was probably the best thing to do), but I really only had his wife’s permission. I thought: the Law is really strange. They were very scarce when we asked for them to avert a tragedy, but after, they were busy looking for possible charges to file, even when no complaint had been made, regarding a simple trip to bring Tom’s son to more familiar surroundings. He had always thought of Moorhead as his primary home.
I’ve since heard a number of versions of this event that involve Tom being drunk or jealous or both. There is no truth to either allegation. Certainly the Law would have registered any signs of alcohol when they questioned us afterwards. The way the event transpired indicates that jealousy was not a motivation: that “green-eyed monster” Shakespeare mentions would not have provided a warning shot, a fact no one ever questioned, either in two investigative interviews with me or at the grand jury hearing. The physical evidence of the broken door, hauled into court, indicated that Tom fired only as a last resort. The warning shot had been fired low and some 12 feet to one side of the door.
The grand jury refused to recommend indictment of Tom for any crime, returning a verdict of “no bill,” though there were some questions from some jurors about his “communist” affiliations, as though his politics had any relevance to the issue at hand. Tom, always keen, critiqued the question itself by pointing out that he had also been a Democrat as well as a Republican. However, the fact that his politics were raised at all has further confirmed to me that I would not want to be judged by an American jury, which often seems incapable of separating relevant issues from purely emotional or mythical ones. Still, I have since become grateful that some literary people, from whom I would have expected greater insight, were not on the jury. During my testimony, I thought some of the questions were absurd, such as the one concerning the distance from myself to Eugenia’s house at the time of the shooting. Could I see the man’s hands? I insisted that I saw a man breaking down a door, with absolute physical determination. On the question of distance, I suggested that a more accurate answer could be provided by measuring it with a tape ruler. I said I wasn’t good at estimating distance. In such a circumstance, who is thinking about measurements?
After the verdict, because a white man had killed an American Indian man, there was some brief pressure for the State Attorney General to reopen the case. One famous American Indian writer I spoke with at a conference shortly after the tragedy suggested that the shooting was unreasonable use of force that deserved prosecution, though she was unfamiliar with the details. This view easily disregards the possibility of injury or death to someone else had Tom done nothing and I’ve sometimes wondered what words she would have offered had Tom’s young son been injured or killed due to Tom’s inaction. Perhaps had she been there, she would have known how to intervene to protect everyone from danger, and frankly, I wish she might have had her chance, at least enough to test her theory of a more appropriate response when someone is breaking down the front door, even after a warning shot. Such to my mind reckless arguments ignore the circumstances which included shots having been fired through the house, the wreckage of the house, our own uncertainty as to the number of people we were contending with, a violent attempt at entry even after a warning shot, the presence of a six year old boy whom his father felt the need to protect, all of which should be considered with the sheriff’s department's lack of protection, which had been elicited more than several times.
A good friend of mine and former chair of Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota, John Hunter Gray (formerly John Salter), himself American Indian, asserts that self-defense is a clearly established principle in Indian culture, as it is a legal right under U.S. law. He knows practical things about dangerous situations deriving from racism, having been involved in the civil rights struggle in Jackson, Mississippi, “the mustard man” as the police had called him, captured in the famous photograph of protesters being accosted by a mob of white people at the Woolworth counter, where only whites were supposed to sit. He told me he never saw this event as anything other than justified self-defense.
Of course, in retrospect, the gravest error we made was not following Tom’s original suggestion that we merely abandon the place and let a moving company clean up the mess. Unfortunately, we caved in to Eugenia's insistence on protecting her property while she packed it up through the night. Tom and I also finally learned who Fred was: a bitter lover of Eugenia's who was unhappy about her plans to move away. As Tom said to me later in Moorhead: "I keep finding out more about this guy all the time." After the legal procedures concluded, Tom and I never spoke of the incident again. What could be said that both of us didn’t already know? But from Pam Sund, who asked Tom about the incident much later in his life, I learned that he had replied, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel remorse for having killed that man.”
POSTSCRIPT ON ONAMIA INCIDENT
Tom wasn't heedless, but careful and serious enough. What occurred near Onamia was the result of the recklessness of others. It might reasonably be argued that we were too incautious in not abandoning the place for the night and leaving the packing for the next day as Tom had suggested, although this speculation assumes we could in fact succeed in overruling Eugenia’s insistence on staying. The cliché says that hindsight is twenty twenty, although I’m not sure such hindsight can apply here since no one knows what the next day might have brought. As well, our judgment was restricted by information that Eugenia withheld from us regarding her relationship with the man.
There are those who argue we shouldn’t have been armed, a very courageous thought on their part, but who could say a worse result might not have arisen from being unarmed? Once the man was dropped off by the pickup, which then sped on, we did not know how many others might be involved and armed if the truck had stopped further on, or whether he himself was armed, which made leaving the house at that point seem potentially dangerous, especially since we knew shots had already been fired. Even if no one else was armed or present, something we didn’t know, how could we know what Fred Nickaboine might do? Tom, his wife, or child were no physical match for him, who might have found the energy to outrun any of them, and who did find the energy to break down a solid outside door. The argument that we shouldn’t have been armed really becomes one that we shouldn’t have been there at all, but then, from that perspective, where can anyone ever go if one cannot go home, which this place was for Eugenia and her son? The same problem existed for the neighbor and resort owner, who also thought herself and her children in enough potential danger for her to take the precaution to be armed. Literary people can seize on the incident, and no doubt will, for their own personal or ideological purposes, but I’ve often wondered, if events had turned differently and the neighbor had felt it necessary to use force, would these people then level criticisms against her, as the accusation of murder has been leveled against Tom? I previously responded to a letter to the editor in which someone made that charge against Tom, despite the grand jury verdict. I present relevant excerpts of my response, with the irrelevant name of the original writer left blank: “I was a witness at Onamia and testified to the grand jury, under oath if that needs to be said. I don’t know how [Blank] knows what Tom knew about his wife having an affair, though from everything I knew, Tom was ignorant of it until after the shooting. Even a McGrath accuser who claims to have known the situation with McGrath’s wife and Nickaboine admits in the High Plains Reader of June 10, 2003 that McGrath’s wife kept information hidden: ‘Eugenia started going out with him [Nickaboine] and then had him move in with her. They had been living together for three or four months. Eugenia never talked about McGrath and made it sound like he was gone from her life. She said they had been divorced for a number of years.’ If McGrath’s wife mentioned nothing of her marriage to Mr. Nickaboine, why would she mention her affair to McGrath? [...] If Tom did suspect his wife’s affair with Fred Nickaboine, he gave no indication and I don’t know how [Blank] can know Tom’s feelings about the incident at the time or afterwards beyond his speculation, which really amounts to rumor-mongering. [...] Suffice it to say that it is a stretch to see this incident as murder. Who calls the police before committing murder? Who fires a warning shot before committing murder? Had the resort owner used her weapon, fearful for her children, would [Blank] accuse her of committing murder? Tom’s child was in a house that had been broken into, wrecked inside, previously shot through, and was being violently entered. [...] I do know that had Fred Nickaboine departed, nothing more would have happened. I wish he had.”
I cannot agree that this shooting was in any way racial or part of the Western mythos, as some people would like to remake it. Neither Tom, nor the neighbor, had a choice in the race of the aggressor. There is no reason a similar kind of incident could not have occurred in New York City, and probably has, though I suppose, Tom’s character forged in the Midwest, he was steeled with the resolve to do what was necessary for the survival of his or anyone’s family, a resolve born from the Midwestern, almost instinctual sense of communal protection that is social code in a harsh environment where people know weather and isolation can kill. As to indicting his motivation as some patriarchal display with a gun, I find this view little more than a fashionable ideological cliché. How many mothers would not protect their children, as the mother across the road was in fact prepared to do? Would she then be responding from patriarchal impulses too? I don’t know who gets to make these judgments, nor do I know how they have enough information to make them. It seems to me that if we are always defined/confined by our mythology and history in every context, there is no hope for any of us to ever escape the restrictive past. One wonders what is the point of reading literature, for that matter.
The ironies of the tragedy of this unnecessary death were enormous to me, especially that two poets whose life work and commitments were deeply opposed to war would become unwitting agents in this violent intersection of strangers, even as we had tried to avoid this exact result. I was further disturbed that because Tom, a white man, had killed an Indian man, he became in some minds an instant racist, someone who had previously returned to Indian hands land he had inherited. Later, when he injured his leg after slipping while dancing at a nightclub, an American Indian young man came up to him as he was lying on the floor waiting for the ambulance and whispered into his ear, “We’re going to get you.” I regard these quick judgments as a form of reactionary, if reflexive politics, obstacles to progress, born as they are out of an annoyance with complexity, the need to make political divisions simple and absolute, but what is the difference between such thinking and that of racists, who insist that race exists even though we know it doesn’t really exist at all except as a social invention of colonialism, as Stephen Jay Gould points out, merely an artificial designation according to arbitrarily chosen physical characteristics? In any case, Thomas McGrath was hardly a Custer, hardly a willing tool of the oppressing class that promotes racism in its own interests. What disturbed me most, however, aside from the death itself, was that the confrontation had happened despite our best efforts to avoid it. True, we received no help in avoiding the conflict from others involved. Nevertheless, it was more than troubling to consider how quickly human events could shift beyond anyone's ability to regulate them. At the same time, what human understanding I shared with others became all that much more precious, and as years have passed, I value even more those who have managed to retain their belief in trust and openness rather than deceit and lying. By extension, my commitment to communication between the various camps of the oppressed was deepened as well, and I continue to believe that we must see each other as relatives, everyone at least the fiftieth cousin of everyone else, as Guy Murchie observes. The differences between cultures should be richness, not the barricades of cultural war.
As he was careful with people, he also tried to understand their complexity, hoping to be helpful if possible. He could be as diplomatic as he could be direct. He once said in an interview that, above all, he wished to be useful. He was very serious about people‘s welfare, as can be seen in his attitude about politics. A number of times he mentioned to me that he had helped someone “get a job,” though I know nothing of the details as to how he managed this. Insouciance isn’t a word that would apply to him, a word he once used as a derogatory characterization in Letter. And while comedy is a huge aspect of his poetry, it is always anchored with a sense of tragedy, creating at times a union that Bahktin called seriocomic, or carnivalesque, a combining of the sacred with the profane to evoke freedom from social strictures. There was a part of Tom that saw the universe, or at least our part in it, as a terrific holy joke, not as a cynic, though certainly to an extent as an absurdist. When a student queried him about the “utopian” impossibility of a socialist revolution, he answered by arguing that since the world seemed insane enough as it was, a revolutionary communist Dream didn't seem at all impossible. Helping one another was a necessary response to the absurdity of our situation: in other words, the Dream of solidarity was no more absurd than the cruelty of history (and the universe itself, for that matter). In coming to solidarity, we also came to our true emotional fulfillment. Not building solidarity would be insane. In this sense, the mission of poetry is the creation of sanity (whose Latin root means health).
Absurdity, with or without irony, was one face of the "joke" for Tom, and it is a source of his humor, but ultimately the joke was a holy one. This point is important because it goes to his spiritual content. As the conclusion of Letter illustrates, the foundation of Tom’s nature was serious, with a deep sense of tragedy giving rise to compassion and the need for solidarity. Even so, realizing the holy joke of the universe, that is, satori, brought us to laughter and indifferent joy. Tom told his friend Pam Sund there was a time during his satori experience that he couldn’t stop laughing. This we are told in the literature is a common reaction. Once, when I said I needed to explore the possibilities of joy in my long poem, Factories and Cities, he quipped: “You certainly chose the wrong century for that!" Still, it was what he sought in his own poetry, and he would often mention to me experiences he had of satori. It was a major spiritual revelation for him. His celebration of it is in the concluding section of Book I of Letter.
Satori, in Japanese– or "kai wu" in Chinese– is the essential foundation of Zen Buddhism (zen from Japanese "zazen," translated from the Chinese "chan," itself translated from the Indian "Dhyana," meaning meditation). Bodhi-Dharma is said to have brought Buddhism to China from India in 520 A.D. and in the process introduced the notion that scholastic training was not the key to enlightenment, but rather it was understanding the "vast emptiness of one’s own mind-essence”. For this heresy it is said that other Buddhists, in keeping with all great religious traditions of murder as divine mission, poisoned him. His demise may have been the consequence of asserting that Buddhism was more than religious doctrine and dogma, just as Jesus of Nazareth, in his best moments, did with Judaism. The sixth patriarch, Hui-neng, is credited with giving Zen Buddhism its distinctive message in 676, which centers on the notion that understanding one’s own nature, that is, enlightenment, happens actively, abruptly, spontaneously, and not through meditational quietism which attempts to “make” the mind blank or “pure,” devoid of active thought. Zen Buddhism seems more akin to an awakening, rather than a cleansing of the mind, as quietism thought of it. The Zen student’s struggle with the koans is the method of thoroughly defeating the mind’s need for rational understanding, not as an intellectual decision, but at a fundamental level. It seems some recent practitioners of “Zen” have lost sight of its origins and again see it more as a discipline rather than the equivalent, in Christen terms, of an epiphany.
It is this abrupt, instantaneous recognition of one’s “self-nature” that is called satori. Hui-neng initiated Zen Buddhism with the statement: "From the first not a thing is,” the original koan. Meditation, clearing the mind, according to Hui-neng, was at best only a means to satori, but certainly was not, as previous Buddhism had suggested, the state of enlightenment itself. As Zen evolved under Hui-neng, meditation was no longer a self-created state of serenity, but rather, it was struggle, the rational mind’s frustration with koans that made no sense, but nevertheless were given to be true. Out of the exhausting exasperation of probing these koans, the mind might abruptly surrender its "reason" and actually see with the eye of "nothingness" the "nothingness" of the universe, which is beyond the dynamic and opposing duality that constructs our usual perception, called maya, that is, the world our mind is accustomed to, the usual laws of cause and effect in a world made up of oppositions, i.e., dialectical materialism. Therefore, from a Marxist materialist point of view, satori would need to be considered a level of reality beyond its materialist definition of reality. An absolute atheist insistent upon the classic view of dialectical materialism should encounter some difficulties with satori in McGrath's work if one requires that McGrath remain loyal to the “program.”
Satori (which McGrath described as inherently generating a sense of communal benevolence) is the root of McGrath’s sense of joy, the state of laughter and indifference he describes in Letter. It is Tom’s perception of our true condition, the realization of freedom in the universe, which makes sense when we recall that freedom is one of the primary motifs of his work and life. Satori, the realization of one’s true nature, is the spiritual expression of this freedom in McGrath’s work. I insist on the word “spiritual” because I cannot, unlike some, equate satori with atheism, a word originally assigned to Christians who would not participate in the public celebrations of Roman gods. Current usage of the word “atheism” is founded upon the presumption that the material world is all that exists, but satori, beginning with Hui-Neng, explicitly rejects materialism as an illusion that clouds perception. At this point we arrive at a debate over the question of “spirituality” in the work and life of McGrath.
As I mentioned, at least one former student, David Pink, has portrayed McGrath as a hybrid Catholic-Hopi disciple (not understanding or allowing Tom’s use of metaphor) while another, Robert Edwards, presents him as a strict adherent to a supposed “official” atheist line of scientific socialism, (confusing Tom’s disdain for organized religion with spirituality). Both are wrong. Tom did not believe in a religious or mythic cosmic narrative, as both Catholic and Hopi belief systems require, nor at the other extreme was he strictly “every inch [...] an atheist,” nor was he even strictly a materialist. I would say that Tom’s thinking was more complex (and open) than either of these students of his allows.
It seems evident that Edwards, in an introduction he wrote for the anthology Eating the Pure Light, wants to portray McGrath as an ardent loyalist to the CPUSA, and atheism is one of his criteria, but he misrepresents or misunderstands Tom’s commitment to the CPUSA. He says McGrath never let his Communist “membership lapse,” but fails to note that Tom did let his membership lapse as a consequence of disagreements on political approach as well as esthetics until circa 1973, when he rejoined according to one report by his friend Lew Lubka.
Without question Tom remained intractably committed to the ultimate necessity of communism as an economic system, but this is not the same as complete agreement with the CPUSA. Nor did he believe in “the inevitability of a worldwide People’s revolution regardless of the forms it might eventually take,” once observing to me that human history might conclude leaving only birds inhabiting the earth, and human self-annihilation is also one of the potential outcomes in Letter. If “all battles are lost but the last,” as McGrath repeats in Letter, that line need not be read as political eschatology but might instead refer to our current struggle, being continually our last, which as long as it continues is not lost. Nor was he uncritical of communist politics or “forms,” as his dispute with the CPUSA shows. As well, it cannot be said that he believed in the success of a “worldwide People’s revolution,” more than several times denigrating Carl Sandburg’s concept of “The People,” who for Tom would not really exist until the working class made a world for them to exist in. Clearly historical forces worldwide are interconnected but Tom understood that change occurred as local or national conditions allowed (since nations exist, each with its particular economic and state apparatus) and while international solidarity was desirable, change would not result from an inexplicable universal shift in world consciousness, but must be organized. McGrath certainly did not easily brush these issues of aside.
McGrath did participate again in the CPUSA to some extent circa 1978 or '79, when he sponsored my own membership, which I also let lapse after the implosion of the Party under its Stalinist retreat in 1991. As Tom told me, just before I became a member, “Don’t expect the class struggle to disappear when you join the Party.” (Edwards had no direct experience with the problems of the CPUSA, as he was not a member during my time, nor before, something I would have known. It is interesting that someone who wasn’t a member of the Party delineates Party principles for those who were.)
Many years previous to publication of his introduction, I had sent Edwards a copy of a working draft of this memoir, in which I had already questioned Tom’s atheism. Is it coincidence that he seems to be arguing in his piece, as Jacob did, with an unknown wrestler, with the intention of proving Tom an absolute atheist? Edwards was also familiar with Jack Beeching’s memoir for more than a decade and a half previous to his own commentary. Beeching’s memoir questions Tom’s commitment to anti-Catholicism, pointing to how McGrath “in more considered argument would grow more subtle, even equivocal.” Though Edwards makes no mention of either of these memoirs, (even as several of his observations are strikingly similar but apparently not deserving of credit), he manages to be very insistent on contradicting both Jack’s and my questions regarding Tom’s thinking on spirituality.
Edwards is not alone in his view, partly due to remarks by McGrath himself, and so his assertions do provide a useful opportunity to evaluate McGrath’s thinking on spirituality, as a momentary point of focus.
Tom wasn’t locked into an intellectual approach. Though he relied on intellect to expand understanding and frame his message, he was also intuitive and fluid, with an interest in such authors as Alan Watts, for example. Nonetheless, Robert Edwards portrays Tom as an absolutely rigid atheist and says “he certainly gave me the impression that he thought searching for God was a waste of time,” even as he fails to notice that this impression is somewhat at odds with his other claim about Tom’s “large measure of respect for Native American Vision Quests.” His claim is also at odds with some other remarks by Tom, for example, commenting in an interview that Robert Bly’s poetry explored “spiritual states,” whose work Tom did not consider a “waste of time.”
There is also the matter of Tom’s own yearning for a return of his satori experience, which he mentioned to me and others numerous times, though apparently not to Edwards. It is inaccurate to say McGrath “may [italics mine] well have felt that [satori] was true in some paranormal or mystical way,” (whatever these two words are supposed to mean). Are we talking partial or conditional “spirituality,” phenomena beyond scientific explanation or the accepted norms of natural law, but still not really spiritual? I have to admit to not understanding his point here. And if he doesn’t actually know what McGrath may have thought, why is he claiming he does? Tom considered his experience of satori absolutely real (as even a superficial reading of Letter would inform a reader) and sometimes mentioned to me that he thought he had regained glimpses of it. In addition, by McGrath’s own admissions his “chosen sympathies” were not absolutely in accord “with the official atheism of Communism,” as Edwards puts it, unless this supposed “official” atheism includes satori. While we are left to wonder which communism is the official one, satori is hardly the classic materialist “atheistic” view, though some people try to argue that Buddhism is atheistic, an effort I have never found convincing except to the extent that no separate idealized (dualistic) “God” is required. But satori is difficult to define, and if defined as atheism, it is certainly a peculiar version of it— at the very least, not materialist unless it is possible to materially know your face before you were born, as one koan, which Tom was fond of quoting, poses the question. In fact, the quote by McGrath that Edwards uses to illustrate Tom’s atheism is itself equivocal: “if [italics mine] there is any continuation of consciousness after death, we wouldn’t be human any more, which would makes its relevance to us in our present state questionable at best.” Relevance aside, how Edwards reconciles McGrath’s speculation about consciousness after death with his supposed “adamant denial of any ‘life after death’” I do not know. Logic insists that if McGrath were fully convinced of no “continuation of consciousness,” there would also be no reason for him to raise the issue of its relevance to life now.
Edwards seems to secure his opinion on the assumption that Marxist materialism demands atheism but “materialism” is increasingly difficult to define. Current physics doesn’t see matter as primary, but rather, comprised of “captured” forces, which are hardly well understood. Science does not claim to understand the origin of these forces, and it further does not understand the “virtual,” or even “real,” energy that precedes classic “matter.” Tom had a fair interest in physics at one point in the seventies, had read about black holes, and at least was familiar with many of these questions. Reflecting on his reading, his observation to me about black holes was “the laws of physics seem to break down and anything is possible,” at the very least an admission that there is much we don’t know.
As well, like so many, Edwards appears to read Marx’s famous statement on religion as being the opium of the people, as necessarily denying rather than confirming a fundamental human quality that gives rise to religion. Marx writes: “[Religion is] the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.” McGrath, like Marx, believed that postponing, as a consequence of class, the fundamental needs of our “human essence” or “heart” in a “heartless world” resulted in the created fantasy of heaven where these needs are (fantastically) met. But these needs are not merely material, they are also communal emotional ones. McGrath himself makes the observation that we perceive needs “separate” from those of the body and so “in that sense I’m not a materialist.” (Gibbons and Des Pres, 203). Marx does not deny that the fantasy of heaven derives from a real “essence,” but rather identifies this fantasy as the result of an essential human hunger that needs to be fulfilled; as Tom would say: love and hunger. Collapsing the fantasy so it becomes material does not mean the “human essence” is not spiritual, though at this point we may be debating semantics.
While the material world exists and is where struggle occurs, Marxist materialism need not logically deny a spiritual enterprise in itself, only its religious “fantastic” description and solution, the abstract idealism of religion as a kind of spiritual mortgage. And since the model of the atom posited by Democritus of the irreducible unit can no longer be sustained, it seems almost reckless to impose a definition on where matter (energy) begins or ends, not just in terms of origin of the universe but even in relation to itself. What role does matter finally play concerning the “essence” Marx acknowledged as the origin of religion and is its role even fully perceivable to us given what we currently know?
These questions are large unknowns, but subjective experiences remain real and genuine even if they are not empirical. As Jack Beeching once asked a comrade asserting a materialist atheism, “What, Comrade, is one to do when one has a mystical experience?” (Jack clearly saw “mystical” as spiritual, not “paranormal,” as Edwards proposed.) Since matter denies us complete knowledge of itself according to the Uncertainty Principle, we are left with an information barrier that forbids us from even fully tracking the behavior of matter at a quantum level. Matter is now no longer the easy definition of the 19th century, but very mysterious stuff.
The issue becomes more complex when we bring satori into the discussion. Logically, materialism requires the time/space continuum, but satori halts time (and therefore space). The koan/poem by Senzaki that McGrath uses as an epigraph in Letter illustrates this underlying suspension of time, as do others. There is no way, first, that we can actually say what “materialism” is, and second, that we can reconcile the classic atheistic view of it cleanly with a concept like satori, which essentially denies that matter, or at least its narrative, is the ultimate reality. If the two are to coexist, (and they do in McGrath), we must concede that materialism reduced to atheism is not the complete story for McGrath. Materialism is his construct for practical political change, but there also exists, on another level, a spiritual component to his work, which is at least as important as the material one. These questions need to be nuanced in less doctrinaire terms and Tom was capable of doing so.
On one occasion Tom wondered to me “whether there might not be something to these religious notions that refuse to die out.” On another, he told the story of a friend who related to him an extra-body experience during a heart attack, having been pronounced dead at one point, nor did Tom tell this story as though he doubted its veracity, but rather, he found it fascinating. There is also no question that he held a tremendous reverence for the mysterious and creative force of the universe itself.
Jack Beeching goes far back in McGrath’s life and as a friend was certainly close and knowledgeable enough to claim some authority when he says that McGrath could become “equivocal” in their debates on Catholicism. Another close friend was Pam Sund, the editor of an anthology on McGrath, who says Tom spoke of spiritually with her, despite his stubborn public insistence upon atheism. She says that Tom, in his effort to explain the experience of satori to her, quoted Robert Browning, “God’s in his Heaven / All’s right with the world!” (I presume he left out the part about “twat” as some aspect of a nun’s habit.) She says “he spoke this way because he thought I would understand.” He told her that satori “made you realize that everything you thought you knew about the world was wrong,” by which I assume he meant experience outside of satori was misperception (and yet such experience is the typical “materialist” view). She reports his saying “I would not deny some kind of higher power.” Martin, his brother, whom Tom entrusted with power of attorney, told her that “Tom was searching and did believe in the possibility of what most people would consider a higher power.” (It is uncanny how similar Martin’s speech was to Tom’s. When Martin was dying, he said, “I’m sorry Dale, I can’t string together a sentence two feet long.”) Martin’s observation at least puts Tom in the category of an agnostic. To these friends from his inner circle, it was not exactly “clear to anyone who was paying attention,” as Edwards puts it so absolutely, that Tom was indeed a confirmed atheist, but rather, it seems he missed the confirmation.
Tom found one book I lent him, The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley, fascinating, even bending down several pages as he would do to mark interesting moments. These pages discuss Art and Suchness (a Buddhist word for self-nature), where Huxley concludes that: “Over against the quietist stands the active-contemplative, the saint, the man who, in Eckhart’s phrase, is ready to come down from the seventh heaven in order to bring a cup of water to his sick brother. Over against arhat, retreating from appearances into an entirely transcendental Nirvana, stands the Bodhisattva, for whom Suchness and the world of contingencies are one, and for whose boundless compassion every one of those contingencies is an occasion not only for transfiguring insight, but also for the most practical charity.” This seems to be a view of art in its highest function as clarified action, and one can see why Tom would be attracted to it. Tom also observed to me that when he was freed by satori, good will seemed to prevail during encounters with others, consistent with Huxley’s assessment.
I concede that Tom proclaimed his atheism in interviews, asserting that he was an atheist when he was thirteen and expected to be one when he died, but we cannot ignore his satori experience, which, coupled with solidarity, is the spiritual content provided in Letter, nor am I convinced, as I’ve said, that satori can be made to fit neatly with atheism. Buddhist masters, for example, avoid answering the question of what death is. One standard response students of Zen make as testament to enlightenment is to proclaim that they now know all the Buddhas are corpses and awakening to self-nature (or Suchness) is equated with giving up one’s life, which is conceived of as the ultimate test of attachment. This is similar to the conditions of epiphany according to William James, though his analysis is centered on Christianity. Tom often quoted the koan: “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” It is fair to say that while Tom averred his atheism, his interest and belief in satori was intrinsic to his sense of the universe, and while he might have left Edwards with the “impression” that “searching for God was a waste of time” (which I can believe if “God” is the detached idealized one), McGrath himself searched for the true nature of the universe, as the conclusion of Letter proves (his own vision quest), which could be read to be the same as the true nature of the psyche. His sense of satori certainly indicates that McGrath thought experiencing the true nature of the universe was within reach (“I know I will know his voice and the whole sense of the song,” (Letter, 401) [that is, the voice of his guide and the song of the Katchina]. Given the context, and McGrath’s continued invocation of the paradoxes and contradictions about time, creation and mortality, “creation.. preservation... destruction...” echoed by “yet... nevertheless.... just the same... still... although... although...” it is difficult to see his view of the central nature of the universe as strictly classic materialist atheism.
Tom was always “militantly” opposed to organized religion, which should be no news to anyone who knew him. He regarded it as a fraud, partly because it is so often applied as a political instrument of oppression, or another method of stealing, but also because it entrapped people in a false sense of the universe and provided them with a false solution to the class struggle, as Marx saw religion: it was false consciousness in that it lacked a materialist dialectic, but was instead a form of abstract Platonic thought to which dialectical materialism is fundamentally opposed. I think Tom also saw religion in the Freudian sense as a substitute parent that allowed people to avoid maturing enough to nurture (parent) themselves. He once said in passing that "most Americans are children." But again, organized religion is not the same as spirituality and I recall his comment in an interview that he supposed when we died we returned to the "gigantic molecule" and eventually came out again, "something like ourselves, but without memory. And this, I think, is the best way." He told me about a Zen master he used to see, who would say reassuringly, "Tom, there is nothing to worry about." Tom liked to tell me this story, partly I think to remind himself of it and partly because it amused him. “And then he’d tell me, ‘Tom, you smoke too much,’" and Tom would gesture with his cigarette as if waving away a fly and chuckle.
Tom made other comments that struck me. Once, when I was raking leaves in his front yard in Moorhead, as he came walking home from school he said apropos of nothing, or perhaps because I was engrossed in my work, "Dale, put not your faith in the things of this world.” He could quote Jesus of Nazareth or other passages from The Bible without the encumbering religious dogma, which made the aphorisms sound more like koans than religious dictums. It would not be a stretch to say that Tom saw the genocidal God of the Old Testament as the enemy that still dominated many citizens of America, the internalized strict parent that Freud called the super ego. Even with that terrible God, whom Jung diagnosed as paranoid, Tom found his own insight, commenting that God’s response to Job was one of simple power. “And that’s the way it has to be. After all, God can’t say, well, you are partially right, but then again, so and so is also partially right, and yet, this other man has a point.” Jesus was more appealing to him, whom he called in some poems “Slim,” from the old Wobbly nickname for him, Jerusalem Slim. No doubt he was aware of Blake’s assessment that Jesus overthrew the sacred scriptures, so it probably didn’t bother him too much to quote Jesus, though he certainly was nothing of a believer in Jesus as the Son of God or the divine savior, but then, it is unclear that Jesus thought he was either.
In his last decade he often said to me, especially before he moved from Moorhead while his son resided in the Twin Cities with his mother, “Dale, forgive me. I’m becoming so insulated.” I felt sorry for his separation, both from his wife and his son, during this period. When he was depressed from loneliness, he would say, "I’m not made for this planet. I’m made for some other planet." Though this was one of his more enigmatic remarks, I took none of these comments to mean he believed in some easy notion of afterlife, certainly not in any conventional or conceptual sense. But he clearly was unhappy with the construction of the universe, its random and systematized brutality. Even as far back as the first years I knew him, when his stepson Dan complained about the “immorality” of a God who would create such a brutal world, Tom observed the simple empirical fact, by way of agreement: “Yes, it is a closed system.” (I should point out again that satori shatters this closed system.) Still, he seemed to dismiss conceptual questions founded on belief systems as almost irrelevant, or perhaps impossible fictions, recognizing that the mystery of the universe would not be reduced to such terms. His mind was focused on immediate discoveries of imagination, or emotional revelations, which he found genuine because they arose from the same source as poetry and were involved with immediate experience and struggle (the latter nonetheless dependent on a “Dream” of a changed future, which was always with him). In this way, Tom was pragmatic about spirituality. Consciousness only concerns us here, now, as we are, where we are, an immediacy consistent with Zen Buddhism. The immediate world was always with him. He once commented at a strip show at a bar in Fargo, to which a performer friend had invited us, “I can’t stand passionless sex.” I am quite sure he felt the same about the abstract salvation proposed by religion. (Yes, I admit to some fun in this comparison.) His experience of satori did not emotionally or intellectually divorce him from the world (nor can satori do that) as conceptual religion does, whose flames Giordano Bruno discovered were vindictive when he tried to marry heaven and earth.
In a moment of exasperation when Tom was cooking supper while debating some topic with his young son, who had invoked “God” as an authority, Tom retorted, “Let me tell you about God! God is a shitty, rat-tailed bastard!” I saw an image of a rat’s tail disappearing into a cloud. This comment is echoed in other statements which indicate that he became an atheist because he thought something must be wrong with an omniscient omnipotent god who could allow the horrors of the world. "I couldn’t believe in a god that I couldn’t think of as being better than I was-- I think that’s the real crux." Tom, unlike an abstract God, could not remain uninvolved with the sufferings of the human tribe. He adhered to a clear honesty about our limitations in understanding the universe, beyond which he would not go. He recognized the mystery would not divulge its secrets: the masked one would not unmask. Nevertheless, as he became old, he remarked that he couldn’t imagine the world without him-- a comment I take literally in the same sense as Whitman saying: "I cannot imagine my own annihilation." But for Tom, like Neruda, religion was a bankrupt answer to the problem. If he did see something of value in Catholicism, it was two qualities, both psychological. One would obviously be its sense of community, as connoted in its own name. The other was the confessional, as he once mentioned to me, that allowed for the burdens of sins (or errors, in Blake’s terms) to be lifted. Neither of these necessarily require a God, even from a Christian perspective if we recall that Jesus said the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sin.
Though his depth of compassion compelled him to object to a universe apparently indifferent to the fate of the life it created out of itself, he also had a gentle, innocent, almost childlike naive reverence for the world, as if it needed to be the way it was, which is consistent with his comment about The Book of Job. This childlike worship of the world seemed to me the source of much that was genuine, even clear, in Tom, and very much a source of his poetry. (Edwards also “came to see the boy inside Tom,” reaffirming an observation I had already made in the draft of this memoir I sent him.) I had always thought his preservation of this quality throughout his adult life that included so much conflict was related to his openness and caring toward others. It might be called love. It was certainly an aspect of his gentleness and one saw it in his connection with his son.
Neither Marxism nor satori was dogma for him, but rather, his sense of them derived from experience. A reader might surmise from the conclusion of Letter that Tom did not agree with William of Ockham about “God” being knowable by faith alone, as the unfolding visions that conclude Letter rise out of nature, history, and his own memory and psyche toward comprehending “the whole sense of the song,” this sense difficult not to interpret as comprehension of the fundamental essence of the universe itself, which while remaining mysterious, is also empirical, or at least, experiential. Others can debate whether this essence of the universe is “God,” but we already know from Tom’s own words that he experienced it as “the wild, indifferent joy,” and “the holy joke.” In several places he says that revolutionary consciousness rises out of despair (in Marxism all positives derive from the negative, i.e., the law of the negation of the negation) and this "philosophical" assertion can be correlated with his description of his experience of satori, which occurred during his West Coast days in the fifties.
There are several stories he told. In one, he was sitting on his front stoop watching the stars, depressed, and a night bird started to sing. All of a sudden, it seemed completely absurd for a man to be sitting depressed while the universe was singing. His language describing the incident almost suggests a consciousness of himself as if he were beyond himself or larger than himself. An instant of satori struck him, spontaneously as it is described in Zen. Another time, he was looking at the floor in his room and became entirely engrossed in the design of the linoleum. "I realized that I had nothing to do for the rest of my life but look at the design in the floor." These are both time-stopping experiences of the sort described as satori.
Throughout our friendship, every so often, especially when he was having a hard emotional time, he would mention his satori experience, which apparently had lasted some time. He thought satori, and therefore the natural essence of the universe, was essentially “good,” that a person in the state of satori was incapable of being malicious. He thought other people seemed to be affected by it also, in that they were naturally interested in being helpful to him during that time, being helpful one of his key values as I’ve said. I found this observation curious, but also somehow entirely reasonable. He thought that he finally lost satori because he kept talking about it to friends; he should have just accepted it and gone on with his life. And though as long as I knew him he never claimed to have recaptured the actual freedom of satori, he did occasionally claim to have flashes of it. He would be very happy when these came, quite gentle and almost “boyish” in his enthusiasm, like a child in the glee of discovery and wonder.
Tom thought that everyone had moments of satori, that it was probably a fairly common experience, but most people didn’t recognize what the experience was and simply dismissed it as an unimportant, flitting and maybe odd state of mind.
The ultimate answers to these ontological questions, so far as Tom was willing to commit, are in his poetry. What we find there is embodied in the concept of satori, its joy, what Tom called "indifferent laughter," “the great open secret,” a feeling that we belong to the universe and should celebrate it even if we cannot, at least consciously or conceptually, understand it. And so, we aren’t left with an intellectual answer, which seems proper for a poet. As with anyone who is complex, Tom’s feelings and thinking could certainly shift, but there was at least a part of him that was at home with paradox and mystery. Satori is the expression of this mystery in Letter, the essence of the universe that makes us all equal regardless of the drama of history. In this sense, it is one of the absolutes in the poem.
Tom once told me that he didn’t believe he had any fear of death, a remark I’ve always associated with his sense of satori, but he was speaking of another subject: age.
AGE; HIS FALL; MY VISIT TO THE OLD HOME
Tom was sitting on the edge of his bed in Moorhead, smoking a cigarette and sipping coffee as he often did in the morning before “meeting the day.” He needed a few moments of privacy to get going. He looked up at me somewhat sternly: “Dale, whatever you do, don’t grow old!” I chuckled a little because I had trouble arriving at a good alternative but his face didn’t soften. He meant it.
I never thought of Tom as old, even when he was, mostly because he always found discovery in the world and had, not too deeply hidden beneath the mask of adulthood, the enthusiasm of a boy, which as I’ve noted, seemed to blossom when he claimed to have flashes of satori. He often had an innocent sense of nascency, children’s wonderful capacity to see the world reinvent itself. He had displayed this face when I returned to Moorhead in spring 1974 from Albuquerque, where I had hitchhiked hoping to permanently relocate. Before I had departed Moorhead I overheard someone ask Tom, “Why is Dale leaving?” Tom replied, “He feels that he can’t grow here like he needs to.”
When I returned from Albuquerque, I didn’t notify him, partly because I was hitchhiking and didn’t know when I would arrive. I knocked at the back door, which led through a hall-like kitchen into the dining room. He was sitting at the white plastic-coated table, writing something. I heard the simple informative word “Come.” As I entered, I saw that he hadn’t even bothered to look up. I said “Hi, Tom.” He was startled by the sound of my voice and his face became bright with an instant transformation. “Dale! It’s like a whole new season!” I remember such moments, his enthusiasm at times given fully like a kid captured in the joy of seeing for the first time a vast field of butterflies rise up. "Marvelous" was one of his favorite words. Tom’s face could brighten like the glimmer of sun on a summer lake– or it could become as mysterious as a lake’s surface under moonlight, when he was excited or enchanted, but always the dark and profound depths of grief and loss, which give rise to compassion, were always just beneath the surface. He was the most profoundly dialectical person I’ve known, never far from the extremes of feeling, which may in part explain the emotional range in his poetry. For some people the lines in their faces become something of a fixed expression. For Tom, whose face was always fluid, the lines seemed irrelevant. But after his serious fall in late May of 1989, he became quite depressed and would sometimes complain that he had no curiosity for anything. One of his fears had come true: he never wanted to end up in a nursing home, unable to care for himself. Even then, if he were feeling fairly good, the innocent gentleness of a child mixed with the adult appreciation of friendship would beam from his face.
How does anyone say a final goodbye to a great teacher and more, a dear brother? After Tom moved to the Cities to be near his son, I would visit him as often as I could, though I lived 300 miles away and hated the Cities for their congestion, not to mention their haughty self-congratulatory literati. After he had been there a few years I received a note in my departmental box that he’d like me to call him, which I did. He said the doctors had discovered a spot on his lungs and he was afraid he had cancer, not a new fear. (When I first met him he was convinced he was dying from stomach cancer.) He wanted to see me before he went in for the operation, thinking he might not survive. I quickly went to visit and we spent time as usual: he took me to lunch (which was his habit to pay for) and we talked pretty much as we always had, with his usual encouragement for my poetry, but we said nothing really about the possible threat to his life. Of course, as the weekend elapsed, I needed to return to teaching and the time for what may well have been our last farewell arrived. I found myself without words, but we looked at each other with a clear understanding of the possible finality of the moment as well as recognition of our long profound brotherhood. Then he said, “You’ve been the best friend and helper, the very best friend anyone could ever want. Don’t say anything. You know all these things. Take care of yourself, Dale. Take care, old timer.” And then he said, with his kindly smile, “Give me an abrazo.” Then he shut the door. I walked into the street to my truck, captured in a whirl of thoughts, our passage toward the dark, all of us together a little while, the door closing with perhaps permanent separation, but mostly how fortunate I’d been to have encountered him, who helped define my life in ways I’ve never regretted, whose friendship was a powerful magnetic field I would always feel. But I also felt the great loss of the world, enormous, inescapable. I was dazed.
The spot on lung turned out to be a false alarm. The doctors discovered it was old and from previous x-rays they determined it hadn’t changed.
When I first heard in early June of 1989 that Tom had fallen, I was in Grand Forks. I made a call to Minneapolis to the hospital room where one of the attendants put him on the phone. It was a confused conversation that gave me a deepening dread, a helplessness as if the floor had fallen away and I had landed in a universe strangely tilted or warped. I said, "Hello, Tom. This is Dale. I hear you had a bad fall."
He responded with more force than his voice seemed capable of carrying. "No! It’s not true! It’s not true! I never sold out! No. No. Absolutely not! It’s not true I sold out! No! It’s not true! I never sold out! I NEVER sold out! No! It’s not true!" He kept repeating himself in a ferocious tone. Finally I was able to say again, "I hear you had a bad fall-- a bad fall.” He understood my words this time and said a softer tone, "Yes, I had a bad fall, a bad fall. I had a bad fall, yes, I had a bad fall. I had a bad fall. I had a bad fall . . ."
It was both strange and difficult to hear him repeat himself this way, someone I knew for his eloquence. There are moments, as if looking down a desolate road in the middle of the night, when we know that wealth, fame and praise mean nothing, useless shields against the simple fact of mortality. This was one such moment– it was as if I were thrown into outer space to drift at the mercy of the solar winds and all the stars of the universe were far lights of melancholy, dim jewels familiar as childhood but now shimmering with realization of final departures.
I told Tom I wanted to come visit him soon. But he said he would see me in Moorhead. "I have to go from here to Minneapolis. (He was in Minneapolis, but apparently they were planning to move him to another hospital for more tests). When I’m done in Minneapolis, I will see you in Moorhead. I have to go from here to Minneapolis, from here to Minneapolis. When I’m done here, I will see you in Moorhead when I come home. You don’t need to come down. I will see you in Moorhead when I’m done in Minneapolis. You stay home. You don’t need to visit me. I will see you when I come home." Then he said with an odd fierceness: "You take care of yourself if you are sick." He repeated this several times.
I knew I would never see him in Moorhead again, where we had shared so many years with other friends, where a community of interested writers gathered around him, unlike his last years in the Twin Cities, whose writers more or less ignored him, too busy cultivating useful contacts. I would see him home in Moorhead only by the memory-light of those earlier days, when I talked with him while he cooked supper, or many of us would chat with him in a booth in one of the working class bars. I told him I loved him, not something we Norwegians are accustomed to saying often, better at feuding, according to the sagas, than expressing feeling... His voice softened and he said, “Yes, Dale. I know. The same goes for me, old timer.” He would see me in Moorhead when he was finished in Minneapolis. He was returning home to Moorhead when he was finished in Minneapolis. “Don’t fret, old timer.”
Soon after, I traveled to the Cities to visit him in a nursing home that was understaffed, smelled of urine, and reminded me of something out of Dickens. Tom was slumped in a wheel chair, his chin on his chest. He suddenly looked immensely old and frail. I thought of last summer when, even though he had used a cane, he seemed spry with vitality and humor. He would sometimes use his cane to playfully flip off the light when we left the apartment. When we would stroll Milwaukee Avenue, which he loved for its glorious flowers, he would point to each one with his cane and identify it for me. He had begun sporting a beard, as he had promised in Moorhead nearly two decades earlier. Then, in the days of the war, many of us youngsters wore beards, and once he had looked into his rearview mirror to see nothing but three beards, Tim Hagen, Dan Schecter, his stepson, and myself. He remarked that we looked like a bunch of Shetland ponies and said he would grow a beard when beards went out of fashion. Since that somewhat conscious time, a long vapid stretch of complacency and conservatism has reigned, built on the idiotic pride of nationalism that Reagan and both Bushwhacking Bushes promoted while driving the nation into enormous debt and moral decay. And so disappeared all the interesting, exciting counter-culture energies, to be replaced by the mundane narcissism that passed for American culture in the eighties when, as Tom said, people had life-styles rather than lives. But of course, some of us never gave up on rebellion even though solidarity, we had learned, had too often been a fashion statement, and even some who had disguised themselves as friends turned out to be scoundrels. Certainly Tom’s entire life was involved in revolutionary consciousness. Now, when I saw him collapsed in the wheel chair, without the brightness in his face I remembered from his walks admiring the flowers, his beard, instead of making him appear experienced and knowledgeable, made him look simply old and tired as if its slight weight pulled his head down.
He recognized me but kept asking for his son. We had a strange afternoon. Sometimes he thought he was on the back stoop of his house in Moorhead, and he would call out for Genia, his now distanced wife. He would ask me, “Why doesn’t she come out? Is she home?" He would ask me where his son Tomasito was, and I’d say he was in the house. He’d ask why he didn’t come out. Then he looked vaguely in my direction and asked, "Who are you?"
I said I was Dale.
He smiled with amusement at my foolishness, with the old gentle patience he had so often shown me in the past when I sometimes declared the obvious. He replied, "Yes, I know. Who’s that? Who’s the one in the mask?"
I didn’t know what to answer, and he seemed to be looking above and beyond me. Then he remarked upon what he saw: “So strange. It must be some sort of suspension of gravity.” He seemed to be seeing some floating apparition.
He asked again who it was he saw in the mask. I had no idea who he was talking about or what I should say. Robert Bly sometimes wore masks at his readings, so I said, "That’s Robert Bly." He smiled again and chuckled slightly as though I had made a joke, and then, as if looking at someone three or four feet tall about the size of a troll standing next to me, he said, "Who are you?"
Of course, there was no answer.
With his eyes still glued on a spot next to me, he said in a voice of curiosity, "Aren’t I allowed to ask directly the one in the mask, ask the one in the mask to unmask, ask the one in the mask to be unmasked? Aren’t I allowed to ask, to ask the mask to unmask– to unmask the one in the mask?" His voice trailed off into a kind of futility. I had no idea what was happening, but in a surreal world, it all made a certain sense. He continued with his private, perhaps archetypal conversation, this time addressing the foot of the bed, as if the apparitional visitor had moved.
“Will you tell me your name? Were you at the party?”
And then, with a deep note of sadness, he said, "I wish we had had an opportunity to talk– for me to get to know you and for you to get to know me." And then, with great exasperation he demanded, "Were you at the party, yes or no?" Silence. "Will you answer, yes or no?" Another silence while he stared intently, a slight hint of dark lightning in his eyes. He demanded again, "Please answer: yes or no!" After a moment of waiting, he sighed, "You won’t answer."
There are, I’m sure, any number of interpretations to this conversation, but it seemed to me I was witness to the mind of the poet directly involved in the creative, intuitive world of symbols and metaphor. What part of his imagination or unconscious had invoked for him the masked visitor I will never know, but I believe that Tom was inquiring about a fundamental mystery and it seemed somehow entirely reasonable for him to make these inquiries.
He lay there for a moment staring at nothing. Then he turned to me with the deepest face of tenderness. “Dale, I need to ask you a favor. Will you stay with me a few weeks until I’m through this? I will be through this in a few weeks. Will you stay with me until I’m out of here?” Naturally I said that I would, though I knew I could not. Tom face brightened with gratitude.
“Thank you, Dale. I know there are other places you’d like to be. I thank you, as you know.” Then he said, “Forgive me. I have to rest now. Please forgive me, Dale, but I need to take a little rest now.”
Tom was between hospital and nursing-home for the next year, depending on his needs, until he died September 20, 1990. The diagnosis was never entirely clear, but most probably his condition was a combination of difficulties which the fall had exacerbated. Often he had the symptoms of a stroke, when his electrolytes were out of balance. During this time I visited Tom as best I could, though less frequently than I would have wished. As time stretched on it was difficult to know that I could not be with him more often. The 300 mile trip did not make visits easy and about 50% of the time he wasn’t clear or even awake when I arrived, though I tried to make visits when I’d heard he was lucid. Abigail Potvin Jensen, his secretary, and Martin, his brother, kept me informed. For a while I was even afraid (almost superstitiously) to visit, as it seemed every time I did, by the time I arrived, he had again lapsed out of clarity. Because of my difficulty in visiting him, I was glad to hear that in the later months he had decided a male nurse who looked like me was in fact me, and so he had the impression that I was helping to care for him. He would even call the nurse Dale, and the nurse played along.
Robert Edwards has suggested that Tom held unrelenting hatred for nurses and doctors. Though he distrusted doctors and did not have a good opinion of American health care, suspicious that a lot of it was “quackery,” as he described it, he generally treated medical people with respect and kindness. He would call the women nurses “Love” in the English fashion and they seemed to enjoy that greeting with the warmth in his voice. It is true that he had a dispute at one Veterans hospital, who either wanted to release him without doing some further tests, or wanted to keep him, I cannot precisely recall which. He had a number of friends contact the switchboard. When I spoke with him at the time by phone, he was amused that one friend got the message backwards and he had some delight that his son used the pay phone in the hospital itself to call the hospital. In any case, a nurse finally came to his room to request that he please ask his friends to stop calling because they were “tying up our switchboard.” The hospital decided to reverse its decision. He said that he had told one of the staff, who had remarked that everyone was angry with him, he didn’t care if the entire hospital staff disliked him. Regardless of the wisdom of his action, this incident impressed me with his ability to remain unswayed by group opinion. Still, this was one occasion. His usual behavior with hospital staff wasn’t to be a difficult patient, but in fact he was generally well liked by the hospital and nursing staff I saw. I recall his words to me long before: “I don’t try to hurt people’s feelings.”
I kept in touch with Abigail, his secretary who saw him regularly, as did his brother Martin. I came to deeply appreciate that I could rely on Abigail and Martin for knowledge of Tom’s condition, without whom I would have remained uninformed, finding that my longtime writer friends who lived in the Cities, his students from Moorhead like myself, who later claimed to have visited him regularly, were less informed of his condition than I was when I called them. I often found myself informing them of Tom’s condition and needless to say, found this situation odd. Perhaps they were fearful of the mortality of their teacher. One later wrote a poem on how often he had visited Tom. There is the construction of myth that sharpens reality, and then there are simple lies that betray it.
Abigail was faithful and diligent in representing Tom's wishes, often times taking notes on what he wanted done regarding his affairs. This loyal effort on her part was extremely valuable to him as he became more and more vulnerable to the will of individuals who preferred to overlook his desires if they conflicted with their own. She was a kind guard against the will of the world that threatened to overwhelm his own and she promoted his wishes with an uncompromising insistence that they be honored, as did Tom’s brother Martin, while some people from whom I expected solidarity became increasingly invisible and unwilling to risk conflict on Tom’s behalf, the first sign of divisions to come later. One such instance involved his papers at the University of North Dakota, where I worked, when even one of his long time students who to this day claims to have been his good friend, much to my surprise refused my request for a letter supporting Tom’s brother and executor, Martin, to preserve these papers from being removed and potentially auctioned off, which of course the University did not want to happen, though its representatives presented their own obstacles for Martin as well, primarily I believe in an effort to gain copyright ownership, which Martin and I insisted on retaining for Tom’s son as Tom had wanted. A well-known poet from the Cities, who seemed friendlier toward Tom when he lived further away in Moorhead, also refused to write a letter of support, saying that she was being considered for a major award (which she received), and was apparently afraid writing the letter would jeopardize it. Such is the courage of the great. I began to understand why Tom, who like Meridel had spent his life not compromising, characterized the Cities as Mimples and Simples. Fortunately, Martin was able to prevail.
On some absolute level I think I knew he would never recover, though I had moments when I felt he might. Even in his periods of confusion, he could be tremendously sharp and quick. He retained his humor. One time, he chuckled upon seeing me and said he was in for an oil change. Another time, when I told him a friend and I were going out to eat after my visit, he asked which restaurant and if he could go along. When I answered as vaguely as possible, hoping to divert his interest to something else, he started naming all the restaurants he knew in the Cities, a substantial list. His sense of time was often off, as it was on that visit, but when I mentioned that the American Poetry Review had finally accepted a poem of mine, knowing this would please him, he smiled and said, "It’s about time they let in a little bit of the world." It was strange– even when his mind wasn’t clear, he was still somehow very much in touch. He once told me, "I know they think the wiring has gone haywire, but they are wrong." And yet, I think he sensed pretty thoroughly his situation. In a jumbled mind, he mentioned something I couldn’t make out, then said clearly, "Someone ought to write a book about it," gesturing with his open hand to indicate the possibility. But then he let his hand drop and sighed, saying simply, "But why bother . . ." I thought that he might be expressing his discouragement with the lack of interested readers, but he also seemed at times to lose interest in the world, which wasn’t at all like him.
On one visit he seemed just like he was before the fall and I nearly felt as though we were back in the Moorhead days. He was completely lucid and back to his old self. He immediately asked me to do for him some "chores," a word he carried over from his childhood on the farm. As usual, he expressed great appreciation for these small tasks. He wanted the television turned on and adjusted– and then when nothing was worth watching– turned off again. He wanted his bed and pillows adjusted. Other small favors. Then he wanted an attendant and told me where I could find one. He said they wouldn’t want to come, but I should insist. Then he looked up at me and said, "This must be the weirdest section of your scratchpad. I’ll help you write it." I said I missed him between visits and wished I could be there more often and then I took his hand. His face became profoundly gentle and he said, "That goes for me too-- all those words..." Then he sent me to scare up a nurse. As I was departing he said I didn’t need return once I’d informed the nurse. He seemed tired. And then, with one of those smiles that projected a glowing tenderness, "I’m sorry, Dale-- this is as far as I can go. Good luck on your small journey." I knew he was referring to my immediate assigned “chore,” but I had the eerie feeling he was preparing me for the last farewell. I returned anyway with the nurse, whom he addressed her in his wonderful British way: “Hello, Love.” I was always amazed at how well Tom could put people at ease.
I came to depend on Abigail to let me know when he became more lucid so that I could try to visit him but often, by the time I arrived he would often slip again into unconsciousness. One of the last times I saw him when he seemed completely aware, we spent a beautiful late autumn afternoon together. We sat outside on a wide veranda overlooking Minneapolis in the sunny blue day, the sort of day in the Midwest we call Indian summer. I mentioned Poland turning to capitalism and Tom said, "That won’t last long.” His faith in a better world, like Meridel’s, was unyielding. But he seemed strangely disinterested, detached, far away. It was as though the world held nothing to engage him any longer. He had spent ten years dispensing his material possessions– giving things away or simply throwing them out. I felt he was now doing the same thing emotionally, not that he ceased to care for people, but he seemed to be dispensing with the world itself. His brother Martin had recently told me that Tom, in a conversation about the difficulties of the dispersal of love in the world, had replied: "Dispersal, or disposal?" Sitting with Tom, I realized just how involved with the world I actually was! Every time I thought of something to say, I realized Tom’s interest was not really there, but some place I couldn’t reach. He seemed oddly empty. I mentioned that Dan, his stepson, who was active protesting against nuclear arms, had served the officials at the Grand Forks Air Force Base an eviction notice, with one week to comply. Tom was amused, chuckled fondly, and commented, "Dan was never one to take on small projects." But nothing would really engage him. We spent most of the time sitting in silence, simply surrendered to the beauty and warmth of the day. At one point he slipped down in his wheel chair and was on the verge of sliding out. The nurse and I lifted him back into a comfortable position. He made an effort to help us but he made an expression that seemed to say he really didn’t care. Another time the alarm sounded from the intravenous machine and the nurse arrived to "strip" one of the tubes to clear it of air bubbles. He asked what she was doing and why. When she explained that an air bubble couldn’t be allowed into the body because it could be fatal, he asked, with the incredulousness of a child as if her attitude were silly, "Why don’t you let it in?" It was as though he were asking why the windows were closed on a nice day. I’m sure she thought he was not completely in his faculties, but I knew he was precisely aware of what he was saying. I thought of other times when I saw him, too weak to be out of bed, half between waking and sleep, repeating over and over again: "help me; help me; help me; help me . . ." I knew then what he meant by “help” and I understood this time also. When the afternoon began to cool the nurse came to wheel him back inside. At the door he said, "Wait.” We both asked, “What for?” He smiled and with a slight tone of ironic understatement said, "For me." His foot had slipped from the rest and was caught beneath the chair.
Some time after Tom’s death I spent a day in Moorhead again. It had been a number of years since I had last been there. I tried to look up several old friends. Since I had no luck locating anyone I passed the time roaming the city where I had spent so much time with Tom.
I thought how Tom had held us young writers together in a kind of anarchical family. It was sad to see after his death some of these old bonds unravel with finality. The members of the original group, those who had been under threat of conscription during the war, who were born out of the chaos of those times, didn't split apart so much as drift in their own directions, as would be expected, though even two decades later, we occasionally call each other. There never developed a hard animosity between anyone of that older group as there did between those who came along later. Some of those who were then draft age are still very close friends and I think an invisible solidarity probably exists between those who shared an intense social crisis of antiwar and civil rights struggles. Those who were younger, though, who had missed the intensity of the times, broke from each other as well as from the older group, as if long subdued and hidden resentments of competition surfaced. They didn't seem to realize there is no real competition except with oneself– and perhaps the masters, as McGrath had claimed. Some, to my exasperation, even went so far as slander, which didn’t stop them from expropriating portions of my writing as their own. Some of the slander even included attributing to Tom comments against me he surely did not make, a strange method for showing admiration for him. Tom’s lifelong friend, the poet Jack Beeching, when I mentioned some of this to him, commented in a letter in ‘95: “I have been racking my brains to think of anything Tom said to me ever that was negative about Dale. The only thing I can think of was when first introducing me to your work, a small pamphlet with a long poem in it [Dakota Incantations], if I remember alright, he said, Jack, what do you think of this? When I said I admired it– this was just before we met I believe, though it’s a long time ago– he said to the effect, Dale is a poet all right, but so far, all he knows he is is a poet, and he is finding difficulty wondering which way to go next (he meant in life not poetry). And we went on to talk about the difficulty of bread-and-butter for the poet, compromises that have to be made which are only apparent and should never be real, all that. Nothing else whatever. When Tom gave his friendship (as you know better than I) it was given. The kind of double talk attributed to him is far-fetched and can’t be imagined even at the end of his life when he was ill. Nothing in it. Neurotic lashing out. Don’t lose a moment of sleep over it. (Of course it’s always wounding when someone long a comrade takes this route, but it’s not uncommon– the various shake-outs in the movement from 1939 to 1956 in my mind just now because that Australian scholar is doing a definitive book on Jack Lindsay and he has been asking me to extricate for him the facts from the myths– people still telling the same neurotic lies forty years after... Become part of the fabric of their (now bourgeois) life– the way they have learned to live with themselves.”
One former student’s shift following Tom’s death illustrates Jack Beeching’s point. Apparently at last liberated from McGrath’s restricting influence, he cast those political poets with whom he willingly associated for at least a decade as “mentor/rapists” who “brainwashed” him by allowing only “universal/social” topics, but nothing personal, certainly untrue. Aside from presenting himself as curiously incapable of independent thought, I couldn’t help wondering if the collapse of the USSR didn’t contribute to his great disturbance, proof that socialism as well as McGrath had deceived him. Time to abandon ship. His accusation that he was not allowed to write about himself is a version of the supposed intrusion of political/social themes on the sacred apolitical esthetic, which, if taken to its logical extreme, approaches solipsism. In any case, any number to testimonials from other students contradict that McGrath as a teacher ever made such demands.
The enmity that developed was a disappointment because I had hoped those who had been Tom’s students would collectively continue in the spirit of the Commune, but I’ve come to conclude that solidarity is the one lesson Tom wanted to teach that isn’t really possible to transmit.
The differences between the older and younger writers were curious to me. The younger generation were angry, as we were, but they had few opportunities to socialize or politicize their anger in protest as we did, and so perhaps tended to see themselves as individual victims. At least this is a theory I’ve come to. Politics for them were less real, less urgent. They were not under threat of conscription, which we had lived with a long five years. Just as they didn't really experience the emotional cost of those cataclysmic times, they never really felt, as experience, the communal culture those politics gave rise to (which of course the media has since characterized as a freakish aberration to be disparaged for its most superficial habits).
Tom provided for many of us a sense of communal feeling by his presence, his nurturing and generosity, but when he died I was struck by how truly limited was the influence of even a great teacher. The difference between the older and younger writers wasn't a difference of Tom's message, as he saw beyond the limited consciousness of the times. It was, rather, the difference in the political realities of their experiences. Solidarity for the older group wasn't merely a political idea– it was a political and cultural necessity of the times. For us, the necessity of choosing sides in a nation in conflict was absolute and unavoidable, much more than a mere intellectual choice. It seems only political times can create the true feeling of solidarity as a kind of spiritual fusion. Such an observation is hardly surprising– there has always been poetry that looks back at history from a potential future and yet has remained oblivious to the history itself, poetry that idealizes potential but jumps past historical process necessary to achieve it. No teacher can teach experience, but only confirm and help interpret it. This principle lies behind the line in my elegy for Tom: "what freedom can be, this place must itself conceive." This principle is part of the sadness of art’s limited power and one reason history is condemned to repeat such brutal struggles, as Santayana said.
I eventually migrated to Tom’s old house, which I had painted twice both inside and out, and repaired over the years. It had been one of the primary locations on the map of my life. Tom once commented to my father, “It is Dale’s home too.” I thought how his house was open to friends and their needs. It now belonged to Moorhead State University, which had paved the backyard, and Tom’s once magnificent flower garden, into a parking lot for the Small Business Development Center, which the house had become, now painted dark blue from its previous white. For some reason I thought of the time when Tom asked a friend of mine, who had stopped by to pick me up, how he “was getting along,” gazing up from watching football on t.v., as he regularly did. My friend complained about his long and busy day, how hard he was working at his job for the State. Tom interrupted to sum up: “In other words, you’ve been a good slave.” No doubt different words were now spoken within the walls of his former home. I thought of asking if I could take a quick tour, but I couldn’t bring myself to even approach the front door, though I noticed by repair of the outside porch door remained as good as new! I thought of the years when Tom had delighted in cooking, which he was very good at. In the dining room we had spent hours discussing the corruptions of capitalism and its politics, as well as the struggles of resistance. We had spoken of daily subjects as well as poetry. We spoke of physics and people. Tom loved to talk about people who in some way had developed unique characters, even if these were slightly odd. He had once observed that a new kind of character in fiction forecast a change in society and I think he was always “on the lookout” for that potential shift. Here, around his rectangular white table with its director-style chairs, we had discussed everything during the lively times of the seventies. Many writers had also visited at one time or another. I felt an enormous irony that his house, where so many people had once gathered with their dramatic and creative energies, with Tom as their host, had become a place for the promotion of petty bourgeois financial interests. The irony seemed to epitomize a nation that had all but ignored one of its greatest poets.
I thought of Tom in the kitchen carefully cutting up the ingredients for his own invention, Dog Day Soup (Irish Gazpacho– he said fresh dill was the secret!), while speaking of subjects now alien to those rooms. I thought the residual psychic energy from the writing of parts of Letter should make the talk of financial business nearly impossible. “From here it is necessary...” I thought the walls themselves would darken and iconoclastic images of workers would appear, their fists in the air! I didn’t enter the house that had once been my home, in a different time, in another country. I took a snapshot of it and walked quickly away, thinking of an American Indian proverb: say goodbye to your dead, mount your horse, and ride like hell!
I drove around town for a while– everywhere recalling moments we’d spent together. Feeling hungry, I drove to a little town just outside of Moorhead called Dilworth where Tom and I and sometimes Tomasito often went to eat, at a place called Willy’s. I thought of one trip we made here, when Tom joked to his son, "My poems are all in the dictionary– it’s just a question of order.” The place was closed– I’d forgotten its hours. Finally, I drove to Fargo and ordered a sandwich. I kept thinking of Tom’s comment: "I can’t imagine the world without me." And yet, here I was, in "the old stomping ground," without Tom to talk to. I felt like a true “old timer,” as he had come to call me. His absence was an immensity, an emptiness as great as the great prairie sky, beneath which the town seemed suddenly much smaller. The world indeed continued and those days of a decade ago might just as well be a century gone. The country seemed “too stupefied,” as Tom might say, to know what would keep it alive and awake, and I had yet to realize how much tragedy would be required to stir its sleep! Not just Moorhead, but the nation, seemed less interesting without Tom. The times had shifted from the radicalism of the war-protesters to the conservatism of the yuppies, whom Tom had labeled “Yuckies” for “Young Upwardly Mobile Cocksuckers.” My own generation increasingly seemed an abysmal failure, passing on to its own children a country and world that threatened economic collapse and even human existence. The poets who had once helped lead it had grown conveniently silent, except when an actual war broke out, when anthologies suddenly popped up like spring flowers which nonetheless failed to include the few poets whose work had remained politically committed but could no longer find publication, the true political poets! Tom had been right about the “terrible spiritual smell” he had sniffed rising out of the “temporary ‘war politics’” of the sixties and early seventies. We had entered a kind of somnambulant limbo.
I could hear Tom’s voice warning the young: "The system is putting you to sleep. It doesn’t want you awake. It wants you to work-- and that’s a different thing." Perhaps more energetic and caring times were on the way. At the very least, we could rely on the contradictions of capitalism to create a critical crisis. But at the moment, on this day, in August of 1992, nearly two years after his death, Moorhead seemed just a small rural town, provincial in the middle of the prairie in a nation without a sense of where we had been, or where we were going, or what we needed– in other words, lost. Perhaps that is the way of historical process. Still, for a while, Moorhead had been a different city, a place that had a voice that went beyond its moment, calling across all time of human struggle toward a future whose day would be free from oppression and alienation. Thomas McGrath had made the place seem like the center of the human struggle and his words allowed us to look beyond the horizons to a world that was possible. The emptiness I felt at his absence is still with me, years later as I finish this memoir, but I also know his words are still with us all: "Come: We’ll walk up out of the night together. “ Something told me it would be a long journey and we would need every word he gave us... and every word we could give ourselves.
Copyright 2017 by Dale Jacobson
(Excerpt of a letter to Dale Jacobson from McGrath, March 7, 1988):
The tendency is, so many people now, writing about my work, whenever they do (which is not very often), is to try to dehydrate me or emasculate the poems or transform me into a liberal or some kind of mad anarchist who can be dismissed as simply a maverick and let it go at that. That's the thing I dislike most. I wish that you had had an essay in either that, either in the TriQuarterly, or in the Poetry East, a copy of which I'm sending you separately from this. Again, you'll find things that'll make you gnash your teeth. I've tried to get your work republished in a number of places, including the TriQuarterly and I told people at Poetry East about it and so on and Fred Stern, as well. But, I don't know. They're all whoring after big names and I wasn't able to prevail. I wish I could have, because what you've written on the work is far and away the most understanding and most penetrating of anything that's been written, especially on the long poem and about the poems generally. So, I truly thank you for that, as I have more than once, and, while I can't wish on you anything more difficult than continuing with this, I would certainly like to see it, if you decide as you write, that you might want to write on the poem more, because I think, as you say, what perspective is taken of them is hindered by caution. And, so on. I don't like the pose of tough masculinity, to quote E.P., either. And so on and so on. There are an awful lot of things I don't. What really struck me about your essay and whatever you've written about the work is that you see it in a dialectical way, more than anybody that I've read, and that is what has interested me most and that's why I think you're the best critic that I've got. [...] I'm sure you do wonderful reviews of anything you look at. But, don't waste your time, you know? Do whatever you can, but save your time for your own poetry. That's the main thing. All right, Compañero. Take care of yourself, and I'll try to take care of myself for a while longer anyway. So long, Tom
Letter from Tom:
March 15, 1989
Thank you so very much for your writing in the Centennial issue of NDQ. You’ve always seemed to me to know more about my work than anybody else, and in some ways, maybe more than I do. I’m very grateful to you; I only wish they had taken a bunch of your poems for the magazine.1 You have every reason to be there.
That’s about all I can do for now. I hope to see you sometime maybe. You can always call me collect if you want to.
Thank you and so long.
1. North Dakota Quarterly, The Centennial Issue, Fall 1988. Jay Meek (poetry editor); Robert Lewis (editor).
(Note: North Dakota Quarterly, thanks to Robert Lewis, has consistently published my critical work on Thomas McGrath, for which I am grateful. The essay Tom refers to is "The Mythical Element in Letter to an Imaginary Friend," in North Dakota Quarterly, fall, 1982.)
Dale Jacobson’s writings on the work of Thomas McGrath:
“The Viet Nam War Days: Tom as Teacher and Activist.” In Thomas McGrath, Start the Poetry Now. Pamela Sund, ed. Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée. 2011. 75-85.
“Thomas McGrath: Invoking the Communal Ego.” In Thomas McGrath, Start the Poetry Now. Pamela Sund, ed. Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée. 2011. 199-228. (Parts of this essay involve some detailed discussion of the ego as perceived by Freud, Jung, and Marcuse. The essay unavoidably utilizes various terminologies of these authors (which seem to have vexed one reviewer), but the overarching argument should be clear enough: class interferes with the full and positive development of the ego, which only a classless society would allow. Consequently, class also has implications for our poetry.)
“Addendum: Incident at Onamia.” In Thomas McGrath, Start the Poetry Now. Pamela Sund, ed. Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée. 2011. 275-287.
“Thomas McGrath: ‘It is the poem that provides the proper charm’.” North Dakota Quarterly. Fall 1988. Vol. 56 (4). 123-129.
“Thomas McGrath, The Gates of Ivory, the Gates of Horn.” North Dakota Quarterly. Fall 1988. Vol. 56 (4). 340-344.
“Circling Back to Ourselves” (Afterword). Letter to an Imaginary Friend, by Thomas McGrath. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 1997.
“On Thomas McGrath’s Death Song,” North Dakota Quarterly. Summer 1992. Vol. 6 (3). 80-85.
“Introduction,” Death Song, by Thomas McGrath. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 1991.
“The Journey to Celebration in McGrath’s Poetry.” American Poetry Review. May/June. Vol. 18 (3). 1989. 27-30. Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Yearbook 1989. 181-183.
Review of Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts III and IV. North Dakota Quarterly. Winter 1987. Vol. 55 (1). 268-271.
“The Mythical Element in Letter to an Imaginary Friend.” North Dakota Quarterly. Fall 1982. Vol. 50 (4). 71-82. (Note: This is the essay that McGrath hoped to have republished in Poetry East in The Poetry of Thomas McGrath or in The Revolutionary Poet in the United States, edited by Frederick Stern. See his letter above.)
life-altering-friendship--review of my memoir by Joseph Hutchinson
On Dale Jacobson’s critical work of McGrath:
E.P. Thompson, “Homage to Thomas McGrath,” in TriQuarertly 70, Fall 1987, page 157, footnote 65.
"The most helpful guides as yet known to me are Dale Jacobson, review of Letter, Parts Three and Four, and Joseph Butwin, “The Last Laugh: Thomas McGrath’s Comedy,” both in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Winter, 1987)."
Sam Hamill (McGrath’s publisher):
"Mr. Jacobson is unquestionably among the three or four most outstanding scholars of McGrath’s work in the world."
(Comment on Sam Hamill's claim of editing Letter to an Imaginary Friend: Sam Hamill has claimed credit for editing Letter, which leads me to one clarification. As he himself acknowledged in his preface to Letter to an Imaginary Friend, I did the primary editing and scholarship for the 1997 Copper Canyon edition, the most challenging portions being Parts I and II, which contained numerous errors in previous versions. I devoted significant time and research to this task. I am unaware that Sam contributed to any editorial work on Letter, which I should have known as all editing questions were supposed to pass through me. Nor does he make any claim to actual editing in his own preface to the poem. My work was entirely free of payment, motivated purely as an act of love for the poem. I thank him for acknowledging my work on McGrath in the preface to the poem. In fact, aside from McGrath himself, he has been virtually alone in recognizing my critical work on McGrath, at one point writing to say: "For the record, you have gone to school on McGrath like no one else.")
This is the poem that the North Dakota Quarterly poetry editor, Heidi Czerwiec, refused to publish in the issue devoted to Tom McGrath, who certainly would have strenuously objected to its exclusion. After 34 plus years teaching at UND, I would have expected a little more consideration, but this is how our state culture is controlled by academics. I did read the poem at the event celebrating this publication for McGrath in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I maintain it would have been a perfectly appropriate poem relevant to North Dakota for an issue intent on honoring the life and work of McGrath. Instead, I publish it here as a kind of outlaw poem, a notion that Tom would laud.
It swirled up from nothing, this convocation
of dust roaming across black dirt, this
revolving door churning up the centuries.
Perhaps an unholy ghost to terrify a priest,
a ranging thirst escaped from nightmare,
it walked through fences as if looking for
a place to rest in the corner of a broken-down barn–
or maybe a long-forgotten Indian camp.
Because it was so poor, so hollow, I imagined
everything it wasn’t: a portal to a better history–
if need could stir an answer, if want
could make lush fields appear in another season
where land is unowned...
open as sky...
and walking and breathing is free...
You’d think a person could speak,
and someone perhaps hear:
“Let’s go there, that vista, a horizon
not made of hunger, with no gods
named war or ruin.”
Someone might say:
“We will bury the rusted carbine near
the sun-and-rain-washed white pine post.”
You’d think we might say: “There is more
than clocks reloading their cartridges,
or dust talking to dust in a cycle
of endless argument and windy friction,
more than this tower of static passing through
like rage unwinding impotence, this
coherence of emptiness debating itself,
this wandering ghost of the weather...
ONE LAST COMMENT ON THE POET THOMAS McGRATH:
Words were always energy for Tom, flames cast against the darkness, campfires on the hillsides, stars in the night, communal.