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T h o m a s M c G r a t h , T . S . E l i o t , a n d t h e C o m m i s s a r s o f C u l t u r e Ia n P e d d i e Thomas McGrath is one of the best American poets extant, but he is of the wrong political and esthetic camp, and therefore consistently neglected by our liter­ ary power brokers. —Review of The Movie at the End of the World My father took me as far as he could that summer ... But mostly Cal, one of the bundle teamsters, My sun-blackened Virgil of the spitting circle, Led me from depth to depth. Toward the light ... He read The Industrial Worker ... The last of the real Wobs ... —Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend Long after it became fashionable to speak, as Irving Howe once did, of left-wing writers “yielding to a total ideology and an authoritarian party machine,” the sense that left-wing poets have a limited subject range often hindered by recourse to proselytizing has yet to be completely exor­ cised (16). Howe would no doubt have enjoyed E. P. Thompson’s phrase the “commissars of culture,” a description the English historian applied to those on the left who sought for their publications some of the worst kinds of formulaic literature (119). But we need not limit Thompson’s characterization simply to those on the left, for during much of the time Thomas McGrath was active (1940 to the late 1980s), his poetry was subject to another set of criteria as exacting as that demanded by pow­ erful left-wing voices such as V. J. Jerome, Samuel Sillen, and Howard Fast. If we can speak with sincerity of the commissars of culture on the left, then the same criteria must also be applied to the right. For just as the left demanded of McGrath a tactical, revolutionary poetry, one that answered immediate concerns and goals, so the right had its own agenda as well as its own idea of what a poem should look like. W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L i t e r a t u r e 40.4 ( W i n t e r 2006): 423- 48. 4 2 4 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e W in t e r 2 0 0 6 Neither side was shy of issuing directives and edicts that illuminated cherished political agendas. Whether it was Mike Gold’s apocalyptic call for proletarian creativity, the tenets of which “must be the revolution­ ary method” (70), or Allen Tate’s declaration in Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936) that a “political poetry” or a “poetical politics” was tantamount to “the heresy of spiritual cannibalism” (x), the ideals that lay behind these declarations are only as important as the tensions Victor Amautoff. DOWN WITH FINK HALLS. 1934. Woodcut. 10" x 8". Courtesy of the estate of Victor Amautoff. Ia n P e d d ie 4 2 5 they produced. Negotiating these two extremes required something of a balancing act if only because the difficulty of writing left-wing'inspired modernist poetry is exacerbated by critical resolutions that have tended to keep the two apart. For McGrath, these distinctions were never fixed guidelines. It might be supposed that as a convinced left-winger he would have nothing to do with aesthetic theories peddled by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or, later still, the New Critics. In fact, as we shall see, he was not only alert to such ideas but at times positively sympathetic to them. McGrath was quite prepared to employ lines redolent of “The Waste Land” and “Prufrock” because he felt that the experience of desolation Eliot captured was, ironically given Eliot’s politics, an accurate synopsis of life as the working class knew it. The analogy this invites, that the methods and aesthetics of poetry’s “ruling class” might be employed to illustrate questions of class...


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