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Doren Robbins, poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

               Andrea Hollander Budy
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature


poet, mixed-media artist,
and educator
“The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

                    Andrea Hollander Budy
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature


Doren Robbins poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
"The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love. Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense. Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it. His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

Andrea Hollander,

from the Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature

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Two Essays, first on Charles Bukowski followed by Thomas McGrath

Drinking Wine In The Slaughterhouse With Septuagenarian Stew, on Charles Bukowski

The essay appeared Onthebus (1992)

        Critical designation of status among top-tiered poets operates from the principle of stratification implemented by one, maybe two-three academic poetry critics that review books in major periodicals and newspapers. Usually, after such notices awards follow and, finally, a celebratory essay or study that establishes the poet. Due to this stratification of establishment entitlement and stature, a sizeable number of poets deserving endowed publishers and critical reception therefore remain overlooked. Certain remarkably disgusted, humane, articulate, protesting voices containing original material remain outside the limited sensibilities of nearly all academic critics as well as the curriculum of the majority of English and Creative Writing Departments, which for the most part make up the Moral Majority of Literature. Charles Bukowski is foremost among these important outsiders and I’m sure Bukowski, one of our few anti-bourgeois poets, would be ashamed if he wasn’t. Moreover, because of his temperamentally inherent mockery and disdain of what stands at the top (most of the middle and the bottom) of the hierarchy of society and poetry, this is the only way it could turn out. Bukowski figures low in the stratum of official individual reputation and he is not associated with any of the contemporary literary movements or “poetry schools,” though Ann Charters tried to represent him in her Beat literature anthology with a pathetically unrepresentative piece of prose. It could easily be argued that Bukowski’s underground popularity is such that his inclusion was a guarantee of greater sales for Viking-Penguin and everyone else involved. With the exception of “crucifix in a deathhand,” Paul Hoover’s selection for his anthology, Postmodern American Poetry, is not characteristic of Bukowski’s gritty talent. To Hoover’s credit, Bukowski is appropriately well placed in chronological good company with Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, etc. in his generally comprehensive anthology (56-61).  In the hierarchy of dominant poetry factions, Bukowski is neither Confessional, Deep Image, Objectivist, Surrealist, Black Mountain, New York School, nor Beat; his work contains elements of the above but he’s not easily slotted. It’s not solely the slack poems about drunken-ness, womanizing, and the race-track that are turn-offs to the academics (and other readers), what alienates Bukowski from the more established literary institutions is the very same annoyance inspired by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, and Allen Ginsberg or for that matter Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas McGrath, and Kenneth Patchen: an uninhibited, insouciant, even contemptible sense of passionate critique of destructive social institutions is evoked by each of these writers. Though, with the exception of the dynamically indigestible Artaud, book sales for Celine, Miller, Ginsberg, and Bukowski allowed them to live off their writings, thereby conferring market status and the much desired rarely accomplished self-sustainability. However, given the choice, though Miller apparently craved the Nobel Prize and Celine who believed he invented the modern style of narrative—the genteel idea of being canonized would be incomprehensible to them. Paradoxically, what is indestructibly iconoclastic in literary tradition is implicit in their work, they exist with eminence whether they are formally integrated or not.  It is not the overall disconsolation universally experienced within the human condition, but the direct opposition to a failed system that marks them.
        From Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame to Septuagenarian Stew, Bukowski made an art out of the forthrightness, and often the lyrical skill, we associate with Catullus, Whitman, Artaud and Li Po, while at the same time disparately evoking what Erich Auerbach meant in describing Villon’s art as “The utmost perfection of a creatural realism which remains completely within the sensory and, for all its radicalism of emotion and expression, shows no trace of an intellectually categorizing power, shows indeed no will whatever to make the world any different from what it is” (226). Though he calmed down with age, fame, and domestic stability, through his “war all the time” sensibility, Bukowski expressed an unswerving steadfastness to the details of life from one of the last floors of the urban Hades. In United States poetry, almost single-handedly he was the representative voice of those whom the Egyptian writer Albert Cossery once referred to as “The Men God Forgot.”
        With the exception of Villon’s life of severe poverty, and Artaud’s and  Celine’s due to madness, Miller, Ginsberg, and Bukowski seemed to have lived full lives while existing marginally or impoverished in the first part of their writers’ existence. There is in each writer a kind of reckless liberty, even the liberty to be estranged and unable to work or last long at any job that would make them part of the lie of the establishment. In the case of Artaud and Bukowski the estrangement manifested through excess of drugs or alcohol at times was pathologically self-destructive, and we are struck by a feeling for a part of the human condition that Baudelaire characterized in his statement, “Any form of existence, so long as it is out of the world” (57). The one significant difference in the quality of life since Baudelaire urgently proclaimed his desire to exit or at least remain exempt from social normalcy is that the processes of ecological catastrophe, working-class exploitation and disenfranchisement, general educational and cultural decay have accelerated, and the social “advances” of civilization have not kept pace for the vast majority of people. Whether the subject is personal poverty, workers’ alienation, prostitution, sexual liberty, the individual’s personal spiritual quest, or attacking the violent hypocrisy of State and Religious power—Celine, Miller, Ginsberg, and Bukowski have given a voice to these and other subjects related to  contemporary human struggle in a time of aggressive tragedy experienced by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
        And the affect on the writing itself, the voice of the style developed from his particular sensibility? In the phrasing and diction of American English unhampered by meters and rhyme, Bukowski’s lyric manner follows through the free verse styles realized by Pound, Williams and Sandburg. His contempt for genteel language is organic to his disposition. He didn’t work in the long poem, but in lyric stature he kept pace or extended the pace from Pound-Williams-Sandburg to the Patchen-Rexroth-O’Hara-Ginsberg traditions in Late Modernist American Poetry prevalent in the late fifties and early sixties up to his own death in 1994. Although he does not exhibit the sophisticated political awareness of Rexroth or Ginsberg, his poetry like Rexroth’s and O’Hara’s is not rhetorically elevated or suffused with Ginsberg’s sometimes hyperbolic surreal Bop imagery. Bukowski manages his own direct style with rancor, humor, self-deprecation and pathos, often he is elegiac; he maintains the persona of an outsider associated with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground narrator, or Henry Miller’s works focused on living in the poor parts of Paris or New York in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.  His use of imagism is not that of an impressionism that necessarily resonates with precious or precise evocations related to nature, emotion or myth as we understand them in earlier shorter poems and prose poems by Williams, H.D., Pound or in the later generation of the heightened “Deep” Imagism in the works of Robert Bly and James Wright. There is a clearly de-idealized “nature” in Bukowski’s imagism of concrete details, the emotion presents itself directly as, for example, in his poem from Septuagenarian Stew “the girls and the birds,” a portrait of whores in a poor man’s room:
                the girls were young
                and worked the
                but often they couldn’t
                score, they
                ended up
                in my hotel
                3 or 4 of
                sucking on the
                hair in face,
                runs in
                cursing, telling

                those were

                but really
                they reminded me
                of long
                when I was a
                watching my grand-
                canaries make
                into their
                and into their
                and the
                canaries were
                but never sang. (70-71)

        Bukowski’s style attracts or threatens. Through the juxtaposed activities of his grandmother’s canaries de-natured in cages, the closing stanza “drops” an image of the mess the whores unwittingly, or uncontrollably, made of their lives. The sexual, unattainable, down and out, and ultimately undesirable prostitutes signify an unromantic two-way failure in the human condition. Particularly now, when the fetishization of sex floods the magazine racks and the Internet with little more than sex manual, voyeuristic, or sexual curiosity value for the young, the horny or inexperienced, the suggestion of human unfulfillment in a supposed tantalizing sexual object, echoed in the unsinging canary chatter and the self-sullying of the imprisoned canaries’ cage, brings a much needed realism into the fantasized equations of fulfilled desire.  Unless you’ve been there, you don’t think about where a prostitute actually lives or what she does in her down time. The canaries like the street walkers “never sang,” but the poem does.  The poem, as we sometimes are inspired to say for particular modes of gutsy expression, tells it like it is.
        The fact that there is a malodorous glut of common language idiomatic free verse dominating U.S. poetry should not take away the relevance of poems containing original subject matter and, at least for this reader, a sense of urgency, either intimately autobiographical or political. Bukowski’s language and the reality it conveys are an internationally recognizable language and reality of most of the urban world. Moreover, it is not so much a defense against or a disavowal of the prevailing value systems, but a raw display of what it’s like to be a conscious outsider within a society that fails with virtually unrelieved aggression those who are neither rich nor offer many services to the rich.  Before Bukowski became secure through his writings, his first ten or so books continuously portray a world of unemployed people, people walking off the job, or people working low-end jobs, the ones who come home ready to drink—first thing—because if enduring the job all day hasn’t made them mean or dispirited it has definitely made them thirsty for something else and somewhere else. In the earlier books, the speaker and most of the characters are unmarried but it is not the singles world of hip clubs or lively bars or even jazz or rhythm and blues clubs of the “White Negro” subculture.  It is mostly the nightlife (and daylife) of cheap neighborhood bars, dogfights, boxing matches, streetwalkers, one-night stands, week-to-week affairs, or the man alone in his one-room apartment.  Aside from Miller, the representation and vitally expressed realism of an artist as a central character living such a life in our culture is close to zero. Other than occasional documentaries, aspects of the down and out or working-class life, not to mention one wherein an artist other than a future rock star is a central character, are generally unexposed in television programming and rarely presented in the movies. It is gritty, often it is undesirable, and Bukowski’s ongoing portrait-poems of struggling composers, painters, and writers such as Borodin, Van Gogh or Vallejo to name a few, point to the not so unusual parallel of identification he clearly makes about an outsider tradition of artists unconnected to academic institutions or wealth.
        In the land of the Frontal Lobotomy of the Archetypes, the Amnesia of Vitality, Imperial Self-Satisfaction and the General Anesthetic in regards to exploring and artistically giving a voice to working-class poets,’ workers’ and unemployed peoples’ lives and imaginations, Donald Hall in what was for him an infrequent but typically resentful, academic, hothead statement, condescendingly referred to Bukowki’s poetry in the context of a “bogus proletarianism” (91).  This comment came near the end of an article attempting to celebrate invective in Thomas McGrath’s remarkable long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, about which Hall squeezed out a couple of pebbled nuggets of begrudging affirmation. Along the way, Hall puts down Kenneth Patchen for his “bogus populism,” but Patchen’s few strong poems (e.g. “The Orange Bears,” “The Fox,” “The Slums”) for anyone who takes the time to read them, and his innovative poetic-narrative hybrid work, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, convey the work of an authentic prophetic poetic and satiric voice of opposition to a sadomasochistic establishment of artificial values.  Hall’s offended remarks evoke the McTaste of a genteel mind perilously at home in the world of academic prestige.  In spite of the fact that Hall is way out of the refuge of his elite territory, the truth is Bukowski couldn’t care less about the proletariat, not to mention the middle-class or the aristocracy. Bukowski’s authentic connection to the hardships and general experience of working and unemployed people presents itself, either incidentally or with personal vehemence, throughout his poetry. As gripping or egoistic as his work can be it is not only about his personal struggle, as indicated by “the girls and the birds” or such poems as “drive through hell,” and “hard times,” from You Get So Alone (122, 164) or his humble ode to the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo from his book What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (“Vallejo” 98). The art of invective or political rage found in the poetry of Thomas McGrath shouldn’t be sought after in Bukowski in the first place. Hall’s comment is not a cheap shot but a dumb posture.  What Bukowski accomplishes in his best poems is a way of telling about his own or others’ sense of personal terror, remorse, loneliness, desire, elegiaclly commemorative and absurd acceptance in the attempt to endure what is nightmarish and out of control. This is done in a language that is often passionate and clear.  Bukowski is convincing when he tightly controls his anecdotal-lyrical form: bitterly comical, even endearingly so, the older poem “fuzz” from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame is a solid example of the way he formally manages what he emotionally reveals:

                3 small boys run toward me
                blowing whistles
                and they scream
                you’re under arrest!
                you’re drunk!
                and they begin
                hitting me on the legs with
                their toy clubs.
                one even has a
                badge. another has
                handcuffs but my hands are high in the

                when I go into the liquor store
                they whirl around outside
                like bees
                shut out from their nest.
                I buy a fifth of cheap
                candy bars. (55)

There’s an encrypted echo of George Orwell’s character Winston Smith’s ordeal with the children who are training to be Hitler Youth-like “Spies,” telling Smith to raise his hands, that he’s a “Thought-Criminal,” and a “traitor.” But the scene in 1984 is sinister, there is no redeemable link past the behavior of such children that can actually have you arrested and ultimately “vaporized” (22-24).  In the  Bukowski poem the speaker is the victim of children playfully acting out the pathetic powers they lack as means to control events in their world; and the way he has inter-spliced the image of the little boys whirling around with splendid but ambiguous and chaotic energy “like bees/ shut out from their nest” (15-16) should not be overlooked. The image conveys how these children too are enacting as best they can their invented roles as a kind of posse, in order to deal with the possibly threatening reminder of a drunken father, step-father, uncle, or mother’s boyfriend. To the poet’s credit, the man, sensing the innocent but helpless bravado of the boys, commiserates with a nurturing, kindly assurance.
        Bukowski’s language is clear and non-figurative.  Like William Carlos Williams (in his narrative lyrics) he sees and experiences the world as it is and he is adamant about writing in American speech.  It is an anti-prosody that confirms Montaign’s dictum: “The speech I love is simple natural speech, the same on paper as on a man’s lips” (79). There are times when the mental contexts of the poems are framed in a drunken or hung-over condition. And what of that? If they are good poems like similar ones written by such Classic Chinese poets as Li Po, Mei Yao Ch’en, or Su Tung Po, who cares? He certainly doesn’t suffer from the guilty sentimentality and bathos of a reformed drinker like Richard Hugo.  Furthermore, “The Man Insane Enough to Live With Beasts” is a Holistic saint when you consider the New York Review of Books runs advertisements promoting nuclear power along-side the generally absurd, canon-making, book-promoting reviews and articles most American poets pant to be the subject of or favorably mentioned within. Bukowski isn’t part of that clan. It’s not even possible.  Far into Septuagenarian Stew he honors the author “insane enough” to have written Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan, two twentieth century classics that certainly had a strong influence on him. We sense the effect and the isolate affection through the speaker’s perceptions celebrating the enigmatically skilled doctor within the portrait:


                the photo of Celine looks at
                he needs a shave.
                looks like a pervert in the
                the eyes see through walls,
                walls of humanity.

                the photo of Celine is good
                to look at when
                things go very wrong

                I look at him tonight:

                see his bones

                the doctor from
                Hades.  (243)

        Hades is a dual reality in Bukowski’s world. Celine is the doctor from Hades, the mythological hell which is this world and the underworld, because transformative knowledge about the inherent facts of personal experience are revealed as a result of having the guts to completely descend into exhaustive emotion. It is also the world of Jung’s wounded healer that comes to heal, and it is the healing, imaginative literature, of raw painful truths represented in Celine’s books that inspire the man admiring his “company.”  The disease diagnosed as needing such treatment? From later works and those published after his death, a lifetime variety of sufferings and alienations related to the physical abuse of himself and his mother by his father appear to be at the basis. His struggle with alcoholism, possibly even the skin disease, acne vulgaris, could be related to the traumatic effects of these beatings; and what other day-to-day treatment by such a father figured into the loathsome stress of his “home life” as a child? Yet Bukowski was not as far gone as Artaud—brushing, slipping, crucially and excessively along that edge—Bukowski’s emotional daring and original anecdotal-lyric poems have been antidotal to the vast majority of books of poetry published by the major publishers, the conservative university publishers, or the independent (nonetheless mainstream market-oriented) small presses. There is a need and there is a dynamics for a personal poetry that embodies the daily existence of the historical period. Some experienced readers alienated from the Empire-internalizing sensibility of the mainstream and the sucking-and-biting mentality of pop-culture find their way to Bukowski’s work, as they do to the historical and linguistically more challenging poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s and Thomas McGrath’s best writing. Maybe the new radical poets aren’t there to be published. Or we are offered with critical seriousness the syntactical stutterings and willful or spurious incoherence of the Language Poets as examples of essential poetry in a Post-Modern age. What a disgusting reality. Maybe the exclusion of voices for the vast audience of semi-to-fully-educated people who have no voice in the crucial decisions of policies that make the world increasingly, violently dangerous, and the younger generation lacking worthy employment opportunities or affordable college education have been so marginalized—they lost interest. If they did then there is a conspiracy theory that is not one. But there has never been a time when the powers that be were interested in representing the parts of the news William Carlos Williams elegiacally referred to when he wrote that “men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” Power is policy. Poets that matter are anything but agreeable to this or any other manner of consent to unaccountable political or academic authority.
        When Bukowski’s poetry doesn’t work it has a running at the mouth quality that includes a barely comical lame macho inflatedness, undisguised obsession with fame, an odd one-upmanship with other writers, excessive idealization of the raunchy, passé battle-of-the-sexes sexism, and a disappointing diction that generally rises no higher than formulaic Hollywood Movie-Think and the Tele-speak of weekly TV programs—and these factors blur the moments in his work when the speaker attains an original poignancy.  In a conscientious and fearlessly edited edition of his collected poems, 300-350 pages, these works would be excised and possibly forgotten as predominating eccentricities.  At worst these poems are harmless malfunctions in a larger and stronger body of work that readers should be willing to wade through, though sometimes the wading is strenuous beyond tolerance. In a condensed edition it would be clear just how many of Bukowski’s poems are capable of unpretentiously relating insight with unglamorous epiphanies about the involuntary effects of difficult, unavoidable circumstances that happen in life; some celebrating the experience with humility. Humility that enhances literary style is rare; few writers contain the talent. To survive without adding to the horror is sometimes the best we can do; it is at least an effort that makes sense as a starting point. There is courage, discipline, and cunning in the effort. Finally, what remains after a poet’s survival, which is not an inconsequential matter in our culture—is the art. In the art of Bukowski the most central theme, both comically and tragically, is simply the passion to exist, to take it as it comes, recount what it was all about, and, paradoxically, recount the butchery done to that passion, and the butchery endured, by humans.

Works Cited
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of reality in Western
                Literature. New York: Princeton UP,  1953.
Baudelaire, Charles. Twenty Prose Poems. Trans. Michael
Hamburger. New York: Jonathon Cape,  1974.
Bukowski, Charles. what matters most is how well you walk through
                the  fire. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press,  1999.
---. You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense. 1991.
---. Septuagenarian Stew,  1990.
---. Burning In Water Drowning In Flame,  1975.
Montaigne, Michel. Essays. New York: Penguin, 1979.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic,  1977.
Patchen, Kenneth. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 
The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin
                Books, 1992.
Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: Norton,

Reflections on Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part One

Appeared in pemmican.com

My maternal grandfather's brother Benjamin and his wife Yetta, both of them life-long communists, had a radical affect on me as a young poet developing an understanding of class consciousness and justice as it relates to labor. Although they could be slightly blind in the either-or conflict of Stalinist Communism versus Capitalist Democracy, they engendered a solid distrust of the capitalist system of labor, which they could document by their own human struggles as a presser and a seamstress. To make it as far outside of the system as they could, they ended up as small chicken ranchers in Petaluma, California where they eked out a way to live on their own for over thirty years. I had been reading Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Patchen, and Federico Garcia Lorca, but I feel that I first came into contact with political poetry in the basement of the small house where they retired to in Petaluma. I had been staying with my great aunt and uncle while attending classes at College of Marin when––in the middle of a series of questions about what I was going to with my life––I declared awkwardly but emphatically that I had been writing poetry for three years and I intended on becoming a poet. I don't think they cared what I turned out to be as long as I had class consciousness, which I sensed for the two of them was primary to any notion of being mentally sound, that is, if ethics was a component. "Oh-h-h, so, you want to be a poet? So, come, come," she said, and my uncle and I followed her down the back porch to the daylight basement room where they kept the overflow from their library. She picked through Mike Gold and some Howard Fast, and shuffled around a few selected Daily Worker folders then came out with two worn paperbacks: a chapbook of poems by Langston Hughes and a translation of Pablo Neruda's Let the Railsplitter Awake. "Old lady from a village outside of Kiev I don't even remember the name of, you forgot one." I turned to face my uncle who was holding up a copy of New and Selected Poems by Thomas McGrath. When we were back upstairs Yetta said, "Go ahead, read, read, and if you smoke don't open the window, go outside, it stinks, it stinks, your smoking." And I went off into the room I stayed in for several weeks before I found a rundown cottage to rent near the college.

     Because of the historical and emotional immediacy, out of those three volumes McGrath's had the strongest effect on me. Poems like "Nightmare," "Many in the Darkness," "The Dialectics of Love," "A Warrant for Pablo Neruda," "The Trouble with the Times," "Return to Marsh Street," "A Coal Fire in Winter," and others combined a metaphorical Wallace Stevens and Dylan Thomas-like elaboration of language with a narrative flow that contained the material of insight usual lyric poetry suppressed.

     A few years later I read Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend Part I. My focus here on the first of the four books is neither a negative criticism of the following three parts nor of his shorter lyric poems. There are books that come to you during excruciating and memorable periods of self-discovery. For me, several of those experiences included Whitman's poetry and prose, Dickinson's poetry and letters, Sesuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Freud's The Pleasure Principle, Rexroth's poetry and essays, Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, The Double, and Notes from the Underground, Gogol's Dead Souls, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Traven's The Death Ship, Lawrence's Women in Love and Sons and Lovers, Cendrars' Prose of the Trans Siberian, Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, Buber's translations of The Tales of the Hasidim, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Miller's two Tropic books, John Lame Deer's Seeker of Visions, Black Elk's autobiography, and Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Part One was such a book for me. It had a liberating effect on my writing and my understanding of ways to write poetry, and it helped me toward a deeper understanding of experience.

     Deriving in part from Whitman's collage technique in his long poem Song of Myself, McGrath's narrative sense of immediacy with historic events coupled with the struggle for self-knowledge diverges from Whitman's mystically Democratic personal and collective representation. No comparison of the two poets is intended. Song of Myself is a lasting work of American and world literature, and so is Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Generally speaking, neither are Whitman and McGrath politically or philosophically opposed to each other, but the problems of working-class exploitation and alienation not to mention the problems of imperialism and empire were not solved by the system Whitman partially placed his hopes in. Living in a time when the Democratically-utopian ideas of Jefferson, Owen, Kropotkin, and Marx were fresh and prevalent among the working people exposed to them, there is reason to accept Whitman's hope––though the decimation of the Native American tribes, the entrenched anti-abolitionist mentality, and Western expansion threw into question any notion of a progressive sense of hope in a system driven by landed wealth and developing markets. McGrath's sensibility is a political as well as a cultural expansion distinct in style and temperament from Whitman's sensibility. Concurrent with the revolution of Modernism, Cubism, and Simultanism that took place in the arts during the early part of the twentieth century was the organization of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies, IWW, or Wobs), the most radical working-class organization to emerge in the U.S. The IWW believed in a union of all the workers of the world within a system that erased exploitation, which they attempted to achieve-militantly when necessary. William D. Haywood, America's legendary revolutionist, was the chairman of the first conference of the IWW. "Fellow workers," he said, "the aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution without regard to capitalist masters" (Adamic p.157).

     When McGrath was a boy working on his father's farm he met Cal whom, judging by the decency of his character as portrayed in part one of Letter—it was crucial though incidental that he was a member of the IWW.  McGrath was watched-over by Cal as older men or other pre-adult males will recognize a boy with care as though by a rare, but customary, masculine code. It is a code of personality-emulation stressing ethical views. In the world of working-class Humanist consciousness these views, guided by an extreme emphasis on egalitarianism, involve everything from loyal treatment of self-sacrificing family members to an understanding of demanding labor, consideration toward women, tolerance to children and elders; cautious goodwill to strangers; direct regard to what is serious and what is comic, and why. These are the down-to-earth and robust men, any child is lucky to encounter their teaching. Inherent in such an encounter is a strong component for the origins of the confidence to create personal skill, as well as to individually integrate and continue the same custom of an initiatory practice to serve others. What is learned goes beyond immediate knowledge, extending communal intimacy through the course of time. Also, within the context of knowledge it defines itself through the act of transmission as a possession that is inherently a gift:

My father took me as far as he could go that summer,
Those midnights, mostly, back from his long haul.
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
I was too young to enter.
He must have been thirty. As thin as a post,
As tough as Whang-leather, with a brick-topped mulish face,
A quiet talker. He read The Industrial Worker,
Though I didn't know what the paper was at the time.
The last of the real Wobs--that, too, I didn't know,
Played harmonica; sat after supper
In the lantern smell and late bat-whickering dusk,
Playing mumbly-peg and talked of wages and hours
At the bunkhouse door. On Sunday cleaned his gun,
A Colt .38 he let me shoot at a hawk-
It jumped in my arm and my whole arm tingled with shock.
A quiet man with the smell of the road on him,
The smell of far places...
What he tried to teach me was how to take my time,
Not to be impatient, not to shy at the fence,
Not to push on the reins, not to baulk nor pull the leather,
Tried to teach me when to laugh and when to be serious,
When to laugh at the serious, be serious in my laughter,
To laugh at myself and be serious with my self.
He wanted me to grow without growing too fast for myself.
A good teacher, a brother. (p. 17-18).

Cal, the organizer of men in need, the accountable teacher, signals and becomes symbolic of the brotherly I-Thou relationship, which is understood as a transmitted value of individuals and brothers extended within a Democratic collective. McGrath's view to his interior life and its relation to the collective life is not a fantasy of idealism or revolution or what E.P. Thompson in his perceptive "Homage to Thomas McGrath" refers to as a "reputable nostalgia" (Thompson p. 110).  As a young man in a brutal winter of the Great Depression, without any chance at other work, he hitches up with a crew of loggers, actually woodchoppers cutting lumber into "stove length rounds/ chunks of pure sunlight made warmer by our work" (46).  Hard work, long hours in the subzero woods, but the men have an allegiance, a sense of necessity within the small workers' community of desperate need. McGrath speaks of the tranquility of the solidarity in the woods:

            Sometimes at evening with the dusk sifting down through the trees
            And the trees like a smudge on the white hills and the hills drifting
            Into the hushed light, into the huge, the looming, holy
Night;—sometimes, then, in the pause and balance
Between dark and day, with the noise of our labor stilled,
And still in ourselves we felt our kinship, our commune
Against the cold. (p. 46)

     Earlier in Section V. McGrath refers to a "night journey," by way of a lift he's taking to Buffalo from where he will set out for school. And it is the beginning of the journey of a young man into "the night," leaving home, the fecundity and virulence, to the unpredictability that awaits him on that journey, ominous and flagrant with the troubles that come to a poet approaching the "mine" and "the underground streams" of the imagination and buried emotion. It is also the beginning of the anxiety of departure from earlier rituals that cannot—without psychological stagnation—outlast the duration of their occasion. Moreover, the rituals of sexuality to which the teenage man is "plenipotentiary...clamped to the sweating pelt," will pass through other affairs and departures, and night journeys between them and no sentimentality over these affairs either, but another kind of night related to the original, which is part of the poet's

            "Nightmare, struggle, despair, and dream."
            Love and Hunger!-that is my whole story.
            An education in the form of a night journey.
            Congo of the heart...
                                                                        Dream voyage...
            To the dark interior.
            Chaffinch, miner's canary, O white mice
            Of Sir Humphrey Davy be with me now!
            Borne on the underground stream,
            I entered the hornacle mine--trivium--quadrivium-
            In the rattling Ford, through the black stopes of a dust storm
            From Sheldon to Buffalo.                           
                        Stopped in that dead of night,
            The midnight noon of nineteen-thirty-five,
            Becalmed in a dark our headlights could not pierce
            And my father gave me advice. Advice and ten dollars
            The money to last for a year, the advice for a lifetime.
            I heard the wind howl in the night of the dust... (p. 31)

     Writing from the Greek Island of Skyros, having traveled through Spain, Mexico, across the United States and world war; seeing the situation of the poor, the miserable cities with interchangeable governments, McGrath writes: "Dakota is everywhere./ A condition." One might say it is a condition from Watts to Afghanistan, from the "planting" of dynamite by agents of the Mill owners during the Lawrence strike in 1912 to the planting of weapons in the yard of a church worker in San Salvador during a popular uprising, from the anti-humane police state expansion of the Israeli settlements to the corporate-imperialist war waged over the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "The condition" beckons for a sensibility that is outraged, compassionate, and morally practical. Part of the tragedy of our time is that an obligation to such a sensibility has become unaccountable or indeterminate in the make up of human consciousness. Mark Twain, responding to the Imperialist foreign policy-makers re-sharpening their knives in the United States, France, Germany, Russia, Belgium, and England, wrote:

            I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled,
            besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria,
            South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her
            pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her
            soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.
            (Twain p. 13)

     "Dakota is everywhere./ A condition." At the core of McGrath's narrative are the self-revelations of a man struggling to develop a personal system of humane and erotic values: "Love and hunger!––that is my whole story/ An education in the form of a night journey" (p. 31). Though the presence of Cal has passed out of his life, the reality of his activism informs McGrath's anger over the crushing, co-opting, and marginalizing of the working-class. Still, the life of the individual man goes on however stilted, hung-up, or oppressed: "Now what is harder to know than the simplest joy?" (McGrath p. 55) the poet asks.

     Early scenes of Letter catalogue and recollect love affairs in Dakota, and the lusty now slightly older man refers with direct jargon and humor to a harsh winter, "whose cold could make your balls ache when there was nothing to warm them/ But my burning and stallion need—that grand old religion/ of which I am the Pope" (p. 44). But now, as though instinctually: an end to journeying: an unfolding into settling down occurs in the poem. The sexual recognition, arriving as it often does in advance of erotic commitment, seems to have stunned McGrath as much as it inspired him. It shook him up. There appears to be a side within him that wasn't ready, that needed to wander longer and more thoroughly in that "Safari/ to [his own] dark interior." Exquisitely expressed, he anticipates the loss that will come: "A rose, a flower of warmth in the heart of the abstract cold. /I was bound to lose it" (p.56). But it isn’t clearly explained how the loss finally occurs. Only that even this early vital love is somehow victimized by the poet's interior chaos and the "nightmare" and "struggle" of his journey through the world. It can only be assumed that there is a kind of wearing-out through the blending and conflicting erosions that happen within the complexity of an unworkable or premature marriage. But the relationship to Marian has an initial force and upsurging in the way it affects McGrath as a catalyst, a primary actualization of the pair, the couple united, the manifestation in the world of the poet's interior marriage:

            A warmth, a sunlight, and an end to journeys-
            That's what it seemed like, was;
            Or the permanent sky, maybe,
                                                                        myself drifting,
                                                                                                                        or flame
            Would light me north in the long collapse of Time
            When Vega is pole star.
            So the journey ended, or seemed to, in the sweet strength of
            her flesh.
            That brightness...softness…
                                                             in the fire-flame, in the fixed cone
            Of light, I broke my fast, I woke my want. (p. 56)

But McGrath, whose journey "seemed to" end, foretells heading south "Toward music, toward speech," his beginnings as a poet (p. 61) and "all to the wars and the whores and the wares and the ways of a rotten season" (p. 59). The gap of details for the marital collapse that is to come and which is reflected later in the poet's "dream and despair; the journey around the wound..." (p.87) is shifted to the exterior social nightmare and portents of war oncoming. The terrors of the world the couple are surrounded by are taken to its most basic even instinctual level in the scene of the hunt as the night comes where they first lodged "among madmen" and later by "the nameless river":

            Then came the long night running by the river shallows:
            Workings of darkness
            The endless hunting [...]
            Rolling out of the dark-everything running, running
            The night running , the darkness alive with
            Running and the terror of the long running.
            The brush cracked like a shot and the great shapes leaped,
            Rode by like cloud, their eyes slashed by long speed,
            In the great frieze of terror.
            The great and the noble deer
            and the poor weak things of the dark
            Running, running, the hills wild with their terror
            The brush smashing and rustling the shadows patterned with splashes-
            Till the whole world seemed running in that long hunt.
            And the tame cattle joined the running, came bellowing out of
                                                the brush
            Their holy terror, their anguished disbelief that they were hunted;
            The horses crashed by, screaming their hurt and hatred,
            And the barnyard geese, and the very birds of the place-
            And at the last a man-was it a man?
            Came out of the willow brake, running without a sound
            While the peeling keen of the hounds grew iron and round on the hills.
            It passed us running, a thing of the purest night,
                                                The terrible eyes begged no release (66-67).

The irreality of the war arrives with shit-burning latrines and sexlessness lousing the psyche. And here McGrath's surreal-blackened satire and pathos concerning what it is to be a soldier at war begins. The stop on board ship is to Anchorage "a little nugget of dung..." in the passage over "the freezing urine colored sea..." The alienated terrain of war is

            Everything externalized; everything on the outside;
            Nowhere the loved thing, or known thing.
            In the night of the Army, the true sleepwalker's country,
            All are masked familiars at the deaths of strangers-
            It was the strangeness that moved us. (p. 76)

Among medics metamorphosed into junkies over madness of actual lacerated bodies, scorched flesh, amputations; meat wagons carrying off dead soldiers; suicide "swallowers of razor blades" (p. 84), McGrath, driven to fight fascism for a government that until the necessary and also convenient immersion in the war was an oppressor and enemy of the very people who were now the troops––satirizes the final cynicism of the whole involvement and the cool savagery of military-industrial profiteers:

            (They have heat-seeking missiles for that kind of jazz,
            Thermotropic anonymous letters that explode at blood heat
            And will blow you ass-ways just because you are warm...)
            Part of the Engineer's great dream: a war without bandages. ( 85)

But a gripping detailed exposure of content to the poet's psychic descent, which is parallel to the intense worldly Inferno of the war, is unfortunately skirted over. The lyrical narrative flow is consistent, but the passage leaves the reader with poetic generalities of dark and light, life and death, laughter and grief. There is a sense of fortuitous disposability to the difficulty or unpleasantness of this content, and the poet travels past "the bottom of the interior night and that antipodean great/ beast/ (Whose charity is to devour)" (91 ). Nonetheless, he goes down to the bottom, under the layers that drop from the pit of that hole:

            It was down there,
            Past the milestones of my tombs and the singing bones of my true loves
            I come there:
            In the high march and dead set of the night, On the most direct road to my death
            Most careless there? I come into the Old Dominion, the true, breathing, holy, Dark.
            There, old bird on the branch of the lost midnight,
            The Dark closed and clothed me, and the pushed, furious beast
            That burned and bit in my side lay down to sleep.
            Hushed at last.
            Then I saw the bones go singing––
            Like stars or fireflies––
            And came to the laughter:
            The Holy Joke of myself in that blizzard of dark and light:
            To Laughter:
            Laughter of light and dark and the Holy Joke of that real world,
            And the great open secret that we all know and forget.
            Samadhi. Satori.
            Then the night and its canting monsters turned holy around me.
            Laughably holy.
            And that lank gentleman, the esthete snake, came by and bit me,
            And the littlest sacred mad dog of a crazy world,
            And I gave him my heel to kiss In my sudden pride:
            In my quick ridiculous love:
            In my wholeness and holiness:
            In solidarity and indifference:
            In the wild indifferent joy which is man's true estate. (p. 92-93)

The resurrection McGrath gains from his descent is as much a part of his vision of a communal society as the creation of the poem is the material testimony of his experience of "indifferent wild joy."
The struggle of the working class to transform society in to what Kropotkin referred to as "all for all" is not simply an ideological position taken up and upheld however dignified by a poet remote from the struggle involved. McGrath was there as a worker, an organizer, and a writer. And in the late forties and early fifties he witnessed the struggle first hand and was not taken in by the half hearted or phony activists "Turning and turning/ fighting mainly each other" (p. 88). There was a chaos overwhelming the working class in the post-war grief and affluence fogging the high profits of the military and manufacturing industries and the further greed of multinational Imperialist adventure then in Korea: "The last strikes sold out by the labor fakers of/ business unionism Reuther Meany Social Plutocracy. (p. 118) That is, the "One Big Union" dream and struggle of the IWW has turned into a grotesque union of labor, big business and government. The larger humane values integrated within those of economic justice are now castrated and marginalized. During the anti-constitutional purges of the late forties and early fifties in the United States when members or one-time members or associates of the communist party were hunted down and jailed, or went into exile, all but the informers who worked deals with the HUAC were blacklisted, and McGrath lost his teaching job at L.A. State College, not to mention several jobs thereafter wherever the blacklist was in effect. McGrath bounced around and bounced back. Near the end of Part One of Letter he concludes:

            Now, toward midnight, the rain ends.
            The flowers bow and whisper and hush.
                                                                                    the clouds break
            And the great blazing constellations rush up out of the dark
                                                                                                To hang in the flaming North...
            Arcturus, the Bear, the Hunter
            Now, the Furies come, my furious Beast.
            I have heard the laughter,
            And I go forward from catastrophe to disaster
            Indifferent: singing... (p.99)

It is remarkable and curious that McGrath waited until he turned seventy for his work to receive the attention it deserved. Although academic critics have been reluctant to celebrate a long poem with a passionately expressed and unrestrained sense for historical truth, McGrath has had a large following. It is the same constituency that reads Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rhukyser, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Andrei Voznesnsky, Kenneth Patchen, Nicannor Para, Czeslaw Milosz, Adrienne Rich among others. Characterizing in part what shaped the moral sensibility of this particular group of poets, Kenneth Rexroth concluded his article on Kenneth Patchen stating that
The Moscow Trials, the Kuo-Min-Tang street executions, the betrayal of Spain, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the extermination of whole nations, Hiroshima, Algiers—no protest has stopped the monster jaws from closing. As the years go on, fewer and fewer protests are heard. The spokesman, the intellects of the world have blackmailed themselves and are silent. (97)

     From his Dakota that is everywhere to his "electric bird of desire," McGrath speaks to us imaginatively and politically about the real news of the experience of the world and what it's like to live in it with moral responsibility. Whereas poets like Ginsberg, Rukeyser, Rexroth, and Levertov were visible, charismatic, and in Ginsberg's case celebritized poetic voices of our ongoing domestic and international social crises, McGrath's voice was limited to his books and to the classroom. Yet he was a prophetic and liberatory force. In a daring moment of radical-practical lucidity, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty," and Thomas McGrath's poetry is part of the American library that documents that vigilance without denying either the life of the imagination or the difficult everyday facts of bare human existence in the United States.

Works Cited

Adamic, Louis. Dynamite. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1958.
McGrath, Thomas. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1970.
Rexroth, Kenneth. Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays. New York: New Directions Books,
Thompson, E.P. "Homage to Thomas McGrath." TriQuarterly #70 Fall (1987).
Twain, Mark. A Pen Warmed-up in Hell. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.