THOMAS MCGRATH’S LOS ANGELES AND THE PURSUIT OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM

From: Entropy MagazineOGL00308-0027

By Mike Sonksen

 

Thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, two poetry anthologies published in the last year and a few recently written histories on Los Angeles Poetry, there has been a widespread interest in the legacy of Los Angeles Poetry in the literary world over the last few years. As much as many of these accounts have focused on the Venice Beats, Charles Bukowski, Beyond Baroque and the Watts Writers Workshop, a poet named Thomas McGrath predates all of the above mentioned.

Thomas McGrath is one of the most significant poets in the annals of Los Angeles Literature, but his legacy has almost been forgotten over the last few decades. Born in 1916, the North Dakota-born poet McGrath lived in Los Angeles only for a decade, but during his time in the city from 1950 to 1960, McGrath actively published with several literary journals, taught at Los Angeles State College, now known as California State University Los Angeles for three years and spearheaded a cadre of poets from his home in Elysian Valley, the neighborhood often called “Frogtown,” just east of Atwater Village. McGrath’s legacy is currently being honored in an exhibit in the Cal State LA Library titled, “Holy City Adrift: Thomas McGrath’s Los Angeles.” The exhibit will be up until July 30th, though there are efforts by a group of students to make it a permanent part of the library.

The exhibit was initiated by Cal State L.A. English Professor Dr. Andrew Lyndon Knighton and a team of graduate and undergraduate students that included Salvador Ayala, Jorge Contreras, Francisco Gutierrez, Amanda Kong and Gabriela Valenzuela. The team is collectively known as the “McGrath Working Group.” Knighton started researching McGrath in 2013 and over the last three years he has continued to find more and more information about this fascinating poet. His interest is equally biographical, geographical and personal. “McGrath and I were born in the same stretch of the northern plains,” Knighton says, “with both of us finding our way to LA, and to CSULA/LASC, in our thirties.”

As we speak, Knighton is working on a book about McGrath and he has spent a lot of time recently in the McGrath archives reading old letters and manuscripts. Excerpts of Knighton’s research appear in an essay for the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, titled, “The Life of A Dangerous Time: Thomas McGrath and the Potential of Poetry.” The exhibition in the Cal State L.A. Library offers a great starting point on McGrath and clearly illustrates the potential of McGrath’s lifetime of work. Aficionados of American Poetry and Literary Los Angeles will find a reservoir of insight in this exhibit.

Because Nothing Endures

The 12 glass cases displaying McGrath’s books, various literary journals with his work, quote excerpts, rare photos, maps and other ephemera, go a long way to demonstrate his prowess as one of the most important Mid-Century poets of Southern California. The large titles written at the top of each of the 12 display cases reveal the trajectory of McGrath’s career. A few of the most explicit titles include, “North Dakota is Everywhere,” “Because Nothing Endures,” “The Ivory Tower,” and “Academic (Un) Freedom.” Excerpts of McGrath’s poetry accompany the maps, photos and other artifacts culminating into a three-dimensional literary history with the same effectiveness and veracity present at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, along California’s Central Coast.

McGrath was closely associated with local 1950s poetry publications like California Quarterly andCoastlines and was also the faculty advisor for a few years of Statement, Cal State LA’s literary journal that is still going strong after 67 years. In recent years, McGrath’s legacy and influence on literary Los Angeles has been resurrected and reconsidered by literary scholars like Estelle Gershgoren Novak, Laurence Goldstein and William Mohr.

“Thomas McGrath stood at the center of the community of poets in Los Angeles in the 1950s and of the community of poets that continued after his departure into the early 1970s,” writes Estelle Gershgoren Novak in her seminal anthology from 2002, Poets of the Nonexistent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era. Novak’s book includes several McGrath poems and includes an extended essay that explicates the particulars of the community he was at the center of. She also briefly contrasts McGrath’s cadre of Los Angeles poets from the Venice West Beat poets. She reveals that there was some rivalry between the groups and some of McGrath’s protégés like Mel Weisburd thought some of the Venice West poets like Lawrence Lipton were charlatans and more concerned with fame than poetry. The glass case labeled, “East Versus West,” in the Cal State L.A. Library also addresses this. The same display also discusses a time when McGrath met Allan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. McGrath enjoyed meeting them and they all spent an evening together talking poetry.

A product of an Irish farming family, McGrath was a political poet and his work tackled the military-industrial complex, the mass media, university bureaucracies and labor issues. Simultaneously, McGrath’s work also included existential aims addressing loneliness and community with both an acerbic wit and caustic tone. His most famous work, Letter To An Imaginary Friend, is where all of these elements come together especially well in an epic book-length poem just over 400 pages. McGrath spent over 30 years completing the project, first publishing Part One in 1963 and finishing with Part Four in 1985.

Prior to coming to Southern California, McGrath earned a B.A. from the University of North Dakota and was then awarded a Rhodes scholarship. Before accepting his Rhodes scholarship, he went to Louisiana State University for an M.A. where he studied with Cleanth Brooks, Alan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, the esteemed professors and literary scholars known as the Southern Agrarians and also recognized for their prominent role as the progenitors of the “New Critics.” McGrath went into the army after L.S.U. and served in World War II before finally pursuing his Rhodes scholarship at New College. Oxford in 1947. Read Rest of Article Here

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