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Carol Connolly Reading Series: Celebrate poet Tom McGrath's Centenary

  • The University Club 420 Summit Avenue Saint Paul, MN, 55102 United States (map)

About Letter to an Imaginary Friend:


Written in exile--after the late McGrath was blacklisted from teaching by Joseph McCarthy--this book-length poem is a train ride through half our states during an era when political divisions were deep and stained with blood. Finding the vast landscapes of North Dakota and Alaska forbidding and instructive, Letter is a Western poem, and Beat in its celebration of hobos, drifters, and holy fools. It might have been written by Carl Sandburg, had Sandburg been a hard-boiled socialist instead of a corny populist, and with its angry demands for justice, it might have been written by Pound, had Pound only stayed in Idaho. Recalling the hard life that made the poet radical, Letter shares with all modern long poems a conflict between ideological perspective and imagistic, anecdotal lyric means: "That's how it was. Geeks, Cons and Lemon Men, / Guys with their intellects all ganted up out of the barbarian North / Tea sluggers and cathounds / The girl who, when I said that God had created / Male and female the Spanish Moss, wanted to see them in action. . . ." It lulls, but also startles us awake. 
Copyright © 1996, Boston Review. All rights reserved. -- From The Boston Review

"I still hold that his book, LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND is a literary classic of first rank, as significant a part of our American culture as Thoreau’s WALDEN POND, Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, Sandburg’s, THE PEOPLE YES, Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. It has been side-stepped, looked over, lost and kept out of our classrooms far too long—for political reasons." Norbert Blei

Thomas Matthew McGrath, (November 20, 1916 near Sheldon, North Dakota – September 20, 1990, Minneapolis, Minnesota)

McGrath grew up on a farm in Ransom County, North Dakota. He earned a B.A. from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. He served in the Aleutian Islands with the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, at Oxford. McGrath also pursued postgraduate studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He taught at Colby College in Maine and at Los Angeles State College, from which he was dismissed in connection with his appearance, as an unfriendly witness, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953. Later he taught at North Dakota State University, and Minnesota State University, Moorhead. 

McGrath wrote mainly about his own life and social concerns. His best-known work is probably Letter to an Imaginary Friend published in sections between 1957 and 1985 and as a single poem in 1997 by Copper Canyon Press.

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