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In his classroom on Florida International University's north campus, Campbell McGrath makes an announcement. "I'm invoking the High Plains Drifter rule," he proclaims, sitting at the front of the room with his legs stretched out, his blue Converse sneakers sticking out from under his desk. "If you mention a Clint Eastwood movie in a poem, it has to be High Plains Drifter."
The comment is aimed at a student who has referred erroneously to a scene from Desperado -- a cut-rate Eastwood homage that actually stars Antonio Banderas -- to evoke the empty streets of a small Florida town after dark. The student acquiesces, acknowledging the professor's superior knowledge of the Eastwood oeuvre.
Nine people sit in McGrath's advanced poetry seminar, their chairs gathered in a semicircle. Most are gifted undergraduates who wear baggy pants and psychedelic nylon tops or rock band T-shirts to class, and who have learned to read their work aloud with dramatic flair. The group also includes a quiet older woman, a retiree who has returned to college to take a serious stab at poetry. For an hour and a half every Monday and Wednesday during the school year, the students critique their classmates' photocopied poems, accompanying each other on their journeys into metaphorland, as McGrath sometimes calls it. Now several of them start to say metaphorland, loudly pronouncing it with a ghoulish Vincent Price accent or a Butt-head lisp, and laughing.
Slouching back in his chair, McGrath waits easily for the hubbub to die down. He has on old Levi's and a bright print shirt that plays up his orange-red hair. He absently sucks on a straw stuck in a bucket-size cup of soda from the campus cafeteria. Eventually he draws the class's attention back to the student's poem, which in addition to Eastwood mentions James Brown, the Four Tops, and the Pretenders -- precisely the kind of characters who might appear in the professor's own work.
"People assume that if you make a reference to pop culture it's like a goofy thing," he tells his students. "But that's generational. Pop culture is where you would look to make a metaphor.
"Pop culture is our culture," he stresses. "It's all there is."
McGrath's poems cover a lot of familiar terrain. The lines run on, roaming all over this land, flashing pictures of mobile homes, dive bars, office parks, snowy streets, Universal Studios, the Discovery Channel, Laundromats, 7-Elevens, four-door Buicks, bus stations, and "the faithful touched by tongues of flame in the Elvis cathedrals of Vegas; wildflowers and anthracite; smokestacks and sequoias; avenues of bowling alleys and flamingo tattoos; car alarms, windmills, wedding bells, the blues."
His imagery tends to invite far-reaching comparisons that have ranged from the gritty lowlife ballads of Tom Waits to Buster Keaton's elaborate sight gags. But most often when critics and editors talk about the 35-year-old poet and Miami Beach resident, they mention Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.
"The long lines, the booming voice," says Daniel Halpern, noting the similarities. Halpern, a fellow poet, is McGrath's former professor at Columbia University and editor in chief of the Ecco Press, publisher of two of McGrath's three books of poems. "It's poetry that's trying to take on a broad range of experience."
McGrath doesn't mind being declared heir to two icons of American letters. In fact, he doesn't really care who people compare him to. He's a poet, not a rock singer. Blurbs on the back of a book jacket might sell an extra copy or two, but they won't likely put him on the cover of People magazine. If the accolades matter, it is only to the small number of Americans who care anything about poetry, the minority that doesn't dismiss the entire literary form as a nightmare in iambic pentameter that they faintly remember from their school days.
"Everyone comes to poetry with a preconceived notion, but unfortunately part of that notion is of something they don't want to have anything to do with," McGrath says. "It's, 'Jeez, I know what poetry is and I don't like it, it's too hard, it's too complicated, I don't understand it, and it's depressing and weird.'"
Changing that perception is important to McGrath, and he hopes his students will learn from his own example. Telling them that anything in their lives can make a poem, he urges them to experiment.
"If you're not going to do it in a poem, where are you going to do it?" he challenges his students. "What are they going to do, put you in poetry jail?"
He wants them to realize, as he does, that history can be evoked in a trip to the mall, class struggles analyzed when comparing a can of Dinty Moore stew to a club sandwich. And that sometimes nothing seems quite as profound as a dog food commercial.
"The very first thing I try to teach people is that poetry is concrete, specific, and comes out of their own life," he says. "It is not abstract, highblown, or anything else. The tools to make poetry are things that they already possess -- they are, one, language, and two, observing the world."