Adventures in Metaphorland

7-Elevens, Laundromats, bowling alleys, People magazine, the Discovery Channel, Elvis. Poet Campbell McGrath mines deep into pop culture and hits a vein.

McGrath's philosophy, of course, is rooted in an established American literary tradition. His own influences include Jack Kerouac -- McGrath is also enamored of road trips, and he feels more of a kinship to the beat novelist than to Ginsberg, better known for embarking on journeys of a spiritual nature. Then there's John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe ... "That's the kind of voice I've always responded to," McGrath says, rolling a wad of gum around in his mouth. "A big expansive kind of lyrical prosy poetic voice talking about America -- and of course, that's what I've been writing myself."

In his poems McGrath ponders fate in a baseball game, finds religion in a Publishers Clearinghouse circular, and discovers truth in a sign at the corner bar, delighting in the wonderful, poignant absurdity of it all. Like the shiny logos on a sheaf of scratch-off lottery tickets, his vibrant pictures of America are united by the same underlying message: "moolah, jack, simoleons and mazuma." Money.

"What can you say about America?" McGrath asks. "It's too large a topic to summarize, but I like thinking about money because of money's centrality to America. I also like thinking about the Civil War and landscape, and history, and immigration, and this and that, but everything you analyze, money is part of it." He has found that poetry provides a particularly good forum for addressing money's larger significance.

"Poetry is a noble enterprise," he asserts. "There's no way you enter the notion of writing poetry out of anything other than good motives," he shrugs. "You're not going to get paid for it."

The voice of singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston leaks out onto the stone porch of the Miami Beach house where McGrath's sneakers are drying out after the previous evening's rainstorm. The poet opens the door barefoot, wearing shorts, an embroidered shirt with a vaguely Caribbean motif, and a drowsy, disoriented expression common to the sleep-deprived parents of young children. Fuzzy cowlicks sprout from his uncombed hair.

Inside, McGrath turns down the music, declaring this new CD rather pale next to Johnston's more raucous efforts. But five-month-old Jackson McGrath seems to give the album a thumbs-up, contentedly sucking a pacifier in his baby seat on the burnished wood floor of a living room decorated in an eclectic, urbane country style. When McGrath picks up his youngest son and walks to the kitchen to hand him off to his wife Elizabeth, Jackson scrunches up his eyes -- marine-blue like his father's -- and starts to cry.

The McGraths met as undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Elizabeth has since been a frequent presence in his poetry, accompanying him on cross-country trips in a battered blue Volvo or walking the Chicago streets in a snowstorm; pregnant, beloved. In real life she could pass as one of McGrath's students. When her husband remarks that he has been a little distracted lately, she laughs and rolls her eyes. "A little? At this point he can hardly remember his name."

McGrath has been so busy that he has had to turn down requests from local high schools to talk to students about poetry, something he is normally happy to do. In addition to teaching his creative writing classes at FIU, he has been traveling to give readings, a belated promotional tour for Spring Comes to Chicago, which was published at the end of last year -- about the same time that Jackson was born, when he could not leave Elizabeth home alone with the baby and their five-year-old Sam. These days the family usually joins him on his trips.

The demands on McGrath's time have also increased since he won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. The prize is bestowed through an endowment to Claremont Graduate School in California, and for a poet it's pay dirt, the largest cash prize for a book of poetry in this country. Last month McGrath went to New York City to pick up his check for $50,000. Partly out of modesty, partly because he's a realist, he refuses to make a big deal out of it.

"There's no way that writing poetry is a viable lifestyle, because it just isn't," he maintains. "Okay, so they just gave me a $50,000 prize, but after taxes and expenses and everything else, that's not going to do much in a year-by-year way for my and my family's life."

It will, however, allow them to spend the summer at Elizabeth's parents' house on the Jersey shore, where McGrath hopes to finish the poems for a new book, instead of staying in Miami and teaching summer school. He has had no time to write lately, except to jot down notes and observations in the spiral notebooks to which he will later refer for imagery when constructing his poems.

The prize -- a windfall that's sure to exceed what he'll earn from the rest of the poetry McGrath publishes during his lifetime -- has had repercussions beyond the financial. Most notably, he mentions, Harper's has reprinted an excerpt from "The Bob Hope Poem," the 68-page opus that anchors Spring Comes to Chicago, in its June issue. He goes upstairs and roots around and brings down a recent copy of USA Today that featured a short bit about the prize on its front page. And he was invited to appear on a public-affairs radio program while he was in New York, he adds. (The interview went okay, but McGrath seems much more excited about passing the Reverend Al Sharpton in the hallway on the way out.) A friend told him that a New York classical-music radio program was giving away copies of his book as prizes in a phone-in contest. And his brother, a lawyer in Chicago, called the other day to say that a commercial FM station there was talking about the book during morning drive time. "They were joking, saying it must be a haiku, since spring lasts like two days in Chicago," McGrath recounts. "Something like that."

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