A former classmate, Peter Hutt, who is now a Washington lawyer, describes the teenage McGrath as an "intellectual wild man" who ran around with a bunch of like-minded friends. In the high school hierarchy, they were known neither as jocks nor nerds. They would do things like get drunk before debates and win anyway. And McGrath still recalls with pride that he once pitched a no-hitter in a school baseball game.
The high times continued at the University of Chicago. McGrath's early poems contain more than one reference to taking LSD and going out to hit golf balls. After college he made the obligatory trip to Europe, an experience reflected in poems situated in a BerlinBurger King or driving through Spain. The radio was always on: Popular music has been omnipresent in McGrath's life -- as it is in American society -- and McGrath's poems are as likely to contain snippets of song lyrics by Woody Guthrie as by AC/DC. "Whatever compelled us to suspend our dreams from poetry's slender reed," he asks in "Angels and the Bars of Manhattan" in his 1993 book American Noise, "when any electric guitar would do?"
McGrath did play the snare drum in a short-lived noise band in college. But by then the question was merely theoretical. He was already committed to the literary life. And he felt it was a choice that came with a certain responsibility.
"There's a whole generation of American poets who killed themselves," he observes. "Like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. A lot of people still have in their heads from that generation that poets are suicidal maniacs. And that's first of all not true, and second of all a totally counterproductive notion. If you're trying to say to yourself, 'Jeez, how am I going to become a poet?' and have the answer be, 'Well, I have to be a suicidal maniac,' that's not likely to lead you toward a healthy, productive career." One poet who has been a role model for McGrath is U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, a known family man. "I'm always looking for those kinds of people," he says. "Like, here's a guy who's an unbelievably great poet, but he is also involved in the world on a realistic level."
In 1985 McGrath moved to New York ("A playground for twentysomethings," he laughs), where Elizabeth was working toward her master's in English literature at NYU. He entered the creative writing program at Columbia, where he immediately made an impression on his teachers and fellow students.
"I think he started out at the top," says Daniel Halpern, who taught McGrath for two years. "He's always been very talented, but more interesting is the way he was in class. He was terrific in a workshop; he was supportive of other people's work. With him, you were always aware that there was a human being behind the poem. He was very, very well-liked.
"There are a lot of good poets," Halpern adds, "but there are fewer good poets who are nice guys."
The professor was equally impressed with his student's work. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do," Halpern recalls, "which didn't mean he wasn't open, but he was very clear about what his first book should be. His voice was very strong in the poems. He was capable of bringing popular culture into [the realm of] intellectual thinking."
McGrath credits his early decisiveness to the fact that he always received support for his endeavors. His parents welcomed his decision to become a poet, as long as he could make a living, a condition their son was more than willing to accept. He attended Columbia on a fellowship. In search of a cheap place to live, he went to check out houseboat rentals at the 79th Street Boat Basin. There were no vacancies, but he got a job there as a combination night watchman, carpenter, and assistant dockmaster. Later he taught poetry to elementary school children in the public school system.
"I always wanted to be an artist, but I knew I would have to do that pragmatically," he explains. "I never thought, 'Okay, you're an artist, you can just go live in the dirt or something.'
"I always got a lot of positive reinforcement -- from my parents, my wife," he continues. "Everybody said, 'This is a good thing, we support you in this notion.' I always stress how important that is. There are countless examples of artists who persevered despite an utter lack of recognition and countless obstacles. I don't know if I'd have had the strength or will to do that."
Of course, he didn't have to worry.
"My poetry was always thought to be good," McGrath says matter-of-factly. "I thought I was good at it, and I liked it, and whatever these objective standards were, they said, 'You are good at it. We'll publish you in The New Yorker, we'll give you the prize.'"
Last year poet and critic Garrett Hongo bought McGrath's new book in a bookstore near his home in Eugene, Oregon. He had read McGrath's 1990 debut Capitalism, and American Noise, and he'd already been discussing the young poet's work within his circle of like-minded poets in their forties.