"It's big work," Hongo says of McGrath's latest. "It's working large, not just with private experience but public experience. Everything is tied to our common world but given an uncommon twist in terms of reporting on the world. It's poetry that's accessible, playful, energetic. It's duly deliberated.
"It's poetry of the information age," Hongo sums up. "He's doing the job."
An Asian-American born in Hawaii, Hongo is one of the five judges who select the winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. "I figured I'd be considering [McGrath's book] when the time came," he says. When he didn't find the book among the finalists, he asked for it, along with several others he had been drawn to last year, and had them distributed to his fellow judges.
"It was clear to me from the discussion that this was a book that everyone agreed on right away," says Halpern, who was a member of the jury but could not vote on McGrath's book because it was published by Ecco. "It was clear that this book was going to win."
McGrath didn't think so: He hadn't even entered the competition, although he was aware of it, having submitted American Noise a few years back. He figured the "The Bob Hope Poem," which had been written over seven years, was a "kind of crazy thing" that wouldn't mean much to anyone but himself.
At the beginning of the poem, the narrator picks up a copy of People magazine (while denying that he ever reads the celebrity rag) that contains an article about Bob Hope. This leads to an electric six-part reflection on world history, colonialism, capitalist society, the end of the industrial age, the media, and the human race, among other things. The poem is peppered with quotes from sources as diverse as Das Kapital, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, Marshall Sahlins's Islands of History, Christopher Columbus's ship's log, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and "Do-Re-Mi," by Woody Guthrie.
"A big desire in my poetry is to get a lot of stuff into the poem," McGrath explains. "Like, to get the world -- culture, geography, history, landscape and stuff, anecdotal stuff -- into my poems."
Exclaims an admiring Hongo: "First he's using a high-end critical theorist thing, then these lines have to do with Kenny Rogers, then he's talking about pizza and Dole pineapple -- and Elvis! I've read so many of the texts he refers to myself."
While it covers a broad sweep of common experience, the poem is a very personal one for its author. "'The Bob Hope Poem' started out saying, 'Jeez, what's up with this generation of guys like Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan? They don't see the world the way I do,'" says McGrath. "But what started as a public poem became more of a private poem. It started to account for the world in a general way, but I ended up thinking of more private or personal concerns."
After McGrath got his MFA, he and Elizabeth moved back to Chicago. He was writing and teaching part-time at the University of Chicago when Elizabeth got pregnant. Realizing that he had to get serious about supporting a family, he began the search for a job that ended in Miami. And he began to consider his perennial subject, money, in a different light.
"I was sitting around about to become a father, and all of a sudden money meant something different in my life than it ever had," he remembers. "Suddenly, with the notion of being responsible for a child, money signified differently. So the hidden agenda in 'The Bob Hope Poem' is that things are heightened for the narrator because he is about to become a father, and that's such a transformation."
As if on cue, baby Jackson starts to cry in the kitchen.
"The thing is that if I'm in the middle between one generation and another, I have to account for the world," McGrath says, by now inured to the screeches. "I have to explain the past to the future.