Adventures in Metaphorland
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."
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."
These things amuse him, but they also seem to make him a little uncomfortable. "I'm not really trying to market my product, exactly," he shrugs. "I have nothing to sell."
What interests him more is the possibility that people who don't usually read poetry might actually feel compelled to read his. And that tends to happen. A rave review of McGrath's last book, American Noise, appeared in Outside, a magazine for readers presumably more willing to take on a mountain than a volume of poems; reviewer Miles Harvey deemed him "a writer who could help save poetry from academia and get the rest of us reading again."
The poet considers this for a moment. "I think they were just saying, 'We are people who like to read and we can't find poetry we can relate to,'" he posits. "And when they read my book, they said, 'We see our world in this guy's poems.'"
Godzilla, Jesus, Fred Flintstone, Big Boy, and Mr. Peanut share a shelf in McGrath's FIU office. The plastic figurines are kept company by a picture of Angie Dickinson, photos of the McGraths' wedding and of McGrath with his children, a plaster marlin, and an Elvis clock, as well as unwieldy bust of the King. There are books by Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Robert Hass, and Raymond Carver, among others. A worn spongy football has come to rest in the middle of the floor. Sitting at his desk writing a graduate school recommendation for one of his students, there's something immediately familiar about McGrath. He's like someone you went to high school with. Especially if you grew up on the East Coast and attended private school.
McGrath was born in the Midwest, in Chicago. His father, a psychoanalyst, and his mother, a community liaison for the city government, were both from the middle-class neighborhood of Washington Heights, in Manhattan. In the Irish tradition, Campbell, the first born, was given his mother's maiden name. When he was a baby the family moved to Washington D.C. He entered the Sidwell Friends School, which was earlier attended by the writer Dos Passos and more recently by Chelsea Clinton. The school is known for spawning well-rounded, concerned youth who (like their parents) become lawyers, doctors, government officials, stockbrokers -- and sometimes poets.
McGrath, who frequently expresses his hatred of math, gravitated naturally toward books when he was young. But like other Americans of his generation, he also watched a lot of television. His work is full of TV references -- Gumby and Pokey, Wheel of Fortune, a Van Halen video. "As far as I'm concerned, anything on TV was a more significant cultural phenomenon than Vietnam," proclaims the narrator of one poem.
"I first started writing stories, which I think everyone does," McGrath says, recalling his high school days. "Stories are what first draw you to writing or literature in general -- a good story. But then in my own writing I found I was better at writing poetry, and poetry appealed to me more. What I wanted to do in writing wasn't to tell a story and it wasn't so much to create characters and create a world and have them move through it.
"If I had done another thing other than poetry, it wouldn't have been fiction," he adds. "It would have been filmmaking. I think poetry has a lot in common with filmmaking, in the way that the camera's free to just zoom somewhere else. You can cut from one scene to another without it being necessarily the logical narrative place for it to go."
He has never found it hard to come up with subject matter. "There's a whole literary tradition to tell your story," he explains. "To say, 'Here's what I did. I did this and I did that.' And that notion came to me without any desire to find it -- that was my voice."
With their emphasis on quotidian images and the evocation of the often surreal nature of everyday occurrences, McGrath's poems are invariably based on events in his life and the lives of his family and friends, and set in the places he has lived. Even so, he is cautious about using the term autobiographical to describe his work. "Even when you're writing autobiographically, there is no such thing as autobiographical poetry, because it's your life filtered through memory, and you're making it even more special when you make it into a poem," he says. "The 'you' that writes is not quite the same as the actual living human being -- you kind of put on your poetry uniform when you write."
Still, he concedes that it can be assumed that most of what the narrator in his poems recounts actually happened: "I certainly see in my writing the outline of my life."
McGrath was anything but the stereotypical angst-ridden teen who locked himself in his room and lived out his fantasies in verse. He spent his high school years enjoying, as he puts it in one poem, "the perfect arc of youth, a constellation made up of baseball, booze, girls, and loud music."
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 Berlin Burger 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.
"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.
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