Thomas McGrath at 100: Where Speech Becomes Song

This month, we recognize Thomas McGrath’s 100th birthday by presenting his contributions to North Dakota Quarterly on a special page featuring a new essay by renown McGrath scholar Dale Jacobson. We’re posting the Jacobson essay both here and on the page dedicated to McGrath in the Quarterly here

By Dale Jacobson

We can all celebrate North Dakota Quarterly’s editorial decision to provide free online access to their archives of Thomas McGrath’s work. Such an embrace of the public would certainly please McGrath himself. After all, the audience of his poetry was not intended to be strictly a literary or academic one, but the public at large.

Thomas McGrath was born November 20, 1916, near Sheldon, North Dakota and died September 20, 1990, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He always felt great affinity to his home state. He is North Dakota’s best known poet, and he should be.

His poetry is impossible to corral for its pure expanse, its capacity to broadcast in a large voice so much of the world to us all. This quality has led to comparisons to Whitman, though the national perspectives of the two poets are widely divergent. North Dakota’s Poet Laureate, Larry Woiwode, remarked that McGrath should have held that position. It is clear that McGrath’s work presented certain difficulties for such official recognition, the greatest of which is his radical politics. And yet, North Dakota has its own radical history, as evidenced by a state-owned bank and elevator, products of popular rebellion during its early development against private control of finance. Such history suggests that McGrath’s poetry might be more central to North Dakota’s culture than some gate-keepers would like to believe. It also suggests that his poetry holds a certain danger to the status quo. 

North Dakota Quarterly’s legacy with McGrath is all the more impressive when we remember that institutional obtuseness is not rare in contemporary letters. Too often the criteria for recognition are superficial fame and fashion. McGrath himself was aware of this problem, as we note from his lines in Letter: “Outlaws / system beaters / we held to the hard road / (While Establishment Poets, like bats, in caves with color T.V. / Slept upside down in clusters: a ripe-fruited scrambling of assholes)” (154). Not necessarily a condition our national culture has outgrown. As Robert Bly put it in an interview with Pam Sund regarding how major critics have ignored McGrath’s work: “People are looking for something smaller” (63). And perhaps safer. It is entirely to NDQ’s credit that the journal embraced his work as it did. Without its attention to McGrath, an essential aspect of North Dakota’s culture would not exist as it does. The myopia of academic communities ignoring their own is too frequently a dismal story.

Particularly under the editorship of Robert Lewis, NDQ provided McGrath with a valuable avenue for his poetry, as well as some of his important commentary about poetry’s role in understanding our times and history through publication of interviews and his marvelous oral address at the state capital for North Dakota’s centennial in 1987. The fall 1984 issue published his novel, This Coffin Has No Handles. In 1982, NDQ published an important festschrift on his work, which remains one of the most significant documents on McGrath and his oeuvre, including commentary and praises from many writers. 

These archives make available insights, even debates, on McGrath’s work—all to the good. They also present a good amount of his poetry over a number of years, for which of course, we should be absolutely grateful.


McGrath, Thomas. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1997.

Bly, Robert. Interview by Pamela Sund. Thomas McGrath Start the Poetry Now! Montpellier, France: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2011.

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