The Frontiers of Language 125th Anniversary

  • By Thomas McGrath

    For ten years or more--fifteen years--there's been a big stirring up of the depths, a whole lot of things coming to the surface that weren't around before, and that is a very good thing. Now some of it's good and some of it's lousy, as is always the case everywhere, and all we can hope is that this gets filtered out the best possible way, and that we can learn as much as possible from all these things we do encounter. There's already more goddamn poetry being written in this room than I can comfortably read, and I tend to read quite a lot O.K., but I think that since most of us are either writers or want to write or trying to write or whatever the hell, coming back to the frontiers of language, we can't really know where those frontiers are until we know where we started out from. While there's an awful lot of crap that's taught in the schools, there are a lot of things they won't teach you at all if they can get away with it, oftentimes not because they're trying to conceal, but just because they're lazy or whatever, it means that if you want to write, you have to begin at the beginning and learn every goddamned thing you possibly can.

    You want to be a revolutionary writer--take the simplest poem in the world: I am madly in love. I realize this and I wake up with a terrible pain and I say to myself, I must write a poem about this ... I get my paper and I draw a bead on it and I say, how do I feel? And I say: "My heart is breaking." And I write that down and it looks to me like not a bad beginning, and I begin to analyze the first foot: is that really a spondee, or is it ... ? And I think, but shit, there's no news in the goddamned thing. It doesn't matter if my heart is breaking. It doesn't matter if I'm dying for the revolution if I can't say it in some kind of way that's expressive and meaningful. I can die a martyr on all the barricades in the world, and it will not make me a revolutionary poet unless I learn my trade. It isn't just bloody inspiration, or good feeling or high thinking or any of that, it begins first of all in knowing what the trade is, learning what the hell the language has been--it's always changing, dying, being reborn--and then we can begin to think, now what can it possibly be, what are the things I need to try to find to do.

    What Meridel [LeSueurl is working on [her "nounless novel"] seems to me a marvelous thing. I don't know where the hell it's going, maybe she doesn't either, but an action like that is a really positive and revolutionary action, because it's an attempt to do something. It isn't just an attempt to say over again the things I've learned to say, even if I've learned to say them fairly well. So we're always right out there, somewhere at the point of production. And as workers, as cultural workers for the revolution and all that jazz, we've got to bloody well produce. The war is always between ourselves and the bloody means of production.

    Condensed from the original publication in North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1982)

    War Resisters' Song by Tom McGrath

     Come live with me and be my love
    And we will all the pleasures prove--
    Or such as presidents may spare
    Within the decorum of Total War.

    By bosky glades, by babbling streams
    (Babbling of Fission, His remains)
    We discover happiness' isotope
    And live the half-life of our hope.

    While Geiger counters sweetly click
    In concentration camps we'll fuck.
    Called traitors? That's but sticks and stones
    We've Strontium 90 in our bones!
     And thus, adjusted to our lot,
    Our kisses will be doubly hot--
    Fornicating (like good machines)
    We'll try the chances of our genes.

    So if Insufficient Grace
    Hath not fouled thy secret place
    Nor fall-out burnt my balls away)
    Who knows? but we may get a boy--

    Some paragon with but one head
    And no more brains than is allowed;
    And between his legs, where once was love,
    Monsters to pack the future with.