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Spring 2003

Vol. 03 No. 2


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One way to understand Thomas McGrath and Larry Woiwode is to take in the roster of their literary and academic awards: Rhodes Scholar, William Faulkner Foundation Award, National Book Award Finalist, Book Critics Circle Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, American Academy of Arts & Letters Award of Merit, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Bush Fellowship, Society for Western Literature Distinguished Achievement Award. And so on.

While most awards and classifications justly have detractors and limits, it's clear that McGrath and Woiwode are writers who share more than their ties to North Dakota. They share a particular status in the literary world that for as many awards as it includes, doesn't reach as far as it should.

Perhaps both have been pigeonholed as regional writers, or perhaps they have been true enough to the ways of the West not to give in to publishing or political world dictates. My point is that Woiwode's piece here, about McGrath not having been named poet laureate of North Dakota, also illustrates their positions in the larger world.

He's right, of course. McGrath should have been the state's poet laureate, too — his Letter to an Imaginary Friend is the great epic poem of the American heartland. Woiwode uses the occasion to accept another deserved award and to honor McGrath. While the two are miles apart on issues such as religion, they come together again and again around the themes that glide through their work — memory, place, community, loss.

Both are revolutionaries — their prose and poetry ranges as broadly as the state's landscape that infuses their writing. When George Sinner, then governor, presented Woiwode with the state's Rough Rider Award in 1992, he said Woiwode was selected because of his "work that shows the broader beauty of the truth prism of life here on the prairie and the broad beauty of the promise of humanity itself."

That statement applies as well to McGrath. Both writers catch life and land in their work with the precision of those who have paid attention for some time. And they transform it.

So here's another, more fundamental way in which to understand McGrath and Woiwode: they move us. Any piece of fine writing patches together fragments from different sources, fragments that carry their own experiences. The writer spins those bits and pieces into a poem or novel — something that gives readers new ways to navigate the big, persistent questions of life: honor, beauty, love, duty.

Maybe it's a cosmic gift that both Woiwode and McGrath are linked to the same place, this place of few voices, "out here on the edge," as McGrath once said. Of course, that place is also the larger one. We read and we recognize it as we're moved, at last, outside and beyond.

- Kathy Freise

Letter from an imaginary friend
an homage to tom mcgrath

by Larry Woiwode, poet laureate

"You're a fox."

These were the first words I spoke directly to him, after we moved through a smoke-stained joint in Grand Forks, a neutral zone during a Writer's Conference War, as it felt, and sat across a table with our steins. He drew back, as if I'd caught him at something or named a familiar, and said, "Where did you get that?"

From the way he negotiated a variety of setbacks, I suspect, and the wiliness in his writing.

"It came to me."

We talked and corresponded and met when we could, appeared together onstage several times, and now that he's gone, bringing to an end a certain sort of partnership — we worked on separate views of North Dakota but held a similar outlook — my attempts to order the fragments I hold of him, other than his work, have the feel of trying to assemble some vital force, a foxy cyclone or zephyr through a coulee.

He loved the long shot, the tossed pebble accreting a whole world, the excoriating invective, his sentences among the best listened to to meet a page, their rhythms deepening over every reading, reaching beyond his exemplar, Neruda (though I suspect he suspected this), who ended loping and yowling after the Nobel. Tom, well enough satisfied at home, endured all that arrived with one hand supporting his Borglum face, then flew off above the blue mountains, and kept on going. He continues into the consciousness of all who will dare read him.

The day I heard, before it was official, of a process underway for months — that I would be poet laureate of North Dakota — I thought, "It should have been Tom!" But by then he was gone. And when I learned that the post had been vacant for nearly a decade, I said, "Why wasn't our real laureate, McGrath, ever in the post?"

Politics, my boy, he might have said. Roman politics.

pictured left to right: Woiwode, Kathy Anderson and McGrath

So let me reduplicate the speech I gave before Governor Schafer and Nancy, my wife and family, a representative and a senator, and those who sponsored the event:

Governor and Mrs. Schafer; members of the North Dakota State Legislature, the State Historical Society, the State Library; members of the Center for the Book, responsible for the arrangements today; family and friends and readers:

Thank You.

I might refuse this honorary office — indeed I receive it as an honor — if I hadn't hoped to be a poet most of my life. In fact, I often think of myself as a poet who has turned to fiction and biography to support my family in my need to be a poet.

I'm not a special person, no different from the fellow down the road or across the street, which isn't false modesty. I'm a native son of North Dakota farmers on both sides, for as far back as I care to trace; my great-grandfather homesteaded in the state when it was still Dakota Territory, in 1881.

I'm probably as proud as anybody who is a farmer to be a farmer, which I also try to be part time, knowing, as most here have learned, that no real living attends the family farm nowadays. The work of writing, especially poetry, is a lot like tillage — trying to line up a fresh crop in clean neat rows. The gifts or talents I have for that I've been given by God, and I acknowledge that. I won't take the easy way out, either, and blame Him — I mean God — for my failings or lack of focus or discipline.

I have the Dakota Rebel in me, too.

Looking through one of my notebooks from years ago for an encounter I'll mention in a minute, I came across this: "If my work hadn't been written by me, would I pay that much attention to it, considering the person I was as a young writer ...? It's taken me in directions I never would have believed I would go."

Again like farming, writing takes you where you never thought you would go. One of my directions was the path of a Christian — not an exemplary one, let me add. But it was writing itself, specifically the work on Beyond the Bedroom Wall, that led me there. The reviews of my books seemed to start to go bad about then, after I moved back to the state (no reflection on the place, of course), and I still find it odd that writing can lead one to misplaced ecology or Eastern religion, or no religion at all — nihilism — but cannot lead you to the faith of your mother or father. Both were Christians, and I'm a common North Dakotan, like them, in that, too.

There's a story I've never told, perhaps because of its tang of self-congratulation, and I hope my indiscretion today will be tempered by the occasion. The great poet of our state, the one who should have been its laureate for decades, is Tom McGrath. I admired his work from a distance and then, a dozen years ago, appeared on the same stage with him — in this very building, in fact. We had worked together before, and he was not in good health now; he told me he'd had to have surgery on his spine "of a precarious sort." He was using a cane to walk.

Preserving the papers of North Dakota literary figures has been a priority of the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies at NDSU since its founding. It has amassed a unique collection of papers and records relating to the literary heritage of the region. Later it became active in documenting the region's music, musical organizations, and theater. An overview, biography and inventory of Thomas McGrath's (Rhodes Scholar and poet from Sheldon, North Dakota) papers may be found on the Web at: www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu/ndirs/collections/manuscripts/lit&music/McGrath/index.html

After the event, and a brief visit with my family, I had to fly back East, where I was teaching then, and I was astonished to see that the last passenger to board was Tom McGrath. I had hoped to get together with him in Bismarck on my way back through, but he said he would be home by then, in Fargo, and now here he came, leaning on his cane, looking horrible, as if he'd heard the worst possible news over an awful weekend.

I went up and sat beside him and learned that he had slipped from the edge of the bed in his motel room — a result of his injury — and couldn't move to reach the phone. He had to lie on the floor until he was discovered. The surgeon who operated on him had warned him this might happen, adding, he said, that one day he might never get up.

Then why the surgery, I wondered, and he said, "The alternative was waking up some day totally paralyzed."

I had been complaining about the reviews of my recent book and went back to my seat chastened. We landed at Fargo and I unbuckled myself, thinking I would see Tom off, and saw him working his way toward me with the aid of seat backs and his cane. He leaned down, out of breath, and said, "Forget about the critics. Your work — There haven't been such pure prose rhythms in American writing since Faulkner."

The weight of it hit me like a last goodbye; indeed, we talked only once more, and then on the phone.

So I accept the laureateship of this state in the stead of another native son, to honor that moment when our true laureate, in his overly generous statement, placed the mantle of his personal blessing on me.

He didn't view himself as an extraordinary person, either, (except in those private moments that only a poet of his stature enjoys) but as one given gifts to serve a community, for its public good. I pray I may so serve, over my term as laureate; and, if so, I hope it will be said as it is in one of the widest of communities in the world, in the words Johann Sebastian Bach used to write with solemn glee at the bottom of every sheet of music he composed: Soli Deo Gloria.

In an earlier, happier era, the mid-seventies, at a time when I was living in New York, I picked up the American Poetry Review and found in it a large part of the final section of Letter to an Imaginary Friend, and was astonished to see the editors refer to Tom's consuming project as "the best book-length poem since Whitman."

photo by Wayne Gudmundson

Two years later, when I had moved with my family back to North Dakota, Tom the Fox was smiling at me from the couch in his humble house in Fargo, where my wife and I were visiting with our children. I believe I had mentioned to them that this was one of the poets I admired most, and anyway children at their age understand Dad Tiptoeing on Eggshells better than Dad.

I asked him what he was working on with the penitential ambition of a combatant — because I often found myself at odds with his interpretation of IT ALL; at some junctures of Letter to an Imaginary Friend,

I could barely read on, or didn't, in my disagreement with his too far-flying constellations of anti-everything, or communistic excuses, as I saw it, then at the most pompous age, thirty-five, and he said, "Oh many, too many things. What I'd like to do is fix up a footlocker of poems I've put aside undone."

Perhaps he said Sea Chest, forever flying crossbones above his gentlemanly craft: anyway, Sea Chest is the way I see it, bound with brass bands.

Britain? I asked, as if it were relevant (or maybe it was) to those manuscripts — poems from there is what I meant, I think. He considered a moment, clearly thoughtful, a dark-brown, 100 millimeter lady's cigarette gripped between the fingertips touching his forehead: "Well, buggerall."

He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and his politics, professorships, movie-making and the rest, others have attended to, though most skip over his moment of murder; He's killed a man, I sometimes thought, feeling a sensation over my face like a resistant hand — his literary and political or political-literary fixes, such as being summoned before HUAC in the fifties, when he said, for starters, "After a dead serious consideration of the effects of this committee's work and of my relation to it, I find that for the following reasons I must refuse to cooperate with this body."

In his later age, he wasn't always resident in the communist hermeneutic bubble; more in love with locals and their plans for themselves on the landscape he loved to walk and write about, settled into a vexed but humorous disgust at humankind, Twainlike; You can go home again, he said, in his actions and his work; the idea that you couldn't was the silly supposition of some meatheaded sap. "Nowhere like it, Larry!" He had a persona but he was also the person he was.

"This writing business is more dangerous than the worst Caesar's Roman politics" — a message from him that arrived on a postcard, and caused me to sit in my office chair as grade school principals had a way of sitting me down, as if to say, "Now, look, Larry ..."

In the early eighties we took part in an evening called "The Land and Literature," or something similar, a forerunner to our final meeting, and in the midst of our agreeable exchange, abetted by an intelligent young woman urging us on, he leaned into his microphone and said to the audience as he stared at me, "If this guy is a Christian, he's the kind of Christian I can live with" — his words preserved on tape by the State Historical Society.

I first felt like laughing, but now believe it's the most complimentary statement that's been made in public, before or after, about the practice of my faith.

Later a typed letter, bristling with corrections, with this note scribbled in longhand in a margin: "God may be able to forgive the errors of this grad assistant I've been assigned, but I can't!"

A further acknowledgment of my faith, and his only admission that he had contemplated a God who forgave — but perhaps could not forgive the blasphemous rhetoric about Him, which could cause one to feel severed from His true community, in its many imperfections, in North Dakota.

His wish to finish more was granted, as his suggestion of a sea captain intimated; he wrote more poems than most critics can tabulate: Letter to an Imaginary Friend was bound in a volume, he brought out three books quickly after that, besides chapbooks, broadsides fit for framing, a manuscript-sized book, a collection of short songs, and a sequence for Tomasito, the son who brought him such joy in his last years.

Bareheaded, sometimes wearing a ragged or battered cap, usually a regal scarf, clothes well pressed, mouth set in adjuration of An Other, shaggily-browed eyes with the baleful glare of a hawk, a kestrel, kindled fire aflash, O dear and memorable man, always anyway past us, master who taught us to talk from the inside — this from one who would like to be a friend like you: Thank you for it, for all of it, for every hour and line of it. Thank you, il miglior fabbro, dear dead comrade, thanks be to you.

Amid Salutations,

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.