Jim Burns

Thomas McGrath


Histories of poetry often tend to stick to well-worn ideas. One group or style succeeds another as signposts are erected to guide newcomers through the various developments and certain individuals are singled out for special attention because they seem to represent a shift of emphasis or a change of mood. The problem is, of course, that along the way a lot of talented people are overlooked and any group that doesn't fit tidily into the accepted pattern is forgotten. It's unlikely, for example, that many readers of 2Oth Century poetry have come across the poets who clustered around Coastlines and The California Quarterly, two magazines published in Los Angeles in the 1950s and yet, in retrospect, they had (and have) much to offer. But because the focus of American poetry in the Fifties has usually concentrated on San Francisco and New York, with additional nods in the direction of Black Mountain College, the Los Angeles poets have been neglected. And there may be a degree of prejudice involved, with Los Angeles not seen as a place conducive to poetry. Films, yes, and TV and popular music, but not poetry other than in the case of Charles Bukowski and he was a maverick who was expected to act outside the usual channels.

What is interesting about the Los Angeles group, if it can be called that, is that many of the poets, and the prose writers and artists who also contributed to the magazines, were left-liberal in their politics, and that at a time when it wasn't always safe to be so. The FBI certainly knew of their activities and two of the poets were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost their jobs as a result. A third poet would have made an appearance had he not died, possibly because of the pressure he was under. Others felt the weight of suspicion and were careful about what they said.

It has to be acknowledged that not all of the poets were active left-wingers, but it is probably true to say they mostly shared a common view of what poetry could and should do. A statement by Gene Frumkin, one of the editors of Coastlines, perhaps sums up the prevailing ethos:

"As a literary magazine, our first duty is toward the things of the world, for without these there is no literature, no art just desolation. Among these things are the timeless human problems, public and private. We must try to see them honestly, from the inside, in the material we publish and in our own commentaries. We must try to see them freshly too, for otherwise we cannot see them honestly. But originality should not be our only value; it dare not be accepted as an abstract value cut off from the world's images."

And it's relevant, too, to quote from an editorial statement in the first issue of The California Quarterly.

The California Quarterly is founded on the conviction that more good writing will come out of the nineteen-fifties than is likely to achieve publication...Contemporary writing is threatened equally by censorship and by obscurantism...We hope to encourage writing that faces up to its time - writers who recognise their responsibility to deal with reality in communicable terms...If we have a claim to newness, it is this moderate position in an immoderate time."

As can be seen from the two statements, there were at least some similarities in the reasons given for starting each publication.

One of the guiding lights behind the founding of The California Quarterly in 1951 was Philip Stevenson, a blacklisted Hollywood writer. Stevenson and his wife had written a play, Counter-Attack, adapted from a Russian story about a soldier trapped in a town occupied by the Germans. It was made into a film in 1945 and the couple stayed in Hollywood, with Stevenson achieving some success as a screenwriter. But he was eventually blacklisted, though he continued to produce scripts under pseudonyms. And he wrote an ambitious series of novels which dealt with a Mexican-American community and the effects of a strike. These were published as by Lars Lawrence because publishers were afraid to allow Stevenson to use his own name. Even so, they sold only in small quantities due to a lack of reviews.

Stevenson wanted a magazine that would provide a platform for committed writers, including many who, like himself, had fallen foul of the blacklist, and he was joined by Thomas McGrath and Sanora Babb in getting The California Quarterly off the ground. Iíll say more about McGrath in a moment but Babb, a novelist and short-story writer, had worked at various jobs, including union organising, and had been connected with an earlier left-wing Hollywood magazine, The Clipper.

It's not my intention to provide a complete history of either The California Quarterly or Coastlines, and I'm more concerned to show that they existed despite having been ignored by literary historians. And I'm concerned to throw a little light on at least some of the poets they printed. Looking at a related publication, the first (and only) issue of Poetry Los Angeles, inclines me to the view that only Thomas McGrath continues to be known, and I suspect that even he has a reputation limited mostly to readers familiar with left-wing poetry. E.P.Thompson acknowledged that McGrath was neglected but said: "Yet McGrath's poetry will be remembered in one hundred years when many more fashionable voices have been forgotten. Here is a poet addressing not poets only but speaking in a public voice to a public which has not yet learned to listen to him." I'm not sure that the "public" will ever listen to McGrath, any more than it listens to other poets, but that doesn't alter the fact of his importance. He was a major voice in American poetry but his un-apologetic left-wing views certainly kept him from becoming better-known.

McGrath was born in 1916, grew up on a farm, went to university and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. The Second World War stopped him taking up the Scholarship so he taught, did various jobs, and spent some years in the army. He was also active in communist agitation on the New York waterfront. He took up the Scholarship in the late Forties and also lived in France, where he wrote a novel, This Coffin Has No Handles, dealing with the struggles against corrupt union leaders and ruthless bosses in New York. He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and taught at Los Angeles State College but lost his job when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and declined to answer questions about his political activities.

It has been said of McGrath that he "stood at the centre of the community of poets in Los Angeles in the 1950s," and it's true that he seems to have been something of an inspiration to many younger poets. He also created a large body of work of his own. His major accomplishment, written over a period of time, was the long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, which E.P.Thompson said could be "justly compared" to Wordsworth's The Prelude: "There is the same autobiographical structure (and the same indefiniteness as to biographic detail); the same recovery of childhood experience, seen through both the child's eye and the adult poet; the same central concern with political experience; the same strenuous attempt to settle mythological accounts with the poet's own time." And the critic, Terrence Des Pres, described it as a "Poem of witness to the radical spirit - the generous wish,' as McGrath calls it - of American populist tradition." This is not the place to look closely at Letter to an Imaginary Friend, but it's worth noting that the impulse to write it stemmed from the time when McGrath was blacklisted but mixing with the poets in Los Angeles:

"Iíll tell you how it started. Some of us used to go to each other's places. Don Gordon, Ed Rolfe, Naomi Replansky. We'd read poems to each other. They'd normally be torn to shreds. Don asked me, "What are you doing now? Do you have any plans?' I told him, 'I have this notion for this poem. It's very long. As much as fifteen pages. I'm kind of worried about starting the poem.' He said, 'Go home and sit down and write the first line that comes into your head. And go on.' I did that. I didn't know what to write, so I wrote, 'I'm sitting here at 2716 Marsh Street writing, turning east with the world. Dreaming of laughter and indifference.' 2716 Marsh Street is where I lived. Then I began to have these tremendous rushes, and I wrote the poem from morning until night, about fifty odd pages, then I stopped. I didn't know how long it was.1 thought that was the end of it. It wasn't the end...."

The three poets mentioned by McGrath in that passage were all linked to the Los Angeles poetry world and were published in The California Quarterly and Coastlines. Don Gordon, like McGrath, was blacklisted from his work as a reader for various film studios because of his refusal to answer questions when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Less obviously political in his poems than McGrath, he nonetheless engaged with the social situation, with his poems hinting at the state of mind that created, or was caused by, political paranoia and suspicion:

They need an enemy to tear apart
in the mad season
When the air is burning and the cloud
signals unbearable change.
The dissenter is born alive on the edges
of the weather.

I've written about Edwin Rolfe elsewhere (see the essay in Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals) so wonít say too much here. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War he'd moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find work in the film industry, but his communist affiliations meant that he was viewed with suspicion. He would have appeared before the Committee but died from a heart attack in 1954. Naomi Replansky, born in 1918, did a variety of jobs as well as writing. I donít think she was an active left-winger, but her short poem, "Epitaph:1945," identifies where her sympathies lay:

My spoon was lifted when the bomb came down
That left no face, no hand, no spoon to hold.
One hundred thousand died in my hometown.
This came to pass before my soup was cold.

The California Quarterly published a wide variety of writers, among them British left-wingers like Randall Swingler, Jack Beeching, Maurice Carpenter, and Ewart Milne. Most of them are forgotten now, though Swingler has had some attention thanks to Andy Croft's sterling work. They appeared alongside American radicals Ben Field, Dalton Trumbo, and Albert Maltz. The latter pair were members of the Hollywood Ten and had served prison sentences for refusing to co-operate with the Committee. The magazine wasn't just devoted to poetry and mixed fiction, articles, and art work with the poems, with most of it having a left-liberal approach.

When The California Quarterly closed down in 1956 its role as an outlet for the kind of poets I've referred to was taken over by Coastlines, a journal started in 1955 with the encouragement of Thomas McGrath. It's significant that the editors, Mel Weisburd and Gene Frumkin, had been students of McGrath's before he was dismissed from his teaching post. Neither claimed to be as radical as McGrath, nor did they experience problems relating to their jobs (Weisburd was an expert in air pollution control and Frumkin editor of a trade newspaper), but they had liberal views and were not afraid to publish McGrath, Gordon, and Rolfe, along with William Pillin who had been a member of the Dynamo Group in New York in the 1930s. They also gave space to John Beecher. He had lost his job at San Francisco State College in 1950 when he refused to sign a loyalty oath. His work was described by Thomas McGrath as "a holy rage at the enemy at home and a mine of tenderness for the insulted and injured, the jailed and blacklisted." Written in a direct way, and with some Walt Whitman-like overtones, Beecher's poems used the rhythms of the spoken voice to determine line lengths, and they chronicled the struggles of workers and blacks, as well as providing a kind of alternative history of America. The following extract is from an early poem, written in the 1930s, but gives an indication of how Beecher liked to let situations speak for themselves:

he fell off his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lived a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made out a report saying
it was carelessness
and the craneman should have known better
from twenty years experience
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he'd ought to fix that guardrail

Beecher was still writing radical poetry in the 1950s and it's easy to understand why he received little acknowledgement from academic circles or the literary establishment. Neither the style or the content of his work would have appealed to those who see themselves as arbiters of what is good or relevant, and the political atmosphere of the period would have worked against Beecher getting favourably reviewed or even reviewed at all. Ignoring the possibilities of alternative approaches is often a way for those in control to convince themselves that they are right.

Coastlines lasted until 1964 and so was able to "filter the literary experiments and social humanism" of earlier decades "through the lens of the fifties and to look toward the future." There was a general upsurge in literary activity in the 1950s, with groups like the Beats, the New York poets, the Black Mountain school, and the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, breaking into print. And Coastlines inevitably reflected some of this activity and published poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. But the editors were never over-awed by the Beats and there was a certain amount of friction between them and the Beat group that gathered around Lawrence Lipton (an old radical who re-surfaced in the Fifties) in the Venice West district of Los Angeles. Thomas McGrath expressed doubts about the quality of much Beat writing, and William Pillin said that "the poets of Los Angeles are moved by the same psychic motivations as the poets of San Francisco, but perhaps in a manner less calculated to provoke a journalistic sensation." It should be noted that the arguments the Coastlines editors had with Lawrence Lipton didn't stop them using his work and his witty poem,"I was a Poet for the FBI," appeared in the magazine. And poets like Curtis Zahn and Charles Bukowski, who didn't slot easily into any kind of category, also found a home in Coastlines. Their work, if not political in the way that McGrath's was, could still be seen as descended from a strain of American poetry that asked questions about the status quo.

The aim of this piece has been to draw attention to the two magazines and some of the poets they published. I also wanted to show how, even in bad times, it's possible to sustain some sort of opposition. It would be foolish to pretend that what happened in the United States during the McCarthy years was repression of a kind experienced by dissident writers in Russia and Eastern Europe. There were casualties, it's true, but most of the Americans survived, found other jobs, and often got their work published, even if major publishers and leading magazines refused to consider it. Small presses and little magazines came to the rescue, as we've seen from this brief study of The California Quarterly and Coastlines. But it still required a degree of courage to carry on writing socially-conscious poetry in an atmosphere when even the mildest form of protest could attract the attention of the police and employers. And "guilt by association" could be used as a stick to threaten those who weren't radicals but mixed with them. Ann Stanford, who had poems in Coastlines, was asked to participate in a reading in 1955 and recorded in her diary: "I had some hesitation when they asked me to submit something because of the blacklisting of people who even associate with people who are suspected of leftist leanings, and Tom McGrath and his wife always participate so prominently in these affairs." She was worried that her architect husband might not get government jobs if she was seen as a leftist sympathiser. It was a sad situation and W.B. Price, whose father was blacklisted, remembered "how courageous poets like Tom McGrath were in the face of it."

Readers wanting more information are referred to Poets of the Non-Existent City. Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era, edited by Estelle Gershgoren Novak, published by the University of New Mexico Press, 2002. This is a well-documented anthology of some of the poets published in The California Quarterly and Coastlines.

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications