Eliot v. Whitman:
Who’s to blame?
Interview with poet Campbell McGrath, AB’84.
Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93
Campbell McGrath has published nine poetry collections, including In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (2012), Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2009), Seven Notebooks (2008), and Spring Comes to Chicago (1996). McGrath, who won a McArthur “genius” award in 1999, teaches creative writing at Florida International University.
Why write poetry when the audience is so small?
I don’t know. I’ve always written poetry. My book Shannon is a long historical poem, though that’s a genre that hardly exists anymore. You could write it as a historical novel—that would make more sense. But I don’t write historical novels, I write poems.
We used to tell long stories in poetry, and over the years the novel and film co-opted all the territory of poetry. The ancestral lands of poetry have been constantly denuded. But I don’t think poets have to stand for that.
Your work is so much more accessible than most contemporary poetry.
I appreciate modernism in visual arts and architecture and many other things, but I don’t appreciate its influence in poetry. It certainly destroyed the readership of poetry, which was large early in the 20th century and now is zero. Well, hmm. Somebody has to be held accountable. I would hold T. S. Eliot accountable.
It’s worth reading “The Waste Land,” but you have to read it in conjunction with a great deal of critical apparatus to understand its references. So that’s not really the same as reading poetry. That’s an intellectual, archaeological expedition. John Ashbery is the inheritor of that tradition, and he’s really the king of American living poets.
What tradition do you write in?
For me, the great role model is Walt Whitman, who was writing to an audience. Not really as big as he wanted to have, but he did have an audience of some kind. I don’t, because nobody reads poetry. But that doesn’t stop me from writing as if I did.
The fact that we live in a semiliterate society that doesn’t value art and culture is not my fault. What am I going to do about it? I happen to want to write poems. I’m going to do it.
Capitalist Poem #5
Campbell McGrath, AB’84
I was at the 7–11.
I ate a burrito.
I drank a Slurpee.
I was tired.
It was late, after work—washing dishes.
The burrito was good.
I had another.
I did it every day for a week.
I did it every day for a month.
To cook a burrito you tear off the plastic wrapper.
You push button #3 on the microwave.
Burritos are large, small, or medium.
Red or green chili peppers.
Beef or bean or both.
There are 7–11’s all across the nation.
On the way out I bought a quart of beer for $1.39.
I was aware of social injustice
in only the vaguest possible way.
Reprinted with the permission of the author. Originally in Capitalism (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).