This is a book review written a few years ago. I was lucky enough to see Campbell read from this book at Moe’s in Berkeley. Only a handful of people were there for the reading, it was before the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer but still that’s the Bay Area, so many great poets coming through all the time means there are opportunities to see great poets in intimate settings.
Campbell McGrath has produced an ambitious project with his book XX: Poems For The Twentieth Century, a book that provides a literary experience well worth the effort of reading its full 222 pages. McGrath’s collection is a sequence of poems for every year from 1900 to 2000 plus a epilogue for 2016, 102 poems in all. The poems themselves delve into the artistic, literary, musical, philosophical and technological aspects of the century. This is a book where we are asked to perceive the twentieth century as a river that McGrath has taken a dipper of material out for each year. There is a chance feel to the flow of the historical subjects he is choosing, yet the overall experience is one of control and care.
McGrath has a real history himself, author of ten collections of poetry and numerous awards including a Guggenheim fellowship and a McArthur Genius Award. He’s known for long-lined, documentary poems that connect with American popular culture and business, however while known for the long poem he writes both prose poems and shorter lyric poems as well. This book demonstrates McGrath’s mastery of form as he works in a range of forms in XX. He varies them throughout the book, his free verse exhibiting a wide diversity of lineation and stanza patterns from poem to poem, including visual and columnar poems as well as formal constructs such as a villanelle about Charlie Parker, a sestina about Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a canzone about Picasso and Guernica.
McGrath has said that he was surprised by who ended up showing up as he worked on the project, a project that took several years as he also developed other books concurrently. Picasso dominates much of the century in the book, showing up a total of twelve times starting in 1900 and ending with his death in 1973. Mao is another character that shows up often, nine times in total, followed by Matisse for five. A quarter of the book is taken up with these three individuals. Two of whom are emblematic of the modernist movements of the twentieth century art world, the other McGrath has described in interviews as being the spokesman for “the totalitarian part of the twentieth century”.
While the book is a broad sweep of the twentieth century we have these recurring individuals present their own arcs both personally and culturally. In this way McGrath also personalizes the collection, providing emotional content and concern for individuals. By following these strands of key people through the book readers experience more than an apparent random sampling of the century. For example, Matisse is presented in very human terms. The first poem Matisse: Paris (1906), a poem in long lines and irregular stanzas is written in Matisse’s voice and his reactions to laughter at this work in a Paris show in 1905. Seventeen years later we get the poem Mattise:Nice (1923) which deals with his continued obsession with painting and how it has affected his relationships, looking forward and back. Mattise:Tahiti (1930) has Mattise questioning his choice to be so far away from family. Mattie:Nice (1946) where he has been told by a doctor he will die each of the last four years but he has hung on, he also talks about being visited by his daughter Marguerite who was tortured by the Nazis for her French Resistance work. Five years later in Mattise:Venice (1951) he is in constant pain and continues to doubt his own artistic legacy but also the value of art for humanity. From this last Matisse poem:
Who would dare predict that any work of art will last,
that anything touched by the hand of man will live beyond the
stench of this murderous, mirror-painted century of pain?
What we get from McGrath is a sketch of a man’s life, a view of an artist full of self-doubt and practicing isolationism for his art in contrast to the risk his daughter took and the price she paid and we also find him finally at the end of his life questioning the value of his life’s work. But also in this last Matisse poem we see this sketch is a comment on the twentieth century itself. This is provided within the context of the century’s flow, with poems on other subjects in between, and this Matisse sequence in particular illustrates the complexity of what McGrath has accomplished. He has written within the constraint of a single poem for each year where the sum of these poems represents a collaged view of the twentieth century. But within this constraint he has also provided an understanding of specific lives like Matisse; their humanity as well as the personal costs of their drive even as they contributed to the greater culture and society. All done in poetic form.
For these characters McGrath writes in their voice or the voice of someone close around them and is as interested in the personalities as he is in the historic content. The three main recurring characters take on extra meaning given the weight they are given in the book, representing more than their human selves by taking on symbolic value for the twentieth century itself.
It is as interesting to see who wasn’t chosen as who was. No politicians other than Mao; no Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt or Kennedy as you might expect. And while Joseph Gobbels and Lee Atwater were in the political sphere they are here for their interest in the development of the propaganda rather than political leadership. And despite the constant presence of pop culture in the latter half of the actual twentieth century we are limited in the book to a handful of icons such as Elvis, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.
One the most interesting choices is for 1982. McGrath chooses the poet Héctor Viel Temperley as his subject, an Argentine ecstatic surrealist poet who died of cancer in 1987. 1982 was the publication of Temperley’s second last book, Crawl, in Argentina. This book length poem was translated into English in 2011 by Stuart Krimko and published in The Last Books Of Héctor Viel Temperley by Sand Paper Press. Temperley during his lifetime seldom gave readings and his nine collections were often published in limited runs, yet he is now considered in Argentina to be one of their great poets of the twentieth century. He is a fascinating subject for McGrath to choose and an elusive one, an Argentine poet who is not necessarily well known outside of the literary community in Argentina.
Crawl repeats the line “I come straight from communion and I’m in ecstasy” at the start of each section of the long poem. In an interview included in The Last books of Héctor Viel Temperley the poet talks about how careful he was to create a structure of the poem that resembled a man swimming, both sonically and visually as well as his desire to make the poem a prayer. McGrath in his poem picks up on the themes and form Temperley was exploring in his surrealistic work including the use of the refrain and explicitly the theme of swimming. McGrath produces a tribute to Temperley that embodies Temperley’s original purpose, a prayer. If we contrast the first stanza of Crawl with the 1982 poem of XX we can see a good example of McGrath’s poetics.
The start of Crawl:
I come straight from communion and I’m in ecstasy,
though I took it like a drowned man,
while in a cell
of my memory the rain
from the southeast intensifies
The start of McGrath’s To Héctor Viel Temperley (1982):
I rise straight from the ocean and I am in ecstasy
though I aspire to arrive like a wave
What also distinguishes this poem is the lyricism and surreal material which do not appear to any great extent in the other poems in XX. This is another example of McGrath’s virtuosity, his ability to write in different forms and voices. It also demonstrates the wide and varied range of interest he has in twentieth century artists. The subject of this particular poem prompts a reader to research Temperley and while McGrath’s poem is engaging without this extra effort it does work to open up the Argentine artist’s poetry as a possibility for exploration for an audience likely unfamiliar with him. Many of the subjects of the poems invite this opportunity to research outside the confines of the collection to enhance the experience of the book.
While the idea of writing a poem for each year of the century sounds ambitious enough, when we look at the whole project it is has an impressive depth and variety as well as breadth that McGrath has created with his own unique curation of twentieth century culture and personages. With the complex layering and sheer richness of this material it is the kind of book which prompts return visits.