Campbell McGrath: The Post-Punk Walt Whitman

Special Topics: Sources, Scenes & Influence

Here’s Campbell McGrath talking about his early days as a poet:


And here’s what Lita has to say about him:


Campbell McGrath was born in 1962, making him almost fifty years old.  He grew up in Washington, D.C. and went to Sidwell Friends School with Elizabeth Alexander, who is also a poet (Alexander read an original poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration).  He attended the University of Chicago, where he received his Bachelor of Arts (and, more interestingly, was a member of a punk band called Men from the Manly Planet).  At Columbia University, he was in creative writing classes with fiction writer Rick Moody and received a Master of Fine Arts in 1988.  McGrath has published many collections of poetry and has won quite a few awards.  He is also a co-translator of Aristophanes’s play, The Wasps.  He is married to Elizabeth Lichtenstein and has two sons.  Although he has taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in the past, he currently teaches creative writing at Florida International University in Miami.


Interviewers always ask McGrath about the lengths of his poems.  Sometimes a single poem can fill an entire book.  When asked why he writes such long poems, McGrath said, “If you play with a lot of toys you need a big box in which to throw them.”  He is often asked why he doesn’t just write prose, but he says the epic poem needs a better rep these days.

His poems often have a narrative “road trip” feel.  He believes setting is extremely important to his work, providing not only a location but a cultural background for his poems.  McGrath also likes to reference pop culture.  He work can be satirical.  His writing is also influenced by history; his book, Shannon, is an epic poem about George Shannon, the youngest member of The Corps of Discovery, more commonly known as Lewis and Clark’s expedition.


This guy is a big fan of Walt Whitman.  William Carlos Williams’s Patterson was also influential to him.  McGrath’s “Bob Hope Poem” was inspired by two other poems: “An Explanation of America,” by Robert Pinsky and “Four Good Things,” by James McMichael.

(As for his time as a punk musician, McGrath says it was just a short-lived college thing, but he still likes music.  Some of his favorites are The Ramones, The Clash, Gang of Four, Angry Samoans, The Replacements, and Pavement.  Music inspired him to write Pax Atomica, which is about rock ‘n’ roll music and covers everything from Guns ‘n’ Roses to The Sex Pistols.)


Like I said, McGrath would like to be the Walt Whitman of the Twenty-First Century.  His poems are both appreciative and critical of America (and more locally, Chicago).    In one interview, McGrath said he would like to write an epic poem about Elvis spending time in purgatory.  He didn’t say this for certain, but I have a feeling he was inspired by the way Dante placed Virgil in The Divine Comedy to guide him through the afterlife.      

McGrath and Beth Ann Fennelly probably have more differences than similarities.  I get the impression that McGrath spends most of his time trying to bring writing styles of yore into the twenty-first century; Fennelly doesn’t do that as much.  The subject matter is different, too (although both writers apparently like babies and travel, but most people do).  Generally speaking, McGrath likes to use block text, while Fennelly uses more line breaks.  Both of them write about their own experiences, to an extent.  Their work is often experimental, with poems-inside-of-poems (or in Fennelly’s case, a poem written on sticky notes commenting on another poem).  Their poems make sense, for the most part.  If you filled a fishbowl with McGrath and Fennelly’s poetry, I feel fairly certain that we could determine who wrote what.

One thought on “Campbell McGrath: The Post-Punk Walt Whitman

  1. Elli March 6, 2012 / 4:07 pm

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems that McGrath is a pretty much a lyrical poet. He mostly leans on sound and imagery rather than form or plot. All of his work is carefully constructed with beautiful words that fit together well.

    I think he approaches poetry in a similar way as myself, in that the best way to write, is to experience as many different things as possible and acquire knowledge of a number of subjects.

    I admire his ability to write so eloquently about a menagerie of related things or actions, to boil down to one purpose of a poem.
    This is demonstrated in his poem, “Nights on Planted Earth,” which is one of my favorite McGrath poems.

    Comparing with Whitman vs. Dickinson, I think his poetry is more similar to Walt Whitman. Reading his poems, I feel like he is more focused on conveying large statements to society, rather than just writing for himself and his own mind, which I believe Whitman did more so than Dickinson.

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