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Daniel Halpern, McGrath’s professor at Columbia and editor-in-chief of Ecco Press, has described McGrath as having “an invigorating and authentic voice that responds to the sights, scents, and sense of this country.” He compares McGrath to Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, citing McGrath’s “long lines” and “booming voice.” McGrath further shares with Whitman and Ginsberg an intense interest in U.S. society and culture. Beyond describing America’s landscapes in all their natural abundance and, sometimes, vacuity, McGrath’s mostly free-verse work suggests what these vistas might say about the country’s people and their values.

Now living in Miami with Lichtenstein and their sons, Sam, 6, and Jackson, 1, McGrath has “read all the books” about Florida’s flora and fauna, and he’s also traveled throughout the state. “I feel like it’s my job,” he says, “to read whatever latest books are going to shed new light on something interesting in America, but also to get in my car and drive to Tallahassee with the kids, because the reality of that drive is more reality than the book that explains Southern agrarian reform or something.” McGrath says he believes the 7-Eleven to be as appropriate a place for conducting a dialogue about Wittgenstein as, say, a U of C classroom. “You can bring those two threads together: our bizarre, consumerist, material culture, and intellectual thinking about it,” he explains.

It’s with a comedic and satiric voice that McGrath unites his pop-culture and intellectual threads, using them to explore themes recurrent throughout his work such as the tension created in American society by “this utterly admirable energy and desire to do good, without a very sophisticated actual understanding of what good might be.” Ulysses Grant, Henry Ford, and Fred Flintstone represent that quality in some of McGrath’s earlier books. So, in Spring Comes to Chicago, does the character of Bob Hope.

“The Bob Hope Poem” is the largest, most sprawling piece of Spring Comes to Chicago. The six-part poem is framed by two much shorter sections, “Joy” and “The Pregnancy Triptych,” comprised of one poem and three poems, respectively. The first and final parts establish a context within the poet-narrator’s life for the more discursive middle section. “The more I thought about Bob Hope,” McGrath recalls, “the more he seemed symbolic of other things—mainly, the ways in which money functions in our society.” The comedian’s approach to life seemed to capture the ideals of an entire generation, says McGrath—the generation of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. “If the other guy was doing five shows, he would do seven shows,” he explains. “He wanted it more, and he worked harder.” Consuming 70 of the book’s 87 pages, the central poem took McGrath seven years to complete. “‘The Bob Hope Poem’ took over my life,” he says. “It bossed me around rather than the opposite.”

The start of “The Bob Hope Poem” finds the narrator flipping through People magazine while marooned in his Chicago apartment by a whirl of falling snow. The poem has People reporting that Hope has appeared on a late-night TV talk show, discussing a tract of his land that’s become hot property. Forced to choose between development and conservation, the poem’s Hope character sees no contest. “…he wants a championship golf course and hundreds of beautiful ranch-style homes,” writes McGrath in his long, lyrical lines, “ what if he’s a nonagenarian he wants that extra twenty-five million bucks so bad he can taste it.” Like Alice chasing her wayward cat down a rabbit hole, the narrator embarks on a critique of this set of values that begins as an amusing pastime but gradually gives way to a complicated wonderland calling into question some of the culture’s most basic assumptions, particularly those defined by the elder generation’s attitude toward money.

Like many in that generation, says McGrath, his poem’s Hope personage misunderstands the value of the money he possesses. “He’s imagining some magical good might occur to him just for holding on to his money instead of giving it up at this point,” the poet explains.

Everyday sights and sounds, as well as references to popular culture, place the poem’s narrator within a recognizably Chicagoan, recognizably American landscape, replete with Birdseye frozen vegetables, in-flight magazines, CNN, the Discovery Channel, Montgomery Ward, and “Wal- or K- or What-the-Hey Mart.” On the other hand, the poetic pastiche samples snippets of pithy text from such distinguished and varied sources as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, U of C anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, M.I.T. neuroscientist Steven Pinker, and Italian novelist Italo Calvino. Says McGrath, “Poetry is diverse enough and variable enough that I can get so many things that I am interested in into it. I can get culture and data into it, but I can also get music into the writing.”

McGrath asks just as much of himself as a teacher. While he sees his main job as encouraging his students in their craft, he also spends time responding to their practical concerns. He never assumed that writing poetry alone would earn him his living, nor does he expect his students to rely on the craft to earn them theirs. “Some people are happy with the notion of being an artist, and that means you’re living in the gutter, and you have some sort of Dostoevskian lifestyle,” he says, adding, “That was never what attracted me to art.” Even as he pursued his creative work, McGrath was always looking for a way to make a living. “Had there been no way,” he says, “then it would have seemed very kooky to me to pursue it.”

One current student, Polly A. Roberts, AB’94, recalls a time during her first year in the College when she had McGrath, then a visiting poet, as a teacher at the U of C. She was not enjoying school and figured that McGrath, as an alumnus, might be able to help. “I asked Campbell if I could talk to him, and he took me on a walk, which is his way, and just talked to me,” she says. “He’s a very open person without being at all sentimental.”

Several years later, Roberts, who by then was a creative-writing graduate student in Houston, learned that McGrath had accepted a position heading the poetry program at FIU. She switched schools to study with McGrath and will complete her master’s degree in spring 1999. “Campbell is a very good poet, and he’s also a very good teacher,” says Roberts, “and that’s a difficult combination to find.”

The teacher remains a perpetual student, if these days only as an autodidact in a life already “overfull with things to do.” But he admits to “really, really wasting time” on occasion. One favorite time waster is the CD-ROM game Civilization II. “Those strategic, highly involved planning games always appealed to me,” he says. It’s this penchant for strategy, perhaps, that helps him navigate his overfull life, balancing his art and teaching, organizing the overflow of a 70-page poem. The sturdy structures he’s crafted, both in life and in work, support an abundance of disparate material.

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