A century of history in poetry

When you’re planning to write about the entire 20th century, where on earth do you start?

If you’re poet Campbell McGrath – who knows a thing or two about covering historical ground in his work – you dive in anywhere you can.

“When I started, I wasn’t sure I could ever do such a crazy thing,” McGrath says of his new book “XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century” (Ecco). “I thought, ‘Just let me start somewhere.’ So I started writing about Picasso in the first decade in Paris.”

In that first poem Picasso encounters Montmartre (“a riot of cobblestones, stray dogs and peddlers/baroque bird kiosks as in Barcelona, windmills/on the butte … .”) and kicks off 99 more works, all in different voices and styles.

McGrath, a former MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner who teaches at Florida International University and lives in Miami Beach, spent years researching the project.

“People always ask me, “What would you be if you weren’t a poet – would you be a novelist?” No, I’d be a historian,” says the author of 13 previous works of poetry, including “Seven Notebooks,” “In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys.” “It’s just another kind of storytelling.”

Q: I don’t often think of poetry as requiring a lot of research, but that can’t be the case here.

A: I’m sitting in my office now, and there are boxes and boxes of books that I’ve been reading, history books, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t know anything about Picasso – that’s one of the reasons I started there. I knew I’d write a poem about Elvis. But I had no idea I wanted to write poems about Picasso.

Q: In studying the 20th century, did you find one overarching theme?

A: There’s not exactly one theme . … It’s more focused on art and culture, not the history of technology, although I do write about Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. … Politics is part of it, too. Mao ended up being a big character, much to my surprise. He’s the spokesman for the totalitarian part of the 20th century, especially considering the importance of propaganda. Really, the Cold War dominated the 20th century. It was two marketing campaigns. ... And they didn’t battle with armies – it was like Coke versus Pepsi. You can trace that back to George Orwell thinking and writing about that. … That led me to Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry, which led me to 1991 and political consultant Lee Atwater. ... The current campaign we’re in reminds us you don’t just use public relations to sell cigarettes. You use it to sell presidents.

Q: That’s particularly relevant this year, isn’t it?

A: I finished writing this book before this campaign started. The last campaigns weren’t like this one. Trump is a salesman, a marketer. No one even pretends this isn’t a salesman’s job anymore.