Born in Chicago to Irish-Catholic parents, McGrath earned his BA from the University of Chicago and MFA from Columbia University. Influenced by Walt Whitman, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke, McGrath writes predominantly free-verse, long-lined, documentary poems deeply engaged with American popular culture and commerce. A master of the long poem, he has also written many prose poems as well as shorter lyrics.

McGrath has published numerous collections of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. In awarding the prize, poet Garrett Hongo labeled McGrath’s unique tone “ironic romanticism.” The centerpiece of the collection, and one of McGrath’s best-known poems, is “The Bob Hope Poem,” a 70-page opus modeled on Robert Pinsky’s “An Explanation of America” and James McMichael’s “Four Good Things.” In a 2005 interview McGrath explained that the poem’s shape “is not a narrative but a symphonic structure.”
McGrath’s many books of poetry include Capitalism (1990); American Noise (1994); Florida Poems (2002); Pax Atomica (2005); Seven Notebooks (2007); and In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (2012). McGrath’s work typically works as a kind of catalog; its long lines attempt to look at the vast complexity of America and penetrate its paradoxes and attractions. Reviewing McGrath’s Seven Notebooks, writer Justin Taylor noted that, “McGrath’s poetry thrives on his dissatisfaction with the world… The same unquenchable passion and taste for thrill that sent the young William Vollmann to the war zones and whores of five continents sent the young McGrath all over the country, looking for America anywhere and—in an important reversal of the proposition set forth by Easy Rider –finding it everywhere.”
McGrath is also the co-translator of Aristophanes’s The Wasps (1999). He has won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares literary journal, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been widely anthologized, including in The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (1999), The New American Poets (2000), and Great American Prose Poems (2003). McGrath has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Florida International University.