Death is so consistently on the lips of poets—either in so many words or in more veiled terms—that the death of the poet himself might come as something less than a shock, an eventuality amply provided for by the tenor of the poems. Yet when Mark Strand died, at eighty, in late November, after a battle with cancer, it struck a deep chord among poets and readers, for whom he was one of the signal voices of the late twentieth century. Years earlier, Strand had looked ahead to the melancholy event, not without humor, in “My Death,” which begins:
Sadness, of course, and confusion.
The relatives gathered at the graveside,
talking about the waste, and the weather mounting,
the rain moving in vague pillars offshore.
This is Prince Edward Island.
I came back to my birthplace to announce my death.
I said I would ride full gallop into the sea
and not look back. People were furious.
His characteristic tone moves seamlessly from wry irony to an intimate interiority that carries strong feeling. Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and spent his early years in Canada and the United States, before moving as a teenager to Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. A return to childhood, similar to the one in “My Death,” figures in another poem from the sequence, “My Life by Somebody Else,” in his book Darker (1970). Strand’s mordant catalogue of his aging body in “Not Dying” is redeemed by the Proustian memory of his mother’s kisses:
These wrinkles are nothing.
These gray hairs are nothing.
This stomach which sags
with old food, these bruised
and swollen ankles,
my darkening brain,
they are nothing.
I am the same boy
my mother used to kiss.
The years change nothing.
On windless summer nights
I feel those kisses
slide from her dark
lips far away,
and in winter they float
over the frozen pines
and arrive covered with snow.
They keep me young.
The poem’s landscape—part actual, part abstraction—typifies what Strand called “That shadow land between self and reality.” This surrealist-inflected realm is the setting for most of his poems. Strand was an admirer of De Chirico (whose paintings inspire two of the poems in Blizzard of One from 1998), and many of Strand’s poems occupy a linguistic space akin to Chirico’s metaphysical courtyards and cityscapes.
Strand began not as a poet, but as a painter. In fact, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, “I was never much good with language as a child,” though his linguistic skills did see him though a B.A. at Antioch in 1957 and, later, a successful sideline as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese poetry. He took a second bachelor’s degree in 1959, this one of fine arts, under Josef Albers at Yale. The painter William Bailey, another student of Albers, had taken his master’s degree there. Strand and Bailey became lifelong friends. Bailey and his wife, Sandy, are the dedicatees of several of Strand’s poems, as well as of his collection Dark Harbor (1993), which featured a Bailey still-life (“Dark Harbor III”) on the cover.
Strand saw the humor of trading his prospects as a painter for the even more unlikely prospects of a poet. As he jokes in an essay in The New York Times Book Review in 1991—published after his term as U.S. poet laureate—when Strand got home after art school, his mother was concerned. He would have to struggle for years in obscurity, she told him, and even then there were no guarantees that he would be able to support himself with his art. When he told her that he intended to trade painting for poetry, his mother said, “But then you’ll never be able to earn a living.” In reaction, Stand began to read aloud to her “The Idea of Order at Key West,” by Wallace Stevens, as an example of the transcendent power embodied by his newly chosen art. She promptly fell asleep. In the end, his mother needn’t have worried. Strand was one of our most laurelled poets, receiving countless honors, a hefty MacArthur fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and a series of prestigious professorships.
Strand was one of that astonishing group of poets selected for Atheneum and Knopf by Harry Ford. A gifted book designer as well as editor, Ford spent his fifty-four years in publishing championing the work of Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Mark Strand, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Richard Howard, and others.
Strand was proud to be one of Harry’s poets. He once told me how it was that he came to work with Ford. “I was in Brazil in 1965,” Strand explained, “and I applied for an Ingram Merrill [grant] and I may have submitted my book to Atheneum. And Harry rejected the book because he said, ‘It’s probably more important for to you to have the [Ingram Merrill] money.’ ” (Ford, who was an officer of Ingram Merrill, wasn’t able both to award a poet the fellowship and publish his book.)
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. Your book will be published.’ Well a couple years went by, and it was turned down by practically every publisher in New York. By chance, I met Harry at a party. He came up to me and said, ‘What ever happened to your book? I’ve been waiting for it to appear.’ I said, ‘Nobody wants it. I’m sending it back to Iowa City to the Stone Wall Press’ (where Strand had published the limited-edition Sleeping with One Eye Open in 1964). ‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘Send it to me; let me look at it.’ ”
Strand got a call two days later saying that Atheneum would publish his book Reasons for Moving and publish it quickly, in a matter of months.
“I mean he saved my ass. He saved me,” Strand exclaimed. “I was loyal to Harry, even when Atheneum went under. I was waiting for him to show up some place. He could have shown up at Podunk University Press, and, you know, I was there! It was Harry who put together that list.”
Painting continued to attract his attention, both as an artist and a critic. (A suite of his prints from his “Islands” series appeared in a recent issue of The Hopkins Review.) Strand showed his work in a number of New York galleries, but he devoted at least as much energy to considering the work of other painters, such as Bailey and Edward Hopper, both of whom became subjects for book-length studies. In the fall of 2003, Strand interviewed Bailey for The New Criterion. What Bailey speaks of as one of his aspirations as an artist holds for Strand as a poet:
I was aspiring toward . . . the idea of a slowed down, slowly unfolding image, where the gesture, the attitude, were clear, but had no particular narrative importance. I wanted to paint in a way that the painter, the “I,” disappeared into the work, rather than having the work show my own skill or bravura or whatever. I felt strongly, and still do, that it should be the work that speaks, and not the painter.
Strand’s poems similarly eschew bravura flourishes and ostentatious technique, such as the kind of metrical effects he admired in the work of Hecht and Richard Wilbur but felt were not right for him. “Poetry is about slowing down,” as he told People magazine (who clearly knew a rock star when they saw one!). “You sit and you read something, you read it again, and it reveals a little bit more, and things come to light you never could have predicted.” As with Bailey, the narrative is suggestive; the slowed-down gesture of the poem unfolds in a shadow land. As Strand wrote of Hopper, in his book of that title, “It is my contention that Hopper’s paintings transcend the appearance of actuality and locate the viewer in a virtual space where the influence and availability of feeling predominate. My reading of that space is the subject of this book.” It is also the setting of his poems.
“You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street,” Strand told Wallace Shawn in The Paris Review:
You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were . . . thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral. But there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world.
Strand was not interested in making the actual world more comfortable for readers, by writing poems that affirmed their carefully held suppositions about the world. He didn’t buy such literary palliatives for a second:
You see, these little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted—we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. People like John Ashbery or Stevens do just the opposite—they try to explode those reductions. There’s a desire in Ashbery, for example, to create perfect non sequiturs, to continually take us off guard.
Strand was an admirer of Ashbery and of Jorie Graham (and he found a kindred aesthetic spirit in the work of Louise Glück), but ultimately he understood that, while he shared their resistance to bland realism and confession, their poems were not alike. One wonders, when reading Ashbery, when his poems will ever leave the comfort of their own sly register, with its dazzling slipknots of language, for something more affecting, more sanguinary. Unlike Ashbery and Graham, Strand speaks with unadorned simplicity about a world we half recognize—from dreams perhaps or from long inward gazing. The ground may be abstract but the figures are palpable, like Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The tone, as many have noted, is masterly—smart, funny, self-deprecating, full of longing, and unflinchingly introspective.
Not surprising for a poet who takes his own psyche as his subject, the poems frequently touch on poetry, its addictive pleasures: “There is no happiness like mine./ I have been eating poetry.” But, for me, his signature poems are those that limn the borders of his shadow land and then invite us to move around in it and even to stay:
Like many brilliant notions—easy to understand
But hard to believe—the one about hating it here
Was put aside and then forgotten. Those freakish winds
Over the flaming lake, bearing down, bringing a bright
Electrical dust, an ashen air crowded with leaves—
Fallen, ghostly—shading the valley, filling it with
A rushing sound, were not enough to drive us out.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 86
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