Remembering Mark Strand

Last Saturday, the Pulitzer Prize-winner and former US poet laureate died at the age of 80. William Grimes looks back to his early work:

His first poetry collection, “Sleeping With One Eye Open,” published in 1964, set the tone. … Echoes of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop could be heard in his compressed, highly specific language and wintry cast of mind, as could painters like Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte and Edward Hopper, whose moody clarity and mysterious shadows dovetailed with Strand’s own sensibility.

“He is not a religious poet on the face of it, but he fits into a long tradition of meditation and contemplation,” said David Kirby, the author of “Mark Strand and the Poet’s Place in Contemporary Culture” and a professor of English at Florida State University. “He makes you see how trivial the things of this world are, and how expansive the self is, once you unhook it from flat-screen TVs and iPhones.” Reading Mr. Strand, he said, “We learn what a big party solitude is.”

Dan Chiasson asserts that Strand’s poems were “often about the inner life’s methods of processing its social manifestations”:

At least since “Reasons For Moving” (1968), his second volume, Strand surveyed his outward circumstances—relative health and prosperity, growing fame, the undeniable good fortune of being alive—from a peephole cut into the exterior wall of his solitude. The weirdness was all out there, where a suave and handsome man named Strand moved among other columns of flesh and bone; in here, alone with the moods, the mind, our memories of childhood and love, we found what Strand called, in his book-length poem of this name, “The Continuous Life.” It could be harrowing, but it was never proprietary: we all shared the same secret; Strand’s poems of the inner life were sometimes like expressions of our own: “some shy event, some secret of the light that falls upon the deep/Some source of sorrow that does not wish to be discovered yet.” (“Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life.”)

“The Continuous Life” continues after death, whose abrupt appearance, breaking up the party, Strand often described. Life is a waltz, a “Delirium Waltz,” as he called it in his greatest poem—collected in his best book, one of the finest of the past fifty years, “Blizzard of One”—which ends when the music ends. It is in the nature of waltzes that we cannot foretell their duration ahead of time. Waltzing to delirium, we might think that they never end. And then the music stops. It happened on Saturday for Strand, a great poet and a kind man.

In a 2012 interview, Strand considered poetry’s place in contemporary society:

It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. Poetry has a humanizing influence. Poetry delivers an inner life that is articulated to the reader. People have inner lives, but they are poorly expressed and rarely known. They have no language by which to bring it out into the open. Two people deeply in love can look at each other and not have much to say except “I love you.” It gets kind of boring after awhile—after the first ten or twenty years. I don’t expect that from heads of state; I don’t expect them to look at each other after reading a lot of poetry and say “I love you,” but it reminds us that we have inner lives.

When we read poems from the past we realize that human beings have always been the way we are. We have technological advancements undreamt of a couple thousand years ago, but the way people felt then is pretty much the way people feel now. We can read those poems with pleasure because we recognize ourselves in them. Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. I wish more politicians and heads of state would begin to imagine what it’s like to be human. They’ve forgotten, and it leads to bad things. If you can’t empathize, it’s hard to be decent; it’s hard to know what the other guy’s feeling. They talk from such a distance that they don’t see differences; they don’t see the little things that make up a life. They see numbers; they see generalities. They deal in sound bytes and vacuous speeches; when you read them again, they don’t mean anything.

Strand had this to say about death, one of the great themes of his work, in his Paris Review interview:

It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.

We’ll be featuring Strand’s poetry all weekend.