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.

A Poem For Sunday


Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions from 1936 until his death in 1997, was also a prolific poet, who established his style with some guidance from William Carlos Williams, one of his most distinguished authors. In Peter Glassgold’s introduction to The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997, the omnibus volume he has edited, I learned that Laughlin dubbed it “typewriter metrics.” Glassgold describes it thus: “The lines in any given stanza could not vary in length more than one typewriter character.” Laughlin said that he was after “an effect of tension from the war between the strictly artificial pattern and the strictly natural spoken rhythms.”

The poem below was written in the mid-30s, around the time he took a trip to Key West to try to talk Elizabeth Bishop into joining his list. She didn’t say yes, but there’s an enchanting picture of her on the steps of a brothel where they were treated to tea, and, as Laughlin recalled, “Oreo cookies, my favorites.”

“What My Head Did to Me” by James Laughlin:

I guess I like myself
pretty well anyway I
wanted a statue of my-
self so I had a woman

make one it was a head
and she modelled it in
clay then one night I
dreamed I’d killed my

very best friend and
there was my head right
there ready to tell on
me when the police came

I tried to destroy the
face so they wouldn’t
know it was me but my
hands stuck tight in

the clay I couldn’t
tear them loose and
there I was when the
police came held by my

own head with the body
of my friend multi-
plying itself like
endless mirrors down

the street that’s the
thing my head did to
me but of course it
was only a dream see.

(From The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997, edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Glassgold © 1995 by James Laughlin. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. Photo by Lori Leaumont)

A Poem For Saturday


Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions, shepherded a list, from 1936 until his death in 1997, which Peter Glassgold describes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997 as one that “steadily expanded to include an astonishing pantheon of contemporary authors, primarily of the Modernist avant-garde, and quite literally changed what educated Americans read and the way American writers wrote and the kinds of poetry and fiction that were taught in our schools.” Today, ND is just as vital a force in contemporary literary culture, and the backlist is, of course, astounding.

Laughlin considered himself primarily a love poet and was encouraged by a number of his treasured authors—among them William Carlos Williams, Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Guy Davenport, who has praised his poems as “witty, elegiac, sexy, satiric, naughty, poignant, wise.” But Ezra Pound whose “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy proved foundationally crucial to Laughlin’s literary education “ruled them hopeless,” he recalled. When prodded as to what path he should take, Pound replied, “ Go back to Haavud to finish up your studies. If you’re a good boy, your parents will give you some money and you can bring out books.” And so they did, launching one of the great publishing houses of the century.

Glassgold tells us that more than three-quarters of the 1,250-odd poems in the new volume date from Laughlin’s last fifteen years. When I was at The New Yorker, we published a number of his poems, which I found so captivating and dear. I loved the one below, which we wanted to publish but couldn’t because I discovered it had already appeared in a book. When I called to give J (as he was called) the sad news, he replied, mischievously, “Poor Gramps—ejected on a technicality!”

“Grandfather” by James Laughlin:

Sits on a chair at the
Kitchen table shelling
Peas into a bowl. He
Looks contented, even
Happy, smiling as he
Works. If you ask him
A question he probably
Won’t answer. He has
No idea what my name is,
Or even, I guess, that
I’m his grandson. He’s
93 but he has to be kept
Busy or he’ll start to
Root around in closets
All over the house. What
Does he think is lost?
No matter, he has been
Asked to shell peas.
He’s happy doing it. And
We’ll have peas for lunch.

(From The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997, edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Glassgold © 1995 by James Laughlin. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue)

A Poem For Friday

by Alice Quinn


My friend Stephen Kramer – who loved poetry and birds, people and life so much – died last Friday, August 8th, after a four-and-a-half year battle with Multiple Myeloma. Steve had been a hugely respected lawyer for the City of New York but retired after his diagnosis in January 2010 at the age of 62.

Recently, he’d been writing a column for The Myeloma Beacon, a blog and online forum for the Myeloma community. I recommend these essays for their gallantry and their portrait of life lived simultaneously on the edge and to the brim.

Steve and I corresponded about poems, and two in particular called out to me in the last days when I was in touch with his family, who also surrounded him with song. The first is Emily Dickinson’s poem #1747 (of 1789), one of hundreds she sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

That Love is all there is
Is all we know of Love,
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.

The second is Walt Whitman’s “When lilac’s last in the dooryard bloom’d.” Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War, and watching the young die was a continual torment to him. He begins with an announcement of the mourning he has performed and ever shall for a man he proclaims later in the poem to be “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” The poem invokes the figure of a hermit thrush, caroling to the bard, “Loud, human song, with voice of utterest woe/…. And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.”

From “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side
of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side
of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding
the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp
in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

(Photo by Justin Young)

Grieving In Verse

Alec Wilkinson tells the story behind the poet Edward Hirsch’s long poem Gabriel, written about the death of his adopted son who died from taking a club drug at age 22. Wilkinson describes the work as a creatively updated form of elegy:

Elegies of any length tend to be collections of poems written over the course of years. The most famous elegy, perhaps, is Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” which is about his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died young of a stroke, in 1833. It includes the lines “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” It consists of a hundred and thirty-one poems and an epilogue written over seventeen years. Thomas Hardy’s elegy for his wife is a series of twenty-one short poems called “Poems of 1912-13.” Mallarmé never finished “A Tomb for Anatole,” his long poem for his son who died at eight; it exists only in fragments. The closest thing to “Gabriel,” at least in tone, might be “Laments,” written in the sixteenth century by the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski for his daughter, who died when she was two and a half. There are nineteen laments altogether, most a single page or less, the last telling of a dream or a vision in which she returns to him.

Elegies also tend to occupy a spiritual ground—to accept an order of things, and to assume an afterlife.

They address God respectfully. In the manner of the Jewish poets who began interrogating God after the Holocaust, and even to wonder if there could be a God who could preside over such horror, Hirsch invokes God in order to rebuke him. “I keep ranting at God, whom I don’t believe in,” he said, “but who else are you going to talk to?” From “Gabriel”:

I will not forgive you

Sun of emptiness

Sky of blank clouds

I will not forgive you

Indifferent God

Until you give me back my son.

Finally, elegies typically elevate their subject. Embedded within “Gabriel” is a picaresque novella about a tempestuous boy and young man, a part Hirsch calls “the adventures of Gabriel.” Eavan Boland wrote me in a letter that “the creation of the loved and lost boy” is one of the poem’s most important effects. It represented, she said, “a subversion of decorum: the subject of elegy is meant to be an object of dignity. But here it is just an unruly son, an unmanageable object of fear and love in a contemporary chaos.”