"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Literature in the News: Mark Strand, RIP

 A bit of sad news today.  The renown poet and former American Poet Laureate, Mark Strand, passed away yesterday.  From the New York Times Obituary:

Mark Strand, whose spare, deceptively simple investigations of rootlessness, alienation and the ineffable strangeness of life made him one of America’s most hauntingly meditative poets, died on Saturday at his daughter’s home in Brooklyn. He was 80.

His daughter, Jessica Strand, said the cause was liposarcoma, a rare cancer of the fat cells.

Mr. Strand, who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1990 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 for his collection Blizzard of One, made an early impression with short, often surreal lyric poems that imparted an unsettling sense of personal dislocation — what the poet and critic Richard Howard called “the working of the divided self.”

The Wikipedia entry states that people confused Strand’s poetry with that of Robert Bly, another leading contemporary American poet, and it’s true for me.  As I went researching for a Strand poem, what I thought was a Starnd poem turned out to be a Bly poem.  Still, as I read through a number of Strand poems this evening, I do think they are quite distinct.  More from the NY Times, this on Strand’s style:

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 Mr. Strand’s own sensibility.

I’m not sure how a poet compares to a painter, but I think Liam Grimes (the author of the NYT Obit) has it quite right on comparing Strand to Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.  They share a metaphysical style, especially in the way they jump from the abstract to the concrete and vice versa.  Another poet that comes to mind for me that recalls Strand’s style is Marianne Moore, but that’s a momentary gut reaction without any side by side comparison.  

A couple of things stood out for me in his biographic details.  Either I didn’t remember or I didn’t know Strand was Canadian born.  But apparently because his father relocated a number of times for his work Strand spent his defining years on American soil and in other nations.  He definitely sounds American, as you can see by the poets listed above that are similar in voice and style, though I’m not sure there is a distinction between American and Canadian voices.  The other thing that I didn’t realize was that he was Jewish, though I can’t find anything that says he was observant.  His emphasis on death does push him to religious themes, though I have no idea if he was a believer of any sort.  The Obit highlights this poem, titled “The Remains” because it seems to compose his own epitaph.  

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

I’ll highlight this poem because I think it’s a better one and because it sounds so much like Wallace Stevens, who I adore as a poet.

The Idea
by Mark Strand

For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley's lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, "Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;"
And there appeared , with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea

Here's a reading of "The Idea" if you want to hear it before you.  I don't know if the reader is Strand himself, but it's well read.

If you want to read an adorable and funny poem by Mark Strand, go over to the Poetry Foundation and read “Eating Poetry.”   

Eternal rest and peace for Mr. Strand.  He seems like a good soul.


  1. It's a lovely obit, Manny. Strand was an atheist, he was quite open about it, try not to hold that against him :-) Yes, he wrote a lot about death but also a lot about life, it's brevity and mystery. If you have time, and the inclination, Darker is an excellent collection well worth exploring. Firefangled over at Litnet introduced me to it, and I've been forever grateful. I've never heard of Robert Bly, so perhaps I'll look him up now too. Thanks.

    1. Oh I would never hold that against anyone. But he could have been more endearing if he was. ;) I can't seem to find that collection on Amazon, but the recently published Collected Poems goes from 1964 to the present. That looks like a really good collection. Thanks for stopping by. :)