When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive … —Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, 1998
Mark Strand died today at eighty, we were sorry to learn. When Wallace Shawn interviewed him for The Paris Review in 1998—a year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One—Strand described his relation to death: “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.”
And death was arguably Strand’s great theme—few poets have written more acutely or more movingly about the chasm at the end of life. Which is not to say that he was excessively dour or bleak; the sense of isolation in his work is often leavened by light and feeling. Strand saw poetry as a humanizing influence in an increasingly inhumane world. He told Inscape a few years ago:
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 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 … 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.
His poem “After Our Planet,” from our Winter 1992 issue, is a perfect read for the occasion. Strand seems to be speaking from the afterlife in it, from a place of wondrous stillness, inaccessible to us:
I am writing from a place you have never been,
Where the trains don’t run, and planes
Don’t land, a place to the west,
Where heavy hedges of snow surround each house,
Where the wind screams at the moon’s blank face,
Where the people are plain, and fashions,
If they come, come late and are seen
As forms of oppression, sources of sorrow.
This is a place that sparkles a bit at 7 P.M.,
Then goes out, and slides into the funeral home
Of the stars, and everyone dreams of floating
Like angels in sweet-smelling habits,
Of being released from sundry services
Into the round of pleasures there for the asking—
Days like pages torn from a family album,
Endless reunions, the heavenly choir at the barbecue
Adjusting its tone to serve the occasion,
And everyone staring, stunned into magnitude.
Read the whole poem here.