Issue 148, Fall 1998
Mark Strand was born in 1934 on Prince Edward Island in Canada. His parents were from the United States. His father did many different things—you could call him a businessman—and his mother was at different times a schoolteacher and an archaeologist. When Strand was an infant, the family lived in Halifax, then Montreal. When he was four years old, they moved to Philadelphia. Attending public school there, Strand at first spoke very little English and had a heavy French accent. “Mocked and generally brutalized by my classmates,” Strand learned English fast. But then his father, now working for Pepsi-Cola, took the family to Cuba, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. “I moved around so much, and went to so many different schools, that I never found my own place,” Strand has said. “I really come from nowhere. But I was fortunate in that many of my summers were spent on St. Margaret’s Bay, near Halifax.” During these happy summers, he discovered a landscape “that became internalized,” that became “the one I carried with me wherever I went: the sea, the runty pines along the coast, the big lichen-covered boulders, cold mornings . . .”
Although he wrote a little poetry in high school and read and wrote poetry while attending Antioch College, he entered the Yale School of Art and Architecture intending to become a painter. (When he was nineteen he had worked one summer in Mexico as an assistant to David Siqueiros, helping to create “a kind of art I learned to despise while I was working on it.”) But while studying painting, he became an ardent reader of Wallace Stevens, and somewhat to his surprise found himself taking English courses, writing poetry, and winning the admiration of some of his English professors. In 1960 he was given a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy to study nineteenth-century Italian poetry. Soon after, some of his own poems began to be published in The New Yorker, and he began to feel that he was going to devote his life to poetry. His first book of poems, Sleeping with One Eye Open, was published by the Stone Wall Press in Iowa City in 1964, and in 1968 Harry Ford took his collection Reasons for Moving for Atheneum. Strand says that “I owe my professional career as a poet to Harry Ford.”
During the sixties Strand formed influential friendships with the poets Richard Howard, Charles Simic, and Charles Wright. Another friend and poet who played an important role in his life was Joseph Brodsky, whom he met in the seventies.
Strand has published eleven books of poetry, a book of sui generis short stories called Mr. and Mrs. Baby, and a disturbing meditation on immortality in the form of a prose poem, The Monument. He is currently teaching at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where this fall he is giving a course on Plato’s Symposium with the philosopher Jonathan Lear. In 1987 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 1990 he was the U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. He has also translated the poetry of Rafael Alberti and Carlos Drummond de Andrade and written monographs on the paintings of William Bailey and Edward Hopper.
Strand says that the elements he requires in order to be able to write are “a place, a desk, a familiar room. I need some of my books there. I need quiet. That’s about it.” Asked if he ever writes in a less tranquil spot, such as on a train, he replies that he does, but usually only prose, because it’s “less embarrassing. Who would understand a man of my age writing reams of poetry on a train, if they looked over my shoulder? I would be perceived as an overly emotional person.”
He writes in longhand and delays typing for as long as possible, he explains, because “when I read a poem in longhand, I’m hearing it. When I read it in typescript, I’m reading it. A poem can appear finished just because of the cleanness of the typescript, and I don’t want it to seem finished before it is. A poem has already been brought into the world to some extent when it’s typed. I feel more like an editor than a poet after that.” Often, after reading what he has typed, he’ll “go back to longhand for a few weeks.”
The interviewer has known Strand as a friend for many years. He unabashedly used the interview as an excuse to ask questions about poetry and the life of the poet, which in many cases he had always wanted to ask. It’s often hard to ask a friend crude or elementary questions about the field of work to which the friend has devoted a lifetime. Nonetheless the interviewer, who writes for the theater but reads quite a bit of poetry without ever being sure that he really understands any of it or knows what it is, although he knows that he loves Strand’s work and always has, plunged ahead with a hardearned simplemindedness.
The interview took place in a bare, sublet apartment on Greene Street in New York.
I started reading that thing that that guy wrote about you. But it upset me, because he kept talking about the themes of your writing, and I didn’t get it. I don’t think I really get the concept of “themes.” So I’m not going to ask you questions like, What is your view of nothingness? because I don’t get that, exactly.
I don’t get it either. And I’m not sure I could articulate a view of nothingness, since nothingness doesn’t allow a description of itself. Once you start describing nothingness, you end up with somethingness.
In any case, do we read poetry because we’re interested in “themes”? Or do we read it to learn about someone’s view of the world? To find out if the poet we’re reading sees things the way we do?
You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. 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. Wallace Stevens was the twentieth-century master of this. There’s no other poetry that sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem. But then, there’s nothing that sounds like a Frost poem, either. Or a Hardy poem. These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices.
Well, your poetry is obviously very much in this category. When we read your poetry, we are enticed by the voice—and then led into a world that you have created. And at first, I would say, we can more or less picture or imagine the scenes you conjure up, although they may consist of elements that in our daily world would never be combined in the way you’ve combined them. Sometimes, though, in your poems—quite often, really—we reach a point that is almost, one could say, Zeno-like, in which we’re asked to imagine things that are either almost self-contradictory or literally unimaginable. I mean, in a surrealist painting, a painter could present a very strange landscape, but he couldn’t present one like this! This couldn’t be painted!
Well, I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened? I mean, I like that, I like it in other people’s poems when it happens. I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, the reader is absorbing the poem, even though there’s an absence in the poem. But he just has to live with that. And eventually, it becomes essential that it exists in the poem, so that something beyond his understanding, or beyond his experience, or something that doesn’t quite match up with his experience, becomes more and more his. He comes into possession of a mystery, you know—which is something that we don’t allow ourselves in our lives.
I mean, we live with mystery, but we don’t like the feeling. I think we should get used to it. We feel we have to know what things mean, to be on top of this and that. I don’t think it’s human, you know, to be that competent at life. That attitude is far from poetry.
An experience of total immersion in mystery that I once had was reading the first half of Heidegger’s Being and Time. You know, it was really totally up to you to sort of create this world in your own head, and whether what was in your head was what was in Heidegger’s head—who could possibly guess?
Well, when I read poetry I can’t imagine that what’s in the reader’s head is ever what was in the poet’s head, because there’s usually very little in the poet’s head.
You mean . . .
I mean, I think the reality of the poem is a very ghostly one. It doesn’t try for the kind of concreteness that fiction tries for. It doesn’t ask you to imagine a place in detail; it suggests, it suggests, it suggests again. I mean, as I write it. William Carlos Williams had other ideas.
But do you suggest something that you yourself have already pictured?
I’m picturing it as I’m writing it. I’m putting together what I need to have this thing be alive. But sometimes it’s more complete than at other times.