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Mark Strand

Mark Strand

The fourth Poet Laureate of the United States (1996-1997), Mark Strand (born 1934) wrote poems on subjects ranging from dark and terrible wrestlings with one's fears and alter egos to joyous celebrations of life and light.

Mark Strand, the fourth American poet to be given the title of Poet Laureate, once remarked that he was intrigued by the epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges' story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius": "while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men."

Borges' idea, interestingly enough, describes the diversities and paradoxes inherent in the creative spirit of Mark Strand himself and the major themes and motifs that his poems and fictions dealt with over the years.

At times Strand's poetic voice is plain and conversational, sparse of detail almost to a fault, and filled with dark images of menace and foreboding; at other times, however, it is lively and sensuous, rich in specifics of time and place and abundantly joyous in its celebration of life and light.

In the title poem of his first volume, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), Strand introduces us to a nameless persona who speaks fearfully of the intense terror he feels while he lies in bed one night unable to sleep.

The shivers Wash over Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends Loosen, And I lie sleeping with one eye open, Hoping That nothing, nothing will happen.

In Reasons for Moving (1968), his second volume, Strand continued to explore this theme of menace and foreboding. In "Violent Storm" his terrified persona finds himself threatened by a loud and terrible storm. He fears the coming of the night and the horrible uncertainty of what the darkness may bring.

A cold we never knew invades our bones. We shake as though the storm were going to hurl us down Against the flat stones Of our lives. All other nights Seem pale compared to this, and the brilliant rise Of morning after morning seems unthinkable.

Judging from the merely external circumstances and events of Mark Strand's own life, such gut-wrenching fears and existential angst seem unwarranted, if not exaggerated.

He was born on April 14, 1934, in the quiet village of Summerside on Prince Edward Island in Canada to Robert Strand and the former Sonia Apter. He was educated at Antioch College in Ohio where he received his BA. Later, he went on to Yale where he studied painting under Josef Albers. When he decided that he was not quite good enough to become a major painter, Strand began to write. By the time he graduated he had already won two highly acclaimed awards, the Cook and Bergin prizes, for his collection of poetry. In 1960 he went to Italy with a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Florence. The following year he married Antonia Ratensky and had a daughter, Jessica. In 1974 he divorced and married Julia Garretson. He taught in over a dozen prestigious colleges and universities, earning numerous honors and awards for his poetry and fiction. Nevertheless, like the "man who is two men," Mark Strand is much more than the highly successful poet and popular professor who is very much at home in the world.

In Darker (1970), his third volume of poetry, his personae wrestle endlessly with their terrors and obsessions. This time, however, the enemy is no longer an outside force like the night or a violent storm. Now the enemy has become the Self itself, that haunting, elusive, bewildering alter ego with which so many of Strand's poetic counterparts are so obsessed.

"In Celebration" in his fourth volume, The Story of Our Lives (1973), Strand's speaker vividly expresses this idea when he remarks that "by giving yourself over to nothing, you shall be healed."

In "To Begin" Strand's persona becomes the artist-creator who knows full well the emptiness of the false Self and the "black map" of nothingness that is the world. He survives and endures, however, by attempting to shape words and images that will give life to new worlds and a new, more powerful Self. "He stared at the ceiling / and imagined his breath shaping itself into words."

Like every artist, and certainly every poet, however, the speaker also knows the terror of beginning anew, of facing again and again the blank canvas or the blank page.

In the dark he would still be uncertain about how to begin. He would mumble to himself; he would follow his words to learn where he was.He would begin. And the room, the house, the field, the woods beyond the field, would also begin, and in the sound of his own voice beginning he would hear them.

And yet, despite all his fortitude, Strand's persona comes once again to realize the frustration inherent in his paradoxical situation. Like the speaker in "The Untelling," he learns that the more he attempts to do and say, the less he will accomplish and succeed.

His pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal the less he understood. If he kept it up, he would lose everything.

In Strand's fifth volume of poetry, The Late Hour (1978), several of his speakers try to avoid the whole question of self-confrontation and authentic self-realization by simply immersing themselves in the purely sensual pleasures of life and forgetting everything else. In "Pot Roast," another celebration of sorts, the protagonist recalls his childhood after inhaling the steam that rises from a plate of meat. He remembers the gravy, its odor of garlic and celery, and how he enjoyed sopping it up with pieces of bread.

And now I taste it again The meat of memory. The meat of no change. I raise my fork and I eat.

In "For Jessica, My Daughter," Strand attempts to stay the terror of loss and confusion by celebrating the love that binds people together in a life filled with loss and separation.

Afraid of the dark in which we drift or vanish altogether, I imagine a light that would not let us stray too far apart, a secret moon or mirror, a sheet of paper, something you could carry in the dark when I am away.

For Strand, writing itself is the central paradox, the imagined light that will vanish the darkness but one day vanish itself like so many of his own "poems of air … too light for the page." But he continued to write, remembering and reinventing his life and Canadian childhood in such descriptive and nostalgic poems as "Shooting Whales," "Nights in Hackett's Cove," "A Morning," and "My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer" from his sixth and most personal and concretely detailed collection, Selected Poems, in 1980 (reissued in 1990).

Other poetry volumes by Strand include: The Continuous Life (1990) and Dark Harbor (1993) both Published by Alfred A. Knopf. He also translated Portuguese and Spanish poetry. In addition to his poetry, Strand wrote a long prose-poem, The Monument (1978); a collection of fiction, Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (1985); three children's books, The Planet of Lost Things (1982), The Night Book (1985), and Rembrandt Takes A Walk (1986).

In addition to poetry, Strand has written works of art criticism, Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters (1983) and William Bailey (1987). Strand was awarded the Rebekan Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry in 1992 and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1993. In 1995 The New Republic magazine announced Strand's selection to replace Mary Jo Salter as their poetry editor. Strand was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in 1996.

He also translated and edited numerous anthologies of modern poetry and Latin American fiction.

Further Reading

In addition to the works by Strand cited in the text see David Kirby, Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture (1990) and Richard Howard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1971). See also the following biographical/critical sources: Yale Review (Autumn 1968); Contemporary Literature (1969); Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1969); Antioch Review (Fall/Winter 1970-1971); and Carolyn Riley, editor, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume VI (1976). □

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Strand, Mark

Mark Strand, 1934–2014, American poet, b. Prince Edward Island, Canada, grad. Antioch College (B.A., 1957), Yale (B.F.A., 1959), Iowa Writers' Workshop (M.A., 1962). Meditative and death-haunted, his succinct early poetry is noted for its confrontation with the surreal and irrational; his later work is longer and more inclusive. His collections include Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), Darker (1970), Selected Poems (1980), Dark Harbor (1995), Blizzard of One (1998; Pulitzer Prize), and Collected Poems: Mark Strand (2014). He also published a novel, Mr. and Mrs. Baby (1985); edited several distinguished poetry anthologies, including The Contemporary American Poets (1969) and Another Republic (1976); and wrote studies of the painters William Bailey and Edward Hopper. A MacArthur fellow (1987), Strand was poet laureate of the United States (1990–91).

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Strand, Mark

STRAND, Mark


Nationality: American. Born: Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 11 April 1934; came to the United States in 1938. Education: Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, B.A. 1957; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (Cook prize and Bergin prize, 1959), B.F.A. 1959; University of Florence (Fulbright Fellow), 1960–61; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1962. Family: Married 1) Antonia Ratensky in 1961 (divorced 1973), one daughter; 2) Julia Rumsey Garretson in 1976. Career: Instructor, University of Iowa, 1962–65; Fulbright Lecturer, University of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 1965–66; assistant professor, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1967; visiting professor, University of Washington, Seattle, 1968, 1970; adjunct associate professor, Columbia University, New York, 1969–72; visiting professor, Yale University, 1969; associate professor, Brooklyn College, New York, 1970–72; Bain-Swiggett Lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1973; Hurst Professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1974–75; visiting professor, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1976 and 1978, California State University, Fresno, 1977, University of California, Irvine, 1978, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1979, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980; visiting professor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1981–86; Elliot Coleman Professor of Poetry, The Writing Seminars, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1994–98. Since 1998 Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago. Poetry editor, 1995–99, The New Republic.Awards: Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967, 1977, 1986. Rockefeller award, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974; Edgar Allan Poe award, 1974; American Academy award, 1975; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1979; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1987; Utah Governor's award in the arts, 1992; Bobbitt National prize for poetry, 1992; Bollingen prize for poetry, 1993; Bingham prize for poetry, 1999; Pulitzer prize for poetry, 1999. Member, American Academy. United States Poet Laureate, 1990–91. Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, 1980; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995. Address: c/o Harry Ford, Knopf Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Sleeping with One Eye Open. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1964.

Reasons for Moving. New York, Atheneum, 1968.

Darker. New York, Atheneum, 1970.

The Story of Our Lives. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

The Sargentville Notebook. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1973.

Elegy for My Father. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1973.

The Late Hour. New York, Atheneum, 1978.

Selected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1980.

The Continuous Life. New York, Knopf, 1990.

Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1990.

Dark Harbor. New York, Knopf, 1993.

Blizzard of One. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1985;London, Chatto and Windus. 1986.

Other

The Monument. New York, Ecco Press, 1978.

The Planet of Lost Things (for children). New York, Potter, 1982.

The Night Book (for children). New York, Potter, 1985.

Rembrandt Takes a Walk (for children). New York, Potter, 1986.

Prose. Portland, Oregon, Charles Seluzicki, 1987.

William Bailey. New York, Abrams, 1987.

Hopper. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1994.

Editor, The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940. Cleveland, World, 1969.

Editor, New Poetry of Mexico. New York, Dutton, 1970; London, Secker and Warburg, 1972.

Editor and Translator, The Owl's Insomnia: Selected Poems of Rafael Alberti. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

Editor and Translator, Souvenir of the Ancient World: Selected Poems of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. New York, Antaeus, 1976.

Editor, with Charles Simic, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers. New York, Ecco Press, 1976.

Editor, Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters. New York, Potter, 1983; London, Aurum Press, 1984.

Editor, with Thomas Colchie, Travelling in the Family: Selected Poems of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. New York, Random House, 1986.

Editor, with David Lehman, The Best American Poetry 1991. New York, Macmillan, 1991.

Editor, The Golden Ecco Anthology. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1994.

Translator, 18 Poems from the Quechua. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1971.

Translator, Texas, by Jorge Luis Borges. Austin, University of Texas Humanities Research Center, 1975.

*

Manuscript Collection: Lilly Library, University of Indiana, Bloomington.

Critical Studies: "Mark Strand: Darker" by James Crenner, in Seneca Review (Geneva, New York), April 1971; "A Conversation with Mark Strand," in Ohio Review (Athens), winter 1972; "Dark and Radiant Peripheries: Mark Strand and A.R. Ammons" by Harold Bloom, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), winter 1972; "Beginnings and Endings" by Robert McKlitsch, in Literary Review (Rutherford, New Jersey), spring 1978; by Linda Gregerson, in Parnassus (New York), 1982; Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture by David Kirby, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1990; "Poetry Chronicle: Amy Clampitt, Louise Glück, Mark Strand," in Raritan (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 10(3), winter 1991, and "Reading As Poets Read: Following Mark Strand," in Philosophy and Literature (Baltimore, Maryland), 20(1), April 1996, both by Charles Berger; by Harold Bloom, in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), 4(2), spring 1991.

*  *  *

Mark Strand is one of the finest, most controlled of lyric poets, his poems written with an impeccable and seemingly effortless technique. They are fascinating not only as superbly finished poetry but also for the artistic strategies they employ and, despite his own completely distinct voice, for the other writers and artists they do not echo but evoke. The quintessential Strand can be found in the concluding part of "Seven Poems," from Darker:

I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in.

Spare and windblown, these lines are stripped of everything nonessential. The utter simplicity of action and language, the repetitions, the subtle alternations in sentence structure (especially the shift to the comparative "darker"), and the placings of the "I" work to wondrous and mysterious effect. The voice is unmistakably Strand, yet the repetitions, the simple denotative words tricked into unexpected connotations, and the darkness are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.

The four lines are also a touchstone for other important aspects of Strand's poetry. The symmetry of the last two lines shows an exquisite sense of balance, and precarious balances between dichotomies, opposites, and contradictions—such as absence/presence, dark/light, life/death, night/day, indoor/outdoor—are basic to his technique. The contraries, like the vocabulary, are simple, but they are artfully arranged, rearranged, and varied to create patterns of meaning and complication. An example central to man and artist is "I empty myself of my life and my life remains" ("The Remains," from Darker). Since the romantic beguilement with it, the subject-object dichotomy has provided the magic caesura that allows such contraries to merge or reverse themselves, and across that same caesura is the work of Beckett and Harold Pinter also written and "reality," as in Strand, so brilliantly undermined.

This undermining or transformation of the landscape of reality is accomplished as well by the suppression, implicit in lyric poetry, of narrative fact and dramatic situation. The entire volume of Strand's The Story of Our Lives, with its deliberate allusion to storytelling, makes use of this method. Like Beckett, a virtuoso with endings and beginnings, and Pinter, who tells Betrayal backward, Strand manipulates narrative time and the sequence of events and deliberately excludes needed information. In The Story of Our Lives Strand begins with "Elegy for My Father," the end of one of the stories, moves to a poem called "To Begin," and ends the final poem, "The Untelling," with the line "He sat and began to write."

The telling, not telling, or retelling of stories is explored extensively in this volume. The "Elegy for My Father," with its ambiguous and intensifying refrain, "Nothing could stop you," is one kind of story. "To Begin" recounts the true beginning, the struggle to write. "The Room" is an ambiguous dramatic situation that recalls in its oblique angle of vision Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy and his screenplay for Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad. The surface story is presented and dismissed in the poem "The Story of Our Lives," which is followed by "Inside the Story." The climax of the volume comes with the brilliant construction and deconstruction of a narrative in "The Untelling." Here an account of a memory is told four times. Each time its telling is not right, and at the close of the poem the fifth attempt is about to commence. The story in its four variations is haunting and surreal, as these lines suggest:

Although I have tried to return, I have always
ended here, where I am now. The lake
still exists, and so does the lawn, though the people
who slept there that afternoon have not been seen since.

Many parallels come to mind. Among them are the strangely shifting landscapes of Georges Seurat, the novels of John Hawkes, the theater work of Robert Wilson, and Pinter's screenplay for The Go-Between. Strand, who once studied to be a painter, has also written about Edward Hopper in an essay titled "Hopper: The Loneliness Factor," in which he argues that several of Hopper's paintings are constructed around the dominant shape of a "nonexistent vanishing point"; the works cannot resolve their conflicts within their own boundaries. Interestingly akin to Hopper's paintings, Strand's poetry creates a central disquiet that resonates, often chillingly, beyond the lines on the page. Even poems written thirty years into his career seem to work and rework the conditions of his well-known "Keeping Things Whole" from the 1964 volume Sleeping with One Eye Open: "In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing."

In his 1990 collection The Continuous Life, his first after a decade-long hiatus, the poet reminds us, in longer-lined poems and a few short prose narratives, that events do not necessarily lead to meaningful ends. Like the weltanschauung of Kafka or Beckett, Strand's is depopulated and prone to extinctions, untellings, and an ongoingness rooted in vacancy. "A.M." says,

Another day has come,
Another fabulous escape from the damages of night,
so even the gulls, in the ragged circle of their flight,
Above the sea's long lanes that flash and fall, scream their
  approval.
How well the sun's rays probe
The rotting carcass of a skate, how well
They show the worms and swarming flies at work,
How well they shine upon the fatal sprawl
Of everything on earth.

A surrealistic emptiness pervades the forty-five sections of Strand's long poem Dark Harbor, a collection that utilizes different tones, genres, and stances to create a full world of mysterious shapes and serene disappearances and that reads like a night of dreams: "And yet all you want is to rise out of the shade / Of yourself into the cooling blaze of summer night / When the moon shines and the earth itself / Is covered and silent in the stoniness of its sleep." Many of the sections of the book concern themselves with aging and decline and with the role of poetry in the world: "Rivers, mountains, animals, all find their true place, / / But only while Orpheus sings. When the song is over / The world resumes its old flaws." The poet of Dark Harbor always seems to find himself in the twilit world of fragile beauty and peril.

The collection Blizzard of One evokes a more crowded world than the one we usually see in Strand, with poems dedicated to his poet and painter friends and with a looser, more unabashed verve swinging within the lines of the poems. Love passing, mortality, the sad frontier of nostalgia, and the eroticism of our lone interiors are still his concerns, but he seems to see them with flourish. In the book's second poem, "The Beach Hotel," he writes,

Oh, look, the ship is sailing without us! And the wind
Is from the east, and the next ship leaves in a year.
Let's go back to the beach hotel where the rain never stops,
Where the garden, green and shadow-filled, says, in the rarest
Of whispers, "Beware of encroachment." We can stroll, can visit
The dead decked out in their ashen pajamas, and after a tour
Of the birches, can lie on the rumpled bed, watching
The ancient moonlight creep across the floor. The window panes
Will shake, and waves of darkness, cold, uncalled-for, grim,
Will cover us. And into the close and mirrored catacombs of sleep
We'll fall, and there in the tided light discover the bones,
The dust, the bitter remains of someone who might have been
   Had we not taken his place.

—Gaynor F. Bradish and

Martha Sutro

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