Mark Strand’s poem “The Continuous Life” originally appeared in The New Yorker and is the title poem of his 1990 poetry collection by the same name. The volume contains poems written between 1980 and 1990, some humorous, some serious, some whose tone is in between. Critics have called “The Continuous Life” a perfect poem, and other readers seem to agree. New York City, for example, thought so highly of the poem they had it inscribed on a park bench in Hudson River Park. Appearing roughly in the middle of the collection, sandwiched between “Life in the Valley” and “From a Lost Diary,” the poem resonates with images of absence and death, Strand’s trademark subjects.
The poem’s speaker addresses parents, offering them advice on what to tell their children to expect from life, and he implicitly addresses himself as well. In twenty-eight lines, Strand plumbs the human consciousness, alluding to the bustle of perceptions, thoughts, and behavior that make up a person’s life. The speaker is as intrigued by the chaos and emptiness of human life as he is by the ways that human beings stave them off, finding meaning in the mundane and strength in love. Though the language in “The Continuous Life,” like that in most of his poems, is abstract, the poem is relatively accessible, even for readers unfamiliar with Strand’s work.
The first five and a half lines of “The Continuous Life” consist of a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions do not require answers. Rather, writers use them for special effect, often when they want to convince someone of a truth without making an argument. In these lines, Strand describes a relationship between parents and children in which the children look for signs that their parents have grown tired of their child-rearing obligations. He asks the question only so that he may answer it. The images of “children hunched in bushes” and “neighborhood homes” are general enough to apply to a wide range of people, places, and times. Likewise, figuring parenting obligations as “the swell of duty” allows Strand to steer clear of depicting his characters in any realistic manner, which he might do if providing examples of these duties. They are types, which means that Strand uses them to represent all parents and all children. The phrase “being adrift on a swell of duty” is an implicit metaphor in which the speaker uses imagery associated with water to describe how parents feel about their responsibilities to their children.
The poem’s narrator has access to both the thoughts of the children and the parents, and he speaks from a place seemingly outside history. In these lines, he answers his own question about how parents should respond to their children, who are watching them grow old and tired. By exhorting them to “confess,” he suggests that they have been less than honest or forthcoming with them so far....
(The entire section is 651 words.)