Mark Strand Essay - Strand, Mark (Vol. 6)

Strand, Mark (Vol. 6)

Strand, Mark 1934–

Strand is an American poet, editor, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Friends whose opinions about these matters I usually defer to tell me that I am wrong to value as highly as I do … The Story of Our Lives. And it has to be admitted that of course there is a case to be made against Strand's work—a case that Strand himself has made.

            We are reading the story of our lives
            as though we were in it,
            as though we had written it.
            This comes up again and again.

One can only say in reponse that indeed it does come up again and again, in poem after poem from his first book on, to the point of obsession, And we could join Strand in the wish that he expresses thus: "We keep turning the pages,/hoping for something,/something like mercy or change…." This obsession and this hope have produced at times some pretty unremarkable work. The "litanies" in Darker, for instance, are so many uninspired raids on Christopher Smart. Even in [The Story of Our Lives], the long first poem, "Elegy for My Father," does not, for me, display the strength that I find elsewhere in Strand's work and that, especially because of its occasion, I should like to discover here. The fact seems to be that only with the greatest difficulty can Strand realize the existence of other people. (Their otherness he manages to convey well enough; it's the existence part that gives him trouble.) Indeed, it's hard enough for him to bring himself into imaginative being. The attempt to do just this appears in fact to be the motive or subject or both of his most characteristic poems, in which he is as other to himself as others are.

Hence, perhaps, a particular kind of poem appears often in the earlier books—poems I've taken to calling "You poems," in which you is neither a definite someone else nor the vague you, a substitute for one, in which you include yourself. Rather, it is a kind of half-split-off instance of I (or I and he) to whom the poet can speak in a tone at once remote, intimate and minatory, or upon whom he can report as you goes about his (its?) unsettling, affectless business.

It is by this and other, related means (there's only one real You poem in [this] book, and it's a minor one) that Strand achieves his characteristic effects. The point is that though a number of such poems may be mere exercises in a manner, a number of them aren't. Quite often enough the manner—the manners—work. Among the successes is what is certainly the longest—320 lines or so—and what seems to me the queerest and finest of the poems in [this] book, "The Untelling." So very wonderfully odd is it and so much does it exist in its effects upon the reader that I shall have very little to say about it directly. At once more obviously and more mysteriously than most poems, it has a plot, it tells a story. Or rather, as the title asserts, it untells one, it undoes itself. (pp. 117-18)

[The] ending of the poem, its undoing, unravelling, is not really a surprise so much as it is a confirmation, a perfection; the pleasure it provides is repeatable and lasting…. With (or even without) the other two long poems in the concluding section of this book, "The Untelling" is the culmination of one (the only?) line of Strand's development. However modish his enterprise may now and then have seemed and however obvious may be its antecedents and its sometimes unfortunate effects upon the work of others, it seems to me to have produced one of the very few nearly permanent American poems of recent years. (p. 118)

John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

Mark Strand's The Story of Our Lives has far less immediate sensuous appeal than his earlier volumes of poetry. The virtuoso performer of Darker has been supplanted by an elegist. Story is chiefly a book of mourning. Strand mourns the deaths of his father (Elegy for My Father), his mother and his childhood (The Untelling), his marriage (The Room, The Story of Our Lives, Inside the Story), and finally, the demise of the esthetics that informed the spare compact poems of his other books (To Begin). Evidently, for the moment, he has abandoned the assured popular instrument which appears to have acquired a school of followers—imitators and parodists, much as did the prototypal short intense lyric of Merwin, Kinnell, Wright and O'Hara of the generation before him spawn a coterie of idolators and apprentices. Story is a deeply haunting book, though not as disheartening as its prevailing timbre of sombreness, on first acquaintance, suggests. The book culminates in a quiet joy, an intellectual ecstasy of a kind we would never have anticipated from the poetry's characteristic gravity. However, readers who were allured by Strand's elegant charm, as well as the fabling gnomic terror and humor of his phantasmagoric dream-poems, may be disappointed by the expansive sprawl of the long new poems which, by a slow effervescence of incantatory rhythms, cast a gradual hypnotic spell over us. The new poems make far greater demands of our powers of concentration, but the rewards, after many readings, are equivalently greater.

In Darker, Strand had employed the mode of chanted litanies for the first time, a form which accounted for an important widening of imaginative range, releasing him from the strict contract of the stanza form, the exclusive mode of his first two volumes. In The New Poetry Handbook, he explored the associative logic of serial image-chains, an experiment related formally to the list-poem genre developed exhaustively in the brilliantly funny poems of Kenneth Koch, and in countless scores of cheerless imitations by poets of the New York school. It was an ostensibly non-programmatic structure, mystifying the reader with the illusion that the open-ended poems started or stopped at purely arbitrary points in an endlessly stretchable series of imagistic statements, as in Strand's two quasi-fragments deceptively entitled From a Litany. And yet, Strand baffled the form, inveigling the reader's ear with a mastery of tonal resonance that left the aftertaste of an organic unity all but impossible to locate or account for by conventional inspection of the structure, while a few passages of lavish imagery contained a more elevated pitch of musical opulence than he had ever approached in his previous work.

In Elegy for My Father, the stately slow-paced hypnotic dirge that begins the new volume, Strand amplifies the serial mode of litany. Exhibiting a remarkable range of technical virtuosity, he adapts the device of image-chains to six widely varying fantasias. In each, a simple statement—flat and blunt—is repeated at irregular intervals, and operates less like a conventional refrain than an aria or leitmotiv in an opera. The statement tends to fade, to become hidden, vanishing into a chanted monotony, but it subtly builds resonance in the reader's ear and accumulates a force of quiet, but irreversible, authority. "Nothing could stop you. You went on with your dying." (pp. 280-81)

The whole book is a profound act of mourning—hence, the aptly grotesque irony of the fifth section of the elegy, entitled Mourning, a Kafkaesque caricature of conventional funerals in which the mourning process, so indispensable to healing the psychic wounds of bereavement, is debased and betrayed by self-pity. (p. 281)

[The] elegy is only the first milestone in an interior odyssey in which he follows a long intricate course in developing a new poetics that recapitulates his vision of his father's dying. Strand is obsessed, in poem after poem, with absence, vanishings, disappearance of parts of his own psyche. (p. 282)

Strand subjects his style in this book to a severe cutback—approaching a strangulating cutoff in some passages—of his most dependable resources, and he adopts a starkly austere and reductive diction…. The process of writing is an act of heroic struggle to stay alive in the spirit against terrible odds, to maintain the life of a beleaguered sensibility. Thus, the stripping away of all but the most subtle artifice, and the divesting of all stylistic flourish, all superfluities. Literary success is an accidental by-product of this enterprise.

The language in this book has grown so refined, so flattened and subdued, it resembles ordinary poetry—or indeed, literature—less and less, and one may look for parallels to explain its technique more readily in other arts, such as painting, a discipline to which Strand submitted himself years before that of poetry…. [Like] the objects in a painting by Magritte, the objects in Strand's poem are so bare and plain and unembellished by ornament, a reader is dumbfounded by any effort to locate the source of the fierce supernatural energy that surrounds them. (pp. 282-83)

The popular confessional school in our poetry supports [a] despiritualizing of identity, but Strand's radically opposed strategy of self-discovery challenges the narrowness of the public ego running naked through the avenues of our verse, and aspires to restore to contemporary poetry something of the lost multi-dimensionality of Yeat's "Dialogue of Self and Soul," by fashioning a self toughened in the crucible of its warring with the timeless human spirit.

Perhaps the most remarkable single poem Strand has written, to date, is The Untelling, the very long poem that ends [this] volume. (pp. 285-86)

In writing a long poem, it is not unusual for the writer to make a good number of partial forays, or tentative excursions, into the field of his vision, withdrawing again and again…. But I know of no other poem that dramatizes and explicates this very process, revealing the artist's many approaches and withdrawals, his to-and-fro rhythm of becoming attuned to the map, the layout, of his inner landscape, as exhaustively as this poem does—in fact, the slow discovery of the esthetic outlined above is quite as much the poem's subject as the re-engagement with an experience of childhood which occupies the front of the stage. (pp. 286-87)

Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1974.

Throughout his career, Mark Strand has chosen the device of the doppelgänger to progress from revelation to revelation, moving forward in one mask only to regress in another, free to explore the hazards of experience in the most general terms, mending in one body, wounding in another, both Ferdinand faithful and Ferdinand unfaithful (Brothers Grimm archetypes). By electing to work in a less exciting guise, doubled only by the voice of the child he was, Strand now speaks [in The Story of Our Lives] in a voice more convincing and humane, unified at last and able to show what he sees. He risks the loss of the brilliant hallucination of his earlier poems, their energy of active desperation, staccato sentences strung together to make long lines in the short poem…. The best poem in the book and perhaps of Strand's career, is the last, "The Untelling." It includes unmistakable echoes of the hyacinth garden passage of Eliot's "The Waste Land": "I waited under the trees in front of the house,/thinking of nothing, watching the sunlight wash/over the roof. I heard nothing, felt/nothing, even when she appeared in a long/yellow dress…." Eliot's narrator "knew nothing,/looking into the heart of light, the silence." Strand writes, "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." This blinding by looking into the heart of light, of memory, is the cost of the owl's insomnia, the wise artist's awakening. The poem maps the process of its creation and, in alternating sections, the progress of its creator through, in Eliot's term, "the presence of the past." It is a simultaneous unfolding of past and present that concludes with the elusive memory captured and contained in "sheets of darkness," the papers of his poems, their somber, self-involved stuttering folded and packed away.

In The Story of Our Lives Strand attempts to record the singularity of his life by recording and reconciling details of his early life with those of his present life that reflect and re-echo them. It's a new undertaking, full of risk. If some of the poems seem less brilliant than earlier poems, less flashy, more narcissistically fascinated by the emblem of the mirror and regression of part of the self, they finally take a stand and choose confrontation. He seems to say…, "We are not. We were this or that." Encounter by encounter, engagement by engagement, a series of battles takes place on a doubled and redoubled field, peopled by old images of self and progenitors, peopled with particular ghosts to be laid, selves that must be discarded at whatever cost.

These are poems of great loss and the recognition of failure and mortality, written by a poet of great stature. We must trust that his harrowing is over and that, in the future, his language will be put to the service of light and affirmation, that, standing still, Mark Strand will offer in future poems new lives, new connections, new images and models, some songs and great singing to fill and repopulate the silence. "He wanted to move beyond his past." (pp. 267-68)

Hilda Gregory, in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1974.