Analysis

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Last Reviewed on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

The speaker of the poem, who may be an autobiographical representation of Strand himself, compares poets to angels and describes the verses they create as "songs," ascribing a holiness or a divinity to the choice to devote one's life to the art of poetry. The poet must go through so much—alienation, reconciliation, exploration—in order to approach literary greatness. The speaker asks,

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How can I sing when I haven't the heart, or the hope
That something of paradise persists in my song[?]

In other words, it is especially challenging—and requires a great deal of fortitude and courage—for a poet to "sing" when he doubts himself and lacks the hope that his verses will touch "paradise" (another word choice that calls to mind the idea of a heaven or some kind of immortality—which is especially salient since the speaker-poet seems to hope that his poems will propel him to a kind of immortality as a result of the impact that they have on the world). Worse than feeling so vulnerable, however, is the more fearful specter of being irrelevant. He continues,

And after I go, as I must,
[. . .] will I have proved
That I live against time, that the silk of the songs
I sang is not lost? Or will I have proved
[. . .] that whatever I sing is a blank?

This idea of living "against time," of achieving something like a divine immortality or ability to continue on even after the life of his body has ended, seems to occupy the speaker throughout the entirety of the poem. His greatest fear seems, in fact, to be the possibility that his "songs" will be a "blank," that he will die and disappear from the earth without having achieved paradise—which, in this case, is being a good enough poet to be remembered.

In the end, the speaker has is given to hope that his dreams of being remembered might come true. He is surrounded by faces he thinks he knows, though they "tucked / Their heads under their wings." It is possible, then, to achieve the immortality about which he dreams.

Back and forth, fluttering its wings.
Then it stopped in midair.
It was an angel, one of the good ones, about to sing.

Thus, it is possible to capture paradise in one's verse, to roll one's pain, one's past, one's doubts, and one's fears into texts that manage to convey something vital and true, something that gives the poet immortality and a sense of divinity.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

Dark Harbor is a book-length poem in unrhymed verse, divided into forty-five sections that are identified sequentially by roman numerals. There is also an introduction in verse entitled “Proem.” Each section, including “Proem,” is written in tercets, but six of the sections end with stanzas of only one or two lines.

The title resonates with echoes of some of Strand’s earlier books: Sleeping with One Eye Open, his first book of poems; Reasons for Moving, probably fueled by his life as the son of a salesman who moved his family too often for them to form long-term relationships with other people; and Darker, perhaps the first of Strand’s books to convince the critics that his apparent preoccupation with the darker aspects of life was actually a vehicle for explorations of the human ability to find the light hidden in the darkness. Beyond these first three books, all of Strand’s books of poetry (and even his children’s books) push and pull readers through the dark harbors of the human journey.

Although Dark Harbor is not a narrative poem in the classic sense of a work that has a definable beginning, middle, and end, it has a combined sense of form and unity that gives it the sort of through-line of thought that one normally expects from a narrative. The narrator of the poem is a poet on a journey, an odyssey that takes him through a return to his places (both physical and spiritual) of origin and eventually brings him to a place of closure.

Each of the forty-five numbered sections is written from the first-person perspective of the narrator, but “Proem” is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This narrator serves as a sort of Greek chorus who introduces the narrator of all that is to follow, the poet/narrator: “ ‘This is my Main Street,’ he said as he started off/ That morning, leaving the town to the others.” These opening lines set the stage for the poet/narrator to take the reader on a journey. Halfway through “Proem” comes the first hard evidence that the narrator who is being introduced is indeed a poet, almost certainly Strand himself or an image of himself that he wants to project for the reader: “he would move his arms/ And begin to mark, almost as a painter would,/ The passages of greater and lesser worth, the silken/ Tropes and calls to this or that, coarsely conceived.”

In section I the narrator describes the place of departure for the journey to come. He is in a dark place lighted by streetlamps, but he is wearing a white suit that outshines the moon. “In the night without end,” others await his arrival at “the station” before they begin their journey somewhere beyond those still on Earth. In section II he describes the village or hamlet as a place where the reader has never been, a place where there are no trains or places for planes to land. (One might wonder from what sort of station they departed.) It is somewhere in the West that has considerable wind and snow. It is a place where people are not up on fashion and sleep well at night, an indication that those who dwell here have cleaner consciences than people elsewhere.

In section III the place begins to sound more like a small town. Midway through this section the narrator provides a bit of information that appears to contradict what he had said earlier about the reader having never been to this place: “And you pass by unsure if this coming back is a failure/ Or a sign of success, a sign that the time has come/ To embrace your origins as you would yourself.” It is possible to interpret this “you” as the travelers that were waiting for him at the beginning of the journey or as someone to whom the reader has not been introduced. Throughout this poem it is often difficult to discern the identity of the narrator’s “you.” The final tercet of this section might even suggest that the narrator is referring to himself in the second person: “life looked to be simpler back in the town/ You started from look, there in the kitchen are Mom and Dad,/ He’s reading the paper, she’s killing a fly.” It is possible that there is no single “you” consistent throughout the poem. Each usage could be relative to its particular section, leaving the reader to discern identity from the context.

Overall, the narrator paints a picture of returning home to the small town that he left long ago to live in a large city. Most of the sections are vignettes of the narrator’s rediscovery or new evaluation of this small town, his place of origin. However, some of the sections are so abstract that they add little, if anything, to the geography of the poem. They appear more as commentaries on life in general. A few others make such sudden turns into sarcasm that they come across as comic, but the comedy, in perfect keeping with the title and the general mood of the poem, is always dark.

The final section, XLV, rounds out the collection by echoing elements of the first two sections: the cottages, unidentified people grouped together, angels singing, images of life after death. It gives both a feeling of completion and a sense of the cyclical nature of everything. This is the dark harbor of souls.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743

The first easily recognized device the poet uses in Dark Harbor is the introductory poem, “Proem.” This is not a proem in the sense that some critics now use the term, a portmanteau created by combining the words “prose” and “poem.” It is a proem in the classical sense—an introductory passage to a longer work that provides clues to the nature and origin of the work that is to follow.

Ironically, Dark Harbor reads very much like a prose poem. The rhythms are dictated more by syntax than by lineation. Strand uses a combination of three physical devices to give the poem a structured, poemlike appearance. First, he breaks the poem into lines; there are usually between ten and fifteen syllables to each line, but this is by no means a strict rule. Sometimes the lines end on weak or unstressed words, but the breaks usually wrap logically into the next line. Second, he begins each line with an uppercase letter. This accomplishes two things: It emphasizes the line breaks, and it adds a touch of formality, a punctuating element that helps define each line as a component that exists both within and outside of syntax. Third, he breaks each section into tercets. This gives a consistent appearance to all forty-five sections of the poem as well as “Proem,” and it serves as a framing device, using white space to sometimes enhance, sometimes override the ostensible logic of the syntax. It also adds another element of formality that complements the high level of diction and wide variety of sentence structures employed throughout the poem.

Form is essential in all of Strand’s poetry. In his essay “Notes on the Craft of Poetry,” published in Claims for Poetry (Donald Hall, ed., 1982) Strand writes:[A]ll poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes.[F]orm has to do with the structure or outward appearance of something but it also has to do with its essence.[S]tructure and essence seem to come together, as do the disposition of words and their meanings.

For Strand, poetry is a marriage of form and function, and, for better or worse, without both elements there is no marriage, therefore, no poetry.

The most common and interesting images in Dark Harbor are those one sees upon looking up: stars, clouds, the sky, moon, sun, falling snow, even angels. These images do not, as might be expected, serve as counterpoints to the dark images of the earth and earthbound things, implying a good-versus-evil dialogue. Rather, they are symbolic of those elusive qualities that define the human spirit as distinctly different from anything else in nature. The dark is not a place of evil; it is simply a point of departure, a place from which people start their quests and inquiries. The light is what one seeks, and Strand is critical of anyone who belittles that. “O you can make fun of the splendors of moonlight,/ But what would the human heart be if it wanted/ Only the dark, wanted nothing on earth/ But the sea’s ink or the rock’s black shade?”

There are no intentional end rhymes in this poem, but alliterations are not uncommon. Section XXVII makes good use of anaphora, the first six of the seven tercets beginning with the same word, and of alliterations and assonance. Together these tropes add a rich musical quality and an air of nobility to this particular section.

The overall tone of the poem is elegiac, but there are a few sections that provide comic relief, sometimes bordering on zaniness (as in section XIX, the shortest section) and sometimes slipping into a sarcastic mode that adds a different kind of bite to a work that already has a formidable set of teeth. Surrealism is the order of the day. From the very first scene, in which the unnamed group of travelers bands together to begin the journey from darkness, to the final scene, in which there are rumors of dead poets wandering, wishing “to be alive again,” everything seems to happen somewhere between dream and reality. Strand’s choices of forms and poetic devices give each section of this poem an individual character that allows each to stand on its own. Overall, the same choices give Dark Harbor the power of one uniform work that drives all of its component parts in a single direction.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826

Dark Harbor is a poetic sequence made up of forty-five numbered parts introduced by a “Proem.” The parts, which can be read as individual poems, are cast in loose, three-line stanzas (a few end in couplets) in which neither sound nor sentence abets the shape on the page. The shortest poem is two stanzas in length, the longest nine, with the average being six or seven. Thus each, with the exception of the longest (“XXXVIII”), fits on a single page, as if the printed page were a unit of composition. Across this popular typographical medium, with its vague nod to Dante’s terza rima, Mark Strand threads a graceful, somber meditation on loss, dislocation, and the general unease of a mind and spirit strangely alienated from all that it attends to and even accepts. Either too decorous or too numb to celebrate or rebel, Strand’s persona charts a quiet, restrained course in which a mood of seeming passivity or resignation nevertheless gains tension and ambiguity.

The collection (or long poem) is perfectly titled. Whether one imagines the harbor as a place of departure or destination or return (or all three), it is a protected region whose depths make anchorage possible. Yet it is not a happy, sunlit domain of comfort. Strand’s region of sensibility is uncomfortable with its very comfort, anxiously becalmed, darkened by the presence of human limitation, death, pain, foreboding. Vaguely dissatisfied in a world that offers humans so much of what they need and desire, Strand sings a song at once melancholic and absurd: Something is always missing. With him, readers vainly and half-heartedly try to locate it, name it, but they come up empty.

If it were not for the fact that Strand has been conjuring this mood for over thirty years, one might conclude that he has captured the angst of his own late middle age. More than likely, however, he has recorded the late middle age of Western experience.

As ever Strand’s diction is simple, his manner direct, his style uncluttered. Now less obviously a writer influenced by Surrealism (though perhaps the Surrealist label was always specious), he is still capable of the unexpected juxtaposition, and there is a dreamlike quality as well as dream logic in many sections of Dark Harbor. Strand’s images and metaphors remain basic and general, if not abstract: aspects of sun, moon, stars, and water. These link poem to poem, although there is nothing inevitable about the order of Strand’s units. Because Strand’s poems have something like a setting without being specifically localized (with a few exceptions), and because of the mythic resonance of his repeated images, the dark harbor and its surrounding landscapes become a place within. Strand projects an eerie inferiority without ever seeming unnaturally self-absorbed; he writes less of a self than of a condition. “Proem” matter-of-factly establishes the sequence as the journey or quest of a wandering bard who would distinguish, assess, and respond to the songs (natural and otherwise) met on his travels. In this way, Strand creates a link between his aspirations in Dark Harbor and such American spatial epics as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855;final authorial edition 1892) and Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930)—both also sequences rather than extended narratives. In fact, Strand’s “Proem” functions in the same way as the introductory “Song of the Open Road” does in later editions of Whitman’s text. Moreover, as the projection of an everyman self, the whole of Dark Harbor echoes “Song of Myself’ (1855), which also (in its later versions) is presented as a series of numbered parts. Affinities to The Bridge are less obvious, except for the fact that Crane’s sequence also begins with a formally labeled “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” and evokes a similar malaise.

In looking for Strand’s paradigms or historical inspiration, one need not be claiming for Strand a bold, competitive intention, merely an almost unavoidable attachment to traditions that are in the lifeblood of American poetry. Moreover, Whitman and Crane are most likely distant influences. It is not Strand’s way to approach the lyric or dramatic intensity of these writers. Nor does he programmatically map his vision of America. Strand’s work is more brooding and ruminative. It stays on the accessible side of the more heady meditative sequences of such poets as Wallace Stevens and Charles Olson, particularly the Stevens of The Auroras of Autumn (1950)—to which Dark Harbor bears some formal resemblance, even though The Auroras of Autumn does not have the same kind of epic sweep of experience. Indeed, one could call Strand’s effort the sequence-epic for minimalists.

Though there is no announced division and the shift is not abrupt or absolute, the second half of this book has greater particularity and narrative dimension than the first. This gradual movement toward specificity and definite action gives the entire sequence its own kind of perceptual movement and low-key drama. It reads—and one must with Strand accept metaphors from the visual arts—like a series of lens adjustments, a coming into focus. Yet poems of relative concreteness can be found among the earlier parts of the book as well.

Though there is no question that in Dark Harbor the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, many of the parts are fine poems that will stand tall in anthologies. It is unfortunate that their titles will remain numbers or first-line references (though this problem has not hurt Emily Dickinson). Particularly powerful is “III,” a study of the mixed emotions of homecoming to a typical American town deadened by the accumulation of shops carrying useless goods that have become necessities, the “luminous cones” that fall from the street lamps, the “icy green from Tvs.” In a setting reminiscent of the futuristic nightscape of Ray Bradbury’s story “The Pedestrian,” Strand’s speaker wonders whether “this coming back is a failure/ Or a sign of success, a sign that the time has come/ To embrace your origins as you would yourself.” The flat ending makes this home a dark harbor indeed: “look, there in the kitchen are Mom and Dad,I He’s reading the paper, she’s killing a fly.”

Dark Harbor is not a condition of unmitigated dismay. Interim pleasures keep one alert to the possibilities of redemptive delight, though maybe this hope is only the stubborn human resistance to the blackest moods, the acceptance of purposelessness. Poem “VIII” is an illustration of Strand’s momentary upbeat swing, but its flat tone brings ironic deflation even before the painful conclusion. It begins:

If dawn breaks the heart, and the moon is a horror,
And the sun is nothing but the source of torpor,
Then of course I would have been silent all these years

And would not have chosen to go out tonight
In my new dark blue double-breasted suit
And to sit in a restaurant with a bowl 

Of soup before me to celebrate how good life
Has been and how it has culminated in this instant.

The poem concludes with a wish to Strand’s “partner, my beautiful death,/ My black paradise,… My symbolist muse,” for assurances that “I have not lived in vain” and that “what I have said has not been said for me.” If poetry itself is Strand’s act of faith, if the harbor is a harbor of words, then purpose lies in the projection of an individual will and a distinctive vision and voice.

Another remarkable piece is “XVI,” which reminds us that in “a world without heaven all is farewell,” no matter what our mood or behavior. Life, we are told, is a series of moments in which “the end/ is enacted again and again. And we feel it/ In the temptations of sleep, in the moon’s ripening,/ In the wine as it waits in the glass.” Does this awareness flatten or heighten the discrete beauties, voices, motions, or stillnesses? Strand seems to say that it does both.

In “XXVIII,” Strand posits that “the world is altered for the better…only while Orpheus sings. When the song is oven The world resumes its old flaws.” The poet can temporarily change the world, “but he cannot save it.” Knowing this, Orpheus’ song, like Strand’s, is troubled, and yet that sad song makes of the world the best that can be made—that is, if anyone is listening. This slippery second-guessing about vocation, purpose, and the efficacy of hope pervades Dark Harbor, enriching it tonally and intellectually while simultaneously narrowing the emotional scope and the reader’s chance of avoiding bitter truths. Variety in this sequence comes from language-making, saying it a bit differently each time out. Fortunately, Strand is up to the task:

“The day has made a fabulous cage of cold around/ my face. Whenever I take a breath I hear cracking” (from “XXX”).

Dark Harbor does its work with very few historical or geographical allusions. “XXX” is an exception, with its references to the atrocities of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and there is the occasional Canadian placename that reminds readers of Strand’s country of birth. The passing references to material culture (television, stereo, and the Calvin Klein suit in “XXXI”) only emphasize how little Strand depends on this kind of imagery and context. Allusions to mythology and art are somewhat more frequent, especially in the later poems, but even here Strand is constrained. Strand’s interests in painting and photography (about which he has written extensively) are reflected hardly at all by way of name-dropping. Yet the visual framing of scenes and the keen rendering of gradations of light and dark are hallmarks of his art. He works with a painter’s eye for composition and illumination. Poem “XXXVI” begins with imagining a stroll into

the somber garden where the grass in the shade
Is silver and frozen and where the general green

Of the rest of the garden is dark except
For a luminous patch made by the light of a window.

In passages like this one, Strand simply and directly registers simultaneous physical and psychological settings or conditions.

All in all, Dark Harbor is an impressive achievement. Strand’s immaculate poetic manners certainly deserve the acclaim they have received. Yet this very mannerliness might be his limitation. There is an absence of fire in this work, an absence of necessity. It is hard to find the rough edges that reveal the difficulty overcome, the urgency to share. Still, if a sense of absence, of exile, is one of his century’s main themes, Strand is one of its important poets.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. March 21, 1993, p.14.

Chicago Tribune. August 1, 1993, XIV, p.4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 9, 1993, p.11.

The New Republic. CCVIII, March 8, 1993, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 18, 1993, p.15.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. May 30, 1993, p. CS.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. 5S136.

The Yale Review. LXXXI, July, 1993, p.134.

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