The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 743 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 entire section is 1826 words.)