Themes

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Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Poets and Self-Doubt

This poem deals, in large part, with what it means to become a poet and how to contend with the self-doubt that often plagues creative individuals. The speaker of the poem appears to be a poet, someone who has chosen to make writing poetry his life's work—possibly Mark Strand himself—and he constantly raises questions about his relevance, whether or not his work will matter in the world, or if he will be remembered for his poetry after he dies. He asks,

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And after I go, as I must,
And come back through the hourglass, will I have proved
That I live against time, that the silk of the songs
I sang is not lost?

Part of becoming a poet is recognizing one's mortality and coming to terms with the consequences of death. For this reason, the speaker asks if—once he is dead and gone—he will learn that the "songs" he wrote (referring to his poems) are lost, or if they will continue to live on after him.

Mortality

Because humans are mortal, then people are forever saying goodbye, even if they don't realize it in the moment. Strand writes in part sixteen that "all is farewell." People say goodbye over and over, even if they do not feel sad, even if they pretend that it is not the case; even though people may hate the knowledge of it, they say "farewell" again and again, "no matter what." People say farewell to friends and places and occasions, of versions of themselves, and it is up to poets to turn each of these reasons to mourn into a reason to celebrate.

Being Remembered

In the end, happily, it does seem as though it is possible for the poet to be remembered, to make a difference, to have an impact on the world. The speaker says,

I looked away to the hills
Above the river, where the golden lights of sunset
And sunrise are one and the same, and saw something flying
Back and forth, fluttering its wings.
Then it stopped in midair.
It was an angel, one of the good ones, about to sing.

He has used the "song" as a metaphor for poetry prior to this, and so this passage can be interpreted as his figurative sighting of another poet, one who is deceased, who returns to find that they have not been forgotten. The other poet is now an angel, as the speaker hopes to be, and a "good one"—a powerful writer who has had a lasting impact—offering hope that the speaker might yet be remembered beyond death.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

In her 1994 review of Dark Harbor for Antioch Review, Judith Hall said that the theme of the poem “is the poet’s counterlife in art, from his initial departure from the enclosure of family and home, to his journey through a place of darkness and uncertainty, to his final sense of safe harbor within the community of other poets.” At least in part, this could have been said about any of Strand’s books. Strand has often been criticized for solipsism, an extreme form of concern for self, but these accusations have not deterred him from his search for self nor from his conviction that poetry is his means of discovery.

This is not to say that Strand sees only himself; nothing could be further from the truth. He, like all poets, is constantly examining, evaluating, and speculating about life. By unrelentingly seeking a clearer picture of himself within life and creating poems as windows through which to view his explorations, he makes it possible for those who lack his particular vision to become part of his quest.

More than any of his previous books, Dark Harbor exhibits Strand’s concern with the community of poets, both living and dead, that has helped shape him as a poet and that continues to influence his poetry. No artist creates in a vacuum, and no poet seems more aware of this than Strand. He has often mentioned a handful of poets that have greatly influenced his work, and a few poets seem to drop in and out of this group. One who is always there, however, whether Strand is talking about himself or whether a critic is talking about him, is Elizabeth Bishop. Although their styles are very different, both wrote often about the relationships of art to life and life to art. The angels that appear and disappear in Dark Harbor are poets that have died, and it is not unreasonable to think that the last angel in the book, “one of the good ones, about to sing,” is Bishop.

As might well be expected, darkness is one of the major themes of Dark Harbor. This darkness is not a Joseph Conrad type of darkness, an impending doom or a void into which one falls and from which one never returns. Strand’s darkness creates more an air of nostalgia. It is a world of dreams in which the darkness is usually earthbound with at least some touch of heaven within reach. Sometimes, however, Strand’s heaven is within the darkness or, as in section VIII, darkness, death, and heaven are inseparably bound to one another:

Oh my partner, my beautiful death,My black paradise, my fusty intoxicant,My symbolist muse, give me your breastOr your hand or your tongue that sleeps all dayBehind its wall of reddish gums.Lay yourself down on the restaurant floorAnd recite all that’s been kept from my happiness.Tell me I have not lived in vain, that the starsWill not die, that things will stay as they are,That what I have seen will last, that I was not bornInto change, that what I have said has not been said for me.

This passage expresses one of the greatest fears of poets and other artists, the fear that their ideas and creations are either ephemeral or simply add nothing new. It also expresses a fear held by many people, artists and nonartists, that the world will change so much that nothing currently considered sacred will endure.

In several places in this poem “dark” refers to the future—not in a negative sense, but in the sense that one is not privy to what it holds. In these places Strand leads readers to believe that the dark that is the human inability to see the future is also the playground of imagination. People prefer to stare “Into the dark and imagine a fullness in which/ We are the stars, matching the emptiness/ Of the beginning, giving birth to ourselves/ Again and again.” This is an old theme, dating back to Ecclesiastes and probably before. Everything is cyclical: We have been here before, and we will be here again.

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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