Mark Strand’s poetry is entirely characteristic of the age in which he writes. Solipsism, alienation, and self-definition are the principal concerns. His work manifests a certain self-involvement that sometimes goes over the line into narcissism. Many of his poems are an inner dialogue that reaches into the realm of clinical schizophrenia. He is unable to define himself, finally, except as a sensitive soul searching for definition. He does not sound a Whitmanesque “barbaric yawp” over the rooftops of the world so much as he makes a distinguishable Eliotian “whimper” from the closet of his bedroom. Overall, Strand’s poetry fits clearly, quickly, and neatly into the packaged, near-formulaic modes of poetry manufactured in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he has a voice, experience, and expression all quite his own, and certain identifiable attributes of his work do serve not only to separate it from the works of others but also to make it deserving of the attention it has received.
Strand’s work depicts, to use his own word, the sourceless “darkness” that pervades human existence. In this depiction, fear is present, to be sure, as are oversensitivity, bifurcation of identity in the voice of the poet(s), spiritual nakedness, a strange combination of fantasy and the almost-surreal, and an elusive peace that never exists in the conscious and remains undiscoverable in both the subconscious and the unconscious. Strand’s poetry, then, is not distinctive so much in its subject matter or the ideas it expresses as in the techniques it employs: He thus has a far different domain from those of other poets writing in this subgenre of late modernism and postexistentialism.
The poetry of Strand is distinctive not so much in content as in approach. His contribution to twentieth century American poetry is the singularity in method and mode of expressing ideas common to other poets of his time. He stands apart from others, however, specifically through his estranged—though assuredly successful—mixture of the haunting darkness of reality with the fantastic and sexual, with self-alienation whose form is self-involvement, and with a recognition of the bifurcated personality, neither side of which can be subject functionally to the other. The mark of the superior quality of his works is that somehow he convinces the reader that life truly is this way and that the experiences he describes, however bizarre, are experiences that they share.
Sleeping with One Eye Open
Two poems from Strand’s first published collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open, demonstrate most of these qualities. In “The Tunnel,” the speaker of the poem is aware of a second self lurking, perpetually lurking, in the front yard of his house, itself a metaphor for his body. The primary persona of the poem experiences angst in both his ability and his inability to confront the other persona of his own self. He shines a flashlight at it, opens the door for a direct confrontation (which turns out to be more of a peek), makes obscene gestures at the other, leaves it suicide notes, tears up his (their) living-room furniture, and, finally, decides to dig a tunnel to escape to a neighbor’s yard. The attempt fails; there can be no communication or contact with another until he has first set his own house in order. The poet finishes digging the tunnel to find himself immobilized. He does not enter this escape route, although it is fully prepared; the poem ends with him aware that he is still being watched by the other self, now not in immediate physical visibility, and knowing that he will not leave the other after all. The self will remain fractured, and the fear will not go away. Escape is not possible, because it would be at least a partial enactment of suicide, which is unacceptable, accomplishing nothing.
In “Poem,” the primary persona is again...
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- Critical Essays