Mark Strand Strand, Mark - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Mark Strand 1934-

American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, author of children's books, and critic. See also Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 6) and Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 18).

Strand's poetry, produced over a period of more than forty years, has earned critical acclaim, numerous awards, and a devoted following among poetry lovers. His verse deals primarily with the relationship between the individual self and the rest of the world in language that is spare and through images that are often surreal and dream-like. In addition to his verse, Strand has written fictional prose, art criticism, children's literature, and short stories. In 1990 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Biographical Information

Strand was born on April 11, 1934, in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Robert Joseph and Sonia Apter Strand. The family left Canada when Strand was four years old, relocating to various American cities throughout Strand's childhood. He attended Antioch College in Ohio, receiving a B.A. in 1957, and then studied painting at Yale for two years, earning a B.F.A. in 1959. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960 and spent that year at the University of Florence. In 1962, Strand earned an M.A. from the University of Iowa where he taught English for three years. He married Antonia Ratensky in 1961; the marriage ended in divorce twelve years later. He married Julia Garretson in 1965. Strand has two children: a daughter, Jessica, from his first marriage, and a son, Thomas, from his second. In 1965-66, the poet served as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Virginia, and Harvard. Since 1998, Strand has taught in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

In addition to the two Fulbright Fellowships, Strand has received a number of other awards and grants, among them an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Grant in 1966, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1967, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1968, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1980. His poetry collection The Story of Our Lives (1973) earned the Academy of American Poets' Edgar Allan Poe Award the year following its publication, and the 1998 collection Blizzard of One was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1987, Strand received the so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1990 was named U.S. Poet Laureate.

Major Works

Strand's first volume of poetry was Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964). The poems in the collection introduced readers to themes and concerns that would dominate his work throughout his career: the search for identity, a sense of apprehension, and recurring images of absence, negation, and self-effacement. His next offering, Reasons for Moving (1968), confirmed his reputation for writing dark, even morbid, poetry. In 1970 he produced Darker: Poems and in 1973 the award-winning collection, The Story of Our Lives, which contains the critically acclaimed “Elegy for My Father” and “The Untelling,” perhaps Strand's most famous poem. In “The Untelling,” the poet-speaker recalls a scene from his childhood at a lake, telling, retelling, and eventually “untelling” the story with an awareness of the interplay between memory and reality, between the perceptions of a child and the reminiscences of an adult. The work was followed by The Monument (1978), a collection of 52 ruminations described by one critic as “not quite poetry, not quite prose,” sprinkled throughout with quotations from Strand's literary influences.

In 1980 Strand published Selected Poems, containing verse from his earlier collections, after which he produced no poetry for the next ten years. In the 1990s he returned to the genre with The Continuous Life (1990), Dark Harbor (1993), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blizzard of One (1998). His most recent publication is Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More (2000), characterized by one critic as “an elegant collection of one-liners organized in loose lists by repeated key words.”

In addition to his poetry, Strand has produced a collection of short stories, three children's books, and several monographs of art criticism. He has contributed to numerous periodicals and has served as the editor of several poetry anthologies, including The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940 (1969) and the Golden Ecco Anthology: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1994). In 2000 he edited, along with Eavan Boland, Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms.

Critical Reception

Before turning to poetry Strand had envisioned a career as a painter, and that interest has informed much of his work. Several critics have commented on the “painterly” quality of Strand's poems and have noted the influence of the Surrealists, particularly René Magritte; others have suggested that his work evokes the landscapes of Edward Hopper—the subject of one of Strand's books of art criticism. Walt Whitman, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, and most especially, Wallace Stevens, are usually named as Strand's literary sources and influences.

Most critics see absence and negation as the characteristic images of Strand's poetry. Linda Gregerson mentions the “honey of absence,” while Richard Howard refers to one of Strand's poems as “one more celebration of an empty place.” Gregerson maintains that Strand employs absence as “a hedge against mortality,” since within many of his poems, she notes, “when absence cracks, mortality gets a foothold.” Similarly, Samuel Maio reports that although Strand's speaker often defines himself through negatives and absences, the final result is that “the very act of self-negation becomes celebratory of his existence.”

Although Strand has denied that his poetry is particularly dark, his critics have usually disagreed, particularly in regard to his earliest work. In his 1972 essay, Harold Bloom contends that “Strand keeps moving from ‘It is dark’ to ‘It is darker.’” For Bloom, Strand's work is overtly Freudian; his usual subject matter is the family romance and an awareness of death. Howard asserts that the brooding quality of Strand's verse is apparent in form as well as content. “Strand,” he notes, “has discovered a scansion for his dilemma, a style for his despair.” But with the publication of The Story of Our Lives, Strand's work began to demonstrate a marked change in style and theme according to many critics. Gregerson contends that the pieces in this collection move from renunciation to at least the possibility of restoration. David Kirby, noting that the individual poems in The Story of Our Lives are longer than Strand's earlier efforts, suggests that the poet is starting to deal with the self he explored and identified in his first three books. Several scholars have commented that the assessment of his work as dark and morbid should be mitigated by an acknowledgment of Strand's witty approach to his serious subjects. Christopher R. Miller, for example, in reference to the poem “Keeping Things Whole,” explains that “in its progression of deadpan observations, the poem renders the sublime encounter with the void as an existential joke.”

Although most critics would rank the award-winning The Story of Our Lives or Blizzard of One as Strand's best work, Kirby believes that Strand's real masterpiece is The Monument, a combination of poetry and prose reflections that the critic maintains is the “culmination of Strand's themes and techniques to date as well as a quantum leap beyond them.” It is, according to Kirby, “one of the most astonishing books in the English language.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Sleeping with One Eye Open 1964

Reasons for Moving 1968

Darker: Poems 1970

The Story of Our Lives 1973

The Sargeantville Notebook 1974

Elegy for My Father 1978

The Late Hour 1978

The Monument 1978

Selected Poems 1980

The Continuous Life 1990

Dark Harbor: A Poem 1993

Blizzard of One 1998

89 Clouds [single poem accompanying monotypes by Wendy Mark] 1999

Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More 2000

The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940 [editor] (poetry) 1969

The Planet of Lost Things (juvenilia) 1982

The Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters (criticism) 1983

Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (short stories) 1985

The Night Book (juvenilia) 1985

Rembrandt Takes a Walk (juvenilia) 1986

William Bailey (criticism) 1987

Golden Ecco Anthology: 100 Great Poems of the English Language [editor] (poetry) 1994

Hopper (criticism) 1994

Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms [editor, with Eavan Boland] (poetry) 2000

The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention (essays, prose poems) 2000

Harold Bloom (essay date January 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Dark and Radiant Peripheries: Mark Strand and A. R. Ammons.” Southern Review n.s. 8, no. 1 (January 1972): 133-49.

[In the following excerpt, Bloom contends that Strand's work represents a strain of American Romanticism that is consciously Freudian and that deals primarily with the family romance.]

A man's fortunes are the fruit of his character. A man's friends are his magnetisms. We go to Herodotus and Plutarch for examples of Fate; but we are examples. …

—Emerson, Fate


The four books of new American poetry that have moved me most...

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Richard Howard (review date spring 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, Richard. Review of The Story of Our Lives, by Mark Strand. Ohio Review 15, no. 3 (spring 1974): 104-07.

[In the following review, Howard praises the clarity of Strand's focus in his poetry and contends that The Story of Our Lives is Strand's best collection.]

His fourth and finest book—finest because the focus is so clear, the resonance of an already “placed” voice so unmixed and yet so unforced—begins with a sustained lament for the poet's father, for his father's life rather than for his death. Death is not to be mourned in Strand's thematics, of course, it is only to be identified:


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Robert Miklitsch (essay date spring 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Miklitsch, Robert. “Beginnings and Endings: Mark Strand's ‘The Untelling.’” Literary Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1978): 357-73.

[In the following essay, Miklitsch maintains that the poems in the collection The Story of Our Lives are both highly original and important in terms of Strand's influence on future poets.]

Whatever we have words for,
                    that we have already got beyond.


Mark Strand is an outstanding poet. He stands out because, falling as he does between that generation of major American poets alive today (Ammons, Ashbery, Howard, Kinnell, Merrill, Merwin, Rich, Wright)...

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Linda Gregerson (essay date fall/winter 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gregerson, Linda. “Negative Capability.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 2 (fall/winter 1981): 90-114.

[In the following essay, Gregerson contends that in Strand's later work the focus of his poetry shifts from renunciation to restoration.]

“… it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee. …”

John Keats to J. H. Reynolds, February 19, 1818

When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all...

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David Kirby (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirby, David. “And Then I Thought of the Monument.” In Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture, pp. 27-57. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Kirby examines Strand's 1973 collection, The Story of Our Lives and the 1978 collection, The Monument. Kirby comments that the first is characterized by a marked change in style from the poetry of Strand's earlier volumes, and the second by a highly original combination of poetry and prose.]


Mark Strand is a cautious poet yet an academic as well. His caution does not seem suited to...

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Samuel Maio (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Maio, Samuel. “The Self-Effacing Mode.” In Creating Another Self: Voice in Modern American Personal Poetry, pp. 163-224. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Maio explores Strand's handling of issues of poetic voice and tone involving absence and self-negation in individual poems from Sleeping with One Eye Open, Reasons for Moving, and Darker.]

In his short collection of idiosyncratic musings in verse form, The Sargeantville Notebook (1973), Strand included the following curious statement:

The ultimate self-effacement is not
the pretense of the minimal,
but the jocular...

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Charles Berger (essay date April 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Berger, Charles. “Reading as Poets Read: Following Mark Strand.” Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 1 (April 1996): 177-88.

[In the following essay, Berger presents a detailed explication of three poems by Strand: “Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life,” “The Next Time,” and “Great Dog Poem No. 2.”]

For close to a decade now, in the third or fourth phase of his career, Mark Strand has been giving us poem after poem marked by his familiar voice—luminous, deceptively casual, witty, allusive—as he builds up a body of work that thinks and sings ever more deeply about the poet's unavoidable life of allegory. This growing summa of poetic...

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Sarah Manguso (essay date fall 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Manguso, Sarah. “Where Is That Boy?” Iowa Review 29, no. 2 (fall 1999): 168-71.

[In the following essay, Manguso contends that in Blizzard of One Strand “attempts to explain what happens when he can't show us the subject of his meditation.”]

The poems in Mark Strand's latest collection [Blizzard of One,] are missing their subjects. Some have sent false confirmations of their impending arrival, some have come and gone, leaving only their skittish footprints. Depending on a poem's voice, the results of the omission can vary from wry to mournful, but the speaker of nearly every piece, regardless of any ostensible topic, attempts to explain...

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Christopher R. Miller (essay date fall 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Christopher R. “Mark Strand's Inventions of Farewell.” Wallace Stevens Journal 24, no. 2 (fall 2000): 135-50.

[In the following essay, Miller examines the connections between Strand's work and the poetry of Wallace Stevens.]

Wallace Stevens has many and diverse poetic heirs—John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, and Mark Strand, to name a few—all practitioners of what Helen Vendler has called the “second-order poem” (12), or what Stevens himself called “The poem of the act of the mind” (CP [The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens] 240). As opposed to “first-order” poetry of statement or narrative, such a lyric...

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Craig A. Hamilton (essay date spring 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Craig A. “Strand's ‘The History of Poetry.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 177-79.

[In the following essay, Hamilton offers a brief analysis of the formal features of Strand's poem “The History of Poetry.”]

Of Mark Strand's poems since 1990, “The History of Poetry” (Continuous [The Continuous Life] 56) is representative both formally and thematically of his more recent work. Strand used short stanza forms for many of his poems from the 1960s to the 1980s, but his more recent poems are somewhat longer, normally consisting of one stanza. “The Great Poet Returns” (Blizzard [Blizzard of One] 12), an...

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Katia Mitova (essay date fall-winter 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitova, Katia. “On the Ease of Writing Lists.” Denver Quarterly 36, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2002): 94-7.

[In the following essay, Mitova contends that the poems in Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More are actually simply lists that seem to invite the reader “into poetry in general, and into Mark Strand's poetry in particular.”]

Mark Strand's twenty-first book, Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More, is an elegant collection of one-liners organized in loose lists by repeated key words. While reading it, I am itching to quote this or that line to a friend, to insert new lines into the book, or to write my own lists in the same spirit. I found out that I...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bensko, John. “Reflexive Narration in Contemporary American Poetry: Some Examples from Mark Strand, John Ashbery, Norman Dubie, and Louis Simpson.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 2 (spring 1986): 81-96.

Discussion of the way Strand, among others, acknowledges and confronts the narrative tactics he employs within his poetry.

Berger, Charles. “Poetry Chronicle: Amy Clampitt, Louise Glück, Mark Strand.” Raritan 10, no. 3 (winter 1991): 119-33.

Praises the openness of the poems in Strand's 1990 volume, The Continuous Life.

Brooks, David. “A Conversation with Mark...

(The entire section is 355 words.)