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.
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.
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.
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.”