Strand, Mark 1934–
Strand is an American poet, editor, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Friends whose opinions about these matters I usually defer to tell me that I am wrong to value as highly as I do … The Story of Our Lives. And it has to be admitted that of course there is a case to be made against Strand's work—a case that Strand himself has made.
We are reading the story of our lives
as though we were in it,
as though we had written it.
This comes up again and again.
One can only say in reponse that indeed it does come up again and again, in poem after poem from his first book on, to the point of obsession, And we could join Strand in the wish that he expresses thus: "We keep turning the pages,/hoping for something,/something like mercy or change…." This obsession and this hope have produced at times some pretty unremarkable work. The "litanies" in Darker, for instance, are so many uninspired raids on Christopher Smart. Even in [The Story of Our Lives], the long first poem, "Elegy for My Father," does not, for me, display the strength that I find elsewhere in Strand's work and that, especially because of its occasion, I should like to discover here. The fact seems to be that only with the greatest difficulty can Strand realize the existence of other people. (Their otherness he manages to convey well enough; it's the existence part that gives him trouble.) Indeed, it's hard enough for him to bring himself into imaginative being. The attempt to do just this appears in fact to be the motive or subject or both of his most characteristic poems, in which he is as other to himself as others are.
Hence, perhaps, a particular kind of poem appears often in the earlier books—poems I've taken to calling "You poems," in which you is neither a definite someone else nor the vague you, a substitute for one, in which you include yourself. Rather, it is a kind of half-split-off instance of I (or I and he) to whom the poet can speak in a tone at once remote, intimate and minatory, or upon whom he can report as you goes about his (its?) unsettling, affectless business.
It is by this and other, related means (there's only one real You poem in [this] book, and it's a minor one) that Strand achieves his characteristic effects. The point is that though a number of such poems may be mere exercises in a manner, a number of them aren't. Quite often enough the manner—the manners—work. Among the successes is what is certainly the longest—320 lines or so—and what seems to me the queerest and finest of the poems in [this] book, "The Untelling." So very wonderfully odd is it and so much does it exist in its effects upon the reader that I shall have very little to say about it directly. At once more obviously and more mysteriously than most poems, it has a plot, it tells a story. Or rather, as the title asserts, it untells one, it undoes itself. (pp. 117-18)
[The] ending of the poem, its undoing, unravelling, is not really a surprise so much as it is a confirmation, a perfection; the pleasure it provides is repeatable and lasting…. With (or even without) the other two long poems in the concluding section of this book, "The Untelling" is the culmination of one (the only?) line of Strand's development. However modish his enterprise may now and then have seemed and however obvious may be its antecedents and its sometimes unfortunate effects upon the work of others, it seems to me to have produced one of the very few nearly permanent American poems of recent years. (p. 118)
John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.
Mark Strand's The Story of Our Lives has far less immediate sensuous appeal than his earlier volumes of poetry. The virtuoso performer of
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- Critical Essays