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Strand, Mark 1934–
Strand is an American poet, editor, and translator whose traditional poems interrelate dreams and reality. Not really adhering to the tenets of any one school of poetry, Strand writes with lucidity and a consistency derived from the repetition of his major themes. (See also CLC , Vol....
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- Critical Essays
Strand, Mark 1934–
Strand is an American poet, editor, and translator whose traditional poems interrelate dreams and reality. Not really adhering to the tenets of any one school of poetry, Strand writes with lucidity and a consistency derived from the repetition of his major themes. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 132
In Mark Strand's best poems [in Sleeping with One Eye Open] a fuzzy, peripheral, half realized terror seems about to take shape. The tension is that if the terror materializes, becomes specific, the poet will be run out of the house of himself. Mr. Strand's poems are, therefore, new houses to dwell safely in. He builds them methodically, so they have strong textural walls with no loose joints or cracks. The tone is often flat and prosy, as if to diminish and control threatening feeling. The effect though is the opposite, to release feeling. Many of these poems are admirable houses. (pp. 196-97)
A. R. Ammons, "Seven Books by Eight Poets," in Poetry (© 1966 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CVIII, No. 3, June, 1966, pp. 191-97.∗
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Mark Strand's Reasons for Moving … is a marvelously haunted book. It is not clear whether the speaker of these poems is haunted by what he is, what he is not, or the obscurity of events. But this uncertainty is precisely the dramatic effect the poet seeks, and in most of the poems he achieves it. The theme that pervades the book (which throughout is unified in tone) is given in an introductory quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: "… while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and … in this way every man is two men." But Strand does not work this theme in the romantic vein. He neither longs nostalgically for past experience, wishing to recapture a lost pastoral self, nor imagines an amorous and adventurous ideal to dote upon in reverie or dream. Rather, his Doppelgänger, his other self, shares his own fate: neither one of them is complete, neither is sure of his own identity. From this ghostly confrontation a beautiful pathos arises. For example, in "The Accident" the victim and the train engineer are, in effect, the same character…. If what a man does and what happens to him are, in some hidden sense, the same, then compassion and pity are also the same, and so too are responsibility and innocence. Thus the speaker and his other self are as much the victims of what they do as they are victims of what happens to them, and their identities have no fixed center. If anything is certain, it is merely the sense of "being swept away."
Another example of the inextricability of victim and victimizer, innocence and guilt, is to be found in the superbly tight poem "The Mailman." (p. 39)
The rhythms of this poem are firm. The language seems effortlessly colloquial. The spare imagery is controlled: the mailman becomes an "inkstain on my crimson couch" as if he had been created and spilled like blood in one of the speaker's letters from the "same vein." The word-plays are natural and unforced. The mailman, having brought the letter, having inflicted pain, must ask forgiveness, and the speaker—who wrote the letter that caused the mailman pain (because he has to inflict the same pain by delivering the letter)—must forgive the mailman and, by implication, himself. The cycle is completed with all its innuendo locked in. Guilt returns to forgiveness, though not through the agency of atonement or moral confrontation.
Any poetic success runs the danger of becoming mannered, and occasionally the spookiness of these poems, their mysteriousness, seems perfunctory. At those times (as in "The Man in the Tree" or "The Whole Story") I would like to shake Strand by the lapels and say, "But experience is not that uncertain; events are more definable than you say; tell us who you are, where you have come from." Nevertheless, at its best Strand's art is sure. He has found his own voice and, for this book, his own theme: the elusiveness of the self and of reality. There are over a dozen poems in this small collection that are deeply moving. (pp. 39-40)
Robert Pack, "To Be Loved for Its Voice," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LI, No. 34, August 24, 1968, pp. 39-40.∗
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[Mark Strand's Darker] represents a remarkable development in depth of insight and poetic control. The two poems headed "From a Litany" show the degree of tension in this book, for the first is a litany of praise … and the second is a somber chant of disgust for life…. But [the style of "From a Litany"], reminiscent of Kit Smart and Whitman, is not characteristic of the volume, which is mainly composed in compact stanzas, usually quatrains, and very often set forth in poems of only three or four stanzas. Inevitably these shorter poems evoke the shades of Emily Dickinson or Thomas Hardy; and the comparison will hold, for Strand's rigorous technique is designed to control the same dark feelings of faithlessness and emptiness and bleakness that lie at the center of Dickinson's and Hardy's universe, the sense that there is no one there to listen…. [These shorter poems display a] lean style, stripped to essentials, that Strand has so admirably achieved. A poem like this is worth acres of the stuff now being offered to us in the name of poetry by the limp, haphazard followers of Corso or Frank O'Hara. (pp. 414-15)
Louis L. Martz, "Recent Poetry: Visions and Revisions," in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LX, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 403-17.∗
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[Mark Strand's] Darker seems to me a much stronger work than his Reasons for Moving (1968) or Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964). The strength is largely the coherence of his figures. As the title claims, Mr. Strand is going deeper into the darkness, taking greater risks, but he is not foolhardy, he goes in well accoutered. His element is time; he has trained himself to walk in that darkness by practicing the tenses, seeing present things in the oblique light of the future, confronting present and past. He is very good on memory, but even better on prediction and the failures of prediction: best of all on situations in which it is possible to say, "the future is not what it used to be."
Many of his poems sound as if they were written on the principle: take a cliché and wring its neck. For instance, that time changes us: in "The Remains" the poet goes through the motions of emptying his pockets, turning out his life, reciting events and coincidences, until at the end:
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
In "The Prediction" the same imagination works upon future things, a young woman walking under the moon, and the future coming to her in a flash. But if Mr. Strand has a preference in these matters, it is given in the poem "Not Dying": "The years change nothing." At least that is what the speaker tells himself, perhaps because his need is great.
A poet engaged with time is likely to devise a structure against which he can play his temporal figures. He may not need anything as elaborate as a complete symbolism. Mr. Strand's poems manage very well on a little system. Beginnings, hopes, and potentialities are featured as breath: "breath is what saves me."… Whatever denies breath is given in static, visual terms: a map, and in one poem a black map of the present, representing finality, recognized too late to make a difference.
I am not sure how far such a modest system could go, but its success in the present book is clear. If it is stark, that is a venial fault, for it accords with the nature of Mr. Strand's language. He likes to make his poems by putting down separate notations, bleak or triumphant in their finality. The design is not a network of relationships: it is the nature of each notation that it resists assimilation to the next, as if one item were separated from the other by a zone of silence. Often, in these poems, each line represents a distinct act of the mind, strict and superior. The syntax distinguishes one moment from the next, asserting its full stops. It may be that Mr. Strand admired this procedure first in Borges's fiction, where the sentences offer themselves in single file with a show of independence. The lines have the precision of aphorisms: the fact that each is replaced by the next means that more precise notations are still possible rather than that an effect of intimacy and complication is sought.
Even in poems of praise, Mr. Strand favors the strict sentence…. [He] divides his poetic time into separate moments, a line to each. A line is never allowed to stain its neighbor. The form of the poem, as in Mr. Strand's "From a Litany," is the movement of feeling from one committed position to the next; the relation between the lines is definitive but not complex. The significance of any line consists in its weight rather than its anticipated involvement in other lines; when the involvement comes, the effect of strictness and commitment is retained. As in other litanies, the plot is simple, and the poetry comes with the detail, slight differences having disproportionately large effect. (pp. 28-9)
Denis Donoghue, "Waiting for the End," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1971 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XVI, No. 8, May 6, 1971, pp. 28-9.∗
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Strand is both nervous and morbid, and a consideration of finality is his constant project…. In his first book, he is holding on for dear life. (pp. 508-09)
Sleeping with One Eye Open, published in 1964, is a book of forebodings and apprehensions, of mirrorings and divisions, the very titles of the poems articulating menace: "When the Vacation is Over for Good," "Something Is in the Air," "A Kind of Weakness," "A Reason for Moving," and of course the title poem, with its twitching echorhymes, its broken rhythms…. By writing an existing language as if it were his own invention, by confiding his endurance of dissolution to traditional discourse, Strand achieves, in these first poems of his, the spooky sense that he is being written by someone else, by something else, an energy his own only in that it moves through him, for it does not proceed from him…. (p. 509)
So perfectly achieved is the sense of being life's dummy, the ventriloquism of diction merely (as he puts it in "In the Privacy of the Home," one of a group of prose poems which are an effort to break the spell, "at a loss you examine the mirror. There you are, you are not there"), that these poems, with all the decisive delicacy Strand has leached from Richard Wilbur, from Elizabeth Bishop, are something of a foreclosure; though they register a collapse, a defeat, a disintegration of the identity they are concerned to disclose, they do so with the tenantless decorum of alienation, of otherness; and the poet registers, in "The Map," his discontent with his early making by just the accents of scruple and certitude he is protesting…. (pp. 509-10)
It is not, after all, a false sense of security Strand seeks to give himself and the reader, but a true sense of jeopardy, recalling that the word means not only danger, hazard, but originally a divided game, a jeu parti in which the chances are even because they are exposed. For such an enterprise, the larger scene, the more licentious action of occurrences are required—a grotesque gestus in the place of all this finicking topiary—and the direction is shown, even here in this first book, by one poem, "The Tunnel," which Strand will reprint in his next and in which the implicit condemnations of our speech—the buried metaphors which haunt all language but which hobble poetry to a traduction of wit—are discarded in favor of the explicit ones of narrative, of anecdote, as we shall see; a farewell to that dilemma which lies in human discourse is best made, then, in one of Strand's beautiful transparencies, "In the Mountains," where the entire rhetorical system appears to break down under the weight of its own duplicity, the burden of presented absence…. (p. 510)
[In 1968] Mark Strand published his second book, Reasons for Moving, two dozen poems in which he not only raises his voice but rouses his vision with it, so that we do not again forget what we have seen, what we have heard…. [The book] begins with a triumphant aggression against the old decorum, a victorious stamping upon the buried implications of mere verse—Strand's fears will no longer be groundless, as he exults, to the dismay of librarians, in "Eating Poetry," the opening poem:
Ink runs down from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry!…
New man, new methods. Though he keeps his axiological way with an enjambment, Strand now lower-cases his run-ons, and most lines in this book are coincident with the simplest declarative statements, a litany of incidents in the ulterior sense the word has, the sense of chances, a double game, a hazard. The poems Strand is eating are those of his first book, and the diet affords him a distinct playfulness, a grotesquerie unthinkable in the old forebodings. The generally short lines, moving into memory by a chain of statements, construct a simple report of things seen with all the odd exactitude of a documentary film…. (p. 511)
The poems tell one story and one story only: they narrate the moment when Strand makes Rimbaud's discovery, that je est un autre, that the self is someone else, even something else; "The Mailman," "The Accident," "The Door," "The Tunnel," even "The Last Bus" with its exotic Brazilian stage-properties, all recount the worst, realizing every apprehension, relishing the things possible only in one's wildest fantasies of victimization, and then with a shriek as much of delight as of despair, fall upon the fact … that the victimizer is, precisely, the self, and that the victim is the other, is others. It is what Hegel meant when he said that "hell is other people." (p. 512)
A new and particular pleasure of these poems, a fringe benefit which the calculations and measurements of Strand's earlier work had made impossible, is an observation of occurrence, a communication of the quality of an occasion incidental in every sense to the scenario, the relation; Strand's spell is not broken by the intrusion of "particulars," rather it is sustained and indeed woven by the kind of generous awareness this new genre of allotropic poem vouchsafes the poet: "the carnation in my buttonhole / precedes me like a small / continuous explosion," he will say as he walks down the hall to his fated encounter with "The Man in the Mirror."… It is justice to the visible world which Strand renders, though he walks "in the morning sun / invisible / as anyone," and the wonderful thing about these startling fits in the old sense, about these paragraphs of hallucination whose everyday emblems and conversational phrasing are lifted to sudden lyric intensity by syntax, by "the sound of sentences," is that in the richest possible acceptation they are visionary poems.
Strand's work since Reasons for Moving widens his scope, even as it sharpens his focus; just as he had divided his body against itself in order to discover an identity, he now identifies the body politic with his own in order to recover a division; in a series of political prospects, "Our Death," "From a Litany," "General," and finest of all, "The Way It Is," the poet conjugates the nightmares of Fortress America with his own stunned mortality to produce an apocalypse of disordered devotion…. But what gives these public accents of Strand's their apprehensive relevance is not just a shrewd selection of details,… nor any cosy contrast of the poet's intimeries against a gaining outer darkness…. Rather it is the sense that public and private degradation, outer and inner weather, tropic and glacial decors … are all versions and visions of what Coleridge called the One Life, and that the whole of nature and society are no more than the churning content of a single and limitless human body—the poet's own. Such a sense—and in Strand it occupies all the senses …—enables the poet to include much more life in these later poems of his; to invoke the wars of filiation, marriage and paternity; to explore the ennui of mere survival … and to endure the depredations of the past, the claims of merely having been…. But not merely "I" and "me"—all the pronouns are here now; the personnel of these poems multiplies precisely as the self unifies. In a series of related elegies which constitute the most astonishing meditation of the period on the death our bodies create and court as the cost and the consequence of identity, as its reward, Strand forges lines whose music has nothing to do with verse, stanzas whose coherence has nothing to do with decorum, visions whose necessity has nothing to do with dreams. "My Life" he calls the first of the sequence…. And in the second, an apostrophe to the redeeming yet resisting Poem, Strand resumes all his old themes of the alienated spirit, the sundered self, so that it is with a giddy, near-hysterical compression that "My Life by Somebody Else" ends…. Others are called, of course, "My Death," "Our Death" and (the climactic piece in the series) "Not Dying," which gains its triumph by conceding loss ("these wrinkles are nothing. These gray hairs … these bruised / and swollen ankles, / my darkening brain, / they are nothing") and gainsays that same loss by rehearsing the thing within us which says "I"—for to it we never die. Our identity is there when we think of ourselves as dead, when we think of the earth falling into the sun, the sun disappearing into space, the whole universe wiped out. We cannot reach further than that into annihilation, but if we could "we" would survive…. [The] close of "Not Dying" … shows that confidence in mortality which enables Strand, at his most generous reach, to address himself at last to otherness apprehended not merely as a version of the self misplaced, fallen, but as a genuine act of love, a transaction which admits the possibility and the value of the second person, of what the Gospels call the Neighbor and what Strand himself calls the Stranger; in twelve lines ending, inevitably, with a comma (i.e., not ending), Strand offers himself to, and thereby receives the world that is within, his dying body; he gives the world away and thereby creates himself; the poem is called "Letter."… (pp. 513-16)
Richard Howard, "Mark Strand," in his Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers; copyright © 1969, 1980 by Richard Howard), Atheneum, 1971, pp. 507-16.
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Five previous books have established that Mark Strand is a superb lyric poet, particularly in Darker (1970). He gives us now two new books, of which The Monument is a meditation in a subtly imaginative prose, and The Late Hour a gathering of 25 lyrics written during the last five years.
Strand is one of those poets, like Geoffrey Hill, who seem to write only a few poems a year. The rigor of his art achieves a gently witty manifesto in The Monument, which is a meditation in the tradition of Unamuno, a baroque reverie upon the idea that Vico called poetic divination, the poet's quest for immortality. Gently parodying the American model of such divination, Song of Myself, Strand's The Monument weaves together prose and some verse in 52 sections, almost all of a page or less in length. The prose and verse are mostly by Strand, but the book's genius is to combine uncannily Strand and his precursors, by blending in quotations from Unamuno, Stevens, Sir Thomas Browne, Whitman, Nitzsche, Wordsworth and many others. The quotations are so placed as to become neither allusions nor texts-for-commentary, but rather to work as what Walter Benjamin wanted his quotations to be: sudden illuminations or auras, moments of cultural shock flaring forth at precisely the point of their disappearance.
The Monument, in a spirit mixing gaiety and dread, is addressed by Strand across the centuries to a future translator. This translator is something like Lacan's Other that commands us: he knows Strand as Strand cannot know himself. What Strand does know is what greatly moves his admirers, like myself, and what seems to repel some less elitist readers of contemporary poetry. Strand knows implicitly, as a poet, what Freud taught us to know explicitly, which is that narcissism is at once the self's love for the ego, the self's investment in the ego, and the self's way of constituting an ego. This is hard knowledge to bear, and some readers of poetry cannot bear it, humor, teaches us to bear the truths of Unamuno, Nietzsche, Whitman and the other seers of poetic narcissism. The center of Strand's wisdom comes in an aphorism of Unamuno's: "… the secret of human life … is the desire to be someone else without ceasing to be myself…." It may not be the secret of human life but it does seem to be the secret of strong poetry. (p. 29)
Strand is incurably elegiac, yet some of the most beautiful of the new poems are celebratory: the poignant "Lines for Winter," the explicitly Emersonian chant called "White,"and the two extraordinary "Night Pieces" that end the book. But the Strand who triumphed in the volume Darker is still movingly present. He is in the exuberant grace of the title poem, "The Late Hour," which earns its position in the rich tradition of Whitman's "The Sleepers," Stevens's "The Owl in the Sarcophagus" and Bishop's "The Unbeliever," American poems that blend nightmare and final imaginative visions. Strand too is a poet of "the wounds of night that heal without sound." Like his precursors, he stations himself just before sunrise, in order to hear "again the luminous wind of morning that comes before the sun." Stevens said of this moment that it brought a "difficult rightness" and Strand, like John Ashbery, is adept at just such a rightness. Strand seeks "the mirror / in which pain is asleep," but his splendor is that he keeps returning to the fatal mirror of Narcissus, while knowing it to be nothing else but a poetics of pain.
The Monument echoes D. H. Lawrence when it sees that the poetics of America must be also a poetics of death…. To be at once a skeptic and a vitalist, belated and ever-early, is an enormous burden for a lyric poet to assume. The Monument analyzes the burden, with humane tact and literary ingenuity. The volume of lyrics, The Late Hour, partly transcends the burden, even as it knowingly exemplifies it. Strand has added two short volumes to make a trilogy with his masterpiece, Darker, and the trilogy will locate itself within the canon of American literature, the canon of what we cannot evade. (pp. 29-30)
Harold Bloom, "Books Considered: 'The Monument' and 'The Late Hour'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 5, July 29, 1978, pp. 29-30.
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The deep underlying motive of Mark Strand's poetry is the solipsism or loneliness of the individual imagination, isolated from the world of memory, objects, the body, other people. This seems to me to be true even though his most poignant poems include "The Marriage," which fulfills its title, and "The Prediction," which in a courtly, painful way extends itself toward the young womanhood of someone long dead.
And though The Late Hour … ends with a naming of people dear to the poet, they are hailed, characteristically, across a darkness that is not only intervening, but an infusing, negative quality…. [This negative quality, found in "Night Pieces, II,"] is followed by the volume's conclusion, a gratitude that the world returns ("we come back whole / to suck the sweet marrow of day"); such gratitude implies that the world's presence is a consummation, and not a condition of life.
Samuel Beckett's proposition about the artist seems remarkably germane to Strand's work:
He may state the space that intervenes between him and the world of objects; he may state it as a no-man's land, Hellespont or vacuum, according as he happens to be feeling resentful, nostalgic, or merely depressed.
Though the dour grin of Beckett's tone clashes with the neo-Romantic texture of Strand's writing, Beckett's categories do suggest something of the range of Strand's work. If ["Night Pieces, II"], like other new poems ("Pot Roast"; "For Jessica, My Daughter"), presents the "intervening space" as a possibly navigable Hellespont, the space also appears as a vacuum, mournfully [as in "The Story"]…. It appears as a no-man's land, nostalgically [as in "For Her"]…. Though the voice of these poems is directed, lovingly or otherwise, toward various objects of meditation, the voice itself is alone.
Yet, the voice is not merely lugubrious; if anything, it has an oddly exuberant, sometimes even dandyish quality. The frequently short lines and the short, spare sentences provide an elegantly terse vehicle for the impetuous, exciting imagination: a busy fountain of mysteries, brooding formulae and images, disciplined by the curt, declarative form. The Orphic, urgent sequence of brief declarations has an effect that is terse, yet rich. The resultant surface, the paradox of an exuberant melancholy, is a brilliant invention, so brilliant that I think it has been much imitated—though I am not sure that it has been correspondingly understood, in its dimensions and limitations. (pp. 298-300)
When Strand's striking imagination and compact, atmospheric style first came to notice ten or twelve years ago, the work gave a marvelous sense of freshness: discovery by the writer, and discovery by the reader. The poems also seemed enigmatic, in a way that was partly attractive, but also raised questions by leaving the shape and provenance of a poem uncertain, or merely vague. And somehow the style that was austere and tense in "Keeping Things Whole" and "My Life by Somebody Else" could turn—seemingly with only a little variation—into something too aureate and easy.
But in the best poems, the sense of freshness holds up: rereading (in Darker and Reasons for Moving) poems first encountered in magazines, their virtues appear again. The poet has ideas, not merely sensations, and the ideas are animated by emotional conviction. The dreamlike natural landscape and the sense of the human body are distinctive. And all of this is held together by what can be called Strand's remarkable sense of the poetic: the voice is alone, and what it is alone with is poetry itself. Strand's accomplishment can be described by saying that his work exemplifies a central contemporary idea of poetry—or rather, of the poetic. And the limits of his accomplishment may be suggested by saying that his work is not of the kind that surprises the reader, by forcing us to revise our idea of what poetry is.
Certainly, that Strand's work depends upon a specific poetic diction is an understatement…. But the rhythms and syntax, too—litany, parallelism, the expert play of line-length and grammar—remind us that in its isolation, the imagination does not only speak to the world across the void: what it speaks is a poem. Other kinds of poem, even if conservative in form—Frost's "'Out, Out—'" might be an example—bring some sense of surprise that their materials, kind of word, rhythm, unity, can be poetic. Strand is an original writer, but not of the kind who challenges our idea of poetry. He confirms that idea, rather than enlarging it.
To quote an example is perhaps too easy, because examples can be selected to distort a whole. And in fact, Strand is difficult to quote from because he is too quotable: in excerpts, the weaker poems look as good as the best ones, and vice versa. [But read "The Covering of Light"]…. I won't claim the prescience or judgment to know whether in thirty years this will look like the work of a mid-1970's Swinburne, or far better than that, or far worse. But reading aloud the sonorous rhythms, and noting the beautiful handling of conventionally beautiful diction—air, candles, bones, shine, dreams, stars, flares, breath, light—it is easy to see how beginning poets might read such poems the way in another time they would read Swinburne. It is easy to see how they would try to imitate such writing, and how likely they would be to fail.
One of Strand's recurrent, charged words is "story"; the overtones of something made up, familiar, and solacing seem part of its importance: something that endures, yet must end. The word appears in "Exiles," one of the best poems in The Late Hour…. The [poem's] peculiar blending of despair and renewal, silence and narration, is Strand's alone, like a voice-print…. (pp. 300-02)
Robert Pinsky, "More of the Story," in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXII, No. 5, August, 1978, pp. 298-302.
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I had the curious feeling after reading Reasons for Moving (1968) and Darker (1970) that Strand's best poems were atypical. In Reasons for Moving I was drawn to the subversive energy of "Eating Poetry"; the breathless dramatization of a dream world in "The Accident"; the ironic detachment of "The Marriage"; the surreal immediacy of "The Last Bus"; the nameless anxiety issuing in frenetic action and the sudden, unexpected identity of nervous insider with ravaged outcast in "The Tunnel"; the successful experiment with a longer-than-lyric poem in "The Man in the Mirror." In Darker I was moved by Strand's attempt in "The Remains" to define himself, even negatively, in terms of his wife and parents; his studious avoidance of the first-person pronoun while imagining another—a woman—imagining a future in her absence in "The Prediction"; the grotesquely priapic onslaught of "Courtship"; or in "The Way It Is" (another longer-than-usual poem) an intensely seen dreamworld clearly stamped with the Vietnam era paranoia not just Strand but all of us underwent. And yet these engaging qualities seemed to me to struggle against a broader, more pervasive undercurrent, especially in Darker, where energy gave way to inertia; where loneliness bordering on solipsism rather than imagined dramas won the day. There was a strain of self-absorption bordering on (and spilling into) the easy devastation of bruised narcissism and an accomplished wallowing in self-pity, so distant was it from any ironic laughter of self-knowledge. There were surreal images that merely bored the reader, born as they seemed to be out of mere verbal felicity rather than the inescapable honesty of a lived vision; anxieties that all too often found names, too many names—"sadness," "sorrow," "pain," forever lurking in the bushes—since giving the unnamable names only cheapens language; short smooth lyrics so stripped of everything but lamentation as to be absolutely emaciated (or is it only "stylishly slim"?). Strand was plagued by a reluctance to talk about family, friends, or the specifics of his own past, and by a recurrent tendency toward flat and/or tentative endings, instead of slamming confidently home the way the body of the poem often promised. But perhaps hardest of all to take was his anticipatorily elegaic solemnity, fretfully bemoaning the loss of what hasn't been lost yet. He was as Richard Howard put it (borrowing Strand's own words) "both nervous and morbid" [see excerpt above].
The problem with his irritating mainstream in which the good poems were anomalous islands, was not, I felt, essentially one of subject matter. Strand had really only a few obsessive themes, chief among which were: the self trapped in present time, haunted by an indistinct past, threatened by a vague future; the poet being himself yet fearfully losing that self as he becomes—or becomes consumed by—another, or some darker "other" (e.g., "My Life By Somebody Else"); the poet surrounded by ill-defined threats, dangers, and visited by ambiguous dreams; the poet confronted by mirrors in which, somehow, he never sees others, only himself. Within the limits of such themes, the success or failure of a given poem (or even part of a poem) was a matter of treatment, not substance. In "Seven Poems" for instance, I cringed to read
A scar remembers the wound.
The wound remembers the pain.
Once more you are crying.
which I felt trivialized memory, pain, and tears….
Or to take a different example, I was struck by the contrast between the (I hope) unintentional joke in "The Way It Is"—"The future is not what it used to be"—or the bumper-stickerable "The future is always beginning now" in "The Babies" and the masterful, unhesitating dramatizing phrase that leads to the colon in "The Prediction":
That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked, and for an instant
the future came to her….
Or I found him lamenting in "My Life By Somebody Else": "Was anyone ever so sad?" And I began to wonder just what it is that transforms the honestly elegaic and tragic into the bathos of kvetching, and why it is that unrelieved grieving gives us first the creeps and then makes us bored and angry. Indeed, I put down the poems and pursued these fascinating speculations at some length. In other words, there were in these two books powerful forces at work to distract the reader from what is best in the poet's art. (p. 15)
I felt uneasy disliking more than half of Strand's work until I got hold of The Story of Our Lives (1973). Uncannily, the poet had begun to deal almost point by point with the flaws I have mentioned above. Here were seven longish (which in this case means intelligently developed, exactingly complex) poems in which new veins were tapped: his wife, his father, his childhood. His work as a poet began to come into welcome focus…. What makes The Story of Our Lives such a powerful statement is precisely that it depends so largely on his life in the larger, less narcissistic sense (real people, places, conflicts); that the exhaustion of spirit is not self-induced; that the difficulty is healthy, challenging; and that the only important imitator he's escaping is himself. Devil take those who prefer Darker.
"Elegy for my Father" is without question one of his best poems. It is a lament in the formal sense of the term, comparable—in its numbered, titled divisions, each with its own voice, each with its own slant on grief and in the deepening rhythms of repetition—to Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. It is long enough for us to feel the complexity of the man dying, of the death itself, of the impact of the death on the poet/son. The language is neither facilely surreal nor forcedly grotesque—it springs from humanity, not cleverness…. (pp. 15-16)
Early in "The Room" we are told, "There is something like sorrow / in the room," and we begin to wonder if the old vices are back at work; but no, the sorrow is made credible as the scene takes shape, a dramatization of speechless tension, of the anguish just before the first words are spoken in what will be a struggle with no winner: "I feel the turning of breath / around what we are going to say." "She" examines another such moment of mute tension: the woman wakes, she and the seated man exchange looks, and this exchange in an instant of stillness becomes what Yeats calls "an image that dominates memory," a frozen emblem of their (separate) lives together….
But it is in the title poem, "The Story of Our Lives," and its companion piece, "Inside the Story," that Strand's new, vigorous, longstepping craft finds its fullest expression. In the first, the woman watches the man writing the story of their lives together, and we come to see them as two people trapped in literature, in life as the raw material for writing, in language as betrayer ("It was words that created divisions in the first place"). Like Synge's Deirdre, he feels their life is a self-enclosed narrative…. And in "Inside the Story" we see this rotting marriage dissected with a bitter irony worthy of Meredith's (unjustly neglected) Modern Love, a sequence which treats the same subject: the maintenance of surface civilities giving way to the rawer symbolic gestures of lost meaning and collapse…. In the midst of this elegantly rendered connubial apocalypse comes more of that merciless self-knowledge. The poet realizes with some pain not only that the break-up of his marriage is fuelling his art, but that in a deeper sense he has willed this failure to hold his outer world together….
The final and most ambitious poem in the collection, "The Untelling," inaugurates what will clearly be one of the poet's main avenues of inquiry from now on: his attempts to remember (which is to say, recast; which is to say, create) his childhood, wanting at one and the same time to reenter through language what is unfinished in that past and to move beyond it. Like unedited home movies, parts of the same scene rise before his pen again and again, each time from a slightly different perspective. He both wants and does not want to master this elusive vision…. And yet there is something irreversibly redemptive in the quest for the ideal dream of childhood, as though in the sleep necessary for such a dream the poet were magically transformed, a chrysalislike, losing an old self to gain a new….
[However,] The Monument is a mitigated flop. Strand has picked up an interesting conceit that found succinct, thought-provoking expression in "The Prediction" and run it into the ground: a writer devotes an entire book to addressing his future translator, in a time-to-be which is posited on the writer's physical absence (but written presence). The writer's intent is to impress, bully, interrogate, direct, haunt, and find rebirth in his translator ages hence. Most of the short (prose) entries are introduced by quotes from Strand's favorite writers…. Whether these formidable snippets from the famous are intended to inflict second degree Anxiety of Influence on the hapless translator (who is presumably already squirming in the traces the writer himself had enforced upon him), or whether they are meant to throw light on Strand's prose-chunks that follow or whether they rise out of Strand's own ambivalent awe of his "sources" and the consequent Anxiety that he'll someday be only an Influence, is not clear. The main tendency of Strand's contribution to the book is stylistic versatility mixed with an excessively convoluted intellectual cuteness…. There are also relapses into the old knee-jerk despair, complicated perhaps by the insincerity of his role….
From what nutrient culture does such a vain book spring? (p. 16)
The Late Hour is vintage Strand, but with a difference: a new strength, a new feel for the value of love, less of the old self-absorption. If the bad habits of the past appear, it is only so they can be rebuked or at least balanced by opposing forces….
Or in "Poems of Air," what under a former treatment might have been mere existential bellyaching rides instead a taut orphic highwire over the abyss…. In a poem like this Strand links up with his true source of power, which is none other than the deep and permanent tradition of Western poetry: seasoned, sure of its music, beyond ego pampering. Paradoxically, the language is simultaneously his alone and for all time. In The Late Hour, simplicity and careful shaping have done what the fatuity of The Monument never could: they have put him in touch with a future readership.
While we are on the subject of a balance between Strand's old and new selves, let me call attention to two of the finest poems in this collection packed with gems: "Exiles" and "Night Pieces." In the former, the first half of the poem rehearses the familiar traumas—troubled memories of escape from some vague cataclysm that has destroyed the knowable world, leaving the people apparently beyond the succor of identity…. But like an inverse helix the second half of the poem unwinds what the first half has screwed down: the exiles are not bereft; they have only come "into a country / not their own, / into a radiance / without hope." And yet one by one the simple objects that validated their lives before take shape again, until finally they see what they wanted all along, "the return of their story / to where it began."
This binary structure is repeated in the second of the "Night Pieces," in which after an eerie catalog of his sleeping friends, who, having dissolved into the night, are identical with it, the poet slowly begins to see time as redeemer rather than destroyer; the night finally changes "and the world assembles itself once more."…
This same affirmation of the return of dependable consolations through time (or of evanescent consolations through memory and vision) is what separates the Strand of The Late Hour from the tedious melancholiac that haunted the early work. It frees him from himself sufficiently to let him gaze outward, as in the perfect vignette, "Poor North,"… or backward with tenderness instead of anguish in "Pot Roast," where he remembers his mother leaning over to fill his dish again and again, or in the shimmering achievement of "The Garden," where she sits in a redwood chair "suspended in time." For once wisdom seems to have brought not more sorrow, but less. And the less the poet fears, the more (at last) he is capable of praising. (p. 20)
David Gullette, "Mark Strand: Nervous in His Own Kingdom," in New Boston Review (copyright 1978 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. IV, No. II, September, 1978, pp. 15-16, 20.
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Though Mark Strand has previously shown a dark comic power to discomfort, his … volume of poems, The Late Hour, and his short prose work, The Monument, lack clout. His vision (and he is a poet of vision) hardly unfolds; he seems uncertain of what to say. A momentary clarification comes in "Lines for Winter":
Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars …
But the view is dubiously rudimentary (perhaps we cannot know so little or even so much) and the verse alter Merwin. For the rest, day comes like "sweet marrow" to be sucked. These two notes are picked out again and again as if on a piano in an empty auditorium (for the verse never applauds itself); you prick up your ears, all right, but the event is incomplete. Both Strand's "night" and his "sweet marrow" are rhetorical; neither is given adequate substance.
As for The Monument, it is marked by experimental flippancy: "Let me introduce myself. I am … and so on and so forth. Now you know more about me than I know about you." A little of this goes a long way. The volume consists of fifty-two brief badgering addresses to a future translator of its supposedly emptied-out words ("My blank prose travels into the future, its freight the fullness of zero, the circumference of absence"). But the words are actually full of the intention to say little, and in this case less ("tell me that its perpetual prose will become less than itself and hint always at more") is not more; it is posturing. The book is stymied in self-reflectiveness, a monument to misguided minimalism. (pp. 297-98)
Calvin Bedient, "Poetry Comfortable and Uncomfortable," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 296-304.∗
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[One] of the most attractive features of Mark Strand's The Late Hour is the sense of positive progression that it embodies. The first two of the volume's four sections are permeated by feelings of enervation and depression. The hour is indeed late; Strand presents what appears to be the theme of these sections in a poem called "The Story":
You know the one I mean: it's the one about the minutes dying,
and the hours, and the years; it's the story I tell
about myself, about you, about everyone.
Death is a dominating presence in this part of the book, as all things wind down to an ultimate stasis. (p. 466)
In terms of space, fully two-thirds of the volume is given over to this kind of thing. Despite the general fineness of the writing, these aren't easy poems to stay with; constant attention to enervation, depression, and death-consciousness begins to take its toll.
Thus it is a great refreshment to find a renewal of spirit at the beginning of the third section. The cause is a simple one, easy to spot; Strand follows the potent lead of Robert Penn Warren, who long ago discovered the enduring power of memory as a source of poetry. Strand writes with obvious love of the scenes, people, and things of his childhood, spent on Prince Edward Island in Canada. One poem in particular, perhaps the best of them all—"Where Are the Waters of Childhood"—could almost have been written by Warren, so similar are the concept and phrasing to those found in his recent work. The third section, six poems, is entirely devoted to this vision of the past, and it gives renewed life to the speaker. The concluding section consists of two "Night Pieces," a title which leads us to expect a revivication of the Graveyard School, yet another excursion into the dark depths. But no—it is here that Strand is able finally to turn his back on the darkness of the first two sections: the book ends with the speaker drinking his morning coffee, singing praises to the coming of daylight.
This is, ultimately, an uneven book, marred by some surprisingly flat writing. "For Jessica, My Daughter," for example, begins with these unpromising lines: "Tonight I walked, / lost in my own meditation, / and was afraid, / not of the labyrinth / that I have made of love and self / but of the dark and faraway." I don't suppose we can expect that every passage of poetry, nor every poem, will mount the stairway to surprise, as Emerson wished; but good writing does have a tendency to build rather than decline in interest and intensity. In this passage, however, things run downhill—the thought moves from interest and surprise to the obvious and banal, while the rhythms are awkward and the line divisions uninspired. I don't present the passage as absolutely representative, but I do feel that there is too much lazy writing here.
Happily, there is also some excellent writing, as in the opening poem, "The Coming of Light"…. This is what Mark Strand is capable of at his best—the rhythms are just right, the images simply brilliant. Standing as it does at the start of the book, this poem makes large promises for what is to follow—promises that are not entirely kept. But there are good poems in this volume, which progresses unsteadily from darkness to light. (pp. 466-67)
Peter Stitt, "Book Reviews: 'The Late Hour'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 466-67.