Mark Strand Strand, Mark (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

A. R. Ammons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Robert Pack

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Louis L. Martz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1582 words.)

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Robert Pinsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Gullette

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)

Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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
tell yourself
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 …


(The entire section is 331 words.)

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)...

(The entire section is 593 words.)