"Everything about a poem...is a reminder of time": Mark Strand 1934-2014

BY Mark Strand headshot , December 2, 2014

Mark Strand, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, former United States poet laureate and Columbia professor who published 13 volumes of poetry, died on November 29. He was 80 years old.

". . . A central figure in modern poetry, Mark was also a beloved teacher and wonderful colleague," Sam Lipsyte, the chair of the School of the Arts Writing Program, said in a statement. "His legacy, to world literature, to the community of poets, and to the lucky students who studied with him, is immeasurable."

"Mark Strand was a unique artist who worked in multiple forms and was as passionate about the visual as he was about language," Carol Becker, Dean of the Faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts, said in a statement. "His presence as a poet, essay writer, painter, translator, creator of children's books, critic, and professor will be profoundly missed by many."

Strand was born in 1934 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and his family moved frequently throughout his childhood. He originally planned to become a visual artist and studied art in college before being drawn towards poetry, compelled partially by reading the work of Wallace Stevens. He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1962 and published his first book, Sleeping With One Eye Open, in 1964. Among his later volumes, Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. His last book, Collected Poems, was longlisted for this year's National Book Award in Poetry.

In 1991, Strand was named the U.S. poet laureate. Other honors included the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Bobbit Prize, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Edgar Allen Poe Prize, and a Rockefeller Foundation award, as well as fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. In 2006-07, he was the recipient of three international poetry prizes (Premio Cetonaverde, Premio D'Annunzio and the Premio Bonanni). He won The Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009.

Strand taught at numerous colleges and universities. At Columbia, he was a professor in both the School of the Arts Writing Program and the Department of English and Comparative Literature. This week, alumni of the Writing Program recalled him fondly in a stream of e-mail tributes.

"Mark Strand was a poet of clarity, wit, darkness," wrote Sarah Schweig ('09). "No one would say he was a poet of faith, but he was a person of one—he had enduring faith in me, in those he loved. I can't even express my gratitude."

"Mark taught a graduate seminar in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, one of his heroes," recalled Harvey Lillywhite('80). "To show his admiration for Stevens, Mark came into the first class and delivered the entire 90-minute class on his knees, telling us he was not worthy, explaining to us some of the greatness of Stevens, and reading several poems with us. What might have seemed a silly stunt (of course he had a great sense of humor) was obviously genuine devotion."

Anne Whitehouse ('79) saw Strand in one of his last public readings, at the New York Public Library in October.

"He spoke about how he was never interested in being a confessional poet or writing about his life autobiographically," she wrote. "What drew him was the psychic biography, the life of the imagination. He said he sought to be the Roger Federer of poetry, with the same elegance, beauty, grace, and concentration that Federer brings to his tennis game. . . . While I think of Strand's poetry as rather spare and minimalist, the writers that he said he most admires are anything but that. He thought Don Quixote is the greatest novel of all time. He loved Charles Dickens, the great Russian novelists, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, and Lincoln Steffen's Autobiography."

Strand, several of whose poems can be found online courtesy of the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets, rejected the idea that poems had to be easily understandable or should tell simple stories. He preferred poems that take the reader out of the familiar, a philosophy he discussed with the writer and actor Wallace Shawn in an interview for The Paris Review in 1998.

"(T)hese little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions," he said. "They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted — we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. . . . When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger . . . in touch with — or at least close to — what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive — not as routinely there."

In addition to Strand's poetry collections, he published several books of translations, several monographs on contemporary artists, two books of prose and three children's books. He edited several anthologies. His work has been widely read, and it continues to reach new audiences; the week after his death, a group of women jailed on New York's Rikers Island included his poetry in a performance facilitated by a theatre outreach program.

Writing for The New York Times, William Grimes called him "one of America's most hauntingly meditative poets."

"Echoes of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop could be heard in his compressed, highly specific language and wintry cast of mind, as could painters like Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte and Edward Hopper, whose moody clarity and mysterious shadows dovetailed with Mr. Strand’s own sensibility," Graham wrote. He noted that Strand's poem "Keeping Things Whole," which appeared in his first collection, exemplifies the spare, lyric style that led to such comparisons.

"At least since Reasons For Moving (1968), his second volume, Strand surveyed his outward circumstances—relative health and prosperity, growing fame, the undeniable good fortune of being alive—from a peephole cut into the exterior wall of his solitude," Dan Chiasson wrote in an appreciation for The New Yorker.

In tributes to Strand, the Washington Post called him "an acclaimed bard of absence and loss," and the Los Angeles Times called him "a revelatory poet of love and death." He discussed such themes in the Paris Review interview.

"I mean, most lyric poems lead to some acknowledgment of death," he said. "In fact, most poems are dark and dreary affairs that have to do with death and dying, or loss of one sort or another—loss of love, loss of friends, loss of life. Most lyric poems are sad, because if you think deeply at all about your experience, you think about your experience in time—your life—and if you’re thinking about your life, you can’t avoid the fact that it will end in death. In fact, everything about a poem—the meter of the poem, or the measure of the poem—is a reminder of time. Even a line that’s repeated: we’re back again. I think that the popularity of villanelles or poems that use refrains is caused by the fact that they seem to enact a stay against time, they seem to give us a momentary reprieve from what usually is the subject of the poem, or the matter of the poem. So, although the poem may be about dying or death, we have repeated lines that seem to say we haven’t really gone anywhere, we’re back again. But in the end, that just helps us to hold on to the loss that is in the poem. It helps us to remember it."

Still, his awareness of death didn't mean he led an unhappy life.

"From time to time, I get letters from people who tell me to cheer up," he told Bill Thomas in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1991, shortly after becoming the poet laureate. "That's always puzzled me, since I think of myself as a fairly cheerful guy already. . . . It's through poetry that life itself speaks. What it has to say may not always be pleasant, but that's the way it goes."

Perhaps it is inevitable that on the death of a poet who wrote so well of such themes, his readers, including Chiasson and, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Carol Muske-Dukes, would invoke his poem "2002." It reads, in part:

I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
His beard and says, "I'm thinking of Strand, I'm thinking
That one of these days I'll be out back, swinging my scythe
Or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear
In a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards'
Leafless trees we'll stroll into the city of souls. . . ."