V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Four Decades of Mark Strand's Poetry




·how telling it is, and how appropriate, that in introducing an anthology
of the "best American poetry" of 1991 Strand also should have narrated
his own beginnings as a poet decades earlier.  After all, a close examination
of Strand's poetry over those decades will uncover a number of poems that reflect
his ardor as a reader and a writer of poetry, works that continue to mirror
the reverence he maintains for the art of poetry and the act of writing poems.

             · it's not that poetry reveals more about the world ÷
                    it doesn't ÷ but it reveals more about our interactions
                    with the world than our other modes of expression.
                    And it doesn't reveal more about ourselves alone in
                    isolation, but rather it reveals that mix of self and other,
                    self and surrounding, where the world ends and we begin,
                    where we end and the world begins.

                                ÷ Mark Strand (Interview with Katharine Coles)

In an essay, titled "On Becoming a Poet," that appeared simultaneously in The Weather of Words, a collection of his writings on poetry and poetics, and as a preface in The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, both books published in 2000, Mark Strand, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 and former Poet Laureate of the United States, comments upon his earliest attempts at writing poetry:

        My own poems ÷ the few that I wrote in my adolescence ÷ were feverish
        attempts to put "my feelings" on paper, and little more.  Their importance,
        at least for me, their only reader, was exhausted by the time they were
        written.  In those days my life was one of constantly shifting weather, and
        the world within was rarely in sync with the world without.

    Strand presents this statement amid a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections, often as entertaining as they are enlightening, on the discovered pleasures of reading and writing poetry, including a reminiscence offering impressions on "You, Andrew Marvel," Archibald McLeish's poem that Strand had read when he was young, and which was the first work to initiate an interest in two mutual endeavors, the analytical act of reading poems and the creative art of writing poems.  As Strand reports:  "It is hard for me to separate my development as a reader of poems from my career as a poet.  If my readings have any acuity or sensitivity, it is probably because I have paid close attention to how my own poems worked, and to which ways and to what extent I might improve them."
    The revelation of this symbiotic relationship ÷ between Strand's awakening to poetry, as well as his development as a reader of poems and his eventual pursuit of a poet's life, along with the evident maturing of his craftsmanship throughout the past four decades of that life ÷ now assists readers of Strand's poems by giving to everyone who wishes to take a peek a glimpse into some of the various poetic principles and thematic priorities he seeks to portray in his poetry.  Strand characterizes McLeish's poem as the kind he would like to write himself, "something with its sweep, its sensuousness, its sad crepuscular beauty, something capable of carving out such a large psychic space for itself."  He even concedes his returning often to the oeuvres of certain poets and his maintaining an ongoing admiration for individual poems such as "You, Andrew Marvel" are central to his own continuing desire to write poetry: "It is one of the poems that I read and reread, and that reinforces my belief in poetry, and that makes me want to write."
    If those aspects of poetry Strand holds up for examination and exhorts us to praise in his reading of this poem appear familiar, it may be a result of our having encountered the same traits in many of Strand's best poems over the last four decades.  He suggests to the reader that the speaker in McLeish's poem "seems oddly removed from what he describes," that the poem "is both about time and in time, about motion and in motion.  It is both linear and circular·."  Strand asks the reader to notice how the poem "appears to be acknowledging a response that we've already had while at the same time urging us to participate in an extended reconstruction of it."  He concludes, "its ambiguities are essential not only to its fluidity, but to its vast suggestiveness as well."
    Indeed, Strand also uses his discussion of McLeish's poem to reveal his own ongoing faith in the value of "lyric poems," as if he were describing the very style of poetry he has produced throughout his career: "At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible.  Not only do they fix in language what is often most elusive about our experience, but they convince us of its importance, its truth even."
    These notable stylistic elements already were identifiable in Strand's earliest published poetry during the 1960s.  They can be detected in a poem like "Violent Storm," which initially was included in Sleeping with One Eye Open, a limited edition published by Stone Wall Press in 1964, and then reprinted in Strand's 1968 collection, Reasons for Moving.  In this poem the narrator appears to envy the reactions of others who, "in the bright, / Commodious rooms of dreams," are untroubled by an approaching storm, and to whom such a disturbance "seems / Only a quirk in the dry run / Of conventional weather."  However, the experience for the poem's speaker is different:

                    ·We sit behind
        Closed windows, bolted doors,
        Unsure and ill at ease
        While the loose, untidy wind,
        Making an almost human sound, pours
        Through the open chambers of the trees.
        We cannot take ourselves or what belongs
        To us for granted.

    For those aware and "wide-awake" like the narrator, there is "a sinister air," and the changing weather represents a threatening situation.  Even in their homes, they sense the world has become an unsafe place:

        We do not feel protected
        By the walls, nor can we hide
        Before the duplicating presence
        Of their mirrors, pretending we are the ones who stare
        From the other side, collected
        In the glassy air.
        A cold we never knew invades our bones.
        We shake as though the storm were going to hurl us down
        Against the flat stones
        Of our lives.

    As in many of the poems from Strand's first few books, the narrator's imaginative chronicle of an event ÷ told in his oddly detached voice and with the inevitable twists or playfully peculiar turns of plot, most likely placed in settings resembling reality, but somehow undercut by the unusual and puzzling circumstances one might find in a dream ÷ becomes more engaging when it eventually develops into something akin to a dark parable, shadowy and ambiguous, even though the poet has filled his work with an apparent catalogue of distinct and easily identifiable details.  As Laurence Lieberman remarks in his collection of essays on contemporary American poets, Beyond the Muse of Memory: "Trying to get under the skin of these poems to experience them more deeply is like trying to get inside a disturbing dream from which we have just awakened.  We remember the dream, usually, as a sequence of events in time, and then put it out of mind, vaguely sensing that memory has cheated the inquiring self by reducing a powerful symbolic complex of being to a mere time sequence."  In Alone with America, Richard Howard's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, he suggests such 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 poems of those early years earned Strand a reputation as a poet who, in the words of Octavio Paz, "explores the terra infirma of our lives."
    The poems often display a pattern of plot that "is both linear and circular."  In "The Tunnel" (Sleeping with One Eye Open), the narrator reports the following about a frightening figure who has been outside his home for days:

        A man has been standing
        in front of my house
        for days.  I peek at him
        from the living room
        window at night,
        unable to sleep,
        I shine my flashlight
        down on the lawn.
        He is always there.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts to chase the stranger from in front of his house, the narrator decides upon an escape, "to dig a tunnel / to a neighboring yard."  However, when he emerges from the tunnel, the speaker states: "I come out in front of a house / and stand there too tired to / move or even speak, hoping / someone will help me."  The narrator has become the man he fears, the mysterious other who had been looking in at him with a feeling of helplessness.
    In "The Mailman" (Reasons for Moving), although "it is midnight," the narrator greets his mailman at the door:

        He stands there weeping,
        shaking a letter at me.
        He tells me it contains
        terrible personal news.
        He falls to his knees.
        "Forgive me!  Forgive me!" he pleads.

The speaker welcomes the distraught man into his house and tries to comfort him.  The mailman's "dark blue suit / is like an inkstain" as he crouches on the couch.  The narrator describes the action:

        Helpless, nervous, small,
        he curls up like a ball
        and sleeps while I compose
        more letters to myself
        in the same vein·.

    Perhaps the best-known and most-anthologized poem from Strand's two earliest collections is "Keeping Things Whole," a poem that illustrates the paradox of a self separate from the surrounding world while also being a part of it, that contains a plot "both linear and circular," and further demonstrates the ambiguity he feels essential to the poem's fluidity, as well as its suggestiveness.

        In a field
        I am the absence
        of field.
        This is
        always the case.
        Wherever I am
        I am what is missing.

In this poem the speaker determines his existence as one of movement, declares his purpose for moving through life "to keep things whole," establishes his presence by what is missing, and measures his value by the very sense of absence he represents whenever he moves and wherever he may be.  In the words with which Strand describes McLeish's poetry, this poem may be defined as "both about time and in time, about motion and in motion":

        When I walk
        I part the air
        and always
        the air moves in
        to fill the spaces
        where my body's been.

        We all have reasons
        for moving.
        I move
       to keep things whole.

    David Kirby, in Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture, his excellent 1990 book examining Strand's poetry and prose, declares "Keeping Things Whole" represents "a major departure from what might be called typical early Strand," that this work does not fit because it is "too much like the poetry of other writers to provide a satisfying response to problems unique to Strand's speakers."  However, in this instance Kirby may be a bit mistaken.  To the contrary, this poem may be seen not only as more "typical" of Strand's work at the time than it might first appear, but also it can be viewed as offering a foreshadowing of future works; and rather than out of place, it may be seen as a fitting piece in many of the various meanings that word implies.
    "Keeping Things Whole" fits perfectly in its place, appearing in both the limited edition of Sleeping with One Eye Open and in the book that derives its title from this poem, Reasons for Moving.  With its compact construction and tight lines, its natural rhythm moves ahead gracefully like the gait of a conditioned athlete.  The way its three stanzas work together, they resemble the precise mechanical fittings of a timepiece or the finely adjusted fittings on a set of toothed gears.  In its sparse language and deceptively straightforward voice disguising the complications beneath the surface, the poem also seems to be like a specially-tailored garment that accents certain features while ensuring that others remain hidden.  Even the themes of the poem appear to be fit and proper, causing a harmonious flow for readers of the two volumes that contain it, maintaining a suitable relationship with those recurring types of characters or issues found in the works accompanying it.  In a number of ways, but especially given the manner its short but certain impulse conveys a convincing message, this poem proffers the brief fits of energy lyric poems often possess.  As Strand explains the nature of lyric poems in "On Becoming a Poet": "They are usually brief, rarely exceeding a page or two, and have about them a degree of emotional intensity, or an urgency that would account for their having been written at all."
    Strand emphasizes the power and importance of the lyric poem in "A Poet's Alphabet" from The Weather of Words, declaring "that death is the central concern of lyric poetry.  Lyric poetry reminds us that we live in time.  It tells us that we are mortal.  It celebrates or recognizes moods, ideas, events only as they exist in passing."  Any reader of Strand's body of work over the years will easily identify such a purpose in many of Strand's finest poems.  One discovers this in a visit to his most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Blizzard of One (1998):

        A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
        And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up,
        From your book, saw it the moment it landed.  That's all
        There was to it.  No more than a solemn waking
        To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
        A time between times, a flowerless funeral.  No more than that·.
                                ["A Piece of the Storm"]

    The same concerns voiced in Blizzard of One were evident more than a decade ago when readers encountered The Continuous Life (1990): "When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky / Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus / And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight, / Not every man knows what is waiting for him·" ("The End").  Although death as "the central concern" and the issue of scenes in a poet's life being witnessed "as they exist in passing" may be most clearly evident earlier in The Story of Our Lives (1973), especially "Elegy for My Father" and "The Untelling," those compelling poems in memory of his parents starting and concluding this important and influential volume that appeared more than a quarter century ago:

        It is winter and the new year.
        Nobody knows you.
        Away from the stars, from the rain of light,
        You lie under the weather of stones.
                                ["Elegy for My Father"]

        He leaned forward over the paper
        and he wrote:

        ·They moved beyond the claims
        of weather, beyond whatever news there was,
        and did not see the dark beginning to deepen
        in the trees and bushes, and rise in the folds
        of their own dresses and in the stiff white
        of their own shirts.
                                ["The Untelling"]

    Here, as well as elsewhere in many of his poems, particularly more recent works, Strand's attention to suspended moments or different measurements of time again recalls his earliest pleasure of reading McLeish's poem "both about time and in time."  However, these poems also resemble Robert Penn Warren's repeated explorations of time, timelessness, and no-time, especially in his later poetry ÷ or as Warren would state it in "There's a Grandfather's Clock in the Hall," those moments when "Time thrusts through the time of no-Time."  Though perhaps not as strong as other influences, Warren's distinctive poetic figure is often present, lingering not far behind the lines of Strand's poetry, such as those in "The Garden" (The Late Hour, 1978), a poem dedicated to Warren, and one reminiscent of "The Untelling":

        In the garden suspended in time
        my mother sits in a redwood chair;
        light fills the sky,
        the folds of her dress,
        the roses tangled beside her.
                                ["The Garden"]

    Yet, the voice in all these poems is obviously Strand's, a singular voice that has become the signature of his work, so often persuasive and evocative in its rendering of events and images.   Strand defines the importance of a poet's voice, as a distinctive characteristic of poetry in contrast to fiction, in his "Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991" reprinted in The Weather of Words:

        The difference that comes to mind first is that the context of a poem
        is likely to be only the poet's voice ÷ a voice speaking to no one in
        particular and unsupported by a situation or situations brought about
        by the words or actions of others, as in a work of fiction.  A sense of
        itself is what the poem sponsors, and not a sense of the world.  It
        invents itself: its own necessity or urgency, its tone, its mixture of
        meaning and sound are in the poet's voice.  It is in such isolation
        that it engenders its authority.

    Rather than being "too much like the poetry of other writers to provide a satisfying response to problems unique to Strand's speakers," as Kirby claims, "Keeping Things Whole" seems to signal the significant presence of an individual voice developing and placing forth an already evident, but continuing scheme of themes ÷ time, love, memory, mortality, and desire ÷ dominant in Strand's poetry.  As a result of his emphasis on these themes throughout the last four decades, despite the sometimes colorful and comic irony or various shades of dark humor that run through much of his poetry, a number of readers and critics have mistaken Strand's focus on such serious issues and darker emotions as merely a broad swath of monochromatic gray ÷ always sad, depressing, or pessimistic.  The Oxford University Press Anthology of Modern American Poetry reduces its description of Strand's work to "poems focused on absence and loss."  Consequently, questions and complaints have arisen over the years about what might be interpreted by some as an apparent lack of range or ambition in the poet's body of work.
    However, in this new collection of essays readers are directed toward less pessimistic, more hopeful ÷ or at least more helpful and rewarding ÷ readings of Strand's work.  Strand begins "A Poet's Alphabet," the opening essay in The Weather of Words, by noting that "A is for absence·.  For those neither famous nor dead, at the bottom of their yearning to be absent is the hope that they will be missed.  Being missed suggests being loved."  Discussing the letter D, Strand reveals that the power of poetry allows us as readers to "mourn the passage of time but that we are somehow isolated from the weight of time, and when we read poems, during those brief moments of absorption, the thought of death seems painless, even beautiful."  Later in his alphabet, he determines that "E is for endings, endings to poems, last words designed to release us back into our world with the momentary illusion that no harm has been done·.  Much of what we love about poems, regardless of their subject, is that they leave us with a sense of renewal, of more life."
    The conflicts between life and death, time and timelessness, love and loss, hope and hopelessness, have always been central to Strand's poetry, but do not uniformly lead to emotional gloom or mental melancholy as some may perceive.  In a review of Dark Harbor (1993), David Lehman remarks on Strand's commitment "to the task of negotiating, in verse, between desire and despair, possibility and fulfillment·."  Lehman praises "the extraordinary clarity with which he addresses any poet's biggest themes: love and death and aging and change."  Indeed, a broader and brighter description of Strand's poetic voice and the possible joy for readers of his poetry can be found in "Reading as Poets Read: Following Mark Strand," an article by Charles Berger that appeared in a 1996 issue of Philosophy and Literature:

        Mark Strand has been giving us poem after poem marked by his familiar
        voice ÷ luminous, deceptively casual, witty, allusive ÷ as he builds up
        a body of work that thinks and sings ever more deeply about the poet's
        unavoidable life of allegory.  This growing summa of poetic knowledge
        and readerly pleasure demands, as the best lyric poetry always does,
        that readers give themselves over to the rigorous joys of figurative reading,
        figurative argument.

    On the other hand, David Kirby correctly connects "Keeping Things Whole" with Wallace Stevens, one of the primary influences evident in the collections of poetry Strand has produced throughout his career.  Kirby writes that this poem "brings to mind Wallace Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar,' in which nature rises up around a manmade object and loses its wildness, just as here a man brings order out of chaos simply by placing himself at the center of it."  It is interesting to note that in "Poetic Justice," Strand's review of Donald Justice's New and Selected Poems that appears in The Weather of Words, he suggests Stevens as "the major influence" on Justice.  Strand relates that sometimes Justice's "debt to the Master is acknowledged directly; at others it is only hinted at·."  Strand detects one such hint in the way Justice's "Variations for Two Pianos," even "though the poem is vintage Justice, reminds one of Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar.'  The comic grandiosity of 'I placed a jar in Tennessee'·.  And the order created by Stevens's placement of the jar·."
    In "A Poet's Alphabet," Strand recognizes the importance of Stevens to his own poetry: "I have always turned to his poems, reading parts of them, skipping on to others, finding them congenial despite my fickleness, my impatience.  I admire Stevens and Frost equally among American poets, but I read them differently.  Stevens influences me, but I do not think that Frost does."  The qualities Strand admires in Stevens's poems mirror the qualities he frequently tries to emphasize in his own works:

        In Stevens, argument tends to be discontinuous, hidden, mysterious, or
        simply not there.  More often, what we experience is the power of the
        word or the phrase to enchant.  The rhetorical design of his poems points
        to explanantion or annunciation.  But there is no urgency that constructs
        "nextness" ÷ what comes next is a possibility, a choice, another invitation
        to imagine.

    Elsewhere from The Weather of Words, in "Views of the Mysterious Hill: The Appearance of Parnassus in American Poetry" Strand employs Stevens's "Mrs. Alfred Uruguay" as an example of the type of poem exhibiting a central theme readers could find in just about any poem he might write himself: "If there is a point to this poem, with its peculiar crossing of impulses, it is that the true occasions for and places of poetry are internal.  Anything else is a cheat·."  Mrs. Alfred Uruguay acts in a fashion that may call to mind the personae in Strand's own works, and in this essay Strand further observes how critics have speculated about the personality of Mrs. Alfred Uruguay: "The severity of her commitment has been likened to Stevens's own propensity for reduction, which, at its most extreme, calls for 'a mind of winter.'"  Again, there is a familiarity in this description, in its possibly being applied to Strand's own poetry, and some similarities in the poetry of Stevens and Strand are evoked once more.
    Strand has repeatedly acknowledged Stevens's work as an early and lasting guide to the writing of his own poems.  In interviews, Strand has spoken of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens as a book he read and returned to often while still thinking he would be a painter rather than a poet.  Nevertheless, Samuel Maio in his book of criticism, Creating Another Self: Voice in Modern American Personal Poetry, discovers how Strand alters the dramatis personae in Stevens's poems, such as "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," and "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Vacation," which establish an impartial or impersonal voice and "a measure of self-effacement" for the poem's speaker.
    In order to create a more intimate poetic voice, yet not truly confessional, when Strand doesn't resort to speaking in a second-person voice, he develops a distanced first-person narrator ÷ even when he moves more frequently from the personae in many of the poems in his earlier books to a speaker in those later poems whose surroundings and situations might resemble more the identifiably autobiographical conditions of the poet himself.  Maio suggests: "Strand's objective is to achieve the same extent of impartiality, and impersonality, while using an 'I' speaker that is neither persona (that is, a representative 'I' speaking in behalf of all) nor one that is entirely confessional."
    When interviewed by Katharine Coles for Weber Studies in 1992, Strand expanded on this issue: "There's a certain point, when you're writing autobiographical stuff, where you don't want to misrepresent yourself.  It would be dishonest.  And at least in poetry you should feel free to lie.  That is, not to lie, but to imagine what you want, to follow the direction of the poem.  If you're writing autobiographically, there's something dictating the shape of the poem other than the imagination."  Nevertheless, Strand admits to the history of "personal testimony" in American poetry, while separating its presence from the contemporary sense of the confessional in poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, or from a later generation, Sharon Olds.  Strand surmises "that American poetry has always been a poetry of personal testimony.  More so than other poetries.  So the idea of 'the confessional' was misguided from the beginning."
    Still, Strand does apply the conventional definition of "confessional poetry" in his evaluation of poets like Robert Lowell and John Berryman.  Strand tells Coles, in Robert Lowell's poetry readers are "not located in his actual life.  We're located more in the externals, in the journalistic facts of his life·.  In early so-called 'confessional poetry' there's a desire to find the terms by which personal experience can be authenticated poetically."  These words are echoed in a chapter from The Weather of Words titled "Landscape and the Poetry of Self" in which Strand contrasts the presentation of "self" in contemporary confessional poetry, particularly that of Lowell and Berryman (though not alike in their style of employing a confessional self), with the self in Wordsworth's The Prelude.  Here, Strand appears more accepting of the common use of "confessional" as a term for many contemporary poets, speaking of Lowell as "the model confessional poet" and Berryman, despite his use of the "Henry" persona, as "the lunatic fringe of the confessional school ÷ if it is a school."  Strand writes:

        In confessional poetry, the self is terminal, physical, isolated, and depends
        heavily on specific information ÷ the names of friends, doctors, stores,
        places, and the like.  There is a grasping after concrete detail as a way
        of authenticating the self.  It is as if the confessional poet were saying
        that because he has documentary evidence of his experience, he must
        therefore exist.

    Strand praises Wordsworth's lack of such specifics in creating the self. Strand observes that "rarely in The Prelude does Wordsworth fall into the habit of naming, and when he does, his poem is weakest and takes on some of the shortcomings" of the foremost confessional poets, including Lowell and Berryman.  Strand believes Wordsworth's poetry exhibits greater subjectivity and imaginative searching of the self, which "emerges from the fabric of the telling."

        Unlike Wordsworth, the confessional poet cannot bear to be alone.  His
        insecurity and his consequent mania for naming keep him from being
        a truly subjective poet.  He names in order to possess, and possessing,
        in turn, is part of what helps him to account for himself.

    In confessional poetry, Strand feels "the poet is revealed journalistically, not imaginatively."  In describing Wordsworth's development of self, Strand again points toward the process by which he pursues a distinctive voice to create a self in his own poetry.  Strand characterizes Wordsworth's poetic process as beginning "with a vague sense of something, a shadowy recollection," then Strand concludes: "one begins to suspect that he writes as a way· to imagination."  Summarizing Wordsworth's writing in The Prelude, Strand seems to be allowing readers access to his own thought process during the act of writing poetry, as well as giving guidance on the art of poetry for those engaged in reading his poems:

        It is the experience of loss that permits the artist to recompose.  He builds
        from the least suggestions, vanishing ghosts of events.  He puts together
        what he knows dimly and sheds his own light on it and makes it better known.
        The self is necessarily involved in the knowing, for in this way it reveals itself ÷
        reveals itself as the world it would have revitalized.

    Although poem after poem in Strand's collections could be used to demonstrate how such a process is repeated in their making, the best example may be "The Untelling," perhaps the Strand poem most likely to be listed among the finest works of American poetry produced during the second half of the twentieth century.  "The Untelling" perfectly portrays the poet's developed sense of self in a remarkably authoritative voice some critics have attributed directly to Strand's adoption of the process and principles he discovered in his reading of Wordsworth's The Prelude.  In Beyond the Muse of Memory, Laurence Lieberman regards "The Untelling" as "a Wordsworthian vision of self reborn, as in The Prelude, from dwelling on the few enigmatic and haunted moments of childhood·."
    Strand expresses his admiration for Wordsworth's creation of a poetic self a number of times in "Landscape and the Poetry of Self" in ways that certainly would lead readers to believe they will uncover the same sort of creation of self in much of Strand's own poetry, especially poems like "The Untelling."  Strand writes: "In The Prelude, the self is because it brings itself into being, recalls itself.  It emerges from the fabric of the language of retelling."  Strand's following comments about The Prelude now appear to apply as well to the telling of his own poem:

        The descriptions are necessarily generalized, since Wordsworth is attempting
        to conjure up an entire landscape·.  And he is not making contact with a
        place so much as he is with the sense of place.  And the sense of place is
        precisely what he carries with him and has carried since he was a child.

    In "The Untelling," the place that has remained with the speaker, a poet, since childhood is some unspecified  lawn beside a lake with banks shaded by elms, initially remembered unemotionally in third-person and described objectively in the poem's first stanza, almost impersonal in its tone, as he leans over a piece of paper to write a poem:

        ·the lake opened
        like a white eye
        and he was a child
        playing with his cousins,
        and there was a lawn
        and a row of trees
        that went to the water.
        It was a warm afternoon in August·

    Throughout the poem, the poet expands, rewrites, and revises his recollection of the scene, as well as the figures, family members and friends, the children playing on the damp grass and adults wading in the water or sleeping beside the lake.  The revised versions are increasingly rich in description, with images and metaphors appealing to each of the reader's senses, offering a fuller sense of place.  Yet, every time the poet writes accounts of the actions at the lake, he is stopped by doubts about the accuracy or completeness of his narrative, troubled by questions testing his memory, forcing a more subjective and personal rendering of events.  Successive drafts of the poem within the poem, signaled by italics, lengthen and become more suggestive of meaning, and the roles of two figures ÷ a woman in a yellow dress and a man running acrosss the lawn waving a sheet of paper ÷ grow more important.
    The woman appears "in a long / yellow dress, pointed white shoes, her hair / drawn back in a tight bun."  She takes the child's hand and leads the boy along the lake, leaving him with his cousins while she joins the adults.  The man runs into the scene, shouting, holding a sheet of paper high, but is unnoticed by the sleepers, who rise "as if nothing had happened."  As the poem progresses, the poet's observations move from the outer details of the natural landscape to an inner contemplation of emotional responses, from third-person to first-person, especially as the abandonment by the woman becomes more apparent.

      ·I knew that I would never see
        the woman in the yellow dress again,
        and that the scene by the lake would not be repeated,
        and that the summer would be a place too distant
        for me ever to find myself again.
        Although I have tried to return, I have always
        ended here, where I am now.  The lake
        still exists, and so does the lawn, though the people
        who slept there that afternoon have not been seen since.
        And I believe the woman in the yellow dress died.

    The poet also discovers that he is the man running across the lawn, wanting to present his poem to those beside the lake, wanting "to warn them, to tell them what he knew":

        I wanted to tell them something.  I saw myself
        running, waving a sheet of paper, shouting,
        telling them all that I had something to give them,
        but when I got there, they were gone.

    The poem draws to a close with a new beginning when the persona of the poet in this poem turns and walks to the house with sheets of paper, now "sheets of darkness" that "seemed endless," in his hands, and the various versions of the narrator's self ÷ the child, the man running across the lawn, the poet in the poem, and the poet writing this poem ÷ at last come together.

        He went to the room
        that looked out on the lawn.
        He sat and began to write:

                                THE UNTELLING
                                      To the Woman in the Yellow Dress

    Although this is an intimate poem for Strand, the intimacy is not established through revelations of private autobiographical details or the personal journalistic facts of his life.  Clearly the most personal element in this mysterious poem is Strand's poetic style, his unique use of voice and language.  In a 1979 interview with Richard Jackson (Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets), Strand speaks about one of the lessons learned from Stevens, discerning the difference between the presence of the poet's personal autobiographical self in a poem and the personality of the poetry itself: "Most poets today want themselves to be very present in their poems.  I find Stevens very refreshing for his refusal to do this ÷ the living personality is not an issue there; the personality the poetry has is in the language, the style."
    Strand further tells Jackson, "I believe that we never know what the source of a poem is ultimately.  Part of a good poem is the discovery of this, and that moment of discovery is a moment of loss.  We discover that we can never really go back·.  To a certain extent, the act of writing is itself a metaphor for the way we relate to the hidden sources of our own lives."  One can apply this comment to another of the essays in The Weather of Words, "Notes on the Craft of Poetry," in which Strand aligns himself even more completely with Stevens, this time relying on a quote once given by "the Master" about his poem, "The Old Woman and the Statue":

        While there is nothing automatic about the poem, nevertheless it has an
        automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing
        before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was
        written what I wanted to do.

Strand makes the following claim for Stevens's description of writing the poem: "This is as precise a statement of what is referred to as 'the creative process' as I have ever read."
    Clearly, the influence of Wallace Stevens on Mark Strand's poetry and poetic process has been present since Strand first decided to pick poetry as his profession.  In his "Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991," Strand recounts an incident in 1957, when he was "home on vacation from art school" and talking with his mother about the future.  Apparently disappointed with Strand's wish to be a poet, his mother tells him it would be "wiser for [him] to become a doctor or a lawyer."  Strand writes:

        My mother is concerned that I shall suffer needlessly.  I tell her that the
        pleasures to be gotten from poetry far exceed those that come with wealth
        or stability.  I offer to read her some of my favorite poems by Wallace
        Stevens.  I begin "The Idea of Order at Key West."  In a few minutes, my
        mother's eyes are closed and her head leans to one side.  She is asleep in
        her chair.

Fortunately, Strand remained undeterred by his mother's reaction to his selection of writing poetry as a vocation.  Later in the essay Strand reports it is 1965, after his mother's death and his first collection of poems has been published, and his father, though like the mother not "a reader of poems," reads his son's book.

        I am moved.  The image of my father pondering what I have written fills me
        with unutterable joy.  He wants to talk to me about the poems·.  The ones
        that mean most are those that speak for his sense of loss following my mother's
        death.  They seem to tell him what he knows but cannot say.  They tell him
        in so many words what he is feeling.  They bring him back to himself.

    In a sense, Stevens's words describing the writing process, "it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be," now seemingly apply equally to the reading process.  Those lines filling Strand's poetry supply the words that explain what the father as reader already "knows but cannot say," and they give expression to emotions previously possessed by this reader.  Significantly, Strand adds:  "He can read my poems ÷ and I should say that they might have been anyone's poems ÷ and be in possession of his loss instead of being possessed by it."  Later, Strand concludes the essay:

        And now, even though it is years later, I sometimes think, when I am writing
        well, that my father would be pleased, and I think, too, that could she hear
        those lines, my mother would awaken from her brief nap and give me her

    Just as he seizes the opportunity in an introduction, "On Becoming a Poet," for his anthology of poetic forms in 2000 to reveal his own passionate awakening as a reader of poetry, how telling it is, and how appropriate, that in introducing an anthology of the "best American poetry" of 1991, Strand also should have narrated his own beginnings as a poet decades earlier.  After all, a close examination of Strand's poetry over those decades will uncover a number of poems that reflect his ardor for reading and writing poetry.  Such an examination also will reveal works that continue to mirror the reverence he maintains for the art of poetry and the act of writing poems.
    In addition, the title of this collection of essays, The Weather of Words, appears most appropriate.  An explicit use of weather for setting and metaphor has been crucial throughout Strand's career.  A quick glimpse at the poems in his books finds some of the more obvious examples:
    "The burning / Will of weather, blowing overhead, would be his muse."  ("Proem" to Dark Harbor);  "Now think of the weather and how it is rarely the same // for any two people·."  (Section "XXIV" of Dark Harbor);  "He has always been drawn to the weather of leavetaking, / Arranging itself so that grief ÷ even the most intimate ÷ / Might be read from a distance."  ("The View");  "What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort / Of being strangers, at least to ourselves."  ("The Night, The Porch");  "A dark and private weather // settles down on everything."  ("The Man in the Mirror");  "The weather, like tomorrow, like your life, / is partially here, partially up in the air."  ("The Good Life");  "·in a flash, / the weather turned, and the lofty air became / unbearably heavy·."  ("When the Vacation Is Over for Good");  "·Only a quirk in the dry run / Of conventional weather."  ("Violent Storm");  "It is impossible to say what form / The weather will take."  ("The Kite");  "Now I lie in the box / of my making while the weather / builds and the mourners shake their heads as if / to write or to die·."  ("My Death");  "·and in my sleep as I turn / in the weather of dreams / it is the white of my sheets / and the white shades of the moon / drawn over my floor / that save me for morning." ("White");  "Someone was saying / how the wind dies down but comes back, / how shells are the coffins of wind / but the weather continues."  ("From the Long Sad Party");  "Once I was whole, once I was young... // As if it mattered now / and you could hear me / and the weather of this place would ever cease." ("An Old Man Awake in His Own Death");  "·You lie under the weather of stones."  ("Elegy for My Father");  "They moved beyond the claims of weather·." ("The Untelling");  "·when the weather was clear / I could see·,"  "But the weather / was not often clear·."  ("The House in French Village");  "And the morning green, and the buildup of weather·."  ("Morning, Noon, and Night");  "All winter the weather came up with amazing results·."  ("Five Dogs");  "What is the weather outside? / What is the weather within / That drives these two to excess / And into the arms of sin?"  ("Grotesques");  "If we should lose ourselves in this weather, / Will anyone know us when we arrive?"  (Danse d'hiver");  "The couple are crossing a field / On their way home, still feeling that nothing is lost, / That they will continue to live harm-free, sealed / In the twilight's amber weather.  But how will the reader know·."  ("Reading in Place").
    Weather is only one of the many descriptive elements that provide vivid images in these poems and display a painter's eye.  As Strand reveals in the opening sentences of "Introduction to Best American Poetry 1991," when he returned home to visit his parents in 1957 and explained his desire to become a poet, he was attending art school.  After receiving an undergraduate degree from Antioch College, Strand studied painting with Joseph Albers at Yale, where he received a BFA, before he moved on to the University of Iowa for an MA in English and creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop under the guidance of Donald Justice.  Although his priorities shifted during his transition from painting to poetry, Strand has always maintained an active interest in art and art commentary.  In recent years, his artwork has sometimes appeared with his poetry.  In fact, Strand created the illustration for the book jacket of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms and the collage cover art for Blizzard of One.  Strand also has written articles and lectured on art, and he has authored three books of art commentary, most notably Hopper (1994), a collection of writings containing perceptive meditations and narratives about Edward Hopper's paintings.  Explaining his interest in this subject, Strand writes, "I often feel that the scenes in Edward Hopper paintings are scenes from my own past."
    The frozen moments in Hopper's famous paintings parallel the stilled incidents in many of Strand's poems.  They share common characteristics, such as their reliance on mystery and tone to evoke emotions among their viewers.  Ernest Hemingway once commented, "I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers," and to some degree this might be said not only of Strand, but of many modern and contemporary poets Strand admires, including Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, and another poet-painter, Derek Walcott, to whom Strand dedicates "The View," a lovely work with a solitary figure in a scene that might have come right from a Walcott canvas or just as easily could have been the setting for a Hopper painting.  "The View" is the final poem in Blizzard of One.

        This is the place.  The chairs are white.  The table shines.
        The person sitting there stares at the waxen glow.
        The wind moves the air around repeatedly,
        As if to clear a space.  "A space for me," he thinks.
        He's always been drawn to the weather of leavetaking,
        Arranging it so that grief ÷ even the most intimate ÷
        Might be read from a distance.

    Just as the atmosphere in which figures find themselves in an Edward Hopper painting ÷ whether outdoors under wide skies, isolated in a room beside a sunlit window, or with others under the artificial night light of electric bulbs ÷ establishes emotional responses from viewers, Strand's descriptive poems and lyrical voice leave similar impressions upon readers.  In the following commentary from Hopper, Strand also could be speaking of the effects engendered by his poetry:

        Hopper's paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that
        suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the
        tone of what preceded them.  The tone but not the content.  The
        implication but not the evidence.  They are saturated with suggestion.
        The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to
        wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge
        us to construct a narrative of what came before.

    Of course, like some of Strand's poems, a number of Hopper's paintings seem to place an emphasis on absence ÷ at times, an absence of individuals from cramped interiors or vast landscapes; in other scenes, the apparent absence of verbal or emotional communication between individuals.  Again, Strand's comments on his reactions to these Hopper paintings might also apply to the experiences readers draw from a collection of Mark Strand's  poetry:

        In Hopper's paintings we can stare at the most familiar scenes and
        feel that they are essentially remote, even unknown.  People look
        into space.  They seem to be elsewhere, lost in a secrecy the paintings
        cannot disclose and we cannot guess at.  It is as if we were spectators
        at an event we were unable to name.  We feel the presence of what is
        hidden, of what surely exists but is not revealed·.  We want to know
        more about what goes on in them, but of course we cannot·.  It is
        unsettling.  We want to move on.  And something is urging us to, even
        as something else compels us to stay.  It weighs on us like solitude.  Our
        distance from everything grows.

    One of the finest essays in The Weather of Words, "Fantasia on the Relations Between Poetry and Photography," exhibits Strand writing some of his best and most beautiful prose as he examines the significance of photographs ÷ especially candid family snapshots which he contrasts with posed photos ÷ and discusses poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, and Charles Wright that were inspired by specific photographs.  As in his encounters with Hopper's paintings, Strand brings the same attention to detail and tone to looking at photographs, and he speculates on the emotional responses suggested by such elements.

        Family snapshots offer us something like what the French critic Roland
        Barthes called punctum.  A punctum is something in the photograph,
        a detail, that stings or pierces the viewer into an emotional reassessment
        of what he has seen.  It can be a necklace, a flawed smile, the position of
        a hand ÷ a thing or gesture ÷ that urges itself on us, compels our vision
        with sudden, unexpected poignancy.

    In the process of explaining the relations between poetry and photography, Strand uncovers for readers those areas of vision where the acuity of his painter's sight blends so well with his intuitive insights as a poet.  The voice with which he narrates his prose descriptions of what he finds in a couple of family photographs,  both of which provide views of his mother, closely approaches the now-familiar voice in his elegiac poems: "My mother's hair is dark and she is smiling.  The light spills over her forehead and rides the top of her cheeks; a patch of it rests on one side of her chin."  These observations are similar to those in some of Strand's most vivid poems about his mother, such as those previously quoted from "The Garden," and "The Untelling," or the following lines from "My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer":

        ·my mother, with her hair in a bun,
        her face in shadow, and the smoke
        from her cigarette coiling close
        to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
        stands near the house
        and watches the seepage of late light
        down through the sedges,
        the last gray islands of cloud
        taken from view, and the wind
        ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
        on the black bay.

    Strand's comments on the way such snapshots evoke emotional response seem to be similar to his comments about McLeish's poem being "both about time and in time."  He is moved by the way a photograph in which he appears with his mother "is so much in the moment in which it was taken.  Like childhood itself, it is innocent of the future.  I feel an enormous sympathy for the small boy I was, and I feel guilty that this likeness should be served up years later to his older self."  Regarding another picture of his mother as a young woman, Strand expresses the feeling of absence seen so often in his poetry: "In this photograph, I am the one who is missing.  I was not yet born, nor conceived, nor had my mother even met my father.  That my mother was happily alive despite my absence does not come as any surprise, but on some level it does offer a rebuke to my presence and seems to question my own importance."  He describes his reaction of sadness at viewing this photo depicting his absence from a period of his mother's life as one in which he feels as if he has experienced his "death in reverse."
    Perhaps most revealing about this essay is an account of Strand's series of questions that arise in his mind in response to the photograph of his mother and her two children, thoughts prompting him to reflect on the scene depicted.  The reflection here is like that of the narrator in "The Untelling."  The inquisitive meditations presented offer a possible peek at Strand's creative process, the kinds of questions or speculations he seems to address in so many poems, and his responses may supply readers ÷ who might respond similarly to his poetry ÷ with reasons for the personal concerns he sometimes addresses through the composition of his poems.

        I have stared at this photograph, and each time I have felt a deep
        and inexplicable rush of sadness.  Is it that my mother, who holds
        us and whose hand I hold, is now dead?  Or is it that she is so young,
        so happy, so proud of her children?  Is it that the three of us are
        momentarily bound by the way the light distributes itself in identical
        ways over each of our faces, binding us together, proclaiming our
        unity for a moment in a past that was just ours and that no one now
        can share?  Or is it simply that we look a bit out-of-date?  Or that
        whatever we were at the moment catches the heart merely by being

    Strand's analysis of the poems by Rilke ("Portrait of My Father as a Young Man"), Ashbery ("Mixed Feelings"), and Wright ("Bar Giamaica 1959-1960") are also insightful, both in what his comments say about the poems and in what they suggest about his own thinking concerning the similarities between poetry and photography.  Especially interesting is the description of Wright's poem, which develops its scene bit by bit: "the poem constructs a photograph as it proceeds, so that it may affect us as photographs do."  Wright does not even expose to the reader that the poem is inspired by a photo; therefore, the poem contains an image "put together before our eyes," and it further blends the two art forms of photography and poetry.  Strand's analysis of Wright's poem probably echoes the responses of many readers confronted with the images in his own poems:

        The poem celebrates the sad moment when we become history ÷ the
        photographic moment. the moment written about, the moment when
        everyone goes away, when everyone suddenly ceases to be what they

    In that first limited-print edition, Sleeping with One Eye Open, published in 1964 and filled with poems about anxiety, Mark Strand included a prose poem titled "Make Believe Ballroom Time," in which the poem's speaker notices a stranger.   The speaker witnesses the man's drab dress and demeanor, "his speech which was uninflected and precise," and judges him: "I guessed he was a banker, perhaps a lawyer, even a professor in one of the larger, better universities."  But the speaker revises his opinion when he reports, "during a lull in our conversation, he suddenly got up and began dancing."  The people at the party are observed as being "plainly disturbed by this," but the reader is told that "the man continued dancing."  Finally, the speaker in the poem confides to the reader: "And because I recognized what calling, what distant music he obeyed, I envied him."
    In his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Blizzard of One, the penultimate poem, and the longest one in the collection, is "The Delirium Waltz," in which the poet shares a dance across a ballroom floor with many of those family members, friends and literary figures ÷ including Donald Justice, Charles Wright, Robert Penn Warren, and a number of other poets ÷ who apparently have influenced and enriched his life.  The speaker reports in another section of prose poetry:

        I believe we were happy.  We moved in the drift of sound, and
        whether we went towards the future or back to the past we weren't
        able to tell.  Anxiety has its inflections ÷ wasteful, sad, tragic at
        times ÷ but here it had none.  In its harmless hovering it was merely
        fantastic, so we kept dancing.  I think I was leading.  Why else would
        I practice those near calamitous dips?  I think it was clear that we
        had always been dancing, always been eager to give ourselves to the
        rapture of music.

    During the years between those two poems, and through the acknowledged influence of others, the anxious self in Mark Strand's poetry has become the other self, that confident man who obeyed the call of "distant music," the man he could only envy years ago.  Over the decades that have passed since his first efforts at writing poems, "those feverish attempts to put·feelings on paper," Mark Strand has taken the lead and given himself over to the "rapture of music."  For any reader who watches closely, The Weather of Words chronicles that wonderful transition.

Strand, Mark. The Weather of Words.  New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.  ISBN: 0-375-40911-4  $22.00

Strand, Mark and Boland, Eavan. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms.  New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.  ISBN: 0-393-04916-7  $27.50

Strand, Mark. Blizzard of One.  New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.  ISBN:0-375-40139-3  $21.00

© by Edward Byrne


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