One Art


Mark Strand

"One can experience a poem and not understand it. One can fall in love with a woman and not know why. Same with a poem."

Mark Strand was born in 1934 in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, to American parents and moved to the U.S. in 1938. His childhood was spent in Halifax, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. His parents were middle-class Jewish intellectuals. The father was an executive and the mother was at different times a teacher and an archaeologist. Only after the death of his mother would Strand learn that she had had a former marriage to a poet.

Strand earned a B.A. from Antioch College (1957), a B.F.A. from Yale University (1959), and -- working with Donald Justice -- an M.A. from the University of Iowa (1962). Although he read and wrote poetry while attending Antioch College, he entered Yale intending to become a visual artist. However, while studying painting with Josef Albers, he became a passionate reader of Wallace Stevens. He then found himself writing verse and captivating the attention of his English professors.

In 1960, Strand received a Fulbright scholarship to study nineteenth-century Italian poetry in Florence. Before long, his work began to appear in The New Yorker, and he realized that he was going to devote his life to poetry. With his first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), he hinted at the essence of his oeuvre to come: unrelenting apprehension and ever-present unease with the self. With Reasons for Moving (1968), Strand built a public image as an ominous lyricist haunted by loss and longing, but the poet begged to differ in a 1998 interview with Wallace Shawn in The Paris Review: "But I don't think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems." This point is perhaps best illustrated by "2002," a poem which opens with mock seriousness:

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

Among Strand's many volumes of poetry are Darker (1970), The Story of Our Lives (1973), Elegy for My Father (1978), The Late Hour (1978), The Continuous Life (1990), The Monument (1991), Dark Harbor (1993), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blizzard of One (1998), and Man and Camel (2005). He has also published books of prose, volumes of translation (Rafael Alberti, Carlos Drummond de Andrade), monographs on prominent artists (Edward Hopper, William Bailey), and books for children.
Strand's honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1967-68, 1977-78, 1986-87), a Rockefeller Foundation award (1968-69), the Edgar Allen Poe Prize (1974), a National Institute of Arts and Letters award (1975), and the Bollingen Prize (1993). He also received fellowships from Ingram Merrill Foundation (1966), the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation (1974-75), and the MacArthur Foundation (1987-92). Strand has served as the U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress (1990-91) and is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

The following poem is from The Continuous Life. "When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all distinguishing physical marks, save beauty alone," poet Linda Gregerson once wrote. Dedicated to his Antioch mentor, "The Idea" may be one of those sublime pieces Gregerson had in mind. Strand believes that there is a delicate interface between the self and the world. A poem will be neither wholly objective nor subjective, but will incorporate elements of both. What is not viable is to restrain the self completely and create verse that is truly about the "exterior."

The Idea

for Nolan Miller

For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley's lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, "Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;"
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,