Poet of understatement: Mark Strand, 1934-2014
To a large extent, he deserved these laurels: Strand was an almost always good, sometimes great, writer of lyric and prose poems that conjure up moving, striking images in readers’ minds. And Strand wasn’t a lightweight, either: It’s hard to find a word or thought out of place, or an idea uncompleted, in his work. While he could do a fine job with a simple environmental description of snow, water and meadows, his more complex works, dealing with big questions like immortality and love, require careful reading and rereading.
What makes Strand’s work—all together for the first time in this final Collected Poems—all the more impressive is that it isn’t designed to impress: He almost never used a five-dollar word when a five-cent one would do, he rarely wrote in formal meter, and he used personal experience for much of his material. Over the course of an artistic career that lasted a half-century, he found few new tricks. This lack of showiness, more than anything else, established him as a significant artist.
Strand trained as a painter and, in interviews, spoke explicitly about the ways that painting, particularly surrealism, and his artistic training influenced his poetry. Even in his simpler early poems, he shows a keen ability to connect observation and emotion. Take this passage from the title poem of his first published collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964):
Even the half-moon
Half dark), on the horizon,
Its side casting a fishy light
On my floor, lavishly lording
Look over me.
This isn’t all that hard to understand or decode, but it’s interesting and lyrical enough to arouse the reader’s emotions. It’s elegantly crafted, if not traditionally metered. And when Strand gets more difficult, he’s just as good. One of his best early poems, “The Story of Our Lives” (1973), might be considered a cubist piece of poetry. Like a painting by Picasso or Klee, it simultaneously describes the same thing from different perspectives: the long-term arc of a relationship between a couple sitting together on a couch, under a variety of circumstances, through the literary device of a written book that is “the story of our lives.” The poem then examines that conceit from perspectives in relativistic space-time before ending on an uncertain, but ultimately affirming, examination of human existence, where a narrator’s voice concludes:
The book would have to be written
And would have to be read.
They are the book and they are
Hitting this passage, after unraveling a fair amount of Strand’s other work, feels like an accomplishment—and one that makes a rather difficult poem well worth working through. It’s a solution to a longstanding crux of Strand’s own creation.
The Monument (1978), the last major piece of work that can be shelved with “poetry” produced by Strand until 1990, offers similar rewards to those who make their way through Strand’s musings on the philosophical concept of immortality in physical science, literary, philosophical and artistic senses. (Despite its classification, The Monument is almost entirely in prose.) Take, for example, his statement that “it has been necessary to submit to vacancy in order to begin again, to clear ground, to make space. I can allow nothing to be received. Therein lies my triumph and my mediocrity.” It’s a paradoxical thought that raises questions about everything from Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence to the responsibility of authors to their readers.
Strand also had a zest for language itself. His free translations of the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade are better and more moving than efforts (including some of his own) to do more direct translations from Drummond de Andrade’s native tongue. Strand changed lyrical Portuguese into a differently pretty, but clearly Germanic, English.
Strand’s short prose poems—which, because they often follow clear narrative arcs, are more like the microcuentos of the Peruvian writer William Guillén Padilla than poems, per se—became a more important part of his body of work over the years. His final collection of new work, Almost Invisible (2012), consists entirely of these. “Harmony in the Boudoir” is a typical example. The plot: A man stands at the foot of the bed and tells his wife that she will never know him. She, surprisingly, isn’t that disturbed and ends her reply by telling him: That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more. This is both amusing and thought-provoking: light on its surface, but with deep resonance.
It can be argued that it takes little sophistication to write free verse, and, on their surface, the short prose poems Strand turned to most recently are among the simplest art forms possible: They are the equivalent of anecdotes that just about everyone relates to in one way or another. But the sophistication of all this (and it’s there in almost all of Strand’s works) is often found far from the surface. And much like his poetry, Strand himself was modest and rarely showy in interviews.
There’s a fair amount of critically lauded modern visual art, and even some modern poetry, that just about anybody could produce. Mark Strand’s work—deceptively simple and self-indulgent as it may be—is good, challenging poetry well worth the time and effort it takes to appreciate.