The fourth Poet Laureate of the United States (1996-1997), Mark Strand (born 1934) wrote poems on subjects ranging from dark and terrible wrestlings with one's fears and alter egos to joyous celebrations of life and light.
Mark Strand, the fourth American poet to be given the title of Poet Laureate, once remarked that he was intrigued by the epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges' story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius": "while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men."
Borges' idea, interestingly enough, describes the diversities and paradoxes inherent in the creative spirit of Mark Strand himself and the major themes and motifs that his poems and fictions dealt with over the years.
At times Strand's poetic voice is plain and conversational, sparse of detail almost to a fault, and filled with dark images of menace and foreboding; at other times, however, it is lively and sensuous, rich in specifics of time and place and abundantly joyous in its celebration of life and light.
In the title poem of his first volume, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), Strand introduces us to a nameless persona who speaks fearfully of the intense terror he feels while he lies in bed one night unable to sleep.
The shivers Wash over Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends Loosen, And I lie sleeping with one eye open, Hoping That nothing, nothing will happen.
In Reasons for Moving (1968), his second volume, Strand continued to explore this theme of menace and foreboding. In "Violent Storm" his terrified persona finds himself threatened by a loud and terrible storm. He fears the coming of the night and the horrible uncertainty of what the darkness may bring.
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. All other nights Seem pale compared to this, and the brilliant rise Of morning after morning seems unthinkable.
Judging from the merely external circumstances and events of Mark Strand's own life, such gut-wrenching fears and existential angst seem unwarranted, if not exaggerated.
He was born on April 14, 1934, in the quiet village of Summerside on Prince Edward Island in Canada to Robert Strand and the former Sonia Apter. He was educated at Antioch College in Ohio where he received his BA. Later, he went on to Yale where he studied painting under Josef Albers. When he decided that he was not quite good enough to become a major painter, Strand began to write. By the time he graduated he had already won two highly acclaimed awards, the Cook and Bergin prizes, for his collection of poetry. In 1960 he went to Italy with a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Florence. The following year he married Antonia Ratensky and had a daughter, Jessica. In 1974 he divorced and married Julia Garretson. He taught in over a dozen prestigious colleges and universities, earning numerous honors and awards for his poetry and fiction. Nevertheless, like the "man who is two men," Mark Strand is much more than the highly successful poet and popular professor who is very much at home in the world.
In Darker (1970), his third volume of poetry, his personae wrestle endlessly with their terrors and obsessions. This time, however, the enemy is no longer an outside force like the night or a violent storm. Now the enemy has become the Self itself, that haunting, elusive, bewildering alter ego with which so many of Strand's poetic counterparts are so obsessed.
"In Celebration" in his fourth volume, The Story of Our Lives (1973), Strand's speaker vividly expresses this idea when he remarks that "by giving yourself over to nothing, you shall be healed."
In "To Begin" Strand's persona becomes the artist-creator who knows full well the emptiness of the false Self and the "black map" of nothingness that is the world. He survives and endures, however, by attempting to shape words and images that will give life to new worlds and a new, more powerful Self. "He stared at the ceiling / and imagined his breath shaping itself into words."
Like every artist, and certainly every poet, however, the speaker also knows the terror of beginning anew, of facing again and again the blank canvas or the blank page.
In the dark he would still be uncertain about how to begin. He would mumble to himself; he would follow his words to learn where he was.He would begin. And the room, the house, the field, the woods beyond the field, would also begin, and in the sound of his own voice beginning he would hear them.
And yet, despite all his fortitude, Strand's persona comes once again to realize the frustration inherent in his paradoxical situation. Like the speaker in "The Untelling," he learns that the more he attempts to do and say, the less he will accomplish and succeed.
His pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal the less he understood. If he kept it up, he would lose everything.
In Strand's fifth volume of poetry, The Late Hour (1978), several of his speakers try to avoid the whole question of self-confrontation and authentic self-realization by simply immersing themselves in the purely sensual pleasures of life and forgetting everything else. In "Pot Roast," another celebration of sorts, the protagonist recalls his childhood after inhaling the steam that rises from a plate of meat. He remembers the gravy, its odor of garlic and celery, and how he enjoyed sopping it up with pieces of bread.
And now I taste it again The meat of memory. The meat of no change. I raise my fork and I eat.
In "For Jessica, My Daughter," Strand attempts to stay the terror of loss and confusion by celebrating the love that binds people together in a life filled with loss and separation.
Afraid of the dark in which we drift or vanish altogether, I imagine a light that would not let us stray too far apart, a secret moon or mirror, a sheet of paper, something you could carry in the dark when I am away.
For Strand, writing itself is the central paradox, the imagined light that will vanish the darkness but one day vanish itself like so many of his own "poems of air … too light for the page." But he continued to write, remembering and reinventing his life and Canadian childhood in such descriptive and nostalgic poems as "Shooting Whales," "Nights in Hackett's Cove," "A Morning," and "My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer" from his sixth and most personal and concretely detailed collection, Selected Poems, in 1980 (reissued in 1990).
Other poetry volumes by Strand include: The Continuous Life (1990) and Dark Harbor (1993) both Published by Alfred A. Knopf. He also translated Portuguese and Spanish poetry. In addition to his poetry, Strand wrote a long prose-poem, The Monument (1978); a collection of fiction, Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (1985); three children's books, The Planet of Lost Things (1982), The Night Book (1985), and Rembrandt Takes A Walk (1986).
In addition to poetry, Strand has written works of art criticism, Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters (1983) and William Bailey (1987). Strand was awarded the Rebekan Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry in 1992 and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1993. In 1995 The New Republic magazine announced Strand's selection to replace Mary Jo Salter as their poetry editor. Strand was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in 1996.
He also translated and edited numerous anthologies of modern poetry and Latin American fiction.
Further Reading on Mark Strand
In addition to the works by Strand cited in the text see David Kirby, Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture (1990) and Richard Howard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1971). See also the following biographical/critical sources: Yale Review (Autumn 1968); Contemporary Literature (1969); Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1969); Antioch Review (Fall/Winter 1970-1971); and Carolyn Riley, editor, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume VI (1976).