In the literary world, few purveyors can make a living from writing poetry. Most fall prey to the mundane distractions of everyday life that is the lot that falls to most aspiring poets. Mark Strand has made a name for himself as one of the foremost writers of poetry in America, building an impressive career from his collections that, since the 1960s, have been notable on poetry-lovers’ bookshelves. As a student who enjoyed his influence when he taught at the University of Utah in the 1980s and early 1990s, I see his return to read at the Salt Lake City Main Library at the age of 73 as a chance to revisit a teacher and artist who provided enormous inspiration.
The reading comes at another momentous point in his career, with the publication of New Selected Poems following closely on last year’s new collection Man and Camel. Of the latter, he notes, “It’s a continuation of my previous book Blizzard of One.” A dark humor that was always in his work comes to the forefront in the poem “2002,” in which Death fantasizes about taking Strand to the underworld. Several poems later, however, in “2032,” we find the Grim Reaper tired at the end of his career, while Strand is still going strong. “It’s an amusing form of mock grandeur,” he explains, “a way of achieving immortality.”
But, then, there is also “Poem After the Seven Last Words,” commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet, in which he muses about the last words of Jesus. “It worked out well,” he says. “For someone not religious, who doesn’t believe, I managed to say something with it.”
The Sept. 27 reading will find him venturing into work from all of his 11 collections of his work. His poetry is written in a clear, unornamented language that is sometimes mistaken for minimalism. He counters, “I think some of my poems enter the ‘maximalist’ in some of Continuous Life”—a set he says is one of his favorites. He calls his language very spare and precise, while the stories in them tend to be elusive and dreamlike. “The surface of my language is quite clear,” he observes. “The atmosphere is not surreal but verges on the fantastic.”
His days teaching in the U of U English department marked a high point for the college, as well as Strand’s career. Those 12 years were some of the most productive of his life, as he found that the lack of distractions of any sort allowed him to focus on his work. “Salt Lake [City] isn’t the most exciting city to live in,” he says, repeating a frequently heard comment. “But I remember fondly the camaraderie of my friends in the English department and the excellent students here.”
His sense of humor and imagination inspired fellow students and me to stretch our minds and poetic abilities. At the time, he used pastiche exercises to get students to think outside of the lines and write in the form of famous writers, much like painters used to practice by copying the old masters. “Now,” he says, “I don’t give exercises to graduate students. I prefer teaching undergrads; they are more open, adventurous, and haven’t been ruined by other teachers.”
Of his own influences, he says the metaphysical poetry of Wallace Stevens was formative of his early work but says that, more and more, “I am constantly regenerated and inspired to write by reading [Franz] Kafka.” Strand’s work is much less overtly surreal than that of the Czech writer, but it’s a case of the everyday being stranger than images that come from pure imagination. In “Keeping Things Whole,” perhaps his best-known poem, he states the existential condition: “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.”
Strand has achieved nearly every major honor a poet can attain, from the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, to U.S. poet laureate in 1990 while he was still in Utah. After his tenure as poet laureate, he taught at Chicago for a while and now teaches at Columbia University in New York City, a cosmopolitan atmosphere the Prince Edward Island, Canada, native considers home. But the open spaces of the West in some ways made a better environment for his work.
In a literary environment where poetry books sell poorly, and much of the poetry being read at poetry slams is doggerel that aims at the lowest common denominator in terms of style and technique, Strand is one of the remaining few whose work is ambitious and inventive. His art consists of constantly astonishing himself as well as others. “Sometimes I read my poems,” he remarks, “and I have no idea how I wrote them.”
MARK STRAND @ Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, Thursday Sept. 27, 7 p.m. & Brown Bag Lunch Chat, Friday, Sept. 28, Noon. 524-8200 cw