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About Mark Strand's Poetry

Richard Howard

The 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 Mailman," "The Accident," "The Door," "The Tunnel," even "The Last Bus" with its exotic Brazilian stage-properties, all recount the worst, realizing every apprehension, relishing the things possible only in one's wildest fantasies of victimization, and then with a shriek as much of delight as of despair, fall upon the fact--

It will always be this way.
I stand here scared
that you will disappear,
scared that you will stay--

that the victimizer is, precisely, the self, and that the victim is the other, is others.

[. . . .]

Strand is both nervous and morbid, and a consideration of finality is his constant project, sustained here by shifting the responsibility for the imminent wreck from "the reaches of ourselves" to the ambiguity instinct in language.

[. . . .]

Strand’s work since Reason for Moving widens his scope, even as it sharpens his focus; just as he had divided his body against itself in order to discover an identity, he now identifies the body politic with his own in order to recover a division; in a series of political prospects, "Our Death," "From a Litany," "General," and finest of all "The Way It Is," the poet conjugates the nightmares of Fortress America with his own stunned mortality to produce an apocalypse of disordered devotion:

Everyone who has sold himself wants to buy himself back.
Nothing is done. The night
eats into their limbs
like a blight.
Everything dims.
The future is not what it used to be.
The graves are ready. The dead
shall inherit the dead.

But what gives these public accents of Strand's their apprehensive relevance is not just a shrewd selection of details ("My neighbor marches in his room, / wearing the sleek / mask of a hawk with a large beak . . . His helmet in a shopping bag, / he sits in the park, waving a small American flag"), nor any cosy contrast of the poet’s intimeries against a gaining outer darkness ("Slowly I dance out of the burning house of my head. /And who isn't borne again and again into heaven?"). Rather it is the sense that public and private degradation, outer and inner weather, tropic and glacial decors (Saint Thomas and Prince Edward Islands, in fact) are all versions and visions of what Coleridge called the One Life, and that the whole of nature and society are no more than the churning content of a single and limitless human body--the poet's own.

From Alone With America: Essay on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1980. Copyright 1980 by Richard Howard.

Samuel Maio

In his short collection of idiosyncratic musings in verse form, The Sargeantville Notebook (1973), Strand included the following curious statement:

The ultimate self-effacement
is not the pretense of the minimal,
but the jocular considerations of the maximal
in the manner of Wallace Stevens.

Strand admittedly has long admired Stevens's work, and read Stevens even before beginning to write his own poetry. (He once remarked to Wayne Dodd: "I discovered I wasn't destined to be a very good painter, so I became a poet. Now it didn't happen suddenly. I did read a lot, and I had been a reader of poetry before. In fact, I was much more given to reading poems than I was to fiction and the book that I read a lot, and frequently, was The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens") Perhaps Strand, in commenting on what constitutes the "ultimate self-effacement," regards Stevens as a belated Romantic poet, as does Harold Bloom, in that the ostensibly private reflection, which is the subject of the poem, expresses emotions or ideologies that are in fact diffuse. I make this parallel by suggesting that Strand means "the minimal" to be the private, or individual, concern so that a pretense of such occurs when a poet argues for his own life experiences as reflective of a larger than personal theme, and that his phrase "the jocular considerations of the maximal" means the viewing of global concerns with some degree of wit, with a touch of the absurd. A poet betrays his "pretense of the minimal" when he tries to be an impartial observer, a chronicler of an event he has witnessed or of a landscape he has seen; his presence in the poem--his personal "I" speaker--negates his intended impartiality, or objectivity, towards his subject. . . .

Strand reads Stevens, however, as having successfully avoided such pretense by constructing poems that begin about another's concerns, then move outward to embrace universal questions: "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," and "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage" are a few examples from his early work. These jocular titles lead us to poems of "maximal" subject matter; in each, Stevens’s presence is not visible. Each poem concentrates on the individual named in its title; consequently, Stevens's discussion of universal matters is filtered through his representation of these paltry and jocular characters. Yet these poems of Stevens employ a particular individual--Peter Quince, the "Oncle," the Nude--(and none acting as a persona) in order to achieve his measure of self-effacement. In this sense, these figures are like dramatis personae. Yet Strand's objective is to achieve the same extent of impartiality, and impersonality, while using an "I" speaker that is neither a persona (that is, a representative "I" speaking in behalf of all) nor one that is entirely confessional.

[. . . .]

The resulting self-effacing voice aids Strand in his personal inquiry into the constitution, the definition, of an individual in a contemporary world to which he feels no relationship or role other than that of filling a void. Such an inquiry--and tentative answers--could not have been effected without his use of the self-effacing voice, for, as we have seen, this voice cannot be distinguished from the self portrayed--and defined--in these poems, whoever it is Strand would have us believe is their author.

From Creating Another Self: Voice in Modern American Personal Poetry. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Thomas Jefferson University Press.

Harold Bloom

The irreality of Borges, though still near, is receding in Darker, as Strand opens himself more to his own vision. These poems instantly touch a universal anguish as no "confessional" poems can, for Strand has the fortune of writing naturally and almost simply (though this must be supreme artifice) out of the involuntary near solipsism that always marks a central poetic imagination in America. An uncanny master of tone, Strand cannot pause for mere wit or argument but generally moves directly to phantasmagoria, a mode so magically disciplined in him as to make redundant for us almost all current questers after the "deep image."

From Southern Review (1972)

Linda Gregerson

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. It was never impeded by personality. Nor was this radical renunciation to be confused with modesty, or asceticism. The self had designs on a readership, and a consummate gift for the musical phrase.

From Parnassus: Poetry in Review (1981)

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