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Mark Strand on Poetry and Poetics--from Essays and Interviews

On Donald Justice

From the very beginning Justice has fashioned his poems, honed them down, freed them of rhetorical excess and the weight, however gracefully sustained, of an elaborate diction. His self-indulgence, then, has been with the possibilities of the plain statement. His refusal to adopt any other mode but that which his subject demands--minimal, narcissist, negating--has nourished him. . . .

If absence and loss are inescapable conditions of fife, the poem for Justice is an act of recovery. It synthesizes, for all its meagreness, what is with what is no longer; it conjures up a life that persists by denial, gathering strength from its hopelessness, and exists, finally and positively, as an emblem of survival.

From Contemporary Poets. Ed. James Vinson. (St. Martin’s, 1980)

On The Monument

I strated writing The Monument and it became less and less about the translator of a particular text, and more about the translation of a self, and the text as self, the self as book.

From an interview with Frank Graziano in Graziano, ed. Strand: A Profile (1979)

From The Monument (1978)


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. Nothing is the destiny of everyone, it is our commonness made dumb. I am passing it on. The monument is a void, artless and everlasting. What I was I am no longer. I speak for nothing, the nothing that I am, the nothing that is this work. And you shall perpetuate me not in the name of what I was, but in the name of what I am.


This poor document does not have to do with a self, it dwells on the absence of a self. I--and this pronoun will have to do--have not permitted anything worthwhile to be part of this communication that strains even to exist in a language other than the one in which it was written. So much is excluded that it could not be a document of self-centeredness. If it is a mirror to anything, it is to the gap between the nothing that was and the nothing that will be. It is a thread of longing that binds past and future. Again, it is everything that history is not.

From "A Statement about Writing"

Ideally, it would be best to just write, to suppress the critical side of my nature and indulge the expressive. Perhaps. But I tend to think of the expressive part of me as rather tedious--never curious or responsive, but blind and self-serving. And because it has no power, let alone appetite, for self-scrutiny, it fits the reductive, dominating needs of the critical side of me. The more I think about this, the more I think that not writing is the best way to write.

Whether I admit it or not, I write to participate in the delusion of my own immortality which is born every minute. And yet, I write to resist myself. I find resistance irresistible. (317)

In William Heyen, ed. The Generation of 2000: Contemporary American Poets (1984)

Introduction to the Poems in the Winter 1995-96
Issue of Ploughshares

I was very casual about the way I chose poems for this issue of Ploughshares. I asked a few friends--those I happened to be in touch with--for recent unpublished work. I picked what I wanted. Then I went through poems that had come directly to Ploughshares and which the editors thought would interest me. I recall that most of the poems which I chose came to me this way.

I have no method for picking poems. I simply pick what pleases me. I am not concerned with truth, nor with conventional notions of what is beautiful. I tend to like poems that engage me--that is to say, which do not bore me. I like elaboration, but I am often taken by simplicity. Cadences move me, but flatness can also seduce. Sense, so long as it's not too familiar, is a pleasure, but so is nonsense when shrewdly exploited. Clearly, I have no set notion about what a poem ought to be.

Editing a single issue of Ploughshares has not allowed me to reach any conclusions about the state of American poetry. American poetry still seems to be "out there," practiced by others in many different places and under many different conditions. The number of people writing poems is vast, and their reasons for doing so are many, that much can be surmised from the stacks of submissions. Whether or not this is a healthy state of affairs I cannot say. I simply don't know. And yet, in a culture like ours, which is given to material comforts, and addicted to forms of entertainment that offer immediate gratification, it is surprising that so much poetry is written. A great many people seem to think writing poetry is worthwhile, even though it pays next to nothing and is not as widely read as it should be. This is probably because it speaks for a level of experience unaccounted for by other literary genres or by popular forms of entertainment. So, perhaps, the fact that so many are writing poetry is a sign of health.

Whatever the case, I hope that the poems I have chosen for this issue of Ploughshares find appreciative readers.


from An April 1999 Interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth on PBS

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm very interested in your ideas about how a poem works. You've said, "A poem releases itself, secretes itself slowly, sometimes almost poisonously, into the mind of the reader." How do you think poetry does that?

MARK STRAND: Well, I think it -- a lot of it depends on the reader. The reader has to sort of give himself over to the poem and allow the poem to inhabit him and -- how does the poem do that? It does it by rearranging the world in such a way that it appears new. It does it by using language that is slightly different from the way language is used in the workday world, so tha  you're forced to pay attention to it.

[. . . .]

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you look for when you read a poem?

MARK STRAND: I look for astonishment. I look to be moved, to have my view of the world in which I live somewhat changed, enlarged. I want both to belong more strongly to it or more emphatically to it, and yet, to be able to see it, to have -- well, it's almost a paradox to say this -- a more compassionate distance. 

from the complete interview go to

from "Notes on the Craft of Poetry"

For some of us, the less said about the way we do things the better. And I for one am not even sure that I have a recognizable way of doing things, or if I did that I could talk about it. I do not have a secret method of writing, nor do I have a set of do's and don'ts. Each poem demands that I treat it differently from the rest, come to terms with it, seek out its own best beginning and ending. And yet I would be kidding myself if I believed that nothing continuous existed in the transactions between myself and my poems. I suppose this is what we mean by craft: those transactions that become so continuous we not only associate ourselves with them but allow them to represent the means by which we make art. But since they rarely declare themselves in procedural terms, how do we talk about them? To a large extent, these transactions I have chosen to call craft are the sole property of the individual poet and cannot be transferred to or adopted by others. One reason for this is that they are largely unknown at the time of writing and are discovered afterwards, if at all. 

. . .

One essay that had great importance for me when I began to write was George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Reading it, I encountered for the first time a moral statement about good writing. True, Orwell was not considering the literary use of language, but language as an instrument for expressing thought. His point was that just as our English can become ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, so the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The following rules, he explains, can be relied upon when the writer is in doubt about the effect of a word or phrase and his instinct fails him. 

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These are of course very elementary rules and you could, as Orwell admits, keep all of them and still write bad English, though not as bad as you might have. But how far will they take us in the writing of a poem? And how much of that transaction I mentioned earlier is described by them? If following a simple set of rules guaranteed the success of a poem, poems would not be held in very high esteem, as, of course, they are. And far too many people would find it easy to write them, which, naturally, is not the case. For the poems that are of greatest value are those that inevitably, unselfconsciously break rules, poems whose urgency makes rules irrelevant. 

. . .

I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of the individual poet's conception of what is or is not a poem. For if the would-be poet has no idea what a poem is, then he has no standard for determining or qualifying his actions as a poet; i.e., his poem. "Form," it should be remembered, is a word that has several meanings, some of which are near opposites. Form has to do with the structure or outward appearance of something, but it also has to do with its essence. In discussions of poetry, form is a powerful word for just that reason: structure and essence seem to come together, as do the disposition of words and their meanings.

It hardly seems worthwhile to point out the shortsightedness of those practitioners who would have us believe that the form of the poem is merely its shape. They argue that there is formal poetry and poetry without form -- free verse, in other words; that formal poetry has dimensions that are rhythmic or stanzaic, etc., and consequently measurable, while free verse exists as a sprawl whose disposition is arbitrary and is, as such, nonmeasurable. But if we have learned anything from the poetry of the last twenty or thirty years, it is that free verse is as formal as any other verse. There is ample evidence that it uses a full range of mnemonic devices, the most common being anaphoral and parallelistic structures, both as syntactically restrictive as they are rhythmically binding. I do not want to suggest that measured verse and free verse represent opposing mnemonics. I would rather we considered them together, both being structured or shaped and thus formal, or at least formal in outward, easily described ways.

Form is manifested most clearly in the apparatus of argument and image or, put another way, plot and figures of speech. This aspect of form is more difficult to discuss because it is less clear-cut; it happens also to be the area in which poems achieve their greatest individuality and where, as a result, they are more personal. This being the case, how is it possible to apply ideas of craft? Well, we might say that mixed metaphors are bad, that contradictions, unless they constitute intentional paradox, must be avoided, that this or that image is inappropriate. All of which is either too vague, too narrow, or mostly beside the point -- although there are many creative-writing teachers who have no difficulty discussing these more variable and hidden characteristics of form. And I use the word "hidden" because somehow, when we approach the question of what a poem means, we are moving very close to its source or what brought it into being. To be sure, there is no easy prescription, like George Orwell's, of what to say and what not to say in a poem. 

. . .

In discussing his poem "The Old Woman and the Statue," Wallace Stevens said:

While there is nothing automatic about the poem, nevertheless it has an automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was written what I wanted to do.

This is as precise a statement of what is referred to as "the creative process" as I have ever read. And I think it makes clear why discussions of craft are at best precarious. We know only afterwards what it is we have done. Most poets, I think, are drawn to the unknown, and writing, for them, is a way of making the unknown visible. And if the object of one's quest is hidden or unknown, how is it to be approached by predictable means? I confess to a desire to forget knowing, especially when I sit down to work on a poem. The continuous transactions of craft take place in the dark. Jung understood this when he said: "As long as we ourselves are caught up in the process of creation, we neither see nor understand; indeed we ought not to understand, for nothing is more injurious to immediate experience than cognition." And Stevens, when he said: "You have somehow to know the sound that is the exact sound: and you do in fact know, without knowing how. Your knowledge is irrational." This is not to say that rationality is wrong or bad, but merely that it has little to do with the making of poems (as opposed, say, to the understanding of poems). Even so rational a figure as Paul Valéry becomes oddly evasive when discussing the making of a poem. In his brilliant but peculiar essay "Poetry and Abstract Thought," he says the following: 

I have . . . noticed in myself certain states which I may well call poetic, since some of them were finally realized in poems. They came about from no apparent cause, arising from some accident or other; they developed according to their own nature, and consequently I found myself for a time jolted out of my habitual state of mind.

And he goes on to say that "the state of poetry is completely irregular, inconstant, and fragile, and that we lose it, as we find it, by accident," and that "a poet is a man who, as a result of a certain incident, undergoes a hidden transformation." At its most comic, this is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde situation. And I suppose at its most tragic it still is. But it is astonishing that craft, even in such a figure as Valéry, is beside the point. One feels that Valéry, if given more time, might have become more like Bachelard, who said among other things that "intellectual criticism of poetry will never lead to the center where poetic images are formed."

And what does craft have to do with the formation of poetic images? What does it have to do with the unknown sources of a poem? Nothing. For craft, as it is taught and discussed, functions clearly only if the poem is considered primarily as a form of communication. And yet it is generally acknowledged that poetry invokes aspects of language other than that of communication, most significantly as a variation, though diminished, of a sacred text. Given such status, a status it has for the poet while he is writing, it is not validated by an appeal to experience but exists autonomously, or as autonomously as history will allow. In his essay "On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry," Jung comes closest to addressing this issue when he says:

The work presents us with a finished picture, and this picture is amenable to analysis only to the extent that we can recognize it as a symbol. But if we are unable to discover any symbolic value in it, we have merely established that, so far as we are concerned, it means no more than what it says, or to put it another way, that it is no more than what it seems to be. 

This strikes me as a generous statement, for it allows poems an existence ultimately tautological. On the other hand, Freud, who suggests a connection between daydreams and poems -- but does not elaborate -- and who addresses himself to the fantasies of the "less pretentious writers of romances, novels and stories," making their works into protracted forms of wish fulfillment, seems most intent on establishing the priority of mental states. But the purpose of the poem is not disclosure or storytelling or the telling of a daydream; nor is a poem a symptom. A poem is itself and is the act by which it is born. It is self-referential and is not necessarily preceded by any known order, except that of other poems.

If poems often do not refer to any known experience, to nothing that will characterize their being, and thus cannot be understood so much as absorbed, how can considerations of craft be applied when they are justified on the grounds that they enhance communication? This is perhaps one of the reasons why most discussions of craft fall short of dealing with the essentials of poetry. Perhaps the poem is ultimately a metaphor for something unknown, its working-out a means of recovery. It may be that the retention of the absent origin is what is necessary for the continued life of the poem as inexhaustible artifact. (Though words may represent things or actions, in combination they may represent something else -- the unspoken, hitherto-unknown unity of which the poem is the example.) Furthermore, we might say that the degree to which a poem is explained or paraphrased is precisely the degree to which it ceases being a poem. If nothing is left of the poem, it has become the paraphrase of itself, and readers will experience the paraphrase in place of the poem. It is for this reason that poems must exist not only in language but beyond it. 

from Strand's The Weather of Words. (New York: Random House, Inc. 2000)

Use of this excerpt from The Weather of Words may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 2000 by Mark Strand. All rights reserved.  Order this Book.

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