(Ed note: When we received the sad news that Mark Strand had died, we invited readers to post their memories of him. You will find them below. I've also included an excerpt of David Lehman's review of Mark's Dark Harbor (1993, Knopf), which ran in the Chicago Tribune. sdh)
From Mark Strand's Farewells: Celebrating A Book-length Poem Of `Sustained Literary Grace' by David Lehman (Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1993)
In "Dark Harbor" we catch glimpses of the poet celebrating "how good life/ Has been and how it has culminated in this instant," lunching with his editor at Lutece, then striding along the pavement, well-fed, lanky, in his "new dark blue double-breasted suit." A poet of glamor for whom light is "the mascara of Eden," he also is a poet of romance who speaks of the ". . . feel of kisses blown out of heaven,/ Melting the moment they land."
As the nation's fourth poet laureate Strand took part in a number of panel discussions devoted to the problems of contemporary poetry. At one such, somebody raised German philosopher Theodor Adorno's famous question: "How can one write poems after Auschwitz?" Strand retorted: "How can one eat lunch after Auschwitz?"
Strand's point is that poetry may be as necessary as lunch, and that one "cannot" yet one does enjoy one's pleasures, despite the knowledge we have of the horrors that the human race has committed. Are poems about Orpheus or angels-Strand writes about both, as did Rilke-necessarily evasions of death and evil? And if they are, should that damn them? Poetry does have a moral dimension, but it is not a moral instrument exclusively. Nor is what Auschwitz represents the whole of our morality.
Strand's poetry is a vehicle of the moral imagination simply because it amply accommodates the world of material things as well as the impulses of the spirit. Like one of the resuscitated poets described on the last page of "Dark Harbor," Strand is now "ready to say the words (he) had been unable to say-/ Words whose absence had been the silence of love."
Mortality as a fact and as the name of our chief fear is the base condition of his new work. Continuous is the need to say farewell to the things that require, and requite, a poet's attention. Death is the mother of beauty; poetry is a valediction forbidding mourning.
The book's penultimate poem is a remarkable example of a "moralized landscape," in which the sea and the mountains embody different aspects of the human condition. The noise of the breaking waves had once frightened him, writes Strand, "But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss,/ Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses/ And storms, a great watery animal breaking itself on the rocks./ Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume." (Read the full review here.)
Kateri Lanthier said...
He was a brilliant and inspiring poet and a generous, kind man. I met him years ago in Toronto, when he came to read at IFOA: International Festival of Authors. We chatted afterwards (we talked about Elizabeth Bishop and the Maritimes), he signed his book and I asked if I could send him some of my poetry. He gave me his address. I summoned the courage to send him some work. In reply, he sent me the kindest letter I've ever received. I cherished it for years, although I stopped writing poetry for over a decade. When my first collection, Reporting from Night, was finally being published in 2011, I realized that the poems I'd sent to him were in the manuscript and wondered if he would permit me to use an excerpt from his letter as a blurb. I sent an e-mail to him at Columbia and got a reply back within an hour! He said yes. This is what he had written about my poems: "Their intensity and limpidity, their invention--all wonderful. And their narrative arc--always implicit--gives them a lovely delicacy." I will always be extremely grateful to him.
When I was in the NJ Governor's School for the Arts program, one of our instructors shared this with the group. We were the combination of awkward and unruly you'd expect of seventeen-year-olds who'd worked themselves into a program that involved going to class for a month during their last summer of high school. "Keeping Things Whole" was put in front of us, and as we all read and reread the poem, our usual smart remarks and clumsy attempts at scholarship failed us; our breathing slowed, we sat quietly for a long time, looking up to each other, then back at the page. Even now that poem puts me in a place of feeling both great and small that few other things can, and I owe Mark Strand a true debt for such a gift--one he didn't even know he gave.