On October 9th, about four hundred spectators gathered in The New School’s Auditorium for A Tribute to Mark Strand. Eighteen esteemed poets read from Strand’s work while an overhead projector displayed a slideshow of Mark Strand through the years. The feverish chatter before the reading, and the way Strand was embraced and greeted by friends, family, and fans as he elegantly made his way around the room, made the event seem more like a star-studded reunion than a poetry reading.
Co-hosted by John Beer and Andrew Zawacki (former students of Strand) and presented by the Academy of American Poets, the New School Writing Program, and the Poetry Society of America, the tribute served to honor Strand’s Collected Poems. It was also a belated birthday celebration -- Strand turned 80 on April 11th.
“The added advantage of holding this birthday party now,” Beer said, is that we can identify Mark with the character in one of his poems who says, “though I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body.” Strand looked as handsome as he had in his youth, with features strongly resembling Clint Eastwood.
On the stage, the first group of nine poets sat in trios around tables elegantly draped with cream-colored cloth. There would be no intermission as the second group of nine poets switched places with the first as a way of “keeping things whole,” Zawacki said, alluding to the poem by Strand on the program.
Strand’s illustrious career as a poet, prose writer, translator, and editor spans nearly forty years. That he became a poet took him by surprise. Before the age of twenty, he dreamt of becoming a painter.
“I was never much good with language as a child…the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family,” Strand had said in an interview with Bill Thomas for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Before reading Strand’s poem “Luminism,” Edward Hirsch remarked, “Some marvel that one of our greatest poets would have rather been a painter.”
After his student days at Yale and Iowa, Strand went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, a MacArthur Fellow in 1987, the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990, and a 1999 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Blizzard of One. He has written numerous collections of poetry: Collected Poems (Knopf/Random House, 2014); Almost Invisible (Knopf, 2012); New Selected Poems (Knopf, 2007); Man and Camel (Knopf, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006); Blizzard of One (Knopf, 1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Dark Harbor (Knopf, 1993); The Continuous Life (Knopf, 1990); Selected Poems (Atheneum, 1980); The Story of Our Lives (Atheneum, 1973); and Reasons for Moving (Atheneum, 1968). He has also published two books of prose, many volumes of translation, and children’s books.
In their readings, anecdotes, and avidity of their performances, each poet -- David Lehman, Honor Moore, Edward Hirsch, Alan Shapiro, Sarah Arvio, Carol Muske-Dukes, Timothy Donnelly, Peg Boyers, Jorie Graham, John Koethe, Vijay Seshadri, Jacqueline Osherow, Mary Jo Salter, Susan Stewart, Tom Sleigh, Rosanna Warren, Charles Wright, and Strand’s own daughter, Jessica Strand -- captured the sharpness and wittiness of Strand’s writing as well as his personality.
As Strand’s poetry was read, the room reverberated with laughter, contemplative sighs, nods, and at times, exclamations from various members of the audience.
“Mark is one of the funniest poets I’ve ever known,” Carol Muske-Dukes said. Instead of reading one of Strand’s poems, she created a collage of her favorite lines from his poetry. Some lines incited roars of steady laughter, such as “The huge doll of my body refuses to rise./ I am a toy for women.”
“I’m reading to you, Dad,” Jessica Strand said to her father before she read “What It Was.”
Strand received a standing ovation before he took the stage. “I thought maybe fifty people would be here. I never think anybody’s going to show up,” he remarked.
“If I were a poet, those were the poems I would’ve written. If I were a poet who had friends, those are the friends I would have read my poems…But hey, I am a poet!” Strand said, prompting the audience’s laughter.
Strand was as entertaining in person as the speakers he writes in his poetry. “I’m not reading my best poems,” he warned. “My best poems are the ones you will read when you buy my book.”
Before he left the stage, the crowd stood for a second standing ovation and a few members in the front rows sweetly sung “Happy Birthday” to him. Even as the lights in the Auditorium flickered, the night seemed far from over. Everyone stood, patiently waiting to embrace, praise, and speak to him.
“Mark Strand is a world poet and he also has built a world," said Susan Stewart, to introduce her reading of Mark's poems in translation.
Some of Strand’s poems isolate various dimensions of reality. An example is “Reading in Place,” which David Lehman, wearing a stylish striped bowtie for the occasion, read. The poem begins with the narrator asking the reader to imagine a couple looking out at their home, then to imagine a person reading only the beginning of this poem about the couple and filing it away. The person finds the poem years later to read that the couple are “are on their way home, still feeling that nothing is lost, / that they will continue to live harm-free,/ sealed in the twilight’s amber weather.” The speaker asks, “how will the reader know,/ especially now that he puts the poem, without looking,/ back in the book,/ the book where the poet stares at the sky/ and says to a blank page, ‘Where, where in Heaven am I?’”
How lovely would it be to live in suspended bliss feeling as though “nothing is lost,” nor ever will be like the couple in the poem that is never read to the end? Or would it be preferable to be the poet wondering, “Where in Heaven am I?” Why remain suspended like the couple or the reader who never finishes the poem when the real paradise might be whatever we, like the poet, have the power to create on the blank page?
The night showed Strand is not just a star in the literary world; he is truly loved. A Tribute to Mark Strand was evidence that Strand never had to stare at a blank page for very long.
Danielle Elizabeth Chin is an alumna of Marymount Manhattan College and a second-year MFA student in creative writing at The New School. In recent years, she has received The John Costello Award and an Honorable Mention from the American Literary Merit Award for an essay. She has published an original song on the Side B Magazine website. She served as Chapter President of Sigma Tau Delta for two years and is a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Alpha Chi Honor Societies.