US poet laureate Mark Strand dies at 80

The Pulitzer Prize winner never embraced his "Jewishness" but "worshiped at the foot of culture."

November 30, 2014 22:04
2 minute read.
Mark Strand

Mark Strand. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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Mark Strand, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former US poet laureate, died Saturday.

He was 80.

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Strand, whose Collected Poems was published this year by Knopf, died in his daughter Jessica Strand’s New York Home. Jessica confirmed to The New York Times that her father died of liposarcoma, a rare cancer of the fat cells.

Although Strand’s poems were often a deep contemplation of the self, God was often absent, even though his parents were Jewish.

“Well, they were cultural Jews,” Strand said in an interview with Tablet Magazine.

“If pressed I say we’re Jewish. Secular Jews. But believers in socialist causes.

God didn’t exist. Josef Stalin was as close to God as anyone could come for my parents. They were sectarian, American Communists, but finally benign. Communism was their religion, which would probably not be their religion today.”

He went on to say that Israel was not important to him personally.

“I have mixed feelings about Israel. I don’t think that the right-wing, religious Jews of Israel have been fair to the Palestinians.

I think they’ve created an underclass, and I think they’ve behaved belligerently and aggressively with the settlements. I think they really believe that they are the chosen people, and I don’t think any people should feel they are the chosen people. I think that anyone who is born is a chosen person, by the mere fact of their having been born. But to set one group over another group, I think, is a mistake.”

Strand was not raised Jewish, so Israel doesn’t hold a place of importance for him like it does for most people who were. His parents were Jewish, but he considered himself an atheist. He had no Jewish education and never thought about “Jewishness.”

“I don’t think about not being Jewish, or being Jewish,” he said. “I don’t really know what being Jewish is.”

Strand may not have turned to God during hard times, but his daughter said that her father found comfort in art.

“We weren’t religious people,” she said, “but we worshiped at the foot of culture. He was always an artist.”

Strand was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 for his collection Blizzard of One. He was appointed US poet laureate from 1990-91, but he did not consider his time in Washington to be one of his greatest achievements.

“It’s too close to the government,” he said. “It’s too official. I don’t believe that poetry should be official...

there are poets who aspire to such positions; I never did.”

Even if he doesn’t count his time in Washington, Strand’s achievements were many. He won a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Book Award nomination this fall for Collected Poems. Also, in 1987, he was named a MacArthur Fellow by the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1993 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

The poem “Keeping Things Whole,” from his first poetry collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open, published in 1964, set the tone for the strange, meditative poetry that would make him famous.

“In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”

In addition to his daughter, Strand is survived by his partner, Maricruz Bilbao; his son, Thomas; a sister, Judith Major; and a grandson.

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