Upbeat about prose

Adamant he will no longer be writing poetry, Pulitzer prizewinner Mark Strand is finding a new rhythm.

Mark Strand_521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Mark Strand_521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Mark Strand is being harassed by a fly.
He pauses from his poetry reading for a moment to brush it away. “It’s not really the fly,” he says dryly, to titters from the audience, “I just like to do this.” But it returns after a moment, buzzing randomly about his head before finally settling on the bridge of his glasses. This time, he succeeds in shooing it away.
“I once had a dream that my late father returned as a fly,” Strand remarks solemnly.
“If it returns, I think I’ll talk to it.”
He then starts to read another work, not poetry, but something he prefers to describe as a “prose piece.” Called “The Mysterious Arrival of an Unusual Letter,” it concerns the arrival of a letter from the unnamed narrator’s father.
“The handwriting was my father’s, but he had been dead for forty years. As one might, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, he was alive, living a secret life somewhere nearby...”
As he reads the surreal vignette, the fly flutters around his head once more, this time settling on a lock of hair falling across his face.
Strand visited Israel recently, a guest of the Department of English at Tel Aviv University and the Public Affairs Office of the United States Embassy. He is one of the leading poets of his generation; a past poet laureate of the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (in 1999 for Blizzard of One), he has been awarded numerous honors in a career spanning half a century, including a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “Genius Grant”) and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.
His work is held in high regard, in the US and elsewhere; in Israel, his translated poetry is particularly popular, a fact demonstrated by the warm reception he received at the public reading at Tel Aviv University.
There was also a special reading of his poems translated into Hebrew, featuring noted Israeli poets including Raquel Chalfi, Amir Or, Mordechai Geldman and Uzi Weill, Strand’s Hebrew translator.
The hallmarks of Strand’s poetry are plain, precise language juxtaposed against surreal imagery, which perhaps explains the accessibility of his Hebrew translations. That said, he does not consider himself a surrealist per se, although he acknowledges the influence of the tradition on his writing.
“I consider myself a fantasist, rather than a surrealist,” he tells me a couple of days later at his Tel Aviv hotel. “Surrealist art is a [deliberate] statement; you choose to do it, it’s a revolutionary stance. Whilst I...” He spreads his palms and smiles faintly.
Strand was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1934, and spent a peripatetic childhood in cities across the US, central and south. He considered becoming an artist, but by the age of 20 had decided he wanted to be a poet, influenced strongly by the work of Wallace Stevens. He took a BA from Antioch College and a BFA from Yale University in 1959, then, after a year in Italy studying 19th-century poetry on a Fulbright fellowship, he studied for an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He then began to teach as well as write, and continues to do so, currently as a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.
His first collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), made an immediate impression among the cognoscenti, the sense of anxiety and foreboding recognized within its pages mirroring the uncertain political and social landscape of the US at the time. Strand has published prolifically since then, aside from a decade-long gap in the 1980s when he concentrated on journalism and art criticism.
FROM THE reading at Tel Aviv University, one detects in Strand a dry, laconic wit. Consciously or not, he plays up to this: Early on in the event, he tells the audience matter-offactly that he has stopped writing poetry in favor of his prose pieces. Before reading “Orpheus Alone,” he notes – half to himself – that he wrote it 27 years ago.
“But I still like it,” he continues. “I can’t say that there are many of those.”
Humorous or not, this suggests a difficult relationship with his oeuvre. Is he no longer enthused by his craft? The answer is both yes and no.
“I’ve been doing it for so long,” Strand says. “I always feel a periodic despondency...
[it is] as if a lifetime of effort does not seem to have added to very much.”
But the evidence from without, I propose (more than a little self-consciously) points very much to the contrary. It is not the work in itself, Strand explains, but the standards within which he has increasingly felt himself trapped.
“As one gets older, one’s standards increase,” he remarks. “Writing poetry is frustrating and hard work, yet often a pleasure.”
At a point, the balance changes; this shift creates a constant sense that one’s best work is already behind one, an apprehension that traps one in a self-referential loop. So Strand has turned to his prose pieces as his creative outlet of choice.
“When I write prose, I feel much more relaxed, much less critical, much more able to allow ideas to dominate and less concerned about the value of individual words.”
Many of Strand’s poems are brief, sparse affairs, everyday language intensifying – rather than dissipating – their emotional charge. They are easy to read, but demand concentration on the part of the reader; they neither patronize nor pander to the lowest common denominator. In short, they are accessible, in the best meaning of the word.
I was particularly struck by the number of people – the PR contact at Tel Aviv University, the receptionist at Strand’s hotel – who rhapsodized over his work in a manner largely uncommon to poets and poetry. Strand does not affect to be untouched by this, but gently emphasizes that this cannot be the focus in itself of his writing, how his work is received by the public.
“My relationship with my poems is most powerful when I am writing them,” he says. “By the time they reach the public...” He shrugs. It is not dismissive – far from it – but certainly lays the emphasis on the internal creative struggle, rather than what happens afterwards.
At the event, Weill – editor of the “Sha’ar Ha’aharon” page of the Hebrew language Ha’ir weekly newspaper in the 1990s – reminisced on how he had placed, without comment or context, anonymous translations of Strand’s poems in his newspaper. The response – this was in the days before the ease of talkbacks – was immediate and fervent, split between those who appreciated the surreal gesture and others who felt the joke was on them.
When I ask Strand about this, he intimates that he approves of the subterfuge, particularly that some readers were enraged by what they felt was a trick.
“It got people to pay attention,” he said, referring to the fact that they were not labeled as poetry. “I like to shock people.”
Art that fails to generate a response – positive or negative – from its audience is largely impotent, one might argue. With poetry, this is an enduring concern, in terms of a perceived indifference to the art form and the question of whether it remains as relevant today as in the past. True or not, there are many more intellectual – and not so intellectual – distractions today than in the 1960s, when Strand started writing.
For all this, he says, the answer does not lie in devaluing the intrinsic worth of good poetry. One must take it as it is.
“Poetry demands more of the reader than, say, fiction,” he observes. “It’s more abstract, more visceral.”
If one can capture the reader’s attention – as Weill did in Ha’ir – then it is up to the poet to create the material that keeps their attention.
“The power of poetry lies in the voice of the poet,” Strand tells me. “The reader wants to saturate himself in the voice.”
Of course, there is something unique about poetry compared to other forms of writing – the slowness, the need to step back and immerse oneself in the work.
“Poetry is about slowing down, about savoring each individual word, especially as it interacts with other individual words,” he says.
Strand has taken a break from writing poetry before, in the 1980s, a period he has described as among “the saddest of his life.” But he returned, and I wonder: Might it be that this, again, is a hiatus, rather than a full stop? He doesn’t think so.
“I hope not to write poetry again,” he emphasizes, although keeping the gate just a little ajar at the same time.
And the work of the past? Strand muses on the question for a moment.
“There is some solace that some use is being made of them,” he remarks finally. “I hope that they move people.”
But beyond this, he seems remarkably unaffected, unpossessive about the past he has created.