Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Cemetery at Night - Mark Strand dead at 80

It was reported yesterday that Mark Strand had died, at 80, in Brooklyn. 80 isn't a young age, so it was not a surprise, and not tragic. Strand lived a long life, filled with literary accomplishments and honors, including a McArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and Poet Laureate of the United States. 

I've written about him before, here, and have vaguely followed his career over the years since I first encountered his poems, in the mid-1960's, in The New Yorker. Later, when I went to Iowa, at the Poetry Workshop, I read his first collection in the Rare Book Room of the university, Sleeping With One Eye Open, after having picked up a copy of his first trade collection, Reasons for Moving [Atheneum, 1968], while I was still at Berkeley.    

In retrospect, Strand was in every respect an establishment poet. He wasn't an experimenter with language, his poems were spare, and straightforward, and he didn't have a political or personal agenda in his work. He'd been influenced by Hispanic writers, Borges and Alberti; and as he later told us, by Wallace Stevens, though this aspect wouldn't have seemed as obvious, since his work was quite unlike Stevens's lush, elaborate and elegant surfaces. Strand's work was plain, and unpretentious.

Despite its spare simplicity, his work wasn't like Oppen, or Williams, or Frost. Oddly, he seemed to have more in common with a poet like John Ashbery, or Charles Simic--with eccentric, surrealistic settings, and improbable narratives. 

I heard him read three times over the years, once in Berkeley, once at Iowa a little later, and much later in the 1990's, in Chicago. Strand was an imposing figure, tall, gaunt, ruggedly handsome, and a natty dresser. He was sophisticated, if a bit amused with himself, but seldom really cheerful. 

The mood of his poems varied between gravity and absurdity in ways that felt European. And in that way, and because of his physical presence, he seemed continental. His work is post-Modern in ways that set it apart from the post-War generation which preceded him (Lowell, Bishop, Shapiro, Jarrell, Wilbur, Nemerov, Stafford, Simpson, Logan), though formally his career fits neatly into the tradition they created. His tone is usually understated, he's never given to rhetorical flights, and he never challenges accepted standards of subject matter or styles. In manner, he's close to the later work of Donald Justice, W.S. Merwin, or even Galway Kinnell. 

I often read a kind of fatalistic quality in his poems, not unlike James Wright or Kinnell. It seemed to me that taking that position early in one's career was likely to become a straight-jacket later on, but Strand never wavered. He always took himself, and his work, seriously. 

I'm not sure why his death seems somehow unexpected, or peculiar. He often wrote about his own death, and what it might mean to know about it, as it were, after the fact. But it does.  

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