Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. ~ Mark Strand (1934–2014)

Mark Strand, former U.S. poet laureate (1990-1991) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1999), felt strongly that writing and reading poetry could make us better human beings. “Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human,” he said in an Inscape interview last year.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” When Mark Strand was asked what he thought the function of poetry was in today’s society, he replied: “It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. Poetry has a humanizing influence. Poetry delivers an inner life that is articulated to the reader.”

Indeed, especially if they were as transformed by poetry as Mark Strand, who wanted to feel himself “suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment.”

Last week, one of my poet friends, Roger Pelizzari, emailed me about the passing of Mark Strand, and included a favorite poem of his, My Name. Roger included a link to an earlier Paris Review interview: Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, with his friend Wallace Shawn, from which I’ve included interesting excerpts.

I was surprised and sorry to hear the news of Strand’s passing and checked the Paris Review for an update. I found Memoriam Mark Strand, 1934–2014, under The Daily by Dan Piepenbring, and sent it to Roger.

Media from around the world published Obituaries reviewing the Canadian-born, American poet’s accomplished literary career. The LA Times described Mark Strand as “a revelatory poet who addressed love and death in his poems, but in radically lyrical, revelatory ways.”

This poem is filled with the wonderment he sought, and seems a fitting memorial, prophetically written in the poet’s own magical words.

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

Strand, laying in the grass, “feeling the great distances” above him, identifying with “the vast star-clustered sky” as his own, reminds me of a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, The Heart of Herakles, where he too is looking up at the stars and feels his small self become as vast; and of Octavio Paz’s Homage to Ptolemy called Brotherhood, who also looks up at the night sky feeling insignificant, but unknowing understands he is being written by the stars. Interestingly, Mark Strand met Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz in Mexico in 1995.

Strand, faintly hearing his name far off, “as though it belonged not to me but to the silence from which it had come and to which it would go,” reminds me of the creative silence and the mature poet in this William Stafford poem, You and Art, “and you discover where music begins before it makes any sound, far in the mountains where canyons go still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.”

The image of snowflakes also appears in a poem Strand discusses in a radio interview on poetry. Back in the Fall of 1999, while living in Heavenly Mountain, Boone, North Carolina, I stayed in my room after morning meditation to listen to and tape the Diane Rehm Show with Bill Moyers discussing his PBS special on poetry: Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, along with his accompanying book, Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft (William Morrow).

Diane and Bill had invited 3 poets to each read a poem and explain how they came to write it: Marge Piercy, Mark Strand, and Jane Hirshfield (32:57). Bill also spoke of the effect the poetry readings had on both the poets and the audiences they read to.

Mr. Strand, introduced at 16:44, told the story of being in Italy at a writing retreat. It was snowing outside, and the tall window to his room was open. A single snowflake entered and landed on the arm of the chair he was sitting in, and dissolved. That became the inspiration for the poem he read, A Piece of the Storm, published in A Blizzard of One (1998), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. A Paris Review Memoriam to Mark Strand opens with a manuscript page from “A Piece of the Storm,” showing his handwritten revisions. More on his writing process below.

You can see Fooling with Words Part One and Part Two based on a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival featuring readings by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and other leading poets posted on the Moyers & Company website.

I was so inspired by that radio program I encapsulated the theme into a poem, Poetry—The Art of The Voice, which Freddy Fonseca published in a collection called This Enduring Gift—A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry.

For Strand, poetry’s ability to humanize is to make us more self-aware: “poetry—at least lyric poetry—tries to lead us to relocate ourselves in the self.” Becoming more awake to the Self could be interpreted as a spiritual experience, though Strand would never admit it, nor express it that way.

Tom Ball, another poet friend, and teacher of Transcendental Meditation, sent me a revealing article written by , a columnist for the Deseret News who knew Mark Strand for several years.

In his piece, When people are spiritual in spite of themselves, filed under the Faith section of the paper, Mr. Johnston describes the transformation Mr. Strand underwent while teaching at the University of Utah, and the kind of unpredictable relationship he shared with him as a local journalist. Johnston refers to Strand as someone who may not have believed in religion, yet, was a reluctant spiritual person, as he himself had once been. A growing category for such people is SBNR, spiritual, but not religious. Towards the end of his article he writes:

When I heard of Strand’s death, I went back to the poems (Harold) Bloom included in his anthology of religious verse (American Religious Poems). One poem (by Mark Strand), “White,” begins: “Now in the middle of my life, all things are white.” It ends with these lines:

And out of my waking
the circle of light widens,
it fills with trees, houses,
stretches of ice.
It reaches out. It rings
the eye with white.
All things are one.
All things are joined
even beyond the edge of sight.

To me, this widening white light encompassing everything beautifully describes a deepening understanding of the togetherness of all things beyond the senses—a transcendental reality—a spiritual experience if there ever was one! (And very Wordsworthian.) This ties back to his experience in the other poem, where he connects his identity, not with his name, “but to the silence from which it had come and to which it would go.” That expansive silence and expanding whiteness, also mentioned by Stafford where “canyons go still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow,” seem to poetically represent the same unlimited creative source in and of all things and their unity—a transcendental Self.

Here is the complete Mark Strand poem, White, in Collected Poems, published by Alfred A. Knopf (2014). It’s interesting that he dedicated the poem to Harold Bloom, who included it in his anthology of religious American poetry, published in 2006.

Another interesting article is available in Guernica Magazine (2012) where Nathalie Handal interviewed Mark Strand on his latest book: Not Quite Invisible.

When it came to how Strand wrote, Wallace Shawn describes the poet’s creative process in the introduction to his Paris Review interview with him, which I found fascinating and revealing.

“He writes in longhand and delays typing for as long as possible, he explains, because ‘when I read a poem in longhand, I’m hearing it. When I read it in typescript, I’m reading it. A poem can appear finished just because of the cleanness of the typescript, and I don’t want it to seem finished before it is. A poem has already been brought into the world to some extent when it’s typed. I feel more like an editor than a poet after that.’ Often, after reading what he has typed, he’ll ‘go back to longhand for a few weeks.'”

This Infographic: How writing affects your brain may help shed light on the subject. In a way, Mark Strand reminds me of Leonard Cohen. Both men would work on a poem, or a song, for months, even years, until they felt it was finished, and they finally got it right!

In closing, some believe there is a connection between a person’s name and who they are. Analyzing the meanings of Mark Strand’s name, I would say he left his mark, standing on the shore, between the mundane and the magical, threading together a fine strand of words, for us to marvel and connect to within our deeper selves.

Coincidentally, as you may have noticed, WordPress is providing simulated digital snowflakes falling at this time of the year!

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5 Responses to “Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. ~ Mark Strand (1934–2014)”

  1. Poets Kenneth Rexroth and William Wordsworth Experienced Transcendence and Self-Awareness | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] « MUM’s Innovative Sustainable Living Center @MaharishiU Featured in Solar Tribune Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. ~ Mark Strand (1934–2014) […]

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  2. Ken Chawkin Says:

    The Boston Review, in their Poetry section, published, Man Made Out of Words, Part One of Mark Strand’s Last Interview, with Adam Fitzgerald, April 01, 2015 http://bostonreview.net/poetry/npm-2015-adam-fitzgerald-last-interview-mark-strand-part-one.
    Part Two, April 6, http://bostonreview.net/poetry/npm-2015-adam-fitzgerald-last-interview-mark-strand-part-two.

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  3. Ken Chawkin Says:

    I was writing prose poems all along. Because it’s fun. I wrote because I enjoyed it. It was work, and it was frustrating, but all in all, when you’ve finished a poem, you have this thing that didn’t exist and it exists independently of anything else. There’s nothing else in the world exactly like it. It’s not a multiple of anything. It’s simply there. And you brought it into the world. It’s pretty amazing. To do something that’s never been done. — Mark Strand’s, last quote from Boston Review, Part One Interview.

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  4. Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can happen afterwards | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] hearing a discussion with Bill Moyers and 3 well-known poets on the Diane Rhem show discussing the creation of a poem […]

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  5. Celebrating Poetry Month with one of my poems, Poetry—The Art of the Voice, and what inspired it | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] invited 3 poets on the show to read a poem and explain how they came to write it: Marge Piercy, Mark Strand (16:44), and Jane Hirshfield (32:57). After listening to the ideas and images expressed in the […]

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