Mark Strand (1934 - )

Mark Strand is a prominent North American poet. He was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1934, and spent his formative years in the United States and South America. He received a B.A. from Antioch College and a B.F.A. from Yale University, where he studied painting with Joseph Albers. Gradually, Strand turned from painting to poetry, studying nineteenth century Italian poetry in Italy on a Fulbright in 1960-61. He subsequently attended and taught at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. In 1965, he went to Brazil as a Fulbright Lecturer, where he was influenced by Latin American poets like Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Since then, he has taught at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University, among others. He is currently a professor on the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, which he joined in the spring of 1998.

Strand is the author of eleven collections of poems:

  • Chicken, Shadow, Moon, and More (2000)
  • Blizzard of One (1998), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1999)
  • Dark Harbor (1993)
  • The Continuous Life (1990)
  • Selected Poems (1980)
  • The Monument (1978)
  • The Late Hour (1978)
  • The Story of Our Lives (1973)
  • Darker (1970)
  • Reasons for Moving (1968)
  • Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964)

He has edited several volumes, including Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers with poet Charles Simic (1976) and The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms with Eavan Boland (2001). Strand has also written a book on Edward Hopper (Hopper, Harper Collins, 1993).

His awards and fellowships include several of considerable prestige:

Here is Strand on poetry in the introduction to the poems that appeared in the Winter 1995-6 issue of Ploughshares, which he guest edited:

"I am not concerned with truth, nor with conventional notions of what is beautiful. I tend to like poems that engage me--that is to say, which do not bore me. I like elaboration, but I am often taken by simplicity. Cadences move me, but flatness can also seduce. Sense, so long as it's not too familiar, is a pleasure, but so is nonsense when shrewdly exploited. Clearly, I have no set notion about what a poem ought to be. "


I would now like to share my own (limited) brush with fame-in-the-form-of-Mark Strand, which were more weird than exhilarating. These are my impressions of Mark Strand the academic rather than Mark Strand the poet.

Disclaimer: I recognize that these experiences are few and subjective. I am adding them to flesh out the glib lists of accomplishments above because, while the general public has access to Strand's published works, his academic activities can only be described by those who have had some experience of them. Someone else may be better qualified to do the describing than I - but he or she hasn't come forward so far. This is not intended to be a rant, by the way.

My experiences with Mark Strand were confined to four occasions during my senior year at the University of Chicago, which was the 2002-03 academic year.

My first experience: Strand was one of the speakers at the 2002 Latke-Hamentash Debate, which was sponsored by Hillel (o' course). Debaters were supposed to make a humorous case for the superiority of either the latke or the hamentash using the tools of their fields. So, for example, mathematics professor Shmuel Weinberger gave a geometric "proof" that hamentashen were evil ("especially prune"). All of the debaters were hilarious, except for -- Strand. Instead of making a humorous argument, he read out loud a few literary excerpts that featured food. The banquet scene in Madame Bovary. A Neruda poem about eel pie (which got a few nervous chuckles because of the phallic imagery). It was very disappointing, and in my opinion he did not put in the amount of preparation fitting for such a venerable institution. His presentation was so far away from what was expected that I got the feeling he hadn't bothered to check into the tradition that is the Latke-Hamentash Debate. He could have at least read something related to traditional Jewish foods.

Experiences 2-4: Strand co-taught a class on Wallace Stevens with David Tracy. The class was cross-listed in both the Committee on Social Thought and the Divinity School (don't ask me what Stevens had to do with theology). I signed up, thinking this famous duo would teach me a pile about Stevens. Now, I am the kind of person who likes to register once and settle down. I am not a shopping-around, section-dropping, schedule-juggling, Registrar-stressing woman. I am only likely to drop a class if it is an excruciating experience. I attended three of the three-hour class sessions before concluding that this class was going to be an excruciating experience.

Now Mark Strand is a wonderful reader of poetry. But I mean "reading" in the vocal sense, as in "reading out loud" - not "reading" in the sense of "In The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks gives a classic reading of "The Canonization." Strand's classroom strategy seemed to consist of the following:

  • 1. read a poem aloud, even if it is fairly long (like "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle")
  • 2. emote for a while over how wonderful it is
  • 3. ask Tracy for his opinion
  • 4. listen to Tracy obsequiously agree for about five seconds before returning to emoting
  • 5. ask the class for comments
  • 6. gently refute all comments, whether intelligent or otherwise, saying, "oh, I wouldn't go that far . . . I think Stevens is just describing something beautiful here . . ."

On one occasion Strand insisted that Stevens had used the wrong word in a poem. And be it known that this was not a question of English usage; Strand suggested that Stevens had written "terrible" when he meant "wonderful". This might have been an acceptable assertion from a poet if the word hadn't been part of a phrase that recurred frequently in the poem. Did he really think Stevens would screw up that badly?

What really threw me was the way David Tracy, who is a notable scholar in his own right, ceded to Strand on every possible occasion. I think the class could have been good if there had been some balance, but Tracy spent his few words placating Strand. It was really quite bizarre.

Strand also made the unforgivable comment "Poetry has been my religion" in front of several highly intelligent Divinity School students. He then proceeded to miss enormous honking Marian allusions in several poems. He really and truly thought "Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds" referred to Venus. The shame.

After nine hours of intense frustration and suffering, I concluded that I was neither learning nor enjoying myself, and decided to switch into Intro Latin, which proved to be much more of a fun time and a better chance to exercise my intellect and creativity (if that says anything).

To his credit, I have never known Prof. Strand to be unkind or standoffish, in spite of his fame. He was very open about letting people register for his class, for instance, and did not demand graduate status or even departmental affiliations. Nonetheless, on the whole, my experiences with Prof. Strand as an academic were less than satisfying.

Editors note:

Mark Strand died of liposarcoma on November 29, 2014, in Brooklyn, New York. He was 80 years old.


Sources:

  • http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/strand/life.htm
  • http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/strand/poetics.htm
  • http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleid=3990
  • http://www.bn.com

Thanks to Ouroboros for some constructive criticism on this writeup.

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