Man Made Out of Words, Part Two
Part Two of Mark Strand's Last Interview
Apr 6, 2015
36 Min read time
Photo by Adam Fitzgerald
Adam Fitzgerald: There’s clearly such focus on rhyme and meter in your early work, yet the poems still read as free verse with clear metrical attention. Could you sense that formal meter and rhyme were then already on their way out as the default or dominant mode for poetry?
Mark Strand: No, I didn’t, because I thought some very good [formalist] poets also wrote free verse. I thought and recognized Theodore Roethke wrote some very powerful free verse poems and in those days it was widely recognized, along with Robert Lowell’s. So I thought both could coexist, but that’s probably like saying I think that the Palestinians and the Israelis can coexist.
AF: But they do in the first book.
MS: They seem to like to battle each other. What Robert Lowell called the raw poetry—the Beats—versus academic work. Some of the rhyme and meter guys seemed a little fussy to me, and not anything I wanted to be with. Sometimes they were very clever and they were—their poems were full of wit. Something I didn’t find much of in the poetry of the Beats. But I liked the exuberance and space that free verse allows. Rhymed poetry can be just fun to read. It can have wonderful intricacies that would be out of place among the raw poets. They found another route—to think of them all as Beat poets, no, some of them were followers of Pound and Williams, by and large, whereas you found mainly on the other side, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, that sort of thing.
AF: Were you reading the Beats then?
MS: Oh, sure. I liked Gregory Corso. I liked Allen Ginsberg then. It wasn’t the kind of poetry I wrote. I made fun of it. I wouldn’t dare make fun of John Hollander or Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht. Because I think if I leaned anywhere in my sensibilities, it was towards those guys largely because they represent the poetry I grew up with. My mother read me rhymed, metered poems when I was a kid. I didn’t have a grievance against society. I couldn’t get off on the social criticism that existed on the left, the raw side.
AF: With Reasons for Moving, there’s an emergence of poetic voice that feels entirely your own.
MS: True, the ideas—except a couple of those earlier poems—in Reasons for Moving are really good. Like the first poem I brought—made for the Iowa Workshop.
AF: “Eating Poetry”?
MS: No, but I wrote that there, too. “When the Vacation is Over for Good.”
AF: In “Eating Poetry,” one of the signal moves announced and continued throughout the rest of your poetry is the way in which you transform erotic loss with comic wit. The tone is contemporary, sometimes self-mocking, but always exuberant.
MS: Well, you know, to tell you the truth, the sexual implications, which I don’t think overwhelm the poem, I completely overlooked. For me, I ran around for two months with the first three lines saying to my friends, “Three great lines for the opening of a poem: ‘Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry.’” But you know, I sort of exhausted the poem right there. When it came down to writing the rest, nothing came to mind.
AF: But even those opening lines—they’re in an American tradition of Whitman and others. Decidedly sensual, as with the Stevens of “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” There’s an autoerotic sense of language as grand utterance, filled with darker notes.
MS: Well, for me, clearly, there is the darker note which contributes to the melancholy in my poems. But then there’s the comic, supported by sexual innuendo. Or sexual undercurrent, I should say.
AF: You’ve said that “The Accident” was a poem you wrote because you gave an assignment.
MS: Yes, to one of my classes at Iowa. I gave them the first line ‘A train runs over me’ to see what they could do from there.
AF: In “The Accident,” “The Mailman,” others in that collection, the poem as literary parable is quite pronounced. It’s a quality throughout your career that you return to, and I wonder whether the license to introduce it came through reading Kafka.
MS: Well, I don’t know where I picked it up. Probably reading Borges and Calvino, people like that.
AF: Did you discover them before you discovered Kafka?
MS: No, I’d read The Metamorphosis, but I’d never thought much about Kafka. I’d also read The Trial. Probably in the late '70s, I read them and liked them, but I’ve grown to like them more and more until finally, thirty, twenty-five years ago, Kafka became my god. Him and Wallace Stevens. Two very different minds. I think a lot of those early poems are two parts of my self falling out of touch or trying to get in touch. They’re doubles. In “Eating Poetry,” the real problem is between the id and the ego. A sort of repressive regime. The world of the librarian is also my world. Poetry does fire me up. It’s inspiring. And then I feel no grievance toward the librarian, the world of consciousness, or even the world of academic poetry. And my act of peace, or offering of peace, was to lick her hands, which certainly repels the other side.”
AF: Around this time, you were teaching at Iowa and befriended Donald Justice?
MS: He was my student but he was ten years older than me, so he was really my teacher.
AF: Did you recognize your aesthetic affinities right away?
MS: We were friends. We liked to play card games, hockey, we wrote a poem together. We agreed on many things. He was very much my mentor and very intelligent. But he was also very controlling. Much more than a Southerner, he was both polite and fiercely competitive and sometimes those two sides couldn’t coexist peacefully. His competitiveness would slay the politeness and he would become vicious and sullen with anybody. Aesthetically, I think he was much more conservative, although he wrote an essay on free verse and wrote in free verse. He was very attracted to it. He thought, you know, that he didn’t want to leave the other behind.
AF: Was free verse or meter the prevailing dogma then?
MS: Both. At the poetry workshop—there was only one, and it was quite a large class—there wasn’t first year, second year, third year, you took everything all along. So there were some very accomplished poets in that class, some published, some just beginning. Charles Wright was in the class and Marvin Bell. Catherine Davis, who was in the Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology, was in the class.
AF: So I have to ask you now about “Keeping Things Whole.” I wonder if you were aware of how quickly this poem lodged itself in people’s memories.
MS: I had no idea! In fact, I sent it to the Oberlin Review with a poem that’s no good at all.
AF: You said reading Borges and that Kafka didn’t really come until later in your development. What was it about their narratives that so fascinated you?
MS: They depend on a certain narrative for their onward propulsion, but I think of them writing fantasies or fantastic tales. Some of them are intellectual puzzles. There’s not a lot of blood in those Borges stories, for instance.
AF: There’s a lot of blood in yours!
MS: Well, I’m an American. You know, considerably younger and much less gifted intellectually than Borges. So I’m attracted to different things. The kind of hero worship that Borges indulged in and claimed for his own family is not something that I could ever possibly do.
AF: Though I wonder if part of what you also found and were inspired by in Borges was the way in which he dramatizes himself as a writer, the way he meta-narrates his work.
MS: All writers have a sense of separation between the dailiness of their lives and the otherness—for lack of a better word—of their creations.
AF: You mean what’s strange or uncanny or impersonal in writing?
MS: Just simply that we live two concurrent lives: one is the one which has breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the other is the one we dip into now and again and is the source of our imaginative creations. That’s our imaginary lives. It’s different. It obeys different rules. Anything goes. We can do anything in our imaginations which is not possible in actuality to do. And we bear the responsibility for our actions in real life, but for our imaginative life, it would be terribly constricting if we held to the responsibilities of our actions there. Because they are not our actions. It’s a mistake to make moral judgments about what one does in his writing. It’s this imaginary world and it has its own rules and it’s where you can do things. If suddenly we weren’t able to write about certain things this would be a kind of tyranny and our imaginations would be jailed.
AF: And yet it seems to me that imaginative freedom for you has never negated the responsibility of critical intelligence on the writer’s part, the necessity of being conscious and artful and composed. Your attitude towards poetic creativity never struck me as license to be passive in the face of formal control.
MS: Up to a point they are, I think. It wouldn’t be any fun to write the poems if we had absolute control. We have to be surprised by our poems. Surprised by things that come to mind and that, at least while you’re writing the poems, seem absolutely necessary for the life of the poem. If we start editing ourselves prematurely, the poem will be lifeless. We have to create situations in which we can be surprised because that surprise carries over into the texture and character of the poem and that will show in the poem and will influence how the poem is read. I am dependent on inherited forms and shapes, although I change them. I don’t write sonnets—there are fourteen-line poems in there but I wouldn’t call them sonnets. I wrote a few sonnets before I began publishing poems and I never thought about them again. I never wrote a sestina because it seemed like everybody else in the world was writing sestinas and, of all the inherited forms, it seemed like the easiest to do; the one which is necessarily engaged with the idea of boredom because the same words are repeated again and again; it’s conversational. All sestinas depend on conversation because it’s in conversation that words are repeated, so the authenticity of the sestina begins with the authenticity of the voice speaking and doing what people do in conversation because you repeat the same word again and again. I did write villanelles because they are much more difficult. It is a song form and it doesn’t go anywhere. A villanelle’s a static form that keeps circling back on itself and when a poem keeps circling back on itself one’s interest can flag. So a villanelle will depend on the power or efficaciousness or beauty of certain repeated lines. I also think that whenever I do write villanelles, I don’t fudge around, I don’t change things here and there. So this is my obsessiveness. It’s not necessarily a strength. It could be a limitation.
It wouldn’t be any fun to write the poems if we had absolute control. We have to be surprised by our poems.
I think of Donald Justice’s experiments with the sestina or the villanelle. He was much more in command of those forms and thus free to do what he wished with them. I, on the other hand, always felt like an outsider when it came to writing in forms, although there is measure galore and rhyme galore, especially earlier on in my Collected Poems. I never felt at home there, I felt other people did it so much better and if they did it better, then why should I do it? Why not find perhaps something that I did better than anyone else? Although I can’t imagine right now what that is because I don’t have clear insight into my own work. I was much more interested in combining oddness with the quotidian; the introduction of the uncanny and somehow being able to control it. The idea of combining melancholy and humor has always been intriguing and is very hard to accomplish formally without wrecking what you’re doing, so that’s another kind of control that I’m interested in exerting in my poems—how to create certain effects so that the reader wasn’t quite sure if he stood in la-la land or in reality. And perhaps by the end of the poem, he had one foot in each.
AF: Your poems have never been much tempted to obscurity or prolixity. Disjunctive rhetoric has never been your mode of estrangement. I’ve always thought that part of what’s so amazing about “Keeping Things Whole” is the clean, crystalline simplicity of its vocabulary. One can constantly come back and realize that somehow you have managed through seemingly the most simple words to create an excess of implications. I think of an artist you love a lot, Giorgio Morandi, as someone who uses absolutely common shapes, like vases or bottles, in endless repetitions. And for all of his vagueness and evasiveness, there remains a sense of utter clarity.
MS: Oh, they’re totally clear. Because those bottles or bowls are not outlined with a dark line. That’s not clarity. That would be totally destructive to the tentative character of the work. There’s a wonderful human quality that those objects take on in Morandi so that they exist with all the frailty that we all have as human beings. It’s why we can be moved by his bottles. They have a provisional, mortal character that we share with them. They are the most living of all still life objects in the most modest means possible. On the other hand, I like mystery. I think mystery can be beautiful. I don’t want to penetrate it because I like gazing upon and meditating on it, describing what I glimpse of it with as much clarity as I can muster. It would be terrible to solve the mystery because it would be a false solution because mysteries exist by their virtue of being unsolvable. I think we are frightened by mystery. We want to live in a more secure universe than the one in fact that has been given us. This goes for both our bodies and the planet on which we live. Just about every day we want things to cling to. This may be one of the reasons that my poetry has been missed by people who claim that I don’t give them any hope. Well, it’s not my job. I’m not a dispenser of hope. I’m not a dispenser of anything, really. People who want happy poems really haven’t read much of English poetry or really of any poetry because most poems are not happy affairs. Happiness is not what induces people to sit down and write. People reconsider and ponder their actions and what happened the night before or why they are the way they are because something is wrong, something doesn’t fit. The result is introspection, and it’s not narcissism. I was also accused, though much less recently, of narcissism. Because the mirror appears in my poems so frequently. But I’m not gazing or admiring myself in the mirror, I’m encountering myself as other. And so I have a hold on myself in a way that I wouldn’t if I were engaged in a less deliberate act. If I were a true narcissist, you would read my poems and you would read about my life. You can read that whole book and not know much about my life. That’s the way I like it.
AF: Why do you think concealing the autobiographical appeals to you so much?
MS: Probably because my life is my business and the poems are poems that I had written in which it’s a part of myself which I don’t mind sharing with the public. I’ve chosen a particular form or a particular genre through which I can channel my identity.
AF: Is it just a illusion that makes me think that your work is the real autobiography, that this is the deep subjectivity of what being alive is like, that the “real” details and anecdotal matter would be only superficial?
MS: No, it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what the poems do. But we forget that we live in multiple autobiographies. As I said, there’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner and then there’s the life of our imagination which has to be fed and has to find out less. And some people have a very small imagination but maybe very big brains in other regards. There are worse things than not having an imagination. But if you’re a writer or an artist of any sort, you do depend on your imagination and to cultivate it is not like bodybuilding, it’s a kind of thinking, of daydreaming.
AF: Yet even your imaginative obliqueness towards daily life doesn’t seem to make you overly invested in the opaque. You’re not too interested in Mallarmé or late Henry James.
MS: Mallarmé is a great poet but I lose patience. And late James, I certainly lose patience because thought keeps intruding, deliberation, second-guessing. He’s constantly intruding. And I want to say, “Shut up a little bit. Get rid of this one more clause and then this one, and this one.” Tell it straight. But that doesn’t mean that I love Hemingway above all else.
AF: But you’re more of a classicist than baroque or mannerist. You worship measure.
MS: Yes, I do. And I think I am one, although, on the other hand, I’d give anything to be able to describe people or objects the way Balzac does, to register that description and create for it emotional character in the way Proust does. There’s something very pared down and perhaps too pared down in my prose but I couldn’t do it any other way. That’s one thing I can say: I did the best I could with what I had. And that’s about as much as anyone can say. There are people with bigger brains certainly and we know who they are and there are people the greater sensitivity and we know who they are and there are people like John Ashbery who combine both in visible amplitude. With Merwin, it almost seems the poems write themselves. It’s as if he touches paper and a poem appears. It’s a kind of magic his poems have. Sort of rooted in speech, but not quite. Rooted in air in some way. John, on the other hand, plays a great deal with speech and with the way people actually think.
Photo by Adam Fitzgerald.
AF: In his introduction to Pound’s Selected Poems, Eliot makes the distinction between the poetry of speech and the poetry of song. I feel that in your own work, there is the element of spokenness and the quotidian phrase in the kind of elegance that Auden has, but you’re also very much drawn to the songlike. I hear this most in your translations of Spanish poets whom you love very much, how they’ll take a single repetitive word to create a chant out of it. Or Stevens’ hymn-like quality in his high rhetorical mode.
MS: I am certainly influenced by Stevens, probably late Stevens more than the early work because I’m not interested in showing off with language, or with language getting the best of me. On the other hand, I am interested in relinquishing my imagination to the possibilities that language offers up. But then my imagination is largely verbal, so it already exists in words. Over a lifetime one builds up a language just as one builds up preferences for subject matter or for certain words, for certain rhythms. These preferences are what make your poems, what creates an identity for you. This means maybe, I’m thinking off the cuff now, that writing poetry for me was a way of creating identity, one that I didn’t have. I lived in a household where everyone seemed smarter than I was. I felt a little out of place. Although my mother did believe in me. It was my mother who made me an artist, an artist which she wished she had been and hadn’t been because of raising children.
AF: I think you mentioned this before and I know your father wrote, but did she paint or draw?
MS: She was a sculptor. She was very artistic, had very good taste. She dressed impeccably. My father was a brainy guy on the lines of Hollander or those guys. He read everything and taught himself languages.
AF: The elegy you wrote for him [“Elegy for My Father”], one of your greatest poems, is a masterpiece of the litany, among other things. Something about phrasal repetition seems to get poets hot and bothered. I wonder if was there a particular draw that anaphora and the list form have for you?
MS: Reading Blake and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Whitman, Christopher Smart, the Bible, it did seem like a possibility for something. Lists you can keep changing. You don’t have to integrate anything. A list is simple. You just have to make it interesting. It doesn’t have to go anywhere. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just this wonderful one-thing-after-the-next, when it’s good. What you don’t want is boring thing after the next boring thing because then the reader leaves you.
AF: Another poem in this vein, “Giving Myself Up,” shows how good you are at such finesse in modulation. Often as a poet I want each line to be so original and fresh that sometimes I’m led astray, straining to make each line the great line of the poem. You seemed to know better, and allow flatter lines such as “I give up my tongue” to serve as counterpoint. Your lines tend to integrate and cooperate as much as they stand out. You’re more interested in the summation of a poem’s effects than simply, what you said before, highlighting pyrotechnics.
MS: Well, if you do that, you’re destroying the poem. I mean, that’s why I dropped punning. There’s so many puns that they call attention to themselves at the cost of the poem’s success. And what are, they after all? “Oh, ha-ha-ha.” You laugh a little, but you are also lifted out of the poem and into the wit of the poet. Very often that’s not where you want to stay or where you contracted to be when reading.
AF: Do you think in some ways that’s part of why you also gave up rhyme—maybe it was an ornamentation that wasn’t ultimately essential to your poetics? When you do it ocassinally, it’s almost in the tradition of Lowell and Seidel, or Eliot. There’s a kind of self-mockery that your use of rhyme calls into play. As in the late piece “Poem of the Spanish Poet” the childlike simplicity of the rhymes point to the absurdity of the situation.
MS: Well, that’s a little too ironic. I think I’m not really making fun of the rhyme in that poem but I’m actually moved by the fly, that simple little ditty that the poet writes in his notebook. I find it a moving little song, but it’s not a song that could stand on its own. Rather, it needed an environment. As far as a poem like “Here,” which is all in abab cdcd, you know—I enjoy doing that. I do it periodically in unrhymed free verse poems. I have no fear of rhyme, I just think that other people, like James Merrill, for instance, do it so much better. Donald Justice, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, certainly. These are wizards at that sort of thing, and I think that Seidel does it very well, and he does it ironically. But I think he also sees the musical possibilities and it’s one of the hinges on which his poem is able to move around to the next line. It’s not a hinge, but I think it’s one of the staples of his poetry.
I am interested in relinquishing my imagination to the possibilities that language offers up.
AF: Or even how his poems self-generate, in a way.
MS: Yeah, he does it, but he’s done it in such a way that it’s him, while most young poets feel that if they rhyme, they cease being themselves. But they’re not really themselves yet. What they don’t realize is that it takes a long time before you become yourself in your poems. And that it’s the act of becoming oneself. That’s another attraction of the imagination. The imagination may continue growing whereas the actual workaday self is so inhibited and so restrained by manner and custom that it doesn’t develop.
AF: There are quite a few litany poems in Darker including “From a Litany,” “Giving Myself Up,” there’s also another called “From a Litany.”
MS: Yeah, the “praise” one, the other one is no good.
AF: But there’s also “Giving Myself Up” and “[The] New Poetry Handbook.” During that period you must have been possessed by that structure.
MS: Well, I was reading a lot of poems not only by the guys I mentioned but also the Book of the Dead, Egyptian poetry, very primitive stuff. Primitive is maybe not the right word, but early poetry. I read the early pre-Columbian poetry. I was also translating some poems from the Kechua (though I translated them from Spanish) and a lot of them were litanies.
AF: When did you start translating [de] Andrade?
MS: Carlos Drummond [de Andrade]? When I went to Brazil. I left Iowa and went in 1964.
AF: You saw Bishop there? Tell me what it was like knowing her, corresponding with and finally meeting her.
MS: When I met her, I was in awe. I just sat there like a bump on a log. When she says in a letter to Lowell, “I met the new Fulbright professor Strand, it doesn’t seem to me….” She was right. My mouth was open. I didn’t offer much, little tidbits that she wanted to know. She wanted to know about Howard Moss. She wanted to know what I thought of Robert Lowell’s poetry. I think I gave the right answers but…
AF: She needed more from you?
MS: I guess more stimulation. I gave her a copy of my book, Sleeping with One Eye Open. She said it was like bossanova variations on a theme. I’d hoped for more, but settled for that. She was very nice. After a couple of meetings, we got along very well and it was fun speaking with her. Seeing her house in Petrópolis, later on, seeing the house she was building, or erecting in Fazenda da Samambaia. And I liked her lover Lota de Macedo Soares very much. But Elizabeth was lonely. I think she really did miss the States and she was really hungry for news and depended a great deal on letters from friends back there. Because I wasn’t in the swing of things—I was barely thirty—I didn’t know what was going on. So I couldn’t provide her with nearly the range of that which she wished to know about almost any literary situation in the America.
AF: I think one of your best poems from this period is “The Way It Is.”
MS: Funny, you know. It’s a Vietnam War poem.
AF: There’s something about it that reminds me a bit of Lowell’s—
MS: It’s after Lowell. “For the Union Dead.” This was my response to that.
AF: Is that something you’ve relied on? Encountering another poem might be a useful way for you to spring into your own?
MS: That Lowell poem certainly did, but all of the poems in For the Union Dead, which I think is his best book, struck me, and so a great deal of poems at that time were influenced by Lowell. Not entirely though, because I still felt the presence of Kafka and Borges, Calvino.
AF: Lowell puts so much history into this work, something that you don’t favor. How do you think he gets away with it? Or why weren’t you even tempted to touch such subjects?
MS: Well, I moved around too much. A place was simply a place where I would hang my hat for a little bit and move on. And so, finding the history of that place didn’t really matter. It could be the family—my father, mother, sister—that we were a unit, and moved from place to place. If I’d lived in the same house all my life, I think, I would have found out about the town, the region, the history. I think the kind of stability that leads to that kind of investigation wasn’t ever mine. But I don’t write domestic poems, either.
AF: You’re just a cold S.O.B. [Laughs]
MS: Well, I’d say that. I think people read my poems and do find them a little chilly. But then I wasn’t a complainer, neither am I a cheerleader.
AF: And not even a neurotic! For all your shared sense of affinities with him, one gets the sense that Kafka was deeply neurotic.
MS: Cuckoo. Totally cuckoo.
AF: I mean the letters he writes to Milena, for example, he could out-drama in those love letters any drama he created in the stories. Your temperature resists that. You have more of an interior stoicism?
MS: I would never write if I had something to drink.
MS: I wanted as clear a mind as I could to exercise what I thought were my strengths. I wasn’t interested in liberating my imagination. My imagination seemed to be in constant liberation. The idea was to pin it down long enough for me to work on a poem.
AF: Tell me more about “Elegy for My Father.” I’m curious about the process of it. It’s your longest poem.
MS: It took me a year and a half. I just kept it around. Donald Finkel had written list poems and aphoristic poems, Michael Benedikt wrote a poem which had questions and answers, and then there was the great elegy of Lorca’s for Ignacio Sànchez Mejía. Much less is Alberti’s elegy for the same bullfighter. But my father was an intensely powerful guy. I had to shake him somehow. This was a means of almost writing him off. Sounds worse than it is—I mean, I adored and worshipped the man. But I felt my worship was stultifying.
AF: So it was a purgation, the poem?
MS: Otherwise, if I continued to think of him in the terms I used to think of him, I would remain a child forever. And I had to grow up and grow out from under his shadow.
AF: So pretty soon after he died you started working on the poem?
MS: He died in ’68. I finished it four years later. Probably I waited a year. I thought a lot about it. I was reading Blake and Whitman and people like that, this poem falls from that branch.
AF: But there’s an intimacy here that withstands irony here. It’s an elegy for a man who is ultimately portrayed as unknowable, uncertain, protean. And yet in such radical unknowability, there’s such intimacy!
MS: Well, I bring him back. I say it to get out from under his shadow, but I’m not willing to relinquish him because I’m spending a lot of time writing this poem and going on record since this is my emotional response to him.
AF: But it’s the most sustained direct address in all of your poems. To many people I know who know your work and love your work, there is something very unique and special about Part Two that is so crushing in its honesty. There’s this moment where the scrim of the bullshit that we tell to the ones we love, to ourselves, suddenly lifts up and washes away, and the reader beholds like that last Hopper painting, an empty room.
MS: The repetition of the question and the different answers certainly creates an odd vitality. “Elegy for My Father” is a special case. It might not be the best poem I ever wrote but it’s probably the most powerful.
AF: Tell me how the idea generated for The Monument.
MS: I just kept these little notes and I thought it would be a great read, just a fun read, but everybody jumped on it. Because it wasn’t prose poetry, so what was it? Don’t forget this was 1978 or something. Only John Ashbery really liked it. Nobody else really seemed to like or get it. The idea of writing a letter or instructions or whatever to your translator in the future is an act of hutzpah of course, but it also gives you tremendous opportunity to talk about who you are and what you would wish of yourself would be retained and it turns out in this poem I’m not much. It’s in fifty-two sections, that was deliberate. Fifty-two sections of my non-self as opposed to Whitman’s fifty-two sections in “Song of Myself.” I just kept writing. I had these books I was reading and I’d have quotes. It was fun. I loved reading Sir Thomas Browne and I loved reading Miguel de Unamuno’sThe Agony of Christianity. There’s Whitman in there, too. I thought it would be different. I didn’t think there was anything quite like it.
AF: There isn’t. Up until this point in your writing, it seems the most formally playful, zanily out there and liberating of your work. I mean you even include little drawings of clouds.
MS: Yeah, I thought that was funny. I included pastiches of my own poems in there. I just said, “Fuck it.”
AF: How long did you take to put The Monument together?
MS: It’s hard to say because I had little scraps here and there. But I remember writing it in 1973 when I was up in Cape Cod and then I worked on it a little bit and I submitted it to Harry Ford [Strand’s editor at Atheneum Books] who wouldn’t publish it. He said he it would ruin my career. Harry was a deeply conservative guy, although intensely loyal. But in this case, he just couldn’t get himself to publish it. So I gave it to Dan Halpern [at Ecco Press] who published it. And only Harold Bloom gave it a positive review. It wasn’t really reviewed anywhere. Nobody got it. Harold of course did, and of course John. So it remains one of my favorite things.
I moved around too much. A place was simply a place where I would hang my hat for a little bit and move on.
AF: How was the experience of writing this long poem different from that of writing Dark Harbor?
MS: It’s prose. Dark Harbor was poetry. This has a unified theme, unity of purpose. This is all directed to my translator in the future. Dark Harbor is forty-five lyrics that are roughly related. The process—both were very short in the time it took to write them. Dark Harbor took me four months and I had eighty-five sections. I was just in the zone. I wouldn’t rewrite. Some of them just came out that way. It was boring in Salt Lake City. There wasn’t much else to do. Sometimes I would write two of them a day. Sometimes go three days without.
AF: So boredom makes for a good muse, as Bishop has it?
MS: Absolutely. I threw away sections and Jorie Graham read it. She was giving a reading and staying with us. She said, “God, this is terrific. Save this. When you leave the house, put it in the refrigerator. Don’t let anything happen to it.” And I continued to add to it and then I had all these sections and I subtracted. I didn’t know how to organize them so I sent a copy to Charles Wright and to Charlie Simic. Charles gave me one very good bit of advice. He was the one who told me, “Have a proem. Use this poem as the proem.” It took me four months to get it out but it took me another few months to organize it. I don’t know why it was important. Because it was something that belonged at the beginning but didn’t fit.
AF: It feels right.
MS: Well, I’m glad. I read the great shadow behind me, also. I don’t mean that in a darker or noxious way. It’s Ashbery who wrote Flow Chart and I thought, “Strand, you could never do something like that. How long a poem can you write?” I gave it a try and I fell far short in many ways. Certainly length-wise. John has the ability to go on and on and on and it certainly is the nature of the way he conceives. For him one thing leads to another gracefully and easily because he’s such a master of rhetoric. He writes beautiful sentences. I mean, people don’t talk about that. His imitators don’t know how to write those sentences.
AF: I’ve always thought that Dark Harbor was your most overtly Stevensian sequence. It has elements of both The Auroras of Autumn and “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
MS: Also the loose way it hung together, as Stevens wasn’t a great one for order. You could reorder “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” or “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in a different way.
AF: Were there many more that you wrote in this sequence that didn’t get included?
MS: Oh yeah, forty more.
AF: Really? Is that typical of your process? Do you, like a photographer, take 1,000 photos for every ten you keep?
MS: To a certain extent. With Almost Invisible, some of the more lyrical sections were first attempts at writing poems. And I found no solution to them and I took the best and worked them into a prose paragraph. For Ashbery, anything can work, go either way, prose or poetry. For me, this relieved me of a great deal of anxiety I felt as a poet toward line length and a certain kind of musicality.
AF: You’ve often told me that when you wrote prose, whether a lecture or even prose poetry, it was always great for you to hear music because it could kind of give you a rhythm to bounce off of. Yet not when you write poems.
MS: I can’t hear anything. I need absolute silence. And even writing these, many of these were written out of doors, in Italy. I was sitting in the sun, reading Henry James, who doesn’t really appear except once. Almost Invisible came as a kind of relief.
AF: Why a relief?
MS: Because I wasn’t worried over poetry. Why spend five days wondering what word I wanted, worrying whether I should use the definite or indefinite article? Whether a rhyme would perk this section up a bit. I was happiest with this last book than I have been writing any other. And I think it shows.
AF: I know you said you’ve been writing some more of them but do you think you would do another book in a similar style?
MS: I hate to use illness as a crutch, but when you’re in constant pain, you’re not thinking of writing anything. I do think of writing short prose pieces and making my own little books, editions of ten copies. I’ve done it once with Method and I did it with my collages. Dieu Donné published it. It’s very beautiful and I picked the paper, I designed it. The type was designed by Russell Merritt. Strand serif. These are little Strand enterprises. But I’ll write some of these or maybe different ones and I might embark on that book about my father again. I’m beginning to feel time is running out if I’m going to do it and I gotta do it.
AF: Here it is, the Collected Poems of Mark Strand. What’s the most surprising thing about it to you?
MS: The constancy of theme. But also the kind of amazing ability to reinvent along the way. There’s more experiment in this book and it’s so subdued. And people won’t even acknowledge that. Some of these were firsts. Like The Monument. Some of those early poems. I think it’s a pretty good book. I don’t think people care anymore. If this book had been written in 1915, I’d be one of the great great poets. [Laughs] But anybody can say that.
AF: Who do you imagine as the ideal reader for poetry to be?
MS: Well, I think you have to be educated. People who like to read and who are drawn inward. That is, instead of people who want to be amused and drawn outward. Poetry puts us in touch with ourselves and it’s unmediated. It’s there. I think people are escaping the self. I don’t know what it is, but I know I exist. The self is what I assume I am. There’s so much I don’t know. When people call my name, I answer. Because that’s me they’re calling, that’s my self they’re calling. I look at my Collected Poems by Mark Strand. I know I’ve written those poems. The self I call Mark Strand is the writer of those poems. I don’t know. I have no way of knowing who my reader in the future will be. Such a reader doesn’t have to be tremendously well-educated. Rather, they should be somebody who’s willing to surrender himself to the word. Even if the word is written by a late twentieth, early twenty-first century guy.
AF: Surrender strikes me as an all-important aesthetic, even ethos, for you. Why “surrender”?
MS: Because it allows you total entry into the work. If there is resistance, then something in you is not willing to experience what’s been offered. So you have to surrender yourself to the enticements of the poem. The poem aims to seduce you into belief. So you have to surrender yourself to whatever the poem is offering to you. It’s not as if you were joining a religion where you join up for life and if you cease to believe then you’re damned, the poem only asks that you believe for as long as you’re reading the poem, which strikes me as a very humane proposition.
AF: Not unlike the title of a prose poem from your last book, “Provisional Eternity”?
MS: Certainly provisional, yes. I could have called my Collected that instead but it would have been too ditzy. I’m removed from it already. I’d like to get an intelligent review or two in order to clear up any doubts I have about public acknowledgement, which comes in smaller and smaller doses as you get older but . . . [pauses] “Ariel was glad he had written his poems.”
Editors' Note: Read part one of Adam Fitzgerald's interview with Mark Strand here. Huge thanks to Will Brewer and Diana Nguyen for the transcription.
April 06, 2015
36 Min read time