The Annual Elizabeth Bishop Poetry Reading: Mark Strand
November 6, 2014
funded courtesy of Priscilla H. Rockwell ’47 and the late H.P. Davis Rockwell
Named a MacArthur Fellow in 1987, appointed as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, et al., now at the age of eighty Mark Strand has, to some debate, stopped writing poetry.
This is the man who gave Vassar English Department’s annual Elizabeth Bishop Poetry Reading, and shared with us works from his entire career through his newest collection Almost Invisible (2012), a series of “prose-poems,” that he insists are simply prose.
To give you a better idea of the man and the night itself, it opened with a heartfelt anecdote by Professor Paul Kane; his words here will do more justice than my own:
It so happens that, as a tender sophomore at Yale in 1970, I had signed up for a poetry seminar with a new poet we were all crazy about. To be accepted into the class, you had to submit poems and undergo an interview. I showed up to my interview…and sat down before a tall, elegant figure seated behind a desk. “I’m sorry,” said the man, “but Mark Strand couldn’t be here today and asked if I would conduct the interviews for him instead.” With some puzzlement and not a little surprise, I finally stammered out, “But, but you are Mark Strand.” With a sigh, and a slight shake of his head, he replied, “I’m so tired of being Mark Strand.”
Professor Kane’s recollection itself captures the mood of not only the evening, somewhere between the space of comedy and elegy, but also of Strand and his writing. Always known for navigating a liminal space and one that relies on repudiation, Almost Invisible (which he read heavily from), as its title suggests, is no different. Even the cover photo by Vincent Laforet illustrates an uncanny clash of environments, where nature struggles for its indigenous place.
Through the reading and into the Q&A Strand commented humorlessly on his age and career, “I’ve been exceedingly lucky…of course I’ve been around a long time…” He spoke poignantly of his own experiences and philosophies, of the visible world of “Mark Strand,” the renowned contemporary poet, and that of the Mark Strand who goes on living day-to-day, who buys groceries, the one who keeps living and aging between his public appearances.
It isn’t difficult for me to say that Strand is a perfect reader of his own work, as his voice, solemn, effortlessly gave new breath to his terse, surreal, sometimes humorous and sometimes melancholic texts. A specific highlight from the occasion included him reciting from memory his eminent poem “Keeping Things Whole” (Selected Poems 1979, 1980), which begins:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
He commented amusingly on the status of this poem, stating if he knew beforehand how often his career would be reduced to the single piece he would have just stopped writing then and there.
So to not reduce Strand to “Keeping Things Whole” yet again, I’m brought towards another he recited so sincerely, a piece from Almost Invisible entitled “Provisional Eternity;” it reads:
A man and a woman lay in bed. ‘Just one more time,’ said the man, ‘just one more time.’ Why do you keep saying that?’ said the woman. ‘Because I never want it to end,’ said the man. ‘What don’t you want to end?’ said the woman. ‘This,’ said the man, ‘this never wanting it to end.’
Honestly, it’s difficult to summarize a night that was at its least “thought-provoking;” even that term diminishes the event and Strand himself to too little. As a poet I myself was moved by Strand’s natural composure, and from his responses, also effortless yet incredibly provocative. One such response that I recorded was prompted when an audience member asked Strand what he took from being a poet despite giving it up. Strand said, “Poetry has given me the desire to pay attention…I live in a more vivid world as a result of being a poet.”
Going back, Professor Kane proceeded in his introduction to state, “We, of course, have never tired of Mark Strand…” I can do little more than echo this sentiment, especially in the face of Strand’s self-declared tiredness of poetry and of “Mark Strand.” It’s not surprising then that Strand has said he doesn’t read much contemporary poetry anymore, and if he does read anything at all he looks back to the poets he used to read, such as Wallace Stevens.
Strand is thus that poet for today’s awake poets. A poet who will keep writers looking back so to keep moving forward, writers hoping they can at least grasp what Mark Strand so wonderfully and so frequently did grasp⎯a more vivid world.