Less then thirty minutes into his reading on Thursday night in the Avaya Auditorium in the ACE building, sponsored by the Michener Center for Writers, former U.S Poet Laureate Mark Strand confessed, “I don’t know how long I’ve been reading,” pausing before continuing, in a tone of equal parts humor and sincere humility, “I’ll keep reading…I mean, it’s painless for me.”
Everything about Strand — from his seemingly effortless stage presence to his ability, at 77-years-old, to look hipper than every bohemian skirted girl and bearded nerd-hipster hybrid in the audience — suggests that this is a man who is, innately, an artist in every sense. Including a keen eye for the aesthetic, “There’s lint all over my black jacket,” he told us, irritably brushing off his well-fit buttonless peacoat, “It’s making me very unhappy.”
Over the course of his 50-year career, Strand has received pretty much every award imaginable including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a MacArthur fellowship, the Bobbit Prize, The Bollingen Prize, The Gold Medal in Poetry, a Rockefeller Foundation award and plenty more. His style has been described as spare and the product of “a divided self.”
For those of you young’uns out there still in search of yourself, here is Strand on identity, or lack thereof, from his poem Keeping Things Whole: “In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”
Just as inspiring and interesting as Strand’s artistic success over the past fifty years is his artistic struggle. Several times over the course of his career he has notably and seemingly definitively given up on poetry.
After publishing his collection Selected Poems in 1980, Strand took a serious hiatus from writing poetry. It was a decade before his next collection, The Continuous Life, was published in 1990 — apparently because he was unhappy with the writing he was producing. Personally, I’m comforted by this. Glad to know that the misery of the writing process is a pain endured by even the most talented, brilliant 1%.
"Groupies were a big part of the scene. Poets were underground pop stars, and when we made the campus circuit, girls would flock around. It wasn’t bad." - Mark Strand
In a recent interview with Marla Akin for the Michener Center blog, Strand commented on his tendency to lament and abandon poetry out of frustration only to
return to it again: “It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be time for me to do something else.“
For Strand, “something else” has meant publishing, on top of his dozen collections of poetry, a couple of children’s books, an anthology, some books of prose and several translations, all of which have been critically praised.
On Thursday night, Strand continuously referenced these sentiments with patches of self-deprecating humor. At one point, he only read the title of a poem, “In the Grand Ballroom of the New Eternity” before he stopped himself. “I don’t even like the piece, but I like the title — well, you’ve heard the title — I’ll read another one.”
Maybe this was a moment of cleverly executed self-marketing to encourage us to buy his newest collection of poems, Almost Invisible, which will be released in mid-March. The new poems, which Strand admitted he was reading out loud to an audience other than friends for the first time on Thursday, are much more prose-like than his previous work, a stylistic shift away from his typical short stanzas. Although his signature wit sprinkled throughout makes the work unmistakably his own.
“I mean, it’s a different register,” he told us before he began, “some of you will probably hate.” Judging by the hearty audience laughter and some of the undergrads I saw sitting — I kid you not — literally on the edge of their seat, it would be hard to find a single person Thursday night who wasn’t totally enthralled by Strand’s newest work.
Before reading his final few poems, Strand checked his wristwatch. “Back in the 60s,” he told us, “poets would read for two to three hours…there was never such a display of self-love. Not only that, sometimes they would say, 'Let me read that one again…so you can really hear it.'”
We all laughed; obviously, the current poetry scene is far different then the one Strand came into prominence to in the 1960s, which as he once told an interviewer for the Poetry Foundation, was really a swingin’ time to be writing in verse. Or something like that.
“Groupies were a big part of the scene,” he said. “Poets were underground pop stars, and when we made the campus circuit, girls would flock around. It wasn’t bad. I rather liked the uncertainties of my life then.”
After the reading, almost half of the audience stayed behind, edging their way towards the podium to shake Strand's hand and have him sign their worn, paperback copies of his poetry. "You have had such an influence on my life," one woman told him, near tears, as a few giggly undergrads snapped pictures with him. It may be 2012, but Mark Strand certainly still has groupies, and poetry deserving of them.
Strand was the kick-off act for an impressive line-up of guests for the Michener Center for Writer’s Spring 2012 Reading Series. On deck guests for the series include novelist
Allan Gurganus and playwright Sherry Kramer. For more info on the 2011-2012 Reading Series, click here.