Mark Strand: a poet both elegant and risqué

Strand was a versatile poet, capable of shifting easily from the metaphysical to the wry, and embracing styles that ranged from pensive to bawdy.

Joe Cavaretta/AP/File
Former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand (r) and Nobel Prize winner Ocatavio Paz greet each other in Mexico City in 1995.

When Mark Strand’s “Collected Poems” was published earlier this fall, critics hailed the collection as “necessary” and “among the best work done by any living poet.”

Strand, who died last week, was the recipient of many of the great honors of the book world. Among other awards, Strand won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and was awarded a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. He was appointed poet laureate of the United States for 1990-91 and won a National Book Award nomination this fall for “Collected Poems.”

Strand's many publications included multiple poetry collections, two books of prose, his work as a translator, and three children's books. His poetry was translated into more than 30 different languages.

Now, as readers learn of Strand’s passing, his verse resonates even more deeply and sounds like both a final farewell and a love letter to the world.

That love has always been complex, as “Collected Poems” shows, because the world has always seemed to be slipping away.

From the opening pages of “Sleeping With One Eye Open,” Strand’s outstanding debut, shadows and an unseen realm seem to color everything. “Something is happening/that you can’t figure out./” the poet writes, “Things have been put in motion./ Something is in the air.”

Those mysterious lines epitomize the skill and imagination that distinguished Strand throughout his career.

Strand helped readers see in new ways, as in these lines from another early poem, “Standing Still”:

Someone is always carting
The scenery off to the wings.
The thickness of the air,
The darkness that darkens there
Will cover trees and gardens,
Waterfronts and water.

All places that have been
With me will wear away….

As Strand’s work progressed, he used various forms and styles to convey his changing sense of vision. He moved easily from tighter, more imagistic poems to prose poems with complex narratives. He also shifted from pensive, almost metaphysical writing to wry, sometimes bawdy jokes and to verbal puzzles. Strand was equally adept at both. Yet whatever format he chose, imagination served as both his canvas and his reality.

The 1998 collection “Blizzard of One” beautifully illustrates this point. The poems are rich with imagery and insight, yet don’t reveal all their mysteries. As the poem “Precious Little” says:

If blindness is blind to itself
Then vision will come.
You open the door that was your shield,
And walk out into the coils of wind
And blurred tattoos of light that mar the ground.

“Out of my way,” you say to whatever is waiting, “out of my way.”
In a trice the purple thunder draws back, the tulip drops
Its petals, the path is clear.

A few pages later, Strand describes how a snowflake, “a blizzard of one,” lands on the arm of a chair and silently changes everything.

In many ways, Strand was that snowflake, a glorious storm that spread across the literary landscape and opened possibilities for readers and fellow poets. Strand proved that poetry could be deep, rich, and sublime, at times, or bold, contradictory, and surreal. He never felt the need to choose between being elegant or being risqué. Both were valid and necessary in his landscape, where thought constantly expanded into something as surprising and memorable as a snowsquall that briefly erases the world we know.

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