Still Slowing Down for Poetry: For Mark Strand, 1934-2014
As I crawled my way out of college, and started stretching toward graduate studies, I stumbled on an essay in the New York Times Book Review. I’d never heard of the author, a poet named Mark Strand, but the title caught my fancy, “Slow Down for Poetry.” It was a mantra that I desperately wanted to live up to, even as my life had little to do with slowing down.
While I dabbled in poetry, I was far from fluent in its efficacies, and I was surprised to learn that the author of this enchanting essay had been the U.S. Poet Laureate the year previous, in 1990. This was my introduction to a poet I would come to appreciate over the years. And while I can say I’ve now been a fan of his poetry for more than two decades, it is this prose piece to which I have kept returning. When I learned of Mark Strand’s death on Saturday, I unfolded the now-brittle pages once again.
Newspaper clipping from the author’s files. From The New York Times, September 15, 1991
Here Strand tells the story, an all-too-familiar one, of how he went off to art college and became interested in writing poetry. His mother protested, thinking he should be, in the key of Willie Nelson, a doctor and lawyer and such. Undeterred, Strand attempts to share his poetic enthusiasm with his mother: reciting Wallace Stevens, she soon doses off.
But a few years later, Strand’s mother dies at about the same time his first poetry is published. His father starts to grapple with his son’s words in the midst of grief. The elder Strand doesn’t fully understand it all, but understands enough, and even understands that he’s not supposed to fully understand. The poems allow him to “possess his loss instead of being possessed by it.”
There is a secret life of poetic language that perpetually remains before and beyond the black and white. The words simultaneously point beyond themselves, just as some magic resides in the words, stubbornly resisting our reach. There is meaning held in reserve, revealing itself little by little, if only we take the time to read. As we do, we find the entanglement between words and death, secret language and family relations, the known and unknown, all falling under the reign of poetry. Like ritual, and not always separable from it, poetry formalizes emotions and creates at least the intimations of order in the midst of disorder.
Strand ends his essay with a paragraph that has never ceased bringing tears to my eyes:
Had my father lived longer, he might have become a reader of poetry. He had found a need for it—not just a need for my poetry but for the language of poetry, the special ways in which it makes sense. And now, even though it is years later, I sometimes think when I am writing well that my father would be pleased, and I think, too, that could she hear those lines, my mother would awaken from her brief nap and give me her approval.
As Strand’s own life has now crossed on, a life full of accolades—Pulitzer, MacArthur, Bollingen—his words remain and remind. His apologia of poetics is applicable more today than ever, telling us how a poem “encourages slowness, urges us to savor each word.” At the same time, he was aware of how difficult this is: “in a culture that favors speed reading, fast food, 10-second news bites and other abbreviated forms of ingestion, who wants something that encourages a slowdown?”
Poetry doesn’t give us “13 Tips for a Better Life” or “7 Ways to Be Happy” or any list of ingredients to magically mix, bake, and serve. Rather, poetry gives us tools to better find the edges of life, and death, and the edges that cut between us. Strand gives us the words to possess the loss of him.
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.