Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand dies at 80
Mark Strand, whose spare, deceptively simple investigations of rootlessness, alienation and the ineffable strangeness of life made him one of America’s most hauntingly meditative poets, died Saturday at his daughter’s apartment in Brooklyn. He was 80.
His daughter, Jessica Strand, said the cause was liposarcoma, a rare cancer of the fat cells.
Strand, who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1990 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999 for his collection “Blizzard of One,” made an early impression with short, often surreal lyric poems that imparted an unsettling sense of personal dislocation — what the poet and critic Richard Howard called “the working of the divided self.”
His first poetry collection, “Sleeping With One Eye Open,” published in 1964, set the tone.
“In a field/ I am the absence/ of field,” the much-anthologized poem “Keeping Things Whole” begins. “This is/ always the case./ Wherever I am/ I am what is missing.”
It goes on:
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Echoes of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop could be heard in his compressed, highly specific language and wintry cast of mind, as could painters like Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte and Edward Hopper, whose moody clarity and mysterious shadows dovetailed with Strand’s own sensibility.
“He is not a religious poet on the face of it, but he fits into a long tradition of meditation and contemplation,” said David Kirby, the author of “Mark Strand and the Poet’s Place in Contemporary Culture” and a professor of English at Florida State University. “He makes you see how trivial the things of this world are, and how expansive the self is, once you unhook it from flat-screen TVs and iPhones.” Reading Strand, he said, “We learn what a big party solitude is.”
In 1980, Strand felt that he had reached an impasse and stopped writing poetry for several years. He wrote children’s books, beginning with “The Planet of Lost Things” (1982), and short stories, 14 of them collected in “Mr. and Mrs. Baby” (1985).
“I didn’t like what I was writing,” he told the magazine Ploughshares in 1995. “I didn’t believe in my autobiographical poems.”
Chafing at the restrictive vocabulary and tight boundaries he had imposed on himself, he began writing longer poems and packing more of the outside world into them, a turn reflected in “A Continuous Life” (1990), whose poems showed a more expansive dramatic scope, and “Dark Harbor” (1995), a single poem divided into 45 sections and encompassing an entire life’s voyage.
“He is up there with Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin and Philip Levine,” Kirby said. “You can contrast those poetic friends very readily and have the great achievements of that period in American poetry.”
Mark Apter Strand was born April 11, 1934, in Summerside on Prince Edward’s Island in Canada. His father’s job with Pepsi-Cola entailed many transfers. Strand spent his childhood in Halifax, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland and his teenage years in Colombia, Peru and Mexico.
He initially set his sights on becoming an artist.
“I was never much good with language as a child,” he told The Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1991. “Believe me, the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Antioch College in Ohio in 1957 he enrolled in the Yale School of Art and Architecture, studying under Josef Albers, but by the time he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting in 1959, he had discovered his vocation as a poet. He spent a year in Florence on a Fulbright Grant studying 19th-century Italian poetry and was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from which he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 1962.
His career took off when the celebrated poetry editor Harry Ford accepted his second volume of poems, “Reasons for Moving,” at Athenaeum, which went on to publish the collections “Darker” (1970), “The Story of Our Lives” (1973) and “The Late Hour” (1978). To critics who complained that his poems, with their emphasis on death, despair and dissolution, were too dark, he replied, “I find them evenly lit.”
Interviewed in The Paris Review by the actor Wallace Shawn in 1998, Strand described his poetic territory as “the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world,” what he called “that shadow land between self and reality.” The severe economies of his early work, however, led to frustration and its “bleak landscape” came to feel repetitive.
“I felt I had to sort of breakthrough that limitation,” he said. “And so you have, in my long poem ‘Dark Harbor,’ many other things cropping up. You have Marsyas and the Mafia, the muzhiks being slaughtered, Russian women at a dinner party.”
Strand’s interest in visual art remained constant. He wrote books on the painters Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays, “The Art of the Real” (1983). About five years ago he began making collages, using paper he made by hand. The work was exhibited in New York by Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea.
In addition to his daughter, Strand is survived by his partner, Maricruz Bilbao. His first two marriages ended in divorce. Other survivors are his son, Thomas; a sister, Judith Major; a brother, Tom, and a grandson.
In 1987, Strand was named a MacArthur Fellow by the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1993 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, given every two years by the Beinecke Library at Yale. Until quite recently, he taught in the writing program at Columbia University.
This year, Alfred A. Knopf published “Collected Poems: Mark Strand,” a collection that allows readers to absorb the work as a whole.
Absence, negation and death were abiding themes for Strand. In a sense, he wrote his epitaph many times over, most poignantly perhaps in “The Remains,” from his 1970 collection “Darker”:
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.