On a chilly Thursday morning in October, a small group of students and professors assembles in a sunny room in a clapboard house on Atwater Street in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University’s College of Arts and Humanities, or CAHI, as it’s called here, brings some of the most esteemed writers in America for IUB students to listen to and talk with firsthand.
Today, there’s a sense of anticipation in the room. The students eat cookies; they drink tea; they shuffle their belongings. The day’s guest is one of epic stature in the world of poetry. Mark Strand is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Born in 1934, he published his first book of poems in 1964; he was the United States’ Poet Laureate from 1990-1991.
Of Poetry And Music
At last, CAHI’s director Andrea Ciccarelli enters with Strand. Ciccarelli does not stand on ceremony. “You all know who he is,” Ciccarelli says of Strand, “so he needs no introduction.” Strand smiles in his wry way. He sits with both arms on the small table at the front of the room. “Ask me anything,” he says.
The opening question of the morning comes from a student composer at IU’s Jacobs School of Music. He asks Strand to discuss the relationship of poetry to music, of music to poetry. Strand was commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet to write some interstitial poetry to be performed between the movements of Haydn‘s glorious quartet based on the Gospels, Seven Last Words. Strand describes his challenge for this project as one of “humanizing” the Gospels’ version of Christ, which tends toward the grandiose. His solution? “I made him a poet.”
Despite the impressiveness of the project, Strand is characteristically humble. “I felt like a potato chip [next to Haydn],” he says. Even this respected and well-established poet felt like a nutrition-less snack next to a great feast of music.
The Pursuit Of Misery
A student asks Strand whether he ever feels a poem is finished, or if he ever has a feeling of relief and satisfaction when he’s through with a poem. He recognizes that feeling, he says, but when all’s said and done, “Writing makes me miserable.” The group laughs quietly. “I’ve stopped writing for two, three years. Better not to write than to write badly and have to face my writing.”
“If one is really enjoying oneself, one is not writing,” he continues. For Strand, the joys of life are essentially social: he considers dinner with friends, and travel. “What poetry there is about joy, is mostly about joy past or joy lost. Most poems are about loss.”
This is why, Strand explains, poets need to escape their work – so they read fiction. “I don’t think a fiction writer would escape to poetry.” His eyes shine with humor. “Poetry requires too high a degree of concentration.”
Write In Longhand, And Save Every Draft
Indiana University’s Lilly Library recently acquired all of Strand’s personal papers. During this visit, he went to the Lilly to look at some of his old work. Though he knew his own handwriting, he didn’t recognize the poems, some of which were written when he was just twenty. Nevertheless, the experience prompted him to share some advice with the group. “Write in longhand,” he said, “and save every draft. Someday the Lilly might take your letters.”
When Strand writes in longhand, he says, he is able to maintain the illusion that he is hearing his poems, not reading them, as it seems when he’s before a computer screen. When one works on a computer, he says, “the physicality of writing is lost, and the sonic quality.”
The Poet And Age
Inevitably, when a legendary poet in his seventies comes to speak before an audience of mostly twenty-somethings, there arises the question of age. A member of the group asks Strand how his relationship to his work has changed as he’s gotten older.
“I’ve gotten more expeditious,” he answers thoughtfully. It takes him fewer drafts, now, to know when to let a poem go. “I have fewer ideas. I feel I have less to say. During youth, everything feels new, even if it isn’t. Harold Bloom talks about the ‘anxiety of influence’; when you get old, it becomes the ‘anxiety of self-imitation.'”
Another change Strand has found over the years has to do with content: He doesn’t write poems about politics or cultural issues anymore. During the Vietnam War, Strand and many other poets wrote anti-war poetry. “The work was terrible,” Strand says patiently, and goes on to elaborate on the philosophy he’s developed over time:
A poet must transcend the climate in which he comes of age. Poetry must remain relevant. It must find what’s essentially human. Events get buried by subsequent events…. Art is supposed to transform our life experiences, and make them absorbable.
Six hours later, Strand stands on a stage in a spacious auditorium before ten times as many people. Whereas in the morning he seemed wakeful and sharp, and spoke at length, by evening his smile is waning. He reads efficiently, moving from poem to poem without as much talk in between.
He reads three poems, Keeping Things Whole, Eating Poetry and Black Maps. Before the third, he pauses. “I don’t have much of a rap between poems,” he reflects. “It would be wonderful if I could say, ‘I was on a train from Belgrade to Venice, and I looked out and saw a wonderful, beautiful woman set fire to her hair.’ But that doesn’t always happen.”
He reads the lovely poem My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer, in which he describes how the smoke from his tired mother’s cigarette as she stood by the wall of the house they stayed in during summers in Nova Scotia, would curl in the last of the day’s light. He reads two more poems, and then some new prose. He finds writing prose more relaxing than writing poetry, he says, perhaps because it needs to be less perfect.
Coming To A Close
At last, Strand grasps his books and papers in one hand and stands beside the podium to answer some final questions. His answers’ compactness and wisdom recall the poetry itself.
How does your work with translation affect your poetry? “Translation concretizes some of the things you take for granted when you’re writing your own poems.”
How much of yourself is in your poetry? “My poems are better than I am, because I work on them. I don’t work on myself.”
How did your early work as a visual artist influence your work as a poet? “I think I was prepared to write by painting, because I worked in a limited space.”
A young woman asks Strand something about creativity. “I don’t think of myself as a creative person,” he replies. “I just think of myself as a poet. Something about ‘creative’ seems too grandiose.” He pauses, thinks. At last, he grins. “Then again, ‘poet’ is pretty grandiose, too.”