Poet Mark Strand Preaches Political Indifference at UCI
Mark Strand is one of the most talented poets currently writing, producing beautiful and evocative lines like:
Soon the house, with its shadesHes been greatly -- and justly -- lauded for his skill; he has served as the nations poet laureate and received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
But to paraphrase another, greater poet, there are more things in heaven and Earth than are evident in Strands philosophy. Ostensibly lecturing at UC Irvine on the future of poetry, Strand -- the first recipient of the universitys Nichols Award for Humanities -- managed the January 27 talk without locating any of the issues confronting contemporary poetry.
Indeed, what Strand delivered that evening was Poetry 101, a series of short -- if mildly amusing -- parables that attempted to define poetry.
At the center of each poem is a mystery, Strand said amiably, describing how poetry allows people to touch something greater than themselves and how poetry allows the author to communicate his own, personal world in that worlds unique symbolic language. But Strand never answered another, grander question: Why should anyone care?
Answer that question, and you might answer other interesting ones -- like, Why has poetry fallen from public grace? Or, How can poetry reclaim its place in everyday American life?
Poetrys fall was evident in Strands offhand comments and his responses to questions throughout the evening. Some, particularly the Academy of American Poets, like to criticize Wallace Stevens for being too privileged, for not writing about social causes, Strand said at one point. Poetry should be about reaching beyond all that.
Strand isnt so much a leader in the movement to divorce poetry from politics; rather, hes part of a crowd that has misconstrued the mundane for the real. Between Ginsbergs Howl in the 50s (What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed upon their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations. . . Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!) and Marc Smiths Im for the Little Guy in the 80s, few poets addressed the interests of average Joes. And among those few, most were black; many, like LAs Watts Prophets, found their work consigned to a poetic ghetto until relatively recently.
Strand would likely discount the Watts Prophets as poets. Theyre often cited as the fathers of rap, and as Strand stated flatly at UCI, Theres no connection between rap and poetry. . . I cant listen to it. Its like being blasted up against a wall.
Well, then, there you have it.
It was a curious statement from someone who, mere moments before, had praised poetry as the communication of real feeling and said, The poets vision of their world should not always be a comfortable one. Perhaps some internal worlds -- like those of black Americans -- are more uncomfortable than others?
Like so many academics, Strand values stillness, and poetic stillness, unfortunately, is a luxury, an accouterment of the tenured and speculative classes that have lately signed an armistice and linked arms in their face-off with more revolutionary art forms. (Strands Nichols Award was endowed by medical-technology bazillionaire ---and, let it be said, generous spirit -- Al Nichols.) Never mind that rap incorporates more elements of formal poetry -- particularly metric rhyme -- than the free verse so popular among Strandians. Rap -- and the street poetry that gave birth to it -- is not about stillness; much of it, particularly the less commercialized stuff, addresses the social issues Strand maintains poets should rise above.
And its true. No poetry that addresses politics has survived. Except Shakespeare and Marlowe, who peppered their verse plays with direct commentary on current events. And Percy Bysshe Shelleys invocation to the masses in The Masks of Anarchy to
Rise like lions after slumberAnd T.S. Eliots evident compassion for the alienated in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which he describes the muttering retreats / of restless nights in one night cheap hotels.
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.
An old Chinese adage observes that the first thing tyrants do in taking hold of a country is round up the poets. Strand neednt worry. Speaking before a mostly upper-middle-class audience, he finished to rousing applause and then signed books for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, local poet Jaimes Palacio is reading his heart-rending poem about Arthur Carmona, a wrongly imprisoned teenager from Costa Mesa; LAs Jim Natal is reading his hymn to the endangered Bolsa Chica wetlands; Sherman Alexie is recounting stories of Indian reservations; and DJ Renegade is talking of Christmas in the Washington, D.C., ghetto, his mother polishing the same Christmas ornaments year after year. Everywhere, there are beautiful, well-crafted poems that acknowledge the politics of loss and suffering -- poems that connect to Strands greater mystery while comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
And Strand? Strand remains above it all. And from that perspective, he misses it completely.
(This article first appeared in The Orange County Weekly. We are grateful to editor Will Swaim for his permission to republish it here for a broader poetry audience. For another take on Strand's lecture at UCI, as well as a review of Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone, read Karlene Miller's article in a more rent issue of OC Weekly.)
We're talking poetry & politics in the Poetry Forum: "Political Poetry, Poets in Politics." Join the discussion & tell us what you think about the political uses of poetry.
Victor Infante is our Orange County Museletter correspondent. His last feature article for About.com Poetry was But What If These Are Poetic Times?, a commentary on the furor following LA Weekly's fall 1999 review of local poetry.
To read more of Mark Strand's work on the Net:
- Two poems, My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer (quoted above) & From the Long Sad Party (as text & RealAudio reading by the author) are on Strand's page at the Academy of American Poets, where he serves as a Chancellor.
- A Piece of the Storm, from his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Blizzard of One, is posted at the Knopf Poetry Center.
- Notes on the Craft of Poetry, an excerpt from his new book of essays,The Weather of Words, appears at The Borzoi Reader.
- Zola's Net Lit & Poetry page at bigbadcat.com has a small collection of Strand poems, mostly about poetry: Eating Poetry, The New Poetry Handbook, The Remains, Giving Myself Up & The Room.
- Ken Hope has included I am writing from a place you have never been in his collection of Poems in English.
- When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, Strand was interviewed by Elizabeth Farnsworth forPBS NewsHour. That interview is now archived online as text/RealAudio, during which he reads A Suite of Appearances Four.
- Our Masterpiece Is the Quiet Life, The Next Time & Great Dog Poem No. 2 are quoted in their entirety by Charles Berger in his interpretive essay, Reading As Poets Read: Following Mark Strand.