Mark Strand is recognized as one of the premier contemporary American poets as well as an accomplished editor, translator and prose writer. The hallmarks of his style are precise language, surreal imagery, and the recurring theme of absence and negation; later collections investigate ideas of the self with pointed, often urbane wit. Named the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990, Strand’s career has spanned nearly four decades, and he has won numerous accolades from critics and a loyal following among readers. In 1999 he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Blizzard of One.
Born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, Strand grew up in various cities across the United States. Strand originally expressed interest in painting and hoped to become an artist. He received a B.A. from Antioch College and a B.F.A. from Yale University in 1959. His interest in painting waned, and by the age of twenty, he had decided to become a poet instead. Following his graduation from Yale, he went to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied nineteenth-century Italian poetry. “I was never much good with language as a child,” Strand admitted during an interview with Bill Thomas for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. “Believe me, the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.” Strand received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1962 and began teaching at various colleges and universities, including Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. He spent a year in Brazil in 1965 as a Fulbright lecturer. Strand admitted there were some benefits to being a poet during the turbulent 1960s. “Groupies were a big part of the scene,” he told Thomas. “Poets were underground pop stars, and when we made the campus circuit, girls would flock around. It wasn’t bad. I rather liked the uncertainties of my life then.”
Strand’s first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) introduced his distinctive approach to poetry. The volume is characterized by a pervasive sense of anxiety and restless foreboding. Discussing the title poem with the radio program, Weekend America, Strand said the poem “speaks to a certain anxiety I experienced back in the early ‘60s. I was afraid the United States would go to war with Russia or the USSR. I think it’s a poem surrounded by a great deal of silence.” In the first stanza of the frequently anthologized poem “Keeping Things Whole,” Strand sets the tone and presents the themes which continue to dominate his later work: “In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” The speakers in Strand’s early poetry are characterized by an intense concern with self and identity. David Kirby remarked in Mark Strand and the Poet’s Place in Contemporary Culture: “Many poems in Strand’s first book show an uneasy preoccupation with self, and the vehicle used to express that preoccupation is often a dream state in which the speaker is divided between two worlds and can locate himself comfortably in neither.” The concern with identity is woven through Strand’s later work, as well. “The basic themes are treated in the poems with a growing unease that the reader feels more intensely than before—as his skill increases, so does the poet’s power to disturb,” Kirby explained.
Mark Strand – My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon’s ash-colored coat
on the black bay.
Soon the house, with its shades 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.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour’s spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures –
the mouse and the swift — will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.
It is much too late.