Mark Strand was born in 1934 on Prince Edward Island, Canada and grew up in the United States. He was a shy dreamy child, and claims not to have been very bright at school. When he was a year old, his mother predicted that he would be visual artist, because of the way he closely examined things. Indeed, he did become a painter for a short while, studying with Joseph Albers at Yale. Although no longer a practitioner, his interest in visual art, the space and tensions created on canvas, remains. Many reviewers have commented on the 'painterly' nature of Strand's poetry. In his book on Edward Hopper (2001), Strand displays a connectedness with the painter, based on the fact they both grew up in 1940's America. "Looking at Hopper", Strand says, "is inextricably bound with what I saw in those days. The clothes, the houses, the streets and storefronts are the same. When I was a child what I saw of the world beyond my immediate neighborhood I saw from the backseat of my parents' car." Strand also feels a deep empathy with the spirit of the painter's work, saying in interview: "I've always felt close to Hopper's paintings, close to their strangeness."
Strand's poetry, characterized by its simple language and surreal imagery, is situated in the shadowy line that forms the border between what we accept as reality, and what is just beyond our grasp. It is hardly surprising, then, that Wallace Stevens is one of his greatest influences: for Stevens, reality is constantly shifting as we attempt to find imaginative ways in which to perceive the world. On winning the Wallace Stevens award in 2004, Strand said: "When I began writing poetry, he's the poet I wanted to sound like. His name means a great deal to me", and when writing about lyric poetry in general he has said: "At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. Not only do they fix in language what is often most elusive about our experience, but they convince us of its importance, its truth even."
Since 1964, Mark Strand has written 14 books of poetry, beginning with Sleeping With One Eye Open which was published by Stone Wall Press. His early work is noted for its close association with dreams and dream-logic, while themes of disassociation of self from the world, the passing of time and also the presence of death in life, have become more prevalent in his work as it has developed. In The Weather of Words(2000), a book of short critical essays, Strand declares that: "death is the central concern of lyric poetry. Lyric poetry reminds us that we live in time. It tells us that we are mortal. It celebrates or recognizes moods, ideas, events only as they exist in passing."
Mark Strand was US Poet Laureate between 1990-91 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One in 1998. In this beautiful and philosophical collection, he tells us that nothing we strive for really matters, that everything just comes and goes, like wind, like breath. And what makes life precious are moments of reflection, moments of wonder.
Of the poems that you can listen to here, both 'The Webern Variations' and 'Poem After the Seven Last Words' were commissioned by the Bretano String Quartet to be performed with the Webern Quartets and the Haydn Quartet respectively. Strand was chosen for the collaboration by the Bretano String Quartet's first violinist, Mark Steinberg, after reading Blizzard of One, because his writing voice matches the spirit of the music. As Steinberg says, they needed: "Something not convoluted, not complicated on the surface, but profound underneath". A good example of Strand's simplicity of language comes from 'The Webern Variations', a poem which exquisitely explores themes of descent and nothingness. The narrator asks: "What should we hear but the voice / that would be ours shaping itself, / the secret voice of being telling us / that where we disappear is where we are?" The resonances fall far beyond the last syllable here. Similarly, Mark Strand's unemphatic reading style drifts gently along with the music of the words, their dark well of meaning glimmering below.
This recording was made by the Poetry Foundation on 3rd March 2008 in New York
1998 Pulitzer Prize, Blizzard of One