A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 15 December 2013

A touch of poetry: Mark Strand

You don’t hear of or see many people reading poetry these days; I guess it’s largely out of fashion. If you look hard enough you might catch the odd person admitting to reading some for school, or university, and then only sheepishly and rarely with an admission of enjoyment. ‘Oh, I read it because I had to,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s boring,’ or ‘I didn’t get it.’ They avoid eye contact, change the subject. I remember, once, telling someone I had an entire book of poetry and they looked at me, a quizzical uncertainty in their eye. ‘A book of poetry?’ they said. ‘Why would you read a whole book of poems?’ When I explained I owned many books of poems, it killed the conversation (thankfully, I should say).

Poetry, for me, occupies the same kind of space as music or art. It is something to be returned to, repeatedly, to be experienced as opposed to consumed. It is something that etches into me gradually, each reading bringing me something new and different. I am not too troubled by lack of understanding, which is not to say that I understand poetry naturally but rather I am willing to wait for understanding, in whatever form it takes, to seep into me gradually, over a course of weeks, months, years or decades. Or perhaps that understanding will remain forever out of my grasp, as is true of so many things. This does not trouble me. I do not need, or especially desire, understanding to enjoy or appreciate something. Perhaps understanding is a bonus, or not. Perhaps understanding kills the mystery. I do not find it strange that people read poetry, it only saddens me, a little, that so many do it so furtively and yet those same people might think nothing of listening to a song over and over until the beat of it sang in their veins and celebrating it.

It is perhaps because repetition, re-reading, is so much at the forefront of my mind these days that I got to thinking about poetry. Poetry, I find, benefits from multiple readings and often from readings that are separated by distances in time. Not just time, but also cognition. I am a different person now, have a different understanding and experience, to the me that read Boris Pasternak, so tentatively, at 18. I have mentioned this before, but there is something useful, marvellous even, in making that re-connection with the earlier versions of yourself. Through this we can learn how we have grown, yet remain the same. The me that reads poetry now is more confident than 18 year old me, but the gulf of understanding has not narrowed that greatly. This is both humbling and encouraging. It means that I still have space to grow, I must still seek and remain open. It means that in all my years of experience, I still have a way to go. I cannot assume that because I am older I know everything I need to know.

It was in this train of thought that I returned to the poetry of Mark Strand. Mark Strand, in case you have never encountered him, was once Poet Laureate of the United States, and writes poems which are landscapes or logical puzzles, which explore the connections between inner and outer self, our relationships with life and death. There is a lot of fun in his poetry, and much uncertainty. Some of his poems are extremely unsettling, and yet most are life-affirming, and over the course of the years (he has been writing for many, many years) there is a range of poetry such as it should suit just about anybody. For me, the focus has been on two collections: Darker and Selected Poems (Carcanet Press), largely because they are the two I own. If you want a taster of Strand’s poetry then the Carcanet Press book is a good place to start. Darker, however, is a collection you can seep yourself into and never have to come out. When I am feeling bleak, or uncertain, it is a collection I return to; I can lose myself in the tricky language, the linguistic puzzles and surprising precision. I can find myself again amongst the ‘Black Maps’, in the mysterious and surprising unravelling of truth within the questions he poses. I can laugh at his silliness, and the wit and wonder he displays in all of his work. My favourite poems, if it is possible to choose just a handful, are Black Maps, The Remains, The Prediction, My Life By Somebody Else. As a sampling, here is an extract of Black Maps:

Black Maps
Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

nor the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath..”.  

A full version of the poem, and a little more info about Strand, are available over at the Poetry Foundation website, which includes a sampling of his poems.

Strand’s poems have a modern, present feel although some of them were written over 40 years ago. There is something comforting about that, something wonderful. Perhaps it is Mark’s own words, from Seven Poems (also in Darker), that explain, better than I ever can, why poems are something to be returned to, over again, regardless of how uncertain they make you feel, how unsettling. Why poems are something which we should allow to become etched into our very bones, reminding us of what we know, which is nothing. Read a poem today, and then tomorrow. And next year when you’ve forgotten it all, read it again.

“I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in."

Mark Strand (Darker, 1976)


  1. Do you like any modern or realist poetry? I find the litnet crowd really 'whacks' it hard - so we shouted back and forth and I stormed out the poetry section.(They haven't called or written since). I also use heavy imagery when i'm speaking of something very taboo...

  2. Hey Tony, which poets specifically do you mean (I'm not good with movements)? So: W Carlos Williams, Pound, H. D, who else? I like a lot of poets, lots of contemporary stuff in particular.