Dear Fellow Iowa Workshoppers and other friends,
Mark Strand has died at age 80--we were exactly the same age, within less than a month. We met when we shared a Poetry on the Green reading in New Haven while he was going to school at Yale and I was attending UConn. We both got our Master's degrees from Iowa the same year, 1962, and we were both friends and students of Don Justice. We didn't like each other, though. I thought he was too chichi and recherché, a minor sprig off the branch of Robert Bly.
The news of his death has, however, affected me emotionally, though I'm having a tough time sorting out the emotions. They aren't pleasant. Rather than gloating or feeling triumphant over his passing, I feel a little angry, as though something has been taken away from me without my permission. It's the way I feel whenever a friend dies these days. We may not have been friends, but he was a part of my life that has been truncated once more, and I resent it.
— Lewis Turco
Oh Christ—another friend? Seems like I lose one or two a month. (And I’m turning 80 in a couple of months, so maybe I’ll lose more than a friend.) Anyway, take care of yourself, Lew, and stick around another ten years or so.
— Robert Mezey
Strand died yesterday. I knew him at Iowa but not well. His shyness to my young mind came across as arrogance.
Of the poets there I preferred Marv Bell. But [the Paris Review] interview done with actor Wally Shawn (his father was long time editor of New Yorker) is interesting to me because I’ve always liked early Strand but I never knew why. Shawn brings out stuff from Strand that gets me closer to being relieved of having to know why I like his verse. For years now I’ve read a poem the way I listen to the logic in a jazz sax or trumpet player’s solo after the melody of the tune has been established. Such a solo, if done honestly by the artist, carries the same stuff of the lines of a poem. Or it CAN do that. But – maybe only for me.
Everything you say about musicians is true, but none of it is true about Strand.
Do you find Strand has what is known as a "tin ear"? I think his energy goes into exploring with language rather than having any concern for forms. He finds a new form in each line, it seems.
Strand's sense and sureness of voice trumps counting. There are jazz musicians who can read anything and can interpret anything and can compose. And then there are, once in 30-40-50 years a Bix Beiderbecke, a Charlie Parker, an Erroll Garner. And with Garner, one of the greatest piano jazz stylist who has ever lived, there is a n artist who never learned to read music. How did he get acceptance without having learned to read music? Don Justice probably had the good sense not to turn Strand into something he was not. Had anyone insisted on studying meter I think Strand would have returned to painting. Roethke had the best advice for how to learn to do any art: "I learn by going where there is to go." Well, I have no business discussing anything about poetry. Especially not with a formalist.
— John Herrmann
I remember him from Iowa too. I tried to teach him metrics one afternoon. I like just a few of his poems and am left unmoved by most of his. But your last paragraph is so right, Lew.
— Christopher Wiseman
I should have realized that he couldn’t write metrical poetry, Chris, but I simply thought he couldn’t write. No wonder poetry at the Iowa Workshop has gone downhill ever since Don Justice left. But Strand was there when Don was, and they were even friends! How did Mark get through without an understanding of meter?
The Medieval Celtic Bards had to pass a test that proved they could write in the Welsh and Irish metrical forms. We ought to begin an academy that tests to find out if a poet is at least competent in writing verse. When I was teaching, I gave out printed and signed “Poetic Licences” to students who passed my course in The Nature of Poetry. They had to get a C or better in order to get a license, and they had to write fourteen exercises that massed muster.
I appreciated your candor re: your acquaintance with Mark Strand. Also, your allusion to how some careers are made brought back certain memories I have.
There was an editor who 'discovered' me when I was 16, around 1969 -- Robert Hershon of Hanging Loose magazine. He published some of my poems in the "Poets in High School" section. About a year later, he set up a reading for me near NYU and then promptly tried to coax me in the direction of writing somewhat like Strand, although I don't remember whether he actually named Strand. Hershon was (I think) caught up in the system of the time, and he was clearly trying to help me get into it too; I'm sure he meant no harm, in any case. At that time I was writing free verse with implicit meter, and he seemed to be urging me to throw out the musical part of it. I didn't go for it. A rebellious impulse kicked in hard, and I vowed to sacrifice my 'budding career' rather than be told what to write. Since I found no interest in the kind of poetry I wanted to write, from about 1972 to 1987 I was 'on strike,' making a conscious (though not always successful) effort not to write poetry at all -- until a sonnet about cicadas came along and the editor of a Reston, Va., newspaper (where I was working as an advertising typographer) decided to publish it.
So maybe I could have been famous in my 20s! It wouldn't have been me, though. And there's no knowing who, or what, I would be by now.
Still, I, too, found it very interesting to get such a glimpse of how (at least some) writing careers can be made. Thank you for reminding me of that.
Mark Strand's death is no great loss to me and I find it completely absurd for the NY TIMES obituary to compare him to Wallace Stevens and Philip Levine. You should not lose any sleep over the departure of Strand. Better you should go down to your cozy basement, have a scotch, and read a real poet, Chaucer, or Dante, or Yeats.
— B. B.
It's odd for me because I was friends with one of his daughters whom he didn't claim as his until maybe she was 20? Or at least a late teen. I'm wondering how she's doing today, but I don't know if I should contact her.
— Shaindell Beefrs
I think more and more about how this constant loss will feel. Your resentment makes sense, but I hope it doesn't linger.
— George Guida
He was my advisor during one of my stints at Bread Loaf. I couldn't tell you what we talked about, what advice he gave, but I do remember he seemed aloof, distant to me. Nice enough guy though and like you, at my age, I find the loss of anybody from my life's experiences very unsettling these days. Merwin was also there and he is now gone as well. Miller Williams was also there. He's still with us. God bless them all.
— George Edward Buggs
I liked Reasons for Moving in grad school, mainly because my teacher, Miller Williams, had introduced us all to Nicanor Parra. I liked the minimalist style of the poems and the way that they made a weird sort of sense that I'd not encountered in American poetry. Often they were allegories like "The Tunnel," a favorite that I've anthologized and still like quite a bit. But I could never find as much to like in subsequent books, which seemed to me murky reflections on the "self," the kind of thing that a lot of poets got obsessed with in the 70s-80s. I reviewed one of them in the late 80s-early 90s, and it sounded to me like Ashbery without the self-deflating irony and humor—in other words, without much of anything to like. Maybe one of these days I'll take another look at some of the later work, if only out of a sense of duty. Still, I understand Lew's sense of loss at the death of a contemporary. You somehow feel that you should have made more effort to know the person behind the poetry.
I remember an elder poet who had been something of a mentor to Strand going violently off on him for his careerism and proselytizing at various thrones of power. I will reveal the elder poet's name to you only, Lew. To me (c. 1974) it was an instructive lesson on how poetic reputations are made, one that I've tried hard (perhaps to my own loss) not to follow.
— R. S. Gwynn
I never met Strand but admire much of his work, but I would not have linked him with Robert Bly. Can you say more about that--and your reasons for making the link? And, given that you knew him well, what was with his vendetta against William Stafford?
— Jim Heynen
Bly was a "deep image surrealist." That's what Strand was, too, except that he was also a minimalist whereas Bly would go on at great length. As to his vendetta against Bill Stafford -- I know nothing about it. Can't imagine why anyone would dislike Bill, who was one of the most popular poets in America while he lived. What I faulted Stafford for was the fact (and it was a fact) that he had no idea when or if he had written a good poem or a bad one. An editor would have to put his books together for him.
— Lewis Turco
The air always seemed to hiss out of his poems at the end. I think of him as a surreal romantic nihilist.
— Norman Ball
Mark Strand never lived up to his early reputation.
— Thomas Kerrigan
I can relate, Lewis.
One of my first essays to get widespread attention was one where I was highly critical of one of Strand's lectures. It's been almost 20 years, and that essay is still floating around, and while I stand behind everything I wrote, it now feels like an unfinished conversation, like I'm waiting for a reply I'll never get. And the not getting the reply IS the reply, but still.
— Victor Infante