Poet Laureate Mark Strand dead: reflecting on something he said

Former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand is dead at 80.

In a 1998 interview with the Paris Review, poet Strand said something I find fascinating:

Well, I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened? I mean, I like that, I like it in other people’s poems when it happens. I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, the reader is absorbing the poem, even though there’s an absence in the poem. But he just has to live with that. And eventually, it becomes essential that it exists in the poem, so that something beyond his understanding, or beyond his experience, or something that doesn’t quite match up with his experience, becomes more and more his. He comes into possession of a mystery, you know—which is something that we don’t allow ourselves in our lives.

A thought-provoking perspective, and it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this dynamic.

I have always detested the threads of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism that sought to destroy subjectivity, to argue that ultimately there is no artist, no author, that the creator is spoken by the collective condition. I have been known to suggest that this view is most dearly held by those who have nothing creative to offer and who benefit professionally and politically from diminishing the work of genuine artistic geniuses.

I have been similarly hard on artists who abdicate authority over their work, demurring when asked to assert something about its meaning. Well, once I’m through it belongs to the audience, doesn’t it?

Horseshit, I have argued. Authorial intent matters, and it matters a great deal, but that’s the sort of conviction that has been well out of fashion for the past century or so – it’s a belief that belongs to what Susan Sontag has called the “pre-theoretical” age. Well, so be it. I cut my teeth on the masters of that age and there’s no point apologizing for it.

Still, it’s isn’t really one or the other, and the point Strand made is a compelling one that resonates with my own writing process. I suspect much of my poetry strikes readers (hypothetical readers, anyway – it isn’t like I have a huge audience) as murky, perhaps even obscure. I aggressively strip the narrative from my poems and the result is work that operates in an even more nonlinear fashion that most verse does. Like Strand, I follow the language in my head (and in my case, I also find myself chasing images, dark abstractions and raw emotions – intimations, if you will, and impressions), and I follow it all blindly into country that may be alien to me.

I often found myself, back before I gave it all up, staring at the page wondering what the hell I had just written.

But … I always feel a responsibility to at least try and understand what my work is saying. And here is where the road forks. At times, it’s as though my subconscious is trying to communicate with me and art is the conduit. This has happened a number of times – I have written things that I didn’t really understand until much later. Sometimes I figured it out eventually, and there have been moments where readers have expressed insights into my work, revealing things about it that I never suspected were there.

So at one level I’m trying to write for an audience, but at another level I am the audience. It’s these moments where my convictions about authorial intent are most problematic. Some part of me is speaking – there is certainly a subjectivity – but the conscious self doesn’t immediately grok the meaning.

All of which is to say that Strand is certainly onto something here, and the complexity about the relationship between art, artist and audience requires some more thought on my part.

RIP, Mark.

“The Dreadful Has Already Happened”


Thanks to Dan Ryan for pointing me to the Paris Review passage.


  • Strand hit the nail on the head – let the language take over, and follow it, trust it. A simple suggestion, but one that likely takes years to truly follow.

  • intriguing discussion.

    once had a conversation with lee child, best selling author of thrillers and a good guy. he and i were chatting and a fan walked up and asked him about why he’d done so and so. he gave a cogent and thoughtful answer, then when the guy walked away, whispered, “they hate it if you say it just sounded right at the time.”

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