Mark Strand's poems are sparse luminous things, notable both for their simplicity and slight tinge of surrealism. In many, anxiety hovers on the periphery of the poem, waiting to be invited in.
Strand received the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009, and is one of the most important contemporary American poets and translators. (If you have a spare moment, please check out his translations of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.)
Yet Strand never set out to be a poet, but studied painting in college instead. He held a sustained interest in art and has written about the painters that move him, to great success: “Of the many pieces of writing stimulated by Hopper, none is more coolly and eerily attentive (more Hopperesque, we could say) than Mark Strand’s brilliant small book Hopper," wrote John Updike in the New York Review of Books.
Strand was a fitting guest for the Frick Collection's "Artists, Poets, and Writers Lecture Series" in New York, where he gave a talk on Vermeer, another favourite of his. In an exchange with More Intelligent Life over e-mail recently, Strand, ever humble, offered this telling preface: "I fear that my answers may disappoint. I tend to take the shortest route out and find elaboration cumbersome."
More Intelligent Life: At the Frick you said "writers write to find out what they have to say". Could you elaborate on this? Is the process of 'finding out what you have to say' different in poetry and prose?
Mark Strand: I'm not sure that all writers write to find out what they have to say. But I certainly do, at least when I'm writing poetry. I often begin with a word or a phrase and have no idea what its significance might be until I attach another word or another phrase. And then, some meaning or trajectory of thought suggests itself and I continue trying to come up with new words or phrases in order to gain a sense of where I am going or what it is that I'm driving at or what it is that I want to say.
Sometimes I will write a dozen lines and still not know where the poem is headed, and even a dozen more lines and still not know. Eventually, of course, I will detect in what I have written some thread of meaning, some coherence. When I'm writing prose there is usually a subject that has been given to me. I thought a great deal about Vermeer when I was asked by the Frick to write a talk and had a pretty good idea by the time I sat down to write what I was going to say. I knew what I wanted to say but I didn't quite know how I was going to say it. That is, the work of writing had to do mainly with the shaping of sentences, which best conveyed my meaning.
MIL: Though it was on offhand comment, I was intrigued by the way you said that a lot of what you see in a painting comes from what you picture when you turn around. I'd never thought of using my minds eye (literally) to decide what I felt was important in a piece of work.
MS: After I've looked at a painting and I turn around, I try to remember what I have seen. I try to think about what the experience of looking at it was. It really is not so much the physical properties of the painting that I retain, but the experience of looking at it that I try to hold onto.
MIL: Can you talk about experience of writing about painting?
MS: I can only say that the experience of writing about painting is one that I enjoy. I like looking and I like representing what it is that I see in language. That is, language qua language. The painting stands still, remains unchanged. And all I must do is revisit it. And there it is, welcoming me.
MIL: Although writing about a painting is not the same as writing a poem, are there ways in which poems are like paintings? I couldn't help but notice that a few of the things you highlighted in Vermeer's work seemed so central to poetry—for example, that constant ongoing moment that is continuously happening, and our privileged access to it.
MS: In answer to this question, which is a very good one, it is true that some of what I have highlighted in Vermeer is central to poetry. And I think you put your finger on it in asking the question. That is, the experience of a moment magically sustained.
MIL: Similarly, it seems that something that you value about Vermeer, especially as opposed to genre painters of the same period, is his "invisible hand"—that he is totally absent from the work. Does this relate to successful poetry at all?
MS: I would say no, that style in poetry is identity. We know a poet's work not by what he writes about, but by the way he writes. It is the representation of the poet's voice, which is his voice and the reason we will read him or her. Subject matter, I believe, plays a lesser role when it comes to poetry than it does in painting. Content, of course, is something else. It is what the artist imports to subject matter. It is the emotional and intellectual character of the work of art. In poetry, this constitutes the life of the poem.
MIL: Though we can speculate on Vermeer's intentions we can never really know what he intended. Is this important? Is this problematic? Does this ever worry you about in terms in your own work?
MS: I can say that I never worry about whether the reader knows my intentions. I'm pleased when someone comes close to understanding what I think I have intended, but I am not displeased if the opposite happens. Once I've finished a poem, I have no interest in it. Back to Vermeer for a moment, I'm intrigued by the mystery of Vermeer largely because the paintings appear so explicit, so resolved.
MIL: Who are your favourite painters and why do you value them. Likewise your favourite poets? Do you value the same traits in poetry as in painting?
MS: This one too is difficult to answer, but I will try. I do admire many of the same traits in poetry as in painting. Oddly enough, one of them is reticence. Vermeer has it. Piero has it. Seurat has it. Bellini has it. Hopper has it. So do a few others. Reticence is a hard thing to find in poetry because we don't typically associate it with verbal expression. Still, there are quiet poets and poets who seem to surround each word with a degree of soundlessness. Who are these poets? I don't know. But maybe it's not a quality that any poet can possess in its entirety. It may be a quality that his or her poems edge toward.
MIL: You mentioned that you don't like to write poems about actual paintings. I was curious about this—for a very long time my favourite poem was "San Sepolcro" the Jorie Graham poem about Piero della Francesca. Because I find the stillness in action in Piero Della Francesca's work to be very attractive and I think the last few stanzas at this poem have a good way of capturing that quality in a chilling way. Do you think there is nothing to be added on to a painting from a poem?
MS: When I said I don't like to write poems about actual paintings, I guess I meant that it made me feel like a parasite, that somehow the painter had done a good portion of the work. And then I come along and instead of beginning with nothing, which is the way I usually begin my poems, I begin with something not just given, but refined and finished and that already represents a vision, a viewpoint. But I was overstating the case. In my book "Blizzard of One", I have two poems based on paintings of De Chirico. So I'm guilty along with all the rest, who will use paintings to further their own poetical output. As to Jorie Graham's poem, I agree with you. It is a great poem and she is without question, and I am not saying this ironically, a great poet.
Picture Credit: © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (of Mark Strand); Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), "Mistress and Maid", The Frick Collection, New York