Mark Strand is one of the most talented poets currently writing, producing beautiful and evocative lines like "Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send/small carpets of lampglow/ into the haze and the bay/will begin its loud heaving/and the pines, frayed finials/climbing the hill, will seem to graze/the dim cinders of heaven." He's been greatly—and justly—lauded for his skill; he has served as the nation's poet laureate and received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
But to paraphrase another, greater poet, there are more things in heaven and Earth than are evident in Strand's philosophy. Ostensibly lecturing at UC Irvine on "the future of poetry," Strand—the first recipient of the university's Nichols Award for Humanities —managed the Jan. 27 talk without locating any of the issues confronting contemporary poetry.
Indeed, what Strand delivered that evening was Poetry 101, a series of short—if mildly amusing—parables that attempted to define poetry.
"At the center of each poem is a mystery," Strand said amiably, describing how poetry allows people to touch something greater than themselves and how poetry allows the author to communicate his own, personal world in that world's unique symbolic language. But Strand never answered another, grander question: Why should anyone give a shit?
Answer that question, and you might answer other interesting ones—like, "Why has poetry fallen from public grace?" Or, "How can poetry reclaim its place in everyday American life?"
Poetry's fall was evident in Strand's offhand comments and his responses to questions throughout the evening. "Some, particularly the Academy of American Poets, like to criticize Wallace Stevens for being too privileged, for not writing about social causes," Strand said at one point. "Poetry should be about reaching beyond all that."
Strand isn't so much a leader in the movement to divorce poetry from politics; rather, he's part of a crowd that has misconstrued the mundane for the real. Between Ginsberg's "Howl" in the '50s ("What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed upon their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations . . . Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!") and Marc Smith's "I'm for the Little Guy" in the '80s, few poets addressed the interests of average Joes. And among those few, most were black; many, like LA's Watts Prophets, found their work consigned to a poetic ghetto until relatively recently.
Strand would likely discount the Watts Prophets as poets. They're often cited as the fathers of rap, and as Strand stated flatly at UCI, "There's no connection between rap and poetry. . . . I can't listen to it. It's like being blasted up against a wall."
Well, then, there you have it.
It was a curious statement from someone who, mere moments before, had praised poetry as the communication of real feeling and said, "The poet's vision of their world should not always be a comfortable one." Perhaps some internal worlds—like those of black Americans—are more uncomfortable than others?
Like so many academics, Strand values stillness, and poetic stillness, unfortunately, is a luxury, an accouterment of the tenured and speculative classes that have lately signed an armistice and linked arms in their face-off with more revolutionary art forms (Strand's Nichols Award was endowed by medical-technology bazillionaire—and, let it be said, generous spirit—Al Nichols). Never mind that rap incorporates more elements of formal poetry—particularly metric rhyme—than the free verse so popular among Strandians. Rap—and the street poetry that gave birth to it—is not about stillness; much of it, particularly the less commercialized stuff, addresses the social issues Strand maintains poets should "rise above."
And it's true. No poetry that addresses politics has survived. Except Shakespeare and Marlowe, who peppered their verse plays with direct commentary on current events. And Percy Bysshe Shelley's invocation to the masses in "The Masks of Anarchy" to "Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number,/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you—/Ye are many —they are few." And T.S. Eliot's evident compassion for the alienated in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in which he describes "the muttering retreats/of restless nights in one night cheap hotels."
An old Chinese adage observes that the first thing tyrants do in taking hold of a country is round up the poets. Strand needn't worry. Speaking before a mostly upper-middle-class audience, he finished to rousing applause and then signed books for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, local poet Jaimes Palacio is reading his heart-rending poem about Arthur Carmona, a wrongly imprisoned teenager from Costa Mesa; LA's Jim Natal is reading his hymn to the endangered Bolsa Chica wetlands; major poet Sherman Alexie is recounting stories of Indian reservations; and D.J. Renegade is talking of Christmas in the Washington, D.C., ghetto, his mother polishing the same Christmas ornaments year after year. Everywhere, there are beautiful, well-crafted poems that acknowledge loss and suffering—poems that connect Strand's "greater mystery" with poetry that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
And Strand? Strand remains above it all. And from that perspective, he misses it completely.
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