First lecture by Sarah Jackson and a surprise….a poem from a book I had not really paid attention to but had purchased many years ago…probably because of the cover. The image does indeed turn out to be a negative image of Bewick’s ‘White Owl’ engraving from page 89 of his ‘British Birds’ from 1809.

It entirely appropriate that the publisher has reversed the image and set in a quasi-gothic setting as Strand’s volume is full of darkness, ghosts, negative capability and the ‘uncanny’. In an excellent review in The Oxonian Alexander Nemser himself an American poet says what I felt after reading though the volume properly (possibly for the first time)

But, paradoxically, New Selected Poems leaves the reader with the impression of a poet who,in composing letters to himself about the ultimate end, has ended up only talking about the weather.

In fact in another very good interview with Wallace Shawn (a friend) in The Paris Review Strand states that almost all his poetry refers or is a ticking watch toward death. This fine but sometimes the use of short anglo-saxon words and the repetition..be it in Litany or instructions as in ‘The New Poetry Handbook’ does become somewhat claustrophobic. There is a repetition of certain strophes almost like a trance-like or meditative state. Strand himself believes in poetry as being ‘other’ a breaking through the boundary of the quotidian to other levels to the ‘magical and astonishing’ but sometimes the ‘other’ becomes airless and dank as if in need of some fresh air. Strand has written about artists and interestingly Edward Hopper who also the master of the limited view..the airless and unmoving. He also admires the Italian surrealists and indeed his knowledge of European languages and forms is displayed in his writing. The poetry has the flavour of Otavio Paz and Montale and it hard to find any trace of contemperaneous Canadian poetry like the Praire Poets . The compressed roomic spaces owe more to philosophy than landscape and bring to mind Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.

What impressed me at the time and still impresses is this ‘non’USA’ atmosphere. He states in his own words that he attracted to an ‘international’ free-verse movement which he sees himself as part of. Now in his 80’s he has a substantial body of work and a very long and well supported academic career. There the nagging feeling that that very support and life in ‘academic rooms’ has stifled something….has led to the restricted and sometimes suffocating enjambment. The close control never seems to give, the opiates are dismissed, the night coils rather than releases and finally the ‘Screetch Owl’ is pinned like a moth in its final negative image….its museum like otherness.


Finally an erudite passage from the Paris Review…

Mark Strand on Poetry and Prose:

Well, I think a poet’s focus is not quite what a prose writer’s is; it’s not entirely on the world outside. It’s fixed on that area where the inside meets the outside, where the poet’s sensibility meets the weather, meets the street, meets other people, meets what he reads. So a poet describes that point of contact: the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world. That shadow land between self and reality. Sometimes the focus is tipped slightly in favor of the self, sometimes, more objectively, in favor of the world. And so sometimes, when the balance is tipped towards the self, strange things are said, odd things get into the poem. Because the farther you are from the world that everybody recognizes as the world, the stranger things look. I mean, some novels do this, but most don’t. Most novels are focused on what’s out there, and the novelist erases himself, by and large, to keep the narration going. There are some narrators who insert themselves, as Philip Roth does, brilliantly and amazingly. I’m always dazzled by his books. The world is electrically alive in American Pastoral, for example, but he’s there too: Roth is Zuckerman, and he’s there, he’s telling the story. We’re never unaware of the fact that he’s doing it, but we’re never wholly aware of the fact that he’s doing it. In a sense, that book is more magical than any poem I’ve read recently.  


Paris Review Interview with Wallace Shawn

Alexander Nemser: Oxonian Review

         Mark Strand: Poetry in The World – Essay