On the Night Train

It’s a great stroke of luck, when it comes to poetry, that human beings do not know themselves very well. We meet the familiar stranger in our mirror, pretending most days that there’s nothing odd about him, nothing worth thinking about, but in fact we know better. “Why am I me? Why not a goldfish in a fish tank in a restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of Des Moines?” Mark Strand asks in The Weather of Words, his fine new collection of essays and comic pieces. Poets, like everyone else, do not have the answer. However, here’s where the fun starts. In poetry, life’s ambiguities are worth more than what can be explained. They cause poems to be written. The true poet, one might say, gropes in the dark. Far from being omniscient on the subject of his work, he is merely a faithful servant of his hunches. The poem, with all its false starts and endless revisions, still mostly writes itself.

There is a good reason for that. The awful truth is that no memorable figure of speech can be willed into existence. They just pop into the poet’s head. Consequently no poet can possibly envision the full meaning and the eventual fate of one of his metaphors. For all he knows, it may be in the process of selling his soul to the Devil. The more original the poet, the wider the gap between his intentions and his inventions. Even when they are widely read, much liked, or even belittled, the true nature of many poets’ work remains elusive for a long time.

This is certainly the case with Mark Strand. At various times over the last thirty years, he has been regarded as both a Neo-Surrealist and a poet working in the long spent tradition of Modernism. What makes Strand so “uncontemporary” is his conviction that all of poetry, going back to the Greek and Roman poets, is still relevant for someone writing today in Brooklyn or Kansas. In his new book of essays he explains: “I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of the individual poet’s conception of what is or is not a poem.” Poetry’s self-reflective nature is his major theme. Whoever reads him in the future will find little of contemporary America in his work. His poems are introspective, obsessively so. If there are tragic and comic moments in them, and there are plenty, they concern solitary, anonymous characters and take place in settings equally nameless. Even though he is looked upon as an established figure, one who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, Strand has been a loner, someone whose best poems, despite his honors, are out of sync with his times.

Since Whitman, most American poets have exerted themselves not to sound too literary. In …

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