Mark Strand: Living Gorgeously

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Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splash News/Corbis
The poet Mark Strand at 192 Books in Manhattan, July 11, 2012

Mark Strand, who died in November at the age of eighty after a long battle with cancer, is the first among my oldest friends to go. Having known him for forty-six years, I’ve come to realize since he passed away what a huge presence he was in my life and still continues to be. Every time I read something interesting, hear some literary gossip, have a memorable meal, or take a sip of truly fine wine these days, I want to get in touch with him and tell him about it. It’s not that we talked every day when he was alive, but he was often on my mind as I went about my life and it was the same with him.

I happened to see him one day just hours after he got back from Italy. After showing me the beautiful socks and shoes he bought in Rome, he said he had something exciting to tell me. When he was in Sicily, he discovered that there were magnificent old palazzos in Siracusa selling for peanuts. He thought he and I should buy one, move our families there and commute back to the States, he to his job at Johns Hopkins and I to mine at the University of New Hampshire. First we’d drive to Palermo and catch a flight to Rome and then he’d fly to Washington and I to Boston and we’d fly back every couple of weeks or so. I burst out laughing, but he kept after me for weeks about those cheap palazzos, until I was just about convinced that we could pull it off.

That’s what made being with Mark so much fun. He was a restless man, always ready to start a new life and obsessed with money-making schemes. One time he and I were making plans to import Australian and New Zealand wines, which were then little known in this country; another time we were thinking of opening a restaurant in Inverness, a town fifteen miles or so away from Drake’s Bay north of San Francisco, where the waiters would be well-known poets of our acquaintance who’d work there for a week or two and then be replaced by other poets. He thought the public would go for it and our place would be a great success. “Imagine having a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner bring you a plate of cheese and a glass of wine,” he said. Even our wives loved the idea at first, until they discovered that they were the ones who were going to do all the cooking, while Mark and I took turns serving as hosts and chitchatting with customers.

One wild notion of ours actually bore fruit. We started a new poetry movement that we hoped would make us famous. Every other poet was starting one forty years ago, so we thought, Why not us? Ours was to be called Gastronomic Poetry. Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience. Thus, we reasoned, in a country where most people hate poetry and everyone is eating and snacking constantly, poems ought to mention food more frequently. To fix that deplorable omission, we thought we’d include one or more mouth-watering dishes in every poem we wrote, no matter what its subject was. Literary purists were bound to be shocked finding barbecued ribs or a slice of apple pie in some sublime poem of ours, but those millions of Americans who buy gourmet magazines and cookbooks and dream of eating the gorgeously prepared meals described in their pages, without ever bothering to make them themselves, would rush to buy our books and enjoy them in the same way. Mark’s poem about pot roast is an example of gastronomic poetry:

I gaze upon the roast,
that is sliced and laid out
on my plate,
and over it
I spoon the juices
of carrot and onion.
And for once I do not regret
the passage of time…

There are more than a few of mine where yummy dishes are mentioned. Here’s a love poem called “Café Paradiso”:

My chicken soup thickened with pounded young almonds.
My blend of winter greens.
Dearest tagliatelle with mushrooms, fennel, anchovies,
Tomatoes and vermouth sauce.
Beloved monk fish braised with onions, capers
And green olives.
Give me your tongue tasting of white beans and garlic…

By now, you are probably asking yourself, Did these two ever talk about anything serious? Of course, we did. We talked about how writing a poem is no different from taking out a frying pan and concocting a dish out of the ingredients available in the house, how in poetry, as in cooking, it’s all a matter of subtle little touches that come from long experience or are the result of sudden inspiration. I recall once Mark sitting deep in thought after dinner for what seemed like a long time before finally looking up at me and saying: “I don’t think I put enough cheese in the risotto tonight.” I had to agree. Cooking is like that and so is poetry. It reminded me how often I was jolted by a thought about some poem of mine that I was either working on or had already published in a book and now struck me as being in need of an additional word or two to bring it to life more fully. He said it was the same with him. We were just a couple of short-order cooks who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets.

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Charles Simic
Mark Strand, showing off his socks

Mark had a terrific sense of humor. It didn’t leave him even in the final weeks of his life when he was in great pain and still went on teaching and giving poetry readings. I saw him five days before he died. He was in a hospital waiting to be released so he could go home and die, since his case was hopeless. When the time came for him to dress, he didn’t want any help, but being so emaciated and weak it was taking him a long time to put on his shirt and button it, so I went over to give him a hand. As I was doing that, I couldn’t help telling him what a beautiful shirt he was wearing. And it certainly was! It took him a while to answer, but he finally said with a mischievous little smile: “I always dress my very best when I go to the hospital.” He didn’t add “to die,” but his smile and the look in his eyes told me that’s what he meant.