The Pulitzer Poet

April 15, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
A conversation with Mark Strand, who won this year's Pulitzer for poetry for his book Blizzard of One.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The award for poetry this year went to Mark Strand for his book “Blizzard of One.” It’s Strand’s ninth book of poetry. He has also published several books of translations, edited poetry anthologies, and written books for children. A former US Poet Laureate, Strand now teaches at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Congratulations, and thank you for being with us.

MARK STRAND: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve received many prestigious literary awards and the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Does the Pulitzer bring even more attention?

MARK STRAND: I think it does, although the MacArthur brought quite a bit. But, I mean, this — this is staggering. I mean, the phone never stops ringing. I’m glad I’m here now. I don’t have to answer the phone.

Poetry draws you into yourself.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m very interested in your ideas about how a poem works. You’ve said, “A poem releases itself, secretes itself slowly, sometimes almost poisonously, into the mind of the reader.” How do you think poetry does that?

MARK STRAND: Well, I think it — a lot of it depends on the reader. The reader has to sort of give himself over to the poem and allow the poem to inhabit him and — how does the poem do that? It does it by rearranging the world in such a way that it appears new. It does it by using language that is slightly different from the way language is used in the workday world, so that you’re forced to pay attention to it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it works differently than fiction, doesn’t it?

MARK STRAND: Well, fiction draws you out of yourself. Fiction creates a world into which you can imagine yourself. You identify with characters. You move in a plot that is different from the plot you live in every day. Poetry, I think, draws you into yourself, and you sort of — you engage with the world in a different way. I mean, you engage with the world as you know it, but slightly altered. It’s still your world, it’s not a world of other people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this seems related to something else you’ve said, which is that the poet’s obligation isn’t to the audience primarily, but to the language that he hopes he’s perpetuating. Explain that.

MARK STRAND: Well, I don’t think anyone is a poet unless they’ve read other poems. And I think every poet knows that he exists in a continuum, and that that continuum is made up of the language in which he writes. And I think the poet assumes that obligation, to continue the best that’s in the language.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s see how this works with your poetry. Would you read “A Suite of Appearances Four” for us?

MARK STRAND: Yes, I’d be happy to. “In another time, we will want to know how the earth looked then and were people the way we are now. In another time, the records they left will convince us that we are unchanged and could be at ease in the past and not alone in the present, and we shall be pleased. But beyond all that, what cannot be seen nor explained will always be elsewhere, always supposed, invisible, even beneath the signs, the beautiful surface, the uncommon knowledge that point its way. In another time, what cannot be seen will define us, and we shall be prompted to say that language is error and all things are wrong by representation. The self, we shall say, can never be seen with a disguise and never be seen without one.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this poem sort of illustrates what you said, the rhythm of that first line “In another time we will want to know how the earth looked then and were people the way we are now.” It does insinuate itself.

MARK STRAND: Yes. Well, we’ll be both at home in the world, but the truth of the world or the truth of ourselves will always be a little beyond us. There will always be something that we don’t know.


I look to be moved.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m not asking you, you notice, any more about what it means, because you’ve said poetry isn’t reducible, it’s not a representation of anything, that it doesn’t exactly mean or stand for something. Explain that.

MARK STRAND: Well, it can. I mean, it depends on what kind of poet you are. Some poets pay very close attention to the world and try to represent it verbally. Other poets try to create another world through which we see the so-called real world, and it’s hoped that through the imaginary world that they create that we see the real world more clearly. I mean, I think what poetry finally does is to help us experience our world as intensely as possible.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you look for when you read a poem?

MARK STRAND: I look for astonishment. I look to be moved, to have my view of the world in which I live somewhat changed, enlarged. I want both to belong more strongly to it or more emphatically to it, and yet, to be able to see it, to have — well, it’s almost a paradox to say this — a more compassionate distance.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And when you write, Mr. Strand, do you write in longhand?



MARK STRAND: Well, I think, when I write, I try to resist reading my poems as long as possible, and type seems too final. While I’m writing longhand, I’m under the illusion that I’m hearing the poem. Type seems almost like print, and you’re fooled into thinking — or I’m often fooled into thinking a poem is done before it’s actually done, if I see it in print.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do ideas come easily for you?

MARK STRAND: No. Clearly, I’m a rather slow thinker. Huh?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do they come to you?

MARK STRAND: Well, they come at any time. I can be walking down the street and the word “oxtail” can pop into mind and then “field” and, you know, “sky,” or I can be reading a book and suddenly misread a line and that could be a line of a poem. It could be extracted from a conversation. I’m always finding things said that strike me as charming and useful.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you get a line, how long, then, does it usually take to create the poem?

MARK STRAND: Well, it all depends. Some poems come immediately. Some poems are almost finished as, you know, they’re written. Other poems take months. And I’ve written on a poem for a year or two.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And here’s a question — excuse me for asking it, but many people want to know this — can you make a living writing poetry, or do you have to do something else, like teach?

MARK STRAND: Well, I think you have to teach. You don’t get paid very much for poems, and even if you were a very successful poet and wrote a lot of poems and published them and were asked to give many, many public readings, it would be very, very hard to scratch out a living that way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this is a statement about poetry in our society today.

MARK STRAND: Well, I mean, it’s a statement that poetry is not a well-paid endeavor. On the other hand, it’s one of the nice things about poetry. If you don’t feel the pressure of being paid for what you do, you’re free to do what you like.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mm-hmm. I see what you mean. Well, thank you very much, Mr. Strand, and congratulations again.