Today Mark Strand came to Montreal to read at Concordia University, as part of the Writers Read series. A tall hale 70-year old, centred, whimsical, bright, it was easy to see the young man in the old man. There were some hundred and fifty-odd in the hall, rather remarkable in this rather small Anglophone town in a Francophone city. I enjoyed his strange, spare - and rare -- poems. His reading style was not especially dramatic, but suitable to the understated humour of his work. He read mostly newer stuff, including some very recent, unpublished work. During the question period afterwards he was charmingly modest, wry. Standard questions: Who influenced you, and do you think you will be an influence on younger writers? For influences on himself, he mentioned Ashbury, but other seminal or influences he couldn't really remember. Some poets in the generation before his - like James Merrill - he found simply so skilful with language as to be inimitable. People like Merrill were so skilful that they "priced themselves out of the market" as far as imitators were concerned. As for the second part of the question, he said some of his early poetry got some attention and even inspired imitators, and some of his imitators wrote his own verse better than he did, especially as his own style changed with subsequent books…but who would want to imitate his weird stuff today? Sharon Olds does something different than he would want to do, but does it well, and is much more imitable than he was, and he would say was a much greater influence than he would ever be… When did you realize you would be a poet? someone asked. He said he has never really realized it. People said his work was great and that encouraged him, as you tend to believe whatever people tell you - but within himself, there was always a doubt. He has met people who are so sure of themselves he has felt genetically short-changed. Now though he feels that a self-doubt is healthy. There is a hope that he will be a seen as a poet, but he always has had this doubt.
Here's a favourite poem of mine from his earlier years. It's been much anthologized:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
For more work by Strand, click here.