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  • Reading As Poets Read: Following Mark Strand
  • Charles Berger

For close to a decade now, in the third or fourth phase of his career, Mark Strand has been giving us poem after poem marked by his familiar voice—luminous, deceptively casual, witty, allusive—as he builds up a body of work that thinks and sings ever more deeply about the poet’s unavoidable life of allegory. This growing summa of poetic knowledge and readerly pleasure demands, as the best lyric poetry always does, that readers give themselves over to the rigorous joys of figurative reading, figurative argument. You stare and stare at the poem until something flashes—linkages, interpretive genealogies, a conjunction of words that opens up arguments. Wittgenstein asked: “How can that which we understand in a flash, be put to a use?” Literary criticism, I think, provides an answer.

Reading a poet like Strand shouldn’t send you running to the library for secondary source material; instead, you let your memory for poetry run. This assumes that you indeed possess a memory for poetry. Nowadays—enter the polemics—poems are not considered to be sufficient contexts for critical discourse. They need to be supplemented, bolstered, by “wider” cultural texts. The remarkable poetry being written around us counts for very little in the precincts of academic debate, even though so much of this poetry speaks directly to issues of great polemical importance. And it should go without saying that the deep pleasures of tracking poetic language, wherever you will let it take you, wherever you will take it, goes untasted. The poems Mark Strand has recently been writing show him, I think, at the height of his [End Page 177] power, as he thinks through the question of his place in poetry, the place of poetry in his life and ours, and the strange institution of poetry: so gripping in its hold on those who practice it as readers and writers, so hard to locate among the public monuments. The cultural critics don’t seem to understand how one is chosen by poetry, and how the kind of poetry you choose to read, to write, to teach, to remember, constitutes a deep part of your public and private being.

At the same time, we should never espouse a defense of reading that limits us to the “poem-in-itself,” as if poems were not already layered, as if it were so easy to distinguish between imagination and interpretation. Poems have memories, as Rosanna Warren demonstrated so powerfully in her discussion of the formal genealogy of Auden’s Freud elegy. A poet like Mark Strand displays a ghostlier kind of memory that signals to us a little less overtly, but no less hauntingly. This is never more apparent than in the three new poems of his that I will now discuss: “Our Masterpiece is the Private Life,” “The Next Time,” and, briefly, “Great Dog Poem No. 2.” Since these poems have yet to be published in a volume, I need to quote them in their entirety.

Our Masterpiece is the Private Life


Is there something down by the water keeping itself from   us, Some shy event, some secret of the light that falls upon the   deep, Some source of sorrow that does not wish to be discovered   yet? Our happiness says we should not care, that desire Could cast its rainbow over the coarse porcelain of the   world’s skin And with its measures fill the air. Why look for more? Why not in the brightness of this weather allow ourselves to   be Astonished by the music and the privilege of our passing?


And now, my love, while the advocates of awfulness and   sorrow [End Page 178] Push their dripping barge up and down the beach, let’s eat Our brill, and sip this beautiful white Beaune. True, the light is artificial, and we are not well-dressed. So what. We like it here. We like the bullocks in the field   next door, We like the sound of wind passing over grass. The way you   speak, In that low voice, our late night disclosures . . . why live For anything else? Our masterpiece is the private life.


Standing on...

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