The Magazine

Modern Romance

The world according to Heaney and Strand.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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In his collection of essays, The Weather of Words, Mark Strand observes that "for Wordsworth the self precedes experience," whereas "for the contemporary poet, experience must precede a sense of self." Strand has the late moderns John Berryman and Robert Lowell in mind, who represent "opposite modes of autobiographical poetry" from the "subjective-visionary mode of Wordsworth." These "confessional" poets, Strand argues, are "revealed journalistically, not imaginatively." Strand joins Heaney in a shared interest in Wordsworth that is part of each poet's move away from the tenets of modernism.

The final poem in Strand's collection is a response to Christ's seven last words. The concluding section of "Poem After the Seven Last Words" begins,

Back down these stairs to the same scene,

to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass

and only the harp off in the distance and the wind

moving through it

We are once again amid mysteries of faith heard in the Romantics' aeolian harp, what earlier in the poem Strand has called "a formal nakedness . . . the truth / of disguise and the mask of belief . . . joined forever." What he celebrates is neither entirely a believer's nor a skeptic's view but elements of both, a "sea of endless transparence, of utmost / calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it / . . . what has not arisen in the human heart."

As Heaney can be, Strand is in dialogue with a sublime of Wordsworthian complexity, though a sublime found more readily in history than nature. The modernists touted the tradition and railed against Romanticism. Heaney and Strand are Romantics, and in that seem quite traditional.

Wyatt Prunty is Carlton Professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee).