Mark Strand died today at the age of 80. The Montreal-born writer, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1990-1991, was also a brilliant translator. When I was a junior editor at Ecco Press in the late 80s, Strand used to visit the editor in chief, also an excellent poet, Daniel Halpern, to work on a number of projects translating and promoting international poets, especially from Latin America and Central Europe. The women in the office swooned since Strand was far and away the most ruggedly handsome man in all of poetry, the New Yorker set’s Clint Eastwood. And it was the fact of his attractiveness that made it especially odd Strand became one of the comic masters of contemporary American poetry. People that good looking are almost never funny, in part because they don’t have to be or know how to be—and sometimes it is because they don’t want to risk undermining this thing that the world often believes, because the poets often say so, is a kind of genius: beauty.
Strand’s wit is often attributed to the fact that he started his professional career as a visual artist, whereby his poetry famously drew on visual influences like the surrealist movement. However, I’m not convinced that’s the best way to read Strand’s work, or even that he saw his work primarily in this context.
In a 2011 interview with Tablet magazine, Strand talks about being Jewish, or how he doesn’t feel very Jewish except in one key respect. “What I do think is Jewish about me is a certain sense of humor. I sometimes feel like a middle-European Jew. And I feel, of all writers, the greatest kinship with Kafka, his humor, his strangeness.”
Strand first staked out this territory in his 1964 debut collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open. Thus it’s useful to re-read what’s perhaps his most famous poem, "Keeping Things Whole” —it’s quoted in all the obituaries—in this light.
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Ok, it’s a philosophical poem, clearly influenced by Strand’s other great master, Wallace Stevens, that tackles some of the big issues of 20th-century continental philosophical discourse (like presence and absence). But it’s also a really funny poem, where the poet plays a daredevil Chaplin who takes the stage without any props except his own mind.
The first thing I thought of today when I heard of Strand’s death was his riposte to Theodor Adorno’s famous question, “How can one write poems after Auschwitz?” Strand turned it on its head: “How can one eat lunch after Auschwitz?” Given the nature of the subject, the remark has been explained and clarified countless times by critics and colleagues (maybe Strand himself, too, I don’t recall) looking to smooth out its apparent roughness. But I think it goes directly to the point, as if to say, no, evil doesn’t get that, too. Evil doesn’t win. So, like Kafka, Strand was a moralist as well as a comic. May Parnassus welcome him, though none can fill the spaces where his body’s been.