S Is for Something: Mark Strand and Artistic Identity

Mary Jo Salter

Winter 2017

Those of us who got to spend time with the poet Mark Strand, summer after summer, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, will recognize the tongue-in-cheek tone of the following remark: “It is sometimes—but not always—nice to think that people may be talking about you when you are not present, that you are the subject of a conversation you have not steered in your direction and whose evolution depends on your absence. This is what happens to the famous. And to the dead. They can be the life of the party and never show up.”

Mark Strand was one of the least explicitly autobiographical poets of our time—he hardly ever revealed the literal, factual details of his life beyond the unsurprising back story that he had some parents, a sister, some wives, and some children—but he was nonetheless always writing about his own sensibility, which accommodated knowledge of himself as the life of the party. On the other hand, he was obsessed with the idea of not showing up—with being one whose absence was noted, or who turned absence on its head. “In a field / I am the absence of field,” he wrote in the early, over-anthologized poem “Keeping Things Whole,” which every newspaper reliably quoted when, to the sorrow of us all, he died in 2014.

Some of us were lucky enough to be at Sewanee in 2012, when Strand delivered something just for us—a craft lecture he wittily called “On Nothing.” In it he made a distinction between nothing and nothingness—the latter being something a little too big to count as nothing. Nothingness, in other words, was a concept, a thing about nothing rather than actually nothing. He wrote me a few times as he was composing this talk and boasted amusingly about how short it was. “Dear Mary Jo,” one email went, “I wrote my talk and it is fairly peculiar. I had hoped for greater peculiarity, but I kept getting bogged down. Anyway, I can now forget about it until I give it.” Forgetfulness was also big with Strand. He wrote a wonderful poem in the 1990s called “Always” in which some people—“the great forgetters”—sit around a table forgetting things one by one: North and South America, the moon, the grass, the trees. Finally they forget down to absolutely nothing: a condition that occasioned, in the poem’s concluding line, “the blaze of promise everywhere.” Surely Mark Strand knew he would be one of the remembered poets of our age, that the “nothings” wouldn’t include him. Why? One reason is that he was so entertaining on the subject of nothing.

Mary Jo Salter's eighth book of poems, The Surveyors, will be published by Knopf in 2017. She is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

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