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WHAT’S A POET LAUREATE TO DO? : According to Mark Strand, Just About Anything He Wants, Thank You

<i> Bill Thomas is co-author of "Lawyers and Thieves" (Simon & Schuster), a humorous look at the legal profession. </i>

ALL OF A sudden, Mark Strand, America’s latest official poet-in-chief, is sounding very Washington. A few hundred yards away, Congress is debating the federal budget, and here he is sitting in his book-lined study of an office across the street talking about taxes .

“Whenever I fill out my 1040 form, I usually just list my occupation as ‘writer,’ ” he explains.

But that was before his employment status was upgraded. Now he’s not sure how he’ll describe what he does for a living. Maybe next time, he should be more specific, he says. He uncrosses his long legs and gives his squarish jaw a thoughtful stroke. “How’s ‘U. S. Poet Laureate’? No, wait a minute. ‘Poet Laureate comma U. S.’?”

As he considers his new title, seeming to weigh each syllable with great care, a frown starts to wrinkle his brow. “Poet laureate. That has a slightly elitist ring, doesn’t it?” he notes disapprovingly. “Hmmm. You know, on second thought, I’d better just stick with plain ‘writer’ instead.”

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For a famous poet with an above-average interest in economics, the edit makes sense on two levels. Why disorient your muse and get the IRS on your case all at once? “I guess I’m just getting used to this job,” Strand confesses, adding a bit hesitantly that he still hasn’t figured out what his job really is.

Mark Strand is the nation’s fourth poet laureate, a yearlong post (often extended to two years) that was created in 1985 when Congress renamed the 54-year-old position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Chatting casually in his official digs, Strand is cool and easygoing, almost the exact opposite of his chiseled, brooding poems.

In England, of course, the tradition is centuries old. William Wordsworth was a poet laureate; so was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The British honor includes a generous guaranteed income for which appointees are expected to write poems for important occasions, versifying with equal dexterity on coronations, weddings, wars and funerals. Here in America, where the only poets with full-time salaries earn them at greeting-card companies, the poet laureate’s role isn’t nearly so well defined.

“That’s probably because there isn’t much popular interest in poetry, or good literature,” Strand admits. “The junk people read is appalling. What’s her name . . . Danielle Steel? She couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. Her use of language is a joke. She’s just symptomatic, though, of a lot that’s going on at the sub-literary level of the culture. Unfortunately, even with the title of poet laureate, there’s not much I can do about it.”

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Strand published his first book of poetry in 1964. Since then, he has published seven more. In 1987, he won a MacArthur “genius” award. His poems, spare and elegiac, deal with themes typical of much modern literature--death, disorder and the disappearance of meaning. But it would be wrong to call Strand’s vision despairing. On the contrary, his poetry affirms life and the imagination at the same time it recognizes the limits of both.

This is the first time that Mark Strand has ever made his living doing what he does so well. The careers of other famous poets bespeak the financial rewards of poetry writing. T. S. Eliot worked in a bank. Wallace Stevens was an insurance-company executive. For Strand, 56, teaching in the English Department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City is what usually pays the bills.

“Let’s see,” he says, searching his memory bank for specific numbers. “The most money I’ve ever made from a poem? Well, it would have to be something I sold in the 1970s to The New Yorker. They paid me $1,100. Big money in those days. It’s big money today. They ran that one for two full pages. But $1,100 poems, I can assure you, are few and far between.”

He’s currently on leave from the university and living in Washington’s Cleveland Park with his wife, Julie, who is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology, and their 7-year-old son, Tom. The nation’s capital, with its penchant for bureaucratese, has never been known as a very creative town, especially during the last year, when funding for many arts, including poetry, has politicians fighting the way they once did over the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit.

“The government gives artists token pats on the back, and what artists need and want is real support,” Strand complains. “Based on what poets get paid, most of them would qualify as homeless.”

In his new job, which comes with a $35,000 annual stipend, Strand hasn’t been asked to write any official verse, at least not yet. He isn’t even certain that’s a requirement. As far as he knows, he is supposed to give one yearly lecture and emcee a few special readings. Beyond that, he’s free to do whatever he likes.

“That’s the hard part,” he says, acknowledging one of the great themes in poetry and in life--what to do when you can do anything you want.

Created by a private endowment to the Library of Congress in 1937, the Poet Laureate (nee Consultant in Poetry) office has had more interpretations than “The Wasteland.” How poets spend their time while they serve is largely a matter of personal preference. They can read, write, lecture or just hang out in their richly appointed study. The sense of liberation has been inspiring for some, while others have been temporarily distracted by the cocktail circuit. But most of the 27 men and six women chosen by the Library to preside over America’s poetic sensibility had only the vaguest idea of what the job requirements were. William Carlos Williams was so confused by the lack of direction that he never showed up. Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress in the program’s early years, wrote, “A poem should not mean but be.” The same, more or less, is expected of the poet laureate.

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“I was there all right,” says James Dickey, who held the job from 1966 to 1968. “But I can’t remember being consulted.” He does recall enjoying himself, however, and getting lots of work done in the process. “I wrote a good deal of (the novel) ‘Deliverance’ while I was in D. C. Of course, I wrote it on my own time.”

“I got an incredible number of letters from people who were rather demanding in their desire to be told where they can publish something,” says Anthony Hecht, the consultant from 1982 to 1984. After awhile, he says, he began feeling like a Dear Abby for hacks.

The late Robert Penn Warren was the first to hold the refurbished designation of poet laureate. But Warren, who’d had the job before in the 1940s, made it clear he wasn’t in the nation’s capital to write “any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” His successor, Howard Nemerov (1988-90), had no such reservations. Nemerov never received any requests from the Reagans, but he did write odes on the 200th anniversary of Congress and the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

Nemerov doesn’t particularly miss being poet laureate. “You just sit around thinking,” is the way he remembers his tenure. But that’s not a criticism of the office itself, he hastens to point out, since he spends most of his time doing that anyway, and in pretty much the same kind of surrounding; after moving to Washington for the job, he liked the area so much, he often returns to visit and give readings.

DESPITE THE stories about social distractions and writer’s block, Strand hasn’t been hit by an identity cri sis. A rugged 6-foot-3 with a taste for earth-toned sportswear, mountain biking and pro basketball--he follows the Utah Jazz with a passion--Strand could easily pass for a retired power forward given to off-the-wall comments during the postgame show. If he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a poet laureate, he does know how to be quoted.

“Since everything comes from private funds, I could sit around and write dirty poetry all day, and there’s not a thing Jesse Helms could do about it,” he remarks in a perfectly crafted sound bite.

Critics describe Strand’s poems as “dark,” “brooding” and “haunted by death.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call them especially dark,” Strand says. “I find them evenly lit.”

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“Over the past three decades, Strand has perfected the chill-inducing poetry of nothingness,” writes critic Sven Birkerts in a review of “The Continuous Life,” Strand’s latest, which was published in October. But Birkerts, Hecht and others have noticed that in this recent work, his attitudes toward such subjects as death and an indifferent universe seem to be mellowing.

That seems evident in the title poem.

. . . Oh parents, confess

To your little ones the night is a long way off

And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them

Your worship of household chores has barely begun;

Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;

Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,

That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;

Explain that you live between two great darks, the first

With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest

Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur

Of hours and days, months and years, and believe

It has meaning, despite the occasional fear

You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing

To prove you existed . . . . *

DARK OR EVENLY lit, Mark Strand, who looks like Robert Redford playing the part of a tenured professor, couldn’t be hotter in the small but competitive world of poetry. “The Continuous Life” is already into a second printing, and his readings are standing-room only. But ask Strand what it feels like to be at the pinnacle of his profession, and he not only gets instantly humble but a little depressing.

“I’m surprised by anything that comes my way,” he says softly. “Life is a crap shoot. If you’re smart, I suppose, you learn that pretty early in the game and don’t anticipate getting anything. If you don’t, you’ll be very disappointed.”

The importance of uncertainty, of surprise, is another theme that keeps turning up in Strand’s poetry. Take these lines from “The Idea,” the first poem in his latest book:

For us, too, there was a wish to possess

Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,

Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless

In which we might see ourselves, and this desire

Came always in passing, in the waning light. . . .

Among false curves and hidden erasures . . . . *

Strand’s lyrical style echoes the works of Yeats and Auden and, if you listen closely, some of the migratory strains of his own life. He was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and grew up between Philadelphia and New York--his father was a salesman, and the family moved frequently. His first ambition was to be an artist. But “my talent stopped developing,” he says, and by the time he was 20 his interest shifted to poetry.

“I was never much good with language as a child. Believe me, the idea that I would someday be a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.”

Along with his eight volumes of poetry, he has published two books for children, two on art, two translations of Spanish fiction and three poetry anthologies.

Until he settled down in Salt Lake City nine years ago, Strand lived as an itinerant college English teacher. His resume, after he picked up the requisite degrees in art and writing at Antioch, Yale and the University of Iowa, reads like a tour of American higher education. He’s taught at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Washington, Columbia, Yale, Brooklyn College, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Virginia, Wesleyan and Harvard, just to name a few.

At the University of Washington in Seattle in 1971, he played center field on the English department’s softball team and lived in an apartment that contained a record player, a table and a foldaway bed. Pretty grim surroundings, he concedes, but in the golden days of the counterculture, there was also an up side.

“Groupies were a big part of the scene. Poets were the underground pop stars, and when we made the campus circuit, girls would flock around. It wasn’t bad. I rather liked the uncertainties of my life then. They kept me on my toes, kept me from falling in a rut and becoming too domesticated.

“Domestic stability is very good for a poet at a certain age. But early in life, he needs excitement. That’s when you fulfill all the romantic notions of what poets really are. Too bad it’s not possible to live that way longer. In the end, you’re not reckless, attractive or energetic enough to keep the pace.”

If America is looking for a post-hip bard to tie all this to a diminishing bottom line, Strand would be on any short list. In a decade when everyone from Donald Trump to the man on the street is lowering his expectations, his poems read like intellectual cold showers that hark back (with appropriate references to classical mythology) to all the Angst and dislocation of the 1960s. Only now the message has life-threatening implications, not to mention veiled allusions--as in Strand’s recent “Cento Virgilianus"--to the softening suburban real estate market.

At first we didn’t miss the towns we started from--

The houses painted pink and green, the swans feeding

Among the river reeds, the showers of summer light

Sweeping over the pasturelands.

So what if we’d hoped to find Apollo here,

Enthroned at last, so what if a cramping cold

Chilled us to the bone. We’d come to a place

Where everything weeps for how the world goes. *

THERE’S ONE SCHOOL of thought that holds that a person can’t begin to appreciate good poetry until he embraces his own mortality. It’s a notion Strand wholeheartedly accepts.

“From time to time, I get letters from people who tell me to cheer up. That’s always puzzled me, since I think of myself as a fairly cheerful guy already. Lots of my poems deal with temporality, with the notion that things don’t last, so I guess you could say they’re about death.”

What might be mistaken for a gloomy outlook on life, according to Strand, is really something closer to affirmation. “In some ways, poets give voice to the world. It’s through poetry that life itself speaks. What it has to say may not always be pleasant, but that’s the way it goes.”

Maybe that’s why poetry and politics don’t mix, why Washington is such a strange residence for the poet laureate.

“Politicians are always looking for people to agree with them, but they tend to do the most disagreeable things,” says Strand. “Look at an issue like the environment, for example. The way legislation is going, it seems as if politicians have no interest in acknowledging the world. They’d just as soon watch its speedy demise. Poets, on the other hand, tend to be cheerleaders for the universe. That’s why it’s dangerous for them to align themselves with political causes. People will say they’ve (the poets) been taken in. They should stick to the broad issues, and the broadest issues of our experience are life and death. That’s the stuff of all great poems.”

The most notorious collision between poetry and politics in Washington occurred in the 1940s, when Ezra Pound was arrested for wartime treason and brought here to stand trial. Pound had been making pro-Fascist broadcasts from Italy, and there were some congressmen at the time who wanted to see him hanged for it. Fearing he might be, several important big names in the business, including T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings, devised a plan to have Pound declared insane. Instead of being sent to prison or worse, Pound was committed to St. Elizabeth’s, a Washington mental hospital, where he spent 13 years holding court in what had to be history’s most unusual literary salon.

But Strand seems delighted to learn that the poet lived so nearby. From his office window, he can see the hospital off in the distance. “So that’s where Pound was?” he says, as if he were already planning a sightseeing trip. “Incredible.”

Strand has absolutely no plans to politicize the laureate’s office during his stay. In fact, he hasn’t met a single politician since he’s been in town. There is no official ceremony for the crowning of the poet laureate, no invitation to the White House. But it’s just as well, he says, since he’s starting to feel he’s neglecting his writing, a common complaint among poets before him, some of whom seemed to never fully recover.

“It’s hard to tell in some cases whether their powers started failing before the job or during. As poets get older, an energy crisis tends to occur. Some got better. Look at Robert Penn Warren. He was a marvelous poet in his youth and a marvelous poet right up to the very end. Thomas Hardy got better with age. But I would say, by and large, poets are more fun to read when they’re young. They’re caught up in the fury of their activity. When you get older, you have other appetites. One likes a good meal, one likes a good bottle of wine. One likes to go to bed early.”

And in Washington one likes to go to receptions, cocktail parties and dinners that end before the 11 o’clock news.

“When I meet people at parties, I don’t tell them I’m the poet laureate. But I’ve finally worked up the nerve to tell them I’m a poet,” Strand says. “The usual response is, ‘What sort of poetry do you write?’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ And it’s already getting too complicated. ‘Do you write epic poetry?’ ‘No, I write lyric poetry.’ And they’ll say, ‘What do you write about?’ Then I’ll say, ‘My poems really aren’t about anything but themselves.’ ”

And at that point, people generally return to their drinks.

“In a way, I suppose, poetry is elitist. You have to read well to read poetry, and the sad fact is that most people don’t have the patience or the talent to do that.”

Patience is something Strand says he’s learned living in the West--by which he does not mean California. He’s referring, he explains, to the true West, the mountains, the desert, the empty spaces between the Great Plains and the Coast where not much happens and life moves at a slower pace.

“Inspiration comes to me during times when I’m idle. Here, I’m too busy to be inspired. Also, in the East there’s a deterioration of the language that hasn’t reached the West. Out West, they may not say much, but at least you can understand what they’re saying. I grew up on the East Coast, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what people are talking about. They speak in incomplete sentences and expect you to fill in the rest.”

The same thing has been said of the way some poets write. But good poetry, Strand declares, raises language to its highest level, even when there appears to be nothing to say, as seems to be the case in “The End,” the final poem in his latest collection.

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,

Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like

When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end ,

Or what he shall hope for once it is clear he’ll never go back. *

Poets may make some people uncomfortable, Strand says. But imagine how poets must feel. It’s a hard life with little thanks, and not much time to get down on paper what you really mean. And here he is the poet laureate of America, and he hasn’t written a poem in two whole months.

“I’m not worried,” he says. “When the inspiration comes, I write poems, and when I’ve written enough poems, I publish a book. In that sense, you could say I’m very methodical.”

Actually, it astonishes him that people even buy his books. “I think of my readers as being my friends, but I sell more books than I have friends, so I must have readers somewhere.”

And in a world Strand himself often sees as devoid of any signs of intelligent life, that, he agrees with a smile, is something to believe in.

* From “The Continuous Life” by Mark Strand. Copyright 1990 by Mark Strand. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


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