Busy poet keeps his pace leisurely

April 20, 1994|By Lili Wright | Lili Wright,Special to The Sun

SALT LAKE CITY — Each morning, after his wife and son have left for the day, Mark Strand climbs the stairs to his third-floor study and begins the business of writing poetry.

He often starts by staring out the window, studying how the appearance of the mountains has changed overnight. Then he settles down to read -- poetry, classics or art books -- scribbling down words that pop off the page and suggest other words he may need later.

Editors periodically call, trolling for work or asking him to do a reading in New York or Nicaragua or some other place he doesn't want to go. Mr. Strand in turn makes calls, usually to other poets.

RF For a break, he sneaks downstairs to play solitaire, listen to CDs

and plan that evening's pasta.

Poetry, he says, will not be rushed or commandeered. "My

problem is not to move too fast," explains Mr. Strand, who lives in a gray, stucco house near the University of Utah, where he has taught since 1981. "Sometimes I feel like a cipher, as if language were congealing into poems and I was the catalyst. When I try to make sense or will poems into being, they are rather banal."

Moving slowly has kept Mr. Strand, 59, a busy man. He has written nine collections of poetry, a book of short stories, a novel, children's books, art criticism and numerous translations. He has won the MacArthur "genius" award and Rockefeller, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

In 1990, he moved to Washington to serve as U.S. poet laureate. This fall, Mr. Strand will become the Eliot Coleman Professor of Poetry in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He's already been in town a few times for house-hunting; he is returning Thursday night for a reading at Hopkins.

He looks forward to returning to the East Coast -- close to oldfriends, relatives, a rich cultural life and the ocean. He likes the intimacy of the Writing Seminars and is eager to join colleagues who are "not so much academic as intellectual."

One future colleague in the Writing Seminars, poet Elizabeth Spires, is especially looking forward to his arrival. In 1973, she was 20 years old and interested in learning to write poetry. She enrolled at Princeton, she says, "basically so I could study with Mark."

"He was a wonderfully supportive teacher," she recalls. "The students who he believes in, he really makes you believe in yourself."

In an interview with The Sun in January when his appointment to Hopkins was announced, Mr. Strand explained his philosophy of teaching poetry: "I want students to leave class feeling that they want to write, that it's possible. In a world that pays very little attention to poetry, it's still very important."

"He made me want to read more poetry," Ms. Spires affirms. "The way he did that was to say of your own work, 'This reminds me of a well-known poet or poem.' He would never interrogate you: 'Have you read this poet? You should.' It was more in the flow of the conversation. I felt I wanted to keep up with him. I think he'll be a marvelous addition to the faculty at Hopkins."

On this sunny Saturday morning in Utah, the poet sits on a wooden chair in his study, his arms and legs casually crossed. As conversation moves from religion to risotto to Red Grooms, his gravelly voice meters out sentences as thoughtful and clever as the poetry he writes.

Mr. Strand is a handsome man at 59; today jeans and a bookstore T-shirt hang cleanly over his 6-foot-3-inch frame. There is something warm and engaging about his weathered face.

Poet Joseph Brodsky first saw Mr. Strand's picture in a paperback poetry anthology he was browsing in a Russian bookstore 25 years ago. Mr. Brodsky liked his face. Then he read his poetry and liked that, too.

"It has wonderful pouring, rhyme structure like water in a fountain from shell to shell," recalls Mr. Brodsky, who succeeded Mr. Strand as U.S. poet laureate. "The more I read and reread the poem, I though: 'I want to be like that man' . . . He reminds me of Clint Eastwood -- just smarter. There's something about the mannerisms, the posture, the temper of the voice. 'Make my day' could be easily Mark's."

Mr. Brodsky calls Mr. Strand the most civilized mind in poetry today. The two friends visit regularly and send each other work to critique. It is Mr. Strand's unpredictability that Mr. Brodsky most admires, his ability to leap adroitly between the emotional and the abstract.

"If we were living in the more civilized world, Strand would be spoken off the rooftops," Mr. Brodsky says.

Mr. Strand's recent years have been particularly fruitful. Since 1990, he has published two books of poetry, "Dark Harbor" and "The Continuous Life," and a book on American painter Edward Hopper. Within the year, he expects to complete another book of poetry.

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