Strand writes off JHU Literature: Former poet laureate, feeling slighted by university, doesn't mince words as he heads to Chicago.

February 10, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Mark Strand, the former U.S. poet laureate who was lured to the Johns Hopkins University faculty four years ago amid much fanfare, is departing for the University of Chicago with a bitter blast at Hopkins, its administration and even Baltimore.

On April 1, Strand, 63, will begin teaching literature at Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary think tank. He said his salary will be nearly doubled, from $82,000 to $146,000, and Hopkins made no counteroffer.

"Had Hopkins made some kind of gesture, even for a lower salary, I would have considered it," Strand said yesterday. "But Hopkins wasn't willing to match, nor able to match, nor would they ever dream of matching. Apparently they didn't want me around."

John T. Irwin, a professor and former chairman of Hopkins' Writing Seminars, where Strand has taught poetry since 1994, confirmed that Strand "got an offer so good we couldn't match it. It was an offer that had him teaching less than full time. Extrapolated to full time, it was astronomical."

The current chair of the Writing Seminars, Jean McGarry, was quoted in Hopkins' student newspaper, The News-Letter, as saying: "He got a tremendous deal. It was an offer he couldn't refuse."

But Strand said he would have refused the offer if Hopkins had shown some interest. "Hopkins should check their coffers," he said, "see what kind of money they have and buy me back. I can be bought."

Richard E. McCarty, interim dean of arts and sciences, wouldn't discuss Strand's salary. "I met with him several times," he said last night. "I'm sorry to see him go."

The Writing Seminars program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last fall, trains aspiring poets, playwrights and novelists at graduate and undergraduate levels. Strand is the second luminary to leave the program in five months. Mark Crispin Miller, last year's department chairman, left in August for fTC a teaching post at New York University, claiming a lack of support for his nonfiction-writing plans at Hopkins.

But Strand took pains yesterday to disassociate his departure from Miller's. "This is no indication that the Writing Seminars are collapsing," he said. "It's too strong a program, an institutional fixture. But if more people leave, they'll be scratching the chicken-house floor."

Strand also took a shot at Hopkins' attitudes toward the humanities and poetry. "They're dominated by medical priorities," he said. "I think they feel, well, what's poetry anyway? What good does it do? It doesn't cure the sick, though people have tried to cure the sick with poetry, and it only makes them sicker."

McCarty, the interim dean, called Strand's charges "patently untrue. It's befuddling and bemusing that he would make those allegations. Of the $900 million fund-raising campaign currently under way, $140 million is targeted for arts and sciences."

McCarty added, "The humanities are something that I'm personally targeting as dean."

Strand will leave a highly regarded program associated with names like novelists John Barth and Stephen Dixon for a program at Chicago where he will associate with economist Robert W. Fogel and philosopher Jonathan Lear.

"It's a think tank, but it's also a program," he said. "There's a good deal of team teaching and a deep sense of unity, something I never felt at Hopkins. Hopkins was a disaster socially. I was always searching for that sense of collegiality I felt elsewhere.

"They'll pay 100 percent of college tuition for my kid, and there's a travel budget that could take me around the world several times."

Strand said he would miss Baltimore and his colleagues here. "Chicago has better restaurants and nightlife, but I'll miss Mastellone's," a deli and wine shop in Parkville.

Strand came to Hopkins from the University of Utah, where he'd taught since 1981. He has written numerous collections of poetry, a book of short stories, a novel, children's books, art criticism and numerous translations. He has won a MacArthur "genius" award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

In 1990, he was named the first U.S. poet laureate.

Pub Date: 2/10/98

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