This Old Poem #34:
The Poets Laureate Special Edition #1:
Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/02
1 of the best
poets I have ever personally known, Greg Clark, once summed up Mark Strand’s
corpus in 1 word: dull. GC thought MS had nothing to offer &
was 1 of the worst poets out there. Personally, I don’t have as low an opinion
of the Canadian (YES, he is Canadian- not American!) poet as GC did. But he is
not a good poet. & he is very dull. Perhaps this is a consequence of being a
typical Academic. Nonetheless his poems are sort of watered down Wallace Stevens
(We’re talking 200 proof to about 10!) admixed with trite imagery & an
attempt to be pseudo-surrealist. This means his poems are dull on the page &
in reading. ‘Real’ Surrealists are addicted to typographical trickery. MS,
for better or worse, has eschewed this throughout his career. MS is also known
for his obsession with painter Edward Hopper, as well becoming the U.S. Poet
Laureate from 1990-1991. I guess, unlike the U.S. Presidency there is no
requirement to be born in country. While quite demotic there is something
disheartening to know that even foreign doggerelists can hop on the ultimate
poetic gravy train.
Did any of this acclaim ever do anything to increase his poetic skillery? What do you think? In fact, this essay’s titular poem is from his 2nd book of verse, Reasons For Moving, published in 1968. Supporters of MS hail it as deeply surreal. We’ll get to that in a moment. Nevertheless, MS has had a stellar ‘career’- along with being a PL, he also has traveled extensively, translated 3rd World poetasters, & edited a # of anthologies- that surefire tool to ensure that others will include your bad poetry in their mags & anthols, as long as you quid pro quo to them. MS has never been 1 to miss his quo by fucking a quid.
But before we tackle this PL’s well-known poem let us briefly look at another of his poems hailed as being vintage Surrealism:
A Piece Of The Storm
For Sharon Horvath
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed.
That's all there was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
"It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening."
If you’ve read prior TOPs, or my other essays, you know what an
absolute sham Surrealism is. Basically you just slight skew a known image or
saying, declare it ‘Surreal’, & voila. If no one appreciates the lack of
quality it is because they are ignorant & small-minded. Back to the poem,
though. What is surreal about this? Yes, the scene described is attempting
Hopperian depth. However, the whole success to Hopper’s art was that the
situations seen by the viewer were drew instinctual responses. By trying to
convey this in words you do the exact opposite. At least by simply describing a
scene. The way to get an instinctive reaction is to draw the reader in with you,
& let actions flow at both the poem’s speaker & reader at the same
time. There are a # of ways to do this psychologically- the most effective is to
start the poem off by somehow subtly linking the 2. I’ve done that in a # of
poems- most notably with NINTH
MURDER: FACE OF EVIL or A SPIC TAKES ON A
NIGGER: YOU DECIDE WHO WILL DIE! A Ballade. This poem
strives so hard for that Stevensian ‘lightbulb’ that, even though it’s
only 11 lines, you are snoozing by the time the so-called payoff of ‘"It's
time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening."’
comes. Of course, Surrealists avoid thinking about these more ‘earthly’
realities because, well, they’re Surreal.
On to the main poem in question. As usual clichéd phrases & tropes are underlined & italicized:
Ink runs from the corners of
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
There really is not much here to work with. This is a typical MS poem. There are no thoughts nor phrases that make the reader snap to attention. 1st off, the title states what the poem makes blatantly obvious so there is no play nor tug between the poem & its title. That both are so dull & have such a workshop theme- the poem as ‘real world object’- are bad enough coming from teenagers who try their hand at poetry. That MS was in his mid-30s when writing this only bespeaks his lack of ideation. Look at how plainspoken the trite ideas are. My God, if the ideas are trite at least make them technically sizzle. But no. Just more dullery. The last stanza is so dull, so predictable, given the title & setup, that with just a single instance of wink-wink knowingness earlier in the poem 1 might be able to state that MS was a brilliant parodist. He’s not. He’s merely clueless & stolid. Yet, MS is 1 of the better selling poets of the last 40 years. Why? Basically because of his rugged Marlboro Man good looks- even in senescence. But, I’m not here to lament how his being the Robert Redford of contemporary verse has succeeded in foisting his crap upon several generations. No. I’m here to show you how this poem can be made- well- not vomit-inducing. Here ‘tis:
There Is No Happiness Like Mine
The librarian does not believe what
and walks with her hands in her dress.
She begins to stamp her feet and weep.
The poems are gone.
title is changed to the excised line 2 from the original. Often better titles
can be found in excess lines. This title, while not brilliant, is better than
retaining the original, which given the rewrite’s brevity, would still hold a
mighty sway over the poem’s body’s interpretation. Instead of triteness we
now have a declamation, if not exclamation. The new 1st line is now
unclear as to whether the title's speaker & the librarian are the same
person. Note- by the 2nd word in the rewrite we already have a
dramatic tension utterly lacking in the original, not too mention A Piece Of
The Storm, or MS’s whole oeuvre. By the single line stanza 2 we are left
to wonder whether the title refers to what that line states or something unsaid.
Is this rewrite deep? No. But it is markedly a better poem than the original.
Hell, just using the rewrite’s title on the original would bump the poem up
about 10 points. So why is MS so consummately lazy a poet?
That’s like asking why the Marlboro Man never spoke? Why would he need to, with such a willing audience? Anyway, stay tuned to this same TOP channel, at the same TOP time as I bring you a host of Poetasters Laureate! [Cue the shiver!]
Final Score: (1-100):
Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry: 45
TOP’s There Is No Happiness Like Mine: 72
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