Mark Strand’s Selected Poems appeared late in 1980. The book, as crisp and elegant in appearance as the poems it contains, includes poetry by Strand from 1964 to the present, giving us a body of work that, perhaps more than any other, typifies our poetry of the last decade. Strand writes with a simplicity of statement, with a language cleanly pared down to the essentials. His lines are almost entirely clear of literary echoes from American and English poetry and when one does see resemblances, they are to poets Strand has translated, such as Rafael Alberti and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

I interviewed Strand last December at the close of his term as Visiting Lecturer at Harvard. He is tall (about 6’5″) and his looks seem to belong more to an actor or perhaps a painter—there is nothing tweedy or bookish about him. The interview took place at Robert Fitzgerald’s Cambridge apartment, which Strand was borrowing last fall. We met at Strand’s Harvard office and walked over during a snowstorm that continued during our conversation.

Richard Tillinghast: How has the semester been?

Mark Strand:I had the best time here lever had teaching.1think the students were brighter, more gifted, more various, than students I’ve had in the past. There’ve been students in my past experience who have been as gifted, but never have I had them all together. Usually, if you’re at Irvine, University of Washington, Yale, Princeton. . . .

You’ve taught at all those places?

I’ve taught at about sixteen different colleges.

How do you feel about that?

Well, I’ve seen the country! But I think it’s made people think that I’m really a wandering minstrel, and a little irresponsible, unwilling to settle down.

Most writing jobs are temporary. That’s the way English departments set it up, but sometimes I get the impression that they think poets themselves prefer the nomadic life.

I’m sure there are some who do. But poets are a luxury to most English departments. If they function in an undergraduate writing program, in expository writing or what have you, then they’re more valuable, but poets, you know, are pets. The professors or assistant professors have very little interest in what the local poet writes. This may not be true across the board, but it’s certainly true at many places where I’ve taught. There has been no interest in the visiting poet, and no interest in his work, or his work has never been read. He’s worthy of an appointment, of a short-term appointment, because he’s published several books. No one’s taken the initiative to see if those books were any good. And the poet’s the first one to go. I mean, they were hiring Black poets and Black fiction writers, but they weren’t hiring Black medievalists or Black specialists in the Romantic period. It was a way of killing two birds with one stone.

Let’s talk about teaching writing. How do you teach people how to revise their work?

Well, students are very insecure and depend on the teacher for supplying answers. Unless they are very gifted, I don’t think they can go much further in revising something than the teacher suggested. But the whole art of revision is to be absolutely reckless. The poem is expendable. Because you’re making a poem-you’re not just saving good lines and good images. The fabric of the poem changes whenever you add or take something out. It’s the whole poem that you have to keep in front of you. It’s that instant in which everything works in consort with everything else. That’s when you stop.

What do you mean about the poem’s being expendable?

I said that wrong. The good lines, the good images, or even the initial idea of the poem is expendable. What isn’t expendable is the poem, that product toward which you’re working. Some students refuse to take out a line that stimulated them in the first place or that the teacher praised. But if they could forget about that line, the rest of the poem might be a more malleable putty in their hands. I mean they could shape it into something that might be a poem later on. I think that we have to be aware of something underneath language, something that is mysterious and untranslatable, but that exists. And we have to realize that language is as close to that something as we’ll get, and although it doesn’t define that, something, it at least brings us in contact with it. And very often, when misused, language will obscure the way back to that luminous center, or will obliterate it entirely.

You started out as a painter. What parallel do you draw between the different arts?

I don’t draw any parallel. Having been a painter, and then having taken up writing with a sense of relief, I feel that there is an enormous difference between the two arts. The kind of imagination I had as a painter was totally visual. And whatever I wanted to say was reduced to a series of visual images. I say “reduced”; a painter would say “elevated,” “concretized,” or”established.” But I felt a certain diminishment of my being. Perhaps if I had been a better painter I would have experienced enlargement But when I wrote, even when I began writing and wrote very poorly, I experienced a sense of enlargement, or possibility. I knew that somehow I was writing more than I knew. There was more to me than I had hitherto been able to acknowledge or to see.

How would you say the act of writing compares with the act of painting?

I think that the activity of painting, and stepping back and seeing if the painting is going right, is largely unconscious. I think that you paint and then you see what it is that you’ve done, and then you make certain adjustments. When you write it seems that you’re in a state of consciousness which is more or less continuous. You are dealing with meaning, and when you choose words over other words it’s always toward greater clarity of sense.

When I used to paint I felt as if the painting was separable from myself as an object I was creating a thing. In poetry I’m much more aware of the poem as an act of creation between the writer and the reader.

I could be a smart-ass and say that your interest in people is why you read poetry, but that wouldn’t be true. I don’t feel that way. I’m not that terribly concerned, unless in the poems there’s evidence of a life that is particularly interesting.

Don’t you ever think that what you write might stimulate a reader’s interest in you as a person?

Perhaps. But it certainly is never my intention. I’ve rarely read anything that has moved me to find out about the author. I mean the poem is an artifact distinct from its maker by the time it’s finished.

I suppose I take a more animistic approach to those artifacts. Let’s take Frost as an example. A lot of things that have come out since his death suggest that Frost the person was quite different from Frost the character in his poems. I wonder what you think of writing, then, as the creation of a second self an ideal se? Don’t you figure in your work a lot?

Absolutely. I figure in my work as a character figures in fiction. And it is an ideal self. First of all, it’s a character who lives in something that I consider beautiful. So the context is the nicest I can provide for that character. The larger step toward idealization, also the kind of refinement and the kind of reworking that goes into the argument,the development that my character has  bestowed upon him in some of my poems is cultivated and special. He exists, first of all, in a purified idiom insofar as the writing is careful. So that’s true, yes. But if it were discovered that I were a horrible person, that I had repulsive idiosyncrasies, I wouldn’t want it to cast doubt on the legitimate character of my work. There is nothing that says that one’s writing has to accurately reflect his person. And why would one choose to write fictions if the fiction were going to be judged by the nonfiction?

And by its relationship to the . . .

To the facts. Frost is a great poet, no matter how bad a farmer, how neglectful a father, how poor a husband, how ambitious a poet. It has nothing to do with my judgment of his works. He addressed himself morally to the human condition not in his life but through his poems. That’s not necessarily an easier way. I’m not even sure he made the choice.

I was surprised to pick up traces of Frost in your lines, and something of his reading style in the way you read.

I would be hard put to name anyone as an influence. Just because it can be demonstrated that one of my lines sounds just like one of Wallace Stevens’s lines doesn’t mean that he’s a terrific influence. I mean, he happens to have been. I like to think that Frost has influenced me, as I like to think that Elizabeth Bishop has. I like to feel that rve been influenced and I don’t feel any anxiety about that. What I feel anxiety about is that I’ve been isolated from influences and have been the only influence on myself!

There’s very little in your poetry that reminds me of other writers.

Well, first of all, my reading of poetry occurred rather late. I didn’t grow up on it. I didn’t from the age of ten want to be a poet I wrote my freshman year in college, but then I gave it up.

You went to Antioch as I recall. Were you an English major?

Well, a literature major. They didn’t have English as such. It doesn’t mean that I came out with a good education. I never read Dante in college. I never read Don Quixote in college. In fact there was very little I did read.

How did you find your way to Antioch?

I had a girlfriend in high school who went there. Antioch wasn’t the hotbed of intellectual activity you think of it as being People were running off with each other into the bushes and experimenting with sex. It was a more savvy and sophisticated group sexually than I’ve ever encountered since. Liberated! I mean liberated in the fifties the way people were in the late sixties and earlier seventies.

Aren’t you from Nova Scotia?

Originally. I was born on Prince Edward Island. At the age of six weeks my parents moved to Halifax, where I stayed until I was one. Then they moved to Montreal, every summer being spent back in Halifax. When we moved to Philadelphia, and subsequently to New York, we would go back to Nova Scotia in the summers. A part of the fiction of myself is as a Nova Scotian. It’s the one stable landscape of my childhood, the one place I could identify with. I was constantly being uprooted, going from school to school, from place to place.My father changed jobs. He was a rootless person.

What did he do for a living?

In Philadelphia he sold items from a news service to Pennsylvania newspapers. But he had been a football coach. He’d been a salesman of one sort or another. He’d faked his way as an engineer at one point in his life. And toward the end of his life he was a professional TV personality in Canada, a professional answer man. He was an orphan from age ten. He left the Catholic orphanage in which he grew up and became a terribly learned, terribly insecure, enormously energetic person, an autodidact who seemed to have answers to everything and was a perfect TV answer man, with a great sense of humor so he could carry it off. He was boisterous, earthy, funny, Rabelaisian. He would quote aloud,  walking around in his underwear, page after page of Rabelais, by heart.

Now he sounds invented.

Mmhm. And my mother was very… he used to call her the Duchess. She was very prim, very proper, very elegant, had an almost mannered speech, so precise. She was Jewish, spoke Yiddish with an impeccable accent, spoke French perfectly.

Tell me about Nova Scotia.

My first memories are there. And I loved it. But it really has to do with the reinforcement of my own imagination.

What’s the sky like in Nova Scotia?

It’s like Maine, or more so. The color, the blueness of the sky. Well, the bluest sky I’ve ever seen is in Palo Alto, California.

It is? It can’t be. Or maybe it’s just the power of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, because I see the sky in Nova Scotia being a darker blue, more like a Piero della Francesca blue.

I don’t remember the sky in Elizabeth Bishop. But I remember the glitter and the intensity, the almost unreal jewel-like quality that objects on land have. Everything becomes a precious object, whether ifs a fish’s eye, or scales, or whatever. That’s one of the things I got from her, if I’ve been influenced by her at all. She’s a realist with such intensity that those objects are transformed and they do have a precious quality.

Do you get tired of hearing things like “the limited world of poetry”?

Yes. Very. I don’t believe that poetry’s a limited world, because it has a limited readership. The validity of poetry has nothing to do with how many people read it This is a way of judging poetry that is concocted by entrepreneurs of rock concerts, people like that. I think that if you have some sense of yourself, your ongoingness as a human being, it’s almost impossible to avoid poetry.

And the reason for its neglect?

Well, poetry is a horrible subject in high school, that’s the last time most people see it. It’s treated in an overly precious, and sometimes pedantic way by high school teachers. It becomes the language of embarrassing disclosures. And when there are embarrassing disclosures to be made, most people choose not to make them. Poetry becomes associated with the overly precious or the inadmissable.

The inadmissable has had its play in what is inaccurately called Confessional Poetry.

You’re right—it’s not a good term, because what is confessed is not nearly what is confessed in any juicy novel you read. It really has very little to do with confession. Those poets who confess tell us very little about their lives.

What people do you come in contact with who do read poetry?

I think that to read poetry, you have to read very attentively. Readers of poetry do focus on language and on individual words.They are rather specialized in the way they perform their readership. I don’t think you can read novels the way poetry readers read poetry, and get very far in any novel. But I do think that they have an ability to deal with language in the abstract. In the novel, style is almost obtrusive. The less language asserts itself in the novel, the better for most readers.

One of the big dangers, it seems to me, for poets, is to direct their work only to that small coterie they know will read their poetry.

Well, I just think that there’s enough of everyone in me that—I’m not saying this out of deep pride or anything—I’m ordinary enough so that the critic in me is really, you know, just like everyone else. I don’t think that I’m so special a person, that rm so idiosyncratic, that what I am other people can’t know. Is what I know so different from what other people know that it would produce a difficult poetry? The things I write about are pretty much what everyone else’s knowledge and experience is.

But now there’s almost a fear of poetry, a stock response—that poetry is too difficult for the ordinary person to understand.

This is part of the education industry. Professors wouldn’t have anything to do if they couldn’t enlighten students. Part of the texts they choose are dark texts that they can shed light on. I think, though, that poetry doen’t ask to be understood so much as it asks to be loved And why should we take poor poems and be forced to understand them before we even like them? It doesn’t happen anywhere else in our experience. We certainly don’t understand the person we marry before we marry her.