Mark Strand, a poet of loneliness who brings a painter's eye to his verse, has been named the fourth U.S. poet laureate, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced yesterday. Strand, whose one-year appointment begins in September, will succeed Howard Nemerov.
"Poet laureate -- I can barely say it," Strand managed to get out yesterday, speaking from his home in Utah. "It's so grandiose a term."
Strand said he is just beginning to consider plans for his term as laureate. "I'll try to make whatever I do as lively as possible," he said, and suggested some projects might include inviting Eastern European poets to read here, or holding "a reevaluation of American poetry -- what's American and what's modern? There are lots of interesting issues that aren't really discussed much."
Born in 1934, Strand is the youngest writer to be chosen poet laureate, a position created in 1985 that has until now been reserved for elder statesmen of the field: first the late Robert Penn Warren and then Richard Wilbur. The author of seven books of poetry, Strand teaches English at the University of Utah and has published translations as well as children's books, experimental prose and art criticism.
"I think he knows how to talk about the loneliness of America better than anyone I know," David Young, co-editor of the Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, said of Strand. "The world of his poetry is a world that is rather spooky and often quite empty, and yet he is able to create haunting visual images."
Over the past decade Strand has not been very prolific, but a new collection will be published this fall, along with a reissue of his "Selected Poems." Born in Canada, he was trained as a painter and has taught at a number of universities. Strand and his wife and young son plan to move to Washington for his term, the first laureate to do so.
"Salt Lake is a nice place but it's not a real city," he said. "Just the opportunity to go to museums and good bookstores and be associated with a great library -- that's all very appealing."
When he arrives he will occupy a position that remains somewhat amorphously defined.
The post of poet laureate is the creation of the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, an amateur poet who campaigned for years to rename the position of Library of Congress consultant in poetry, hoping the lofty title might bring new attention and status to poetry in this country.
And Strand admits the title has its advantages. "It's a name that has a lot of power," he said. "Someone at the Library of Congress said everyone in Washington is a consultant. So being poetry consultant doesn't make you unusual. But poet laureate -- that's something different."
"It's a very nice, honorable thing," Nemerov said yesterday. The only laureate to extend his role for a second year, Nemerov traveled here frequently from his home in St. Louis and worked with Washington schoolchildren at the library. "I think the point has been that each person makes up the job for himself -- there are very few demands," he said.
In fact, there are only two demands: to deliver a lecture in the fall and a poetry reading in the spring. Rather than a role with clear requirements or goals, Young said, "I think it's thought of more as an honor, one more way we have of recognizing accomplishment."
As to the influence of the post on American poetry, Young said, "I don't think it's had much effect. It may just be the country's too big and the culture is too Balkanized for anyone to speak for American poetry at any given moment."
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
-- "Keeping Things Whole," by Mark Strand