It is one of those autumn days when Washington seems less a city than a sponge, the air neither cold nor warm, only heavy and wet. Perhaps that's it -- the weather. Or maybe he picked up the flu in New York over the weekend. Or could it simply be the East Coast, the absence of vistas, the absence of sky.
Whatever the reason, Mark Strand sinks lower into his chair, his long body wrapped in the hazy inaccessibility of the sleepy. He puts his glasses on, takes them off, slides them into his pocket, removes them, tries them on again. He speaks slowly and tentatively, choosing a word and then questioning it as if someone else has spoken -- putting an idea on, taking it off. The new U.S. poet laureate apologizes for his lassitude. He stretches. He sinks deeper.
His feet are wrapped in suede wingtips the color of melted milk chocolate. His blue jacket is so soft and loose it seems a deliberately ironic comment on the cardboard-stiff blue blazers that populate this city. Poetry is not generally known for the handsome virility of its practitioners, and from a certain angle Strand can look as professorially dour as the next academe. But much more often, the silvering hair and the strong face with its intriguingly angled lines give Strand the appearance of a seasoned model rather than a poet whose current work is praised as among the best in the country. At 56, he is without a doubt the best-looking poet laureate to grace this country (this is a simple fact, but all apologies to Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur and Howard Nemerov).
The West, that's what he's talking about -- the West, which he is missing, just as he misses the East when he is not here. A professor of English at the University of Utah, he makes periodic journeys to New York to see friends and visit galleries and "have my tank filled up with culture," but now he and his wife and child have moved to Washington for his laureate year and he finds himself homesick.
"You can't have nature and culture together," he says with resignation. "The huge industrial fortunes imported the culture to this country. The West got into it rather late."
So instead of museums and poetry readings you get mountains and sand and sky. Strand was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and lived for many years in New York, but when he speaks of Utah his voice has the certainty of a convert. He does not even bother to go into detail beyond the most general of adjectives, as if a simple description proves the superiority of his adopted home. "The West is desert and red and brown. The East is green. We have real mountains. You have hills. Our air is dry. Yours is wet."
Theland and weather find their way into his poetry, of course. "Just being in the West and looking at mountains every day, they suddenly appeared in my poems." However, he is hardly a nature poet. When classification is required (a process all poets hate), the label "surrealist" tends to come up. He writes often about the challenges of writing and reading, both of them activities that seem to lead into a strange other world. Although his poetry is not inaccessible -- not actively obscure, as some poetry is -- it does have an alien quality. His poems are often quiet, almost eerily so, with short lines of verse that describe the uncanny landscape of dreams, in which everything seems to vibrate with meaning but the meaning itself remains obscured.
His new book, "The Continuous Life," includes the poem "The Idea," which begins this way:
For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley's lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures ...
David Lehman, editor of the annual "Best American Poetry" anthology, finds in Strand's work the tastes of a visual artist, and in fact Strand studied painting before devoting himself to poetry as a young man. "The incidental details reveal the painterly eye," says Lehman. "The descriptions of the sunset and the back yard and the meadows -- the background reveals what a painterly sensibility there is."
Told of Lehman's comment, Strand responds, "I think it's another way of saying visual acuity -- my eyes are always open and I respond visually to the world around me. I'm always evaluating things that I see."
Strand no longer paints. He keeps an easel, seemingly more as a reminder than as a useful tool, and remains a devoted observer of art. In addition to his eight volumes of poems, a collection of short stories, the anthologies he edited and the translating of foreign poets he has done, Strand has written about painting and photography, published a book on the still-life painter William Bailey and is now at work on one about Edward Hopper (as well as a children's book illustrated by artist Red Grooms).
"The thing about him that is so extraordinary is that he is a complete aesthete," says Lehman. "He has an exquisite sense of the aesthetic element of life."
In both Bailey and Hopper, Strand seems drawn to artists who share some of the elusive quality of his own work. "There is a hiddenness about Bailey's still lifes that sets them apart from others," he wrote in his book on the painter. "An air of refusal inhabits them, a calm, aristocratic denial of access."
"I find them both strange," he says of the two painters. "With Bailey, it's about containment, hiddenness, silence. Hopper, it's about the moment in between -- in-betweenness. I don't even know what I mean when I say that, but the paintings seem to take place just after or before something happens. He's a mysterious painter, and America at its most workaday appears very mysterious in his paintings. The most average American morning seems almost dreamlike in Hopper."
Yetmuch as he studies and lives in art, Strand says poetry comes not from paintings or Western vistas but from other poems. Poets must read, he says, and that is not easy work, which is probably why many people do not do it.
"If it's easy it is suspect, because then it doesn't have the requisite density a poem should have. Poems are not like reading the newspaper or a novel -- each word in them has a special gravity. When a word is chosen, it's been a terminal choice. You feel that compression."
He pauses and considers.
"It's sort of an elitist entertainment. It presupposes a lot of things. You have to be able to read well. It doesn't seem many people know how to do that. It means you have to spend a lot of time reading and rereading to get more out of it. One of the things that militates against poetry's popularity is it does demand participation. A poem will only go 50 percent of the way."
The rewards, he says, are private. "It doesn't teach us anything. We don't learn new things about the world when we read, but we learn new things about our responses to the world, and our responses may be expanded. I think in our deepest selves we're really mixed up and we live in a sort of mess. Poetry can straighten that up. It tends to formalize the mess."
As poet, he creates the formality. "I feel I'm solving a puzzle, I'm creating a contrivance, a box, something that contains itself perfectly. Something that's well contained."
He stares out past the window and into the hazy day. Is that what he meant to say, how he meant to say it? Perhaps not. He will unscramble it later.
Strand is the first poet laureate to move to Washington for the job, and when he was chosen, observers remarked that he was the youngest of the four laureates and was at the obvious height of his career. But like all his predecessors, Strand treats his position with what seems the requisite degree of embarrassment, like someone self-consciously discussing his family inheritance.
"I feel I wear it lightly -- as it should be worn," he says, "and I believe the public treats it lightly -- as it should be treated." He will invite some poets to visit, preside at literary events, plan a conference on American poetry and modernism he hopes to hold in the spring. "I don't think I as a single person can do much for poetry," he says, speaking of poetry with a capital P. As for the small-p poetry, he will do his work: write, look at paintings, work out the puzzle.