And the sound of the other hand unpacking
For a few years in the 1990s, the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars employed Mark Strand. Strand was a superb poet, smart, tall, deep voiced and articulate, and as handsome as a film star. He authored more than 30 books and translated a half-dozen others. He won a Pulitzer, he was US Poet Laureate, and a MacArthur fellow.
He taught at 17 universities, by my count, including Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, the University of Brazil, and Cal State Fresno, usually spending only a few years on campus before moving on. The exception was the 12 years he worked for the University of Utah. He seemed restless. He wrote, “We all have reasons / for moving / I move / to keep things whole.” Or perhaps it was simply what he knew best, the moving around; before he’d moved past adolescence he’d lived in his birthplace of Summerside PEI, and Halifax, Montréal, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, and Peru.
Or perhaps he kept moving on because at some of those academies he wore out his welcome. He could be cranky and abrupt and acerbic. When he left Johns Hopkins for the University of Chicago in 1998, he issued a bitter statement about Hopkins being no place for a poet. My sense was that he was not well-liked at the university by the time he departed Baltimore for Illinois.
I might be wrong about that, of course, and could not have been the only person at the university who liked him. I did like him. We got on well and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. We were faculty colleagues, and I wrote about him a few times. When I was first appointed a visiting associate professor in the Writing Seminars in 1996, the department printed an annual poster that listed its faculty. There was my name alongside Alice McDermott and Mark Strand and I thought, Well, look who just made the varsity. Mark and I would talk about poetry and art—he had studied painting at Yale and wrote a fine book about Edward Hopper—and he once called to thank me for making him sound smart in print. He didn’t need me for that, but you’re welcome.
He preferred penning poems to typing them, because, he said, “A poem can appear finished just because of the cleanness of the typescript, and I don’t want it to seem finished before it is.” When he typed a poem, he said, he was reading it, but when he wrote a poem by hand he could hear it.
In 1971, his reputation was beginning its ascent when he was interviewed by The Ohio Review. He described what he felt after completing a poem:
Well, after the brief, and I think normal, period of exhilaration, there is a let-down. What I’ve done is written another poem. And what I have to do is write another one.
There is no working artist who would not understand that.
Art is thought that produces a thing. Art is muscle memory that produces a thing. Art is a search that produces a thing. Art is a practice that produces a thing.
Art is work that produces a thing.
The artist cannot escape the need, after however much work, to produce and distribute a thing. It’s not just a social expectation, or a commercial requirement, the step necessary if the artist wants to get paid. At some point we need to stop our creative labors and turn loose a poem, a story, a painting, a play, a dance, a sculpture, a song, a symphony. An essay. Lesser artists earnestly repeat bromides like “it’s the creative journey, not the destination,” but an artist’s path needs a destination. The artwork will turn out better if its creator sets out with little idea of where that destination might be. As Strand once said, “If I knew where I was going I probably wouldn’t go there.” But eventually we do need to find that we’ve ended up somewhere, and unpack.
Strand wrote in The Sargentville Notebook—I am shamelessly yanking this out of context to make a point—“…you have just arrived / with a suitcase which you pack / with one hand and unpack with the other.” As you unpack your newest poem or picture or story, your other hand is already packing up for a new one because what else are you going to do? You are an artist, and at the dimming of the day you love what you do more than what you’ve done. Like Bashō setting off on the narrow road to Oku, you love the walk more than you love Oku. But no Oku, no walk. That’s a tension that never goes away, because like a water strider the artist needs it—what else would he skate on to get from here to there, here to some there, here to somethere?
In conversation with Wallace Shawn for The Paris Review, Strand said, “I know nothing of the value of my work—all I know is that it’s what I do, and what I love to do.” He also said, “There was a period in my life, for five years, when I didn’t write any poems. They were among the saddest years of my life, perhaps the saddest years.”
I’ve been around for a while, so I know a lot of storytellers and painters and photographers and songwriters and composers. All would agree with Mark Strand. And I’ll wager that every one of them has, like me, finished a work, been pleased for a day or two, then thought, “Oh for fuck’s sake, now another one? How many of these am I going to make before I die?”
Then we set off for somethere.
Dr Essai regards himself as a man with a sophisticated mind. But he hopes never to become so sophisticated he can no longer appreciate the appearance on the pages of The New York Times of a cat named Pickles.