Podcast #39: Mark Strand on the Artistic Imagination

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
December 2, 2014

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This week on the New York Public Library Podcast, we honor Pulitzer Prize winner and former US poet laureate Mark Strand, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 80. The beloved poet and author joined us this October to discuss art, imagination, and the life of the mind. We are especially lucky to share this intimate conversation between Mark Strand and his daughter, Books at Noon host Jessica Strand.

Mark Strand

Although eventually Strand would become the Poet Laureate of the United States and win the Pulitzer Prize, his aspirations were not always literary. He recalled that early in his life, he was more enamored of visual art:

"I grew up in a household where books were very important, and I spent most of my youth escaping the reality of books. I'm not one of those writers who grew up with literature. Although my parents begged me to read at least an hour a day, I found ways around that. I was usually out playing ball or something like that. I always thought that doesn't mean that I wasn't in the very back corner of my mind interested in what they were reading; it just seemd their domain. It just didn't seem mine. I gravitated toward the visual arts. I liked looking at pictures, and my mother had gone to art school and we had a lot of art books around, and I would really study photographs of Donatello's sculptures. He was one of my mother's favorite sculptors. I would leaf through the books of American painting, European painting that we had in the house, and it always seemed that I was destined for a life in the visual arts."

Later, when Strand began to write poetry, his training as an artist greatly influenced his interest in form:

"That formal commitment to art carried over into poetry so that when I began writing, I wrote in meters and I wrote in rhyme. I wrote sonnets in imitation of Robert Lowell or people I liked then. And then, by the time I was forty, I woke up and discovered, 'What have I done with my life? I'm not fit for anything. All I can do is write poems!'"

The poet explained that although his poetry might not be seen as explicitly autobiographical, his body of work does suggest the silhouette of his imaginative life:

"There are a couple of ways poems reflect a life. They can reflect the life by accounting for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a kind of biographical poem that I find boring. But, there's another biography or autobiography that we're living which is the psychic one, which is the one our imagination lives. And the imagination is the tool from which we draw our imagery, the music that we hear that feeds our poems. The life of the imagination is the life that interests me, and as I go back, I've never seen all my poems until the Collected Poems came out, and I began to think that yes, there is an arc here, and some of these early poems, certainly not all, but some of them are pretty damn good... I just suddenly saw that this is my life, that this is my autobiography but not an autobiography which I star as the guy Mark Strand who gets up in the morning, has breakfast, goes to work, you know, reads a book, watches the news, goes to sleep. No, the life that the poems register is the life of the mind, the imagination; it's the inner life."

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