mark strand: i am not what i am


Marvin Bell and Mark Strand walk into a bookstore in Iowa City. Neither of them sees any of his books on the shelf. Dejected, Bell says, “They must not stock any of my books.” Strand replies, “They must be sold out of mine.” Even in an age so densely populated with poets, few escape anonymity, and those who do usually escape into a life as the circus animal of some university’s English department. A few of these poets, such as Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, or Ted Kooser, even sell a hundred thousand copies of their books. But Mark Strand embodies a different sort of “celebrity.” After all, how many contemporary poets are reviewed in the pages of Elle (where Blizzard of One was praised as a “beautifully wrought collection of poems”)? Good luck finding Kooser’s name in Liz Smith’s gossip column, or Collins’s among the elite of the New York art world. Elsewhere, a former colleague at the University of Chicago writes, “He’s also deadly handsome, tall and rugged; classic good looks. If God were to put an instrument on earth to make women suffer, Strand is it.” (As if his Pulitzer were not enough . . .) Not only do Strand’s poems, stories, and reviews appear frequently in The New Yorker, but the magazine also made his film debut (in Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls) the subject of a “Talk of the Town” piece. It is strange, then, that most critical responses to Strand’s work have emphasized his evacuation of the self.

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