12/01/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Mark Strand (1934-2014)


"Waste makes haste. I hurry to the dump," Mark Strand writes in The Sargentville Notebook, an unclassifiable work probing the border between poetry and prose, philosophical speculation and standup comedy. But there was nothing wasted in the writings of the former Poet Laureate who passed away on Saturday, at the age of eighty, no sense of hurry in his varied attempts to record his explorations of the void, in a crystalline language that will endure.

He was a patient craftsman, who once said that distrusted the arrival of any cluster of words in the course of writing a poem, fearing that he heard it somewhere before -- one explanation for his originality. Between presence and absence, desire and plenitude, memory and oblivion, the lyrical and the tragic -- this is the terrain that he mapped with an exacting -- a twinkling -- eye.

There was no one like him -- which is why he was richly honored for his writings, with a MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and the greatest compliment of all: legions of imitators. He himself followed a singular course through fifteen collections of poems, a volume of short stories, a brilliant meditation on immortality titled The Monument, children's books, translations, anthologies, and monographs on the artists Edward Hopper and William Bailey. What Strand discovered is how, as he writes, "one word after another erases the world and leaves instead the invisible lines of its calling: out there, out there."

What is it? Let me try to explain.

For a graduate seminar at Columbia on Wallace Stevens, in 1981, he assigned students to make presentations on individual poems, and one week a classmate gave a tedious lecture on "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," a poem in fifty brief sections which, according to the student, was the subject of much critical debate. (He made no mention of its incendiary title.) Was the poem successful or not? The student rehearsed arguments for and against it, and after an hour or so Strand interrupted him. He did not know if the poem was successful, he said, but he did know that one summer when he was living in Maine he would mix a pitcher of Martinis in the late afternoon and then go down to the lake.

There he would sit on the dock drinking and reading this poem until he dozed off; upon awakening, he would write down the lines running through his mind -- the first draft of The Sargentville Notebook. What is it? An irreverent, and timeless, reflection on the human condition, which has delighted generations of readers and inspired many writers. "Where was it one first heard of the truth?" Stevens asked in "The Man on the Dump." His answer -- "The the" -- has provided no shortage of material for critics -- and poets like Mark Strand. Whatever he found between the dock and the dump, we are richer for it.