* stepping into the river with mark strand

When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive… —Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, 1998

* mark strand *
* mark strand 1934 – 2014 *

What moves me most about the above quote is how clearly it states the power of a poem to color one’s view of the world. You can’t step in the same river twice, Heraclitus said (and Borges quoted religiously 🙂 ). Poetry, then, is a way to document what the second steps into the river – and the third, fourth, etc. – feel like. You leave a good poem different, not for any act of manipulation, but simply an act of listening and attention, words that apply to reading and prayer.

I was happy to share the following poem with my students this week. I told them one of the things I love about it is how Strand gets away with repeating “someone” and “something,” big no-no’s that I look for when I revise my own work. Usually “something” is not pointing to an ethereal wonderment, but at a lack of specificity. In Strand’s poem, the words become the very air of a party, and then the air of the universe.

From the Long Sad Party – Mark Strand

Someone was saying
something about shadows covering the field, about
how things pass, how one sleeps towards morning
and the morning goes.

Someone was saying
how the wind dies down but comes back,
how shells are the coffins of wind
but the weather continues.

It was a long night
and someone said something about the moon shedding its white
on the cold field, that there was nothing ahead
but more of the same.

Someone mentioned
a city she had been in before the war, a room with two candles
against a wall, someone dancing, someone watching.
We began to believe

the night would not end.
Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.
Then someone said something about the planets, about the stars,
how small they were, how far away.


Happy planeting!


* some Rimbaud thoughts & eating your own heart out

I is an other.

Arthur Rimbaud


Mr. Rimbaud may be responsible for our contemporary poetry workshops.  The spirit of these words can be heard around any discussion of a poem in terms of its speaker: the speaker seems real; the speaker isn’t believable; it feels as is if the speaker has issues with his father, etc.

Anything to keep from seeing a poem in terms of “the poet.”

Think in terms of Heraclitus who says You can’t step in the same river twice.  You can’t step into the same poem twice.  Even a week after writing the first draft of something, you come back to the same words a different person.  Maybe you’ve picked up some image or phrase in the passing week that can now go into the work at hand, into the work that this ‘other’ you has left to be revised.

Thinking in terms of “I is an other” can free you up as you write, keep you from being stuck to the detailed-oriented defense of trying to write “how it really happened” and open you up to what can happen now.  Revising should be about coming back to words for more words.  In essence, one is always revising one’s self.


Here’s another bit of Rimbaud in this vein of thought:

Beneath a bush a wolf will howl

spitting bright feathers

from his feast of fowl:

Like him, I devour myself.

(from A Season in Hell)

In one stanza, almost carelessly, he writes down what could be seen as the manifesto for 20th century poetry if not 20th century society.   The focus on the self, on uncovering, recovering, and analyzing the self that drives so many memoirs and self-help books – not to mention countless poems in every language – can be seen here.

Below is Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert”, a poem that has a similar effect as the above stanza.  I recall Galway Kinnell using it to preface an essay in which he talked about the nature of being a poet.


In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

who, squatting upon the ground,

held his heart in his hands,

and ate of it.

I said: “Is it good friend?”

“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;


“But I like it

because it is bitter

and because it is my heart.”

Stephen Crane


Happy eating!