by Ryan Baltor '17
The Bennington community was graced with the presence of Mark Strand, who began his visit with a “Talk on Nothing.” With this deliberate choice of subject, or anti-subject, Strand has caught himself in a paradox. He wants to say nothing, but it is just not possible. In Strand’s poetry, presence and absence are used interchangeably, what you are can be defined by what you are not, nothing can be a prelude and a postlude. To Strand, nothing is something, but “not everything.” Strand is aware that his poetic voice has an implicit tone of anxiety, yet he doesn’t allow nothing to be exaggerated. He trusts his surroundings, explaining that a table is not nothing, because it is simply a table. In his poem “Nocturne of the Poet Who Loved the Moon,” Strand explores how his inspirations have changed, eventually deciding to “let plainness enter the eye, plainness like a table on which nothing is set, like a table that is not yet even a table.” It is ironic that in conversation Strand uses a table as proof that nothing doesn’t engulf everything, but in his poetry explores possible contradictions that nothingness presents. It is important to note that Strand is more fascinated by nothingness than he is trapped by it. After his second event at Bennington, Strand explained to me that “Nothing’s not something [he] cares about. Nothing is inescapable. [He] cares about what [he] replaces nothing with.. which is everything.”
I want to emphasize that despite the potentially grim nature of a meditation on nothing, Strand manages to deliver his ideas with elegance and wit. He has a knack for combining humor and melancholy in a way that he finds “surprising and inevitable. This is what delights [him] in reading and writing.” Strand is not afraid of nothing, but instead finds the “unlimited strangeness [of nothingness] irresistible,” and argues that “nothing is the last stronghold of the sublime.” Strand has taken command of such a daunting and elusive subject, and allowed it to become his own.
While testing the microphone, Strand begins his talk by speaking softly, “Can you hear me? Good... or maybe not so good.” It’s beyond me why Strand so often tries to disconnect himself from his poetry, but I couldn’t help but be charmed by Strand and his vulnerable, almost self-deprecating sense of humor. When asked about the role of humor in poetry, he explained that “If humor is there in the person it should be there in the poems.” This is certainly the case with Strand. He can’t help but jest, “I don’t know much about my poetry. I think I write it.” Even though his most recently published book Almost Invisible is one of prose poetry, Strand claims that he is no longer writing poetry. “I’m a visual artist really, I wandered into poetry and got stuck there, and finally found my way out. I’m back to art.”
Strand likes to write from an experience, rather than about one. He gives his thoughts space to breathe, allowing his poems to chronicle his mind as he is working in a particularly Strand-ian way. In response to a question after his “Talk on Nothing,” Strand casually explained how, for him, “Poetry is the history of our human subjectivity. Subjectivity is the way we connect with the past. The endurance of the inner life. People connect most emphatically when they’re not sure what they’re saying.” Strand’s work is accessible and spontaneous. I’m sure this is another reason why I, and the other students who attended Strand’s events, were so charmed - he cares about connection.
To connect to Strand’s poetry, all you need to do is read his work for yourself. His poetry, with its spare phrases and sometimes surreal imagery, has displaced nothingness with gentle phrases and needs very little as an introduction. At his reading in Tischman, Strand provided fitting introductions which were just as spare and succinct as his poetry. These introductions would often invoke a sweet and sincere laugh from the audience. He would then grip the side of the podium with one hand, hold his book in the other, and begin to read...
Anywhere Could Be Somewhere
I might have come from the high country, or maybe the low
country, I don’t recall which. I might have come from the city,
but what city in what country is beyond me. I might have come
from the outskirts of a city from which others have come or
maybe a city from which only I have come. Who’s to know?
Who’s to decide if it rained or the sun was out? Who’s to
remember? They say things are happening at the border, but
nobody knows which border. They talk of a hotel there, where
it doesn’t matter if you forgot your suitcase, another will be
waiting, big enough, and just for you.
- Mark Strand
This Wednesday (10/9), Poetry@Bennington continues with a reading and events by Alex Dimitrov. His reading will begin at 7pm in Tishman -- keep an eye out throughout the semester for events with all the visiting poets in the Poetry@Bennington series.
Cover photo from monk-books.com