Last reviewed: June 2017
April 11, 1934
Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada
November 29, 2014
New York, New York
Mark Strand began life on remote Prince Edward Island, Canada, and when he was four, he moved with his parents to the United States. Eventually he landed in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he graduated with his BA from Antioch College in 1957. He earned his BFA from Yale University in 1959, was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Florence (1960–61), and earned his MA from University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1962. As a visiting professor or instructor, Strand taught at the University of Rio de Janeiro (1965–66), Mount Holyoke College (1967), the University of Washington (1968), Columbia and Yale Universities (1968–70), Princeton University (1972), Brandeis University (1973), the University of California at Irvine (1977), Harvard University (1980), the University of Utah in Salt Lake City (1981–93), Johns Hopkins University (1994–98), the University of Chicago (1998–2005), and Columbia University once more (2005–14).
He received the Cook and Bergin prizes, a second Fulbright Fellowship, the Ingram-Merril Foundation grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant. He won the Academy of American Poets’ Edgar Allan Poe Award (in 1974 for The Story of Our Lives), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was honored to succeed Robert Penn Warren as the poet laureate of the United States Library of Congress (1990–91). He was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry from the Yale University Library in 1993. Blizzard of One won for Strand the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and the Boston Book Review Bingham Poetry Prize, 1999.
This professorial path supported his habit—creating poetry through impeccable and effortless technique. The graphic quality of Strand’s poems results from his early training as a painter; eventually he chose poetry over painting. He was considered a minimalist with a knack for dark abstractions. His restlessness exposed a brooding, introspective, nearly terrifying environment. In his first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open, Strand introduced his controlled verse and surreal imagery and explored an unsettling series of contradictions and challenges. In this collection, the stage was set for the mood and style of his subsequent work. Verse is stripped of non-essential attributes; simple actions, repeated at times, are worked into phrases of surprising strength.
Strand grabbed themes and events and then contorted them to mysterious effect. In “Poem,” from Sleeping with One Eye Open, a torturer with nail clippers slowly cuts his bedroom-bound victim into small pieces. Convinced that he has done enough, the villain expresses his gratitude to the victim for being dismissed, then leaves. Quintessential Strand, this poem responds to the nightmarish grotesquerie of life. These early works represent morbid concerns and realistic solutions; later, in Darker, Strand suggests that the best action may be no action at all.
From these earlier works of tombstone dread, the poet elevated his mood and his life’s impressions in The Continuous Life, published in 1990. Critics recognized this new view and likenened it to a countryside view from the shadow of the mountain. These poems arrived after a ten-year hiatus from poetry publications and are considered to be idiosyncratic and searching. In Dark Harbor, the overarching plot appears to be the poet’s counterlife in art, separation from family, and journey to darkness and then to the final safety of a harbor replete with poets.
Strand’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Blizzard of One, is classic Strand: stylish and lyrical, yet seemingly effortless as he oscillates between the ordinary and extraordinary. He followed this work up with three more original volumes of poetry: Chicken, Shadow, Moon, and More (1999), Man and Camel (2006), and Almost Invisible (2012). Additionally, he received the Wallace Stevens Award in 2004 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters's Gold Medal for poetry in 2009.
Strand wrote in genres other than poetry. His two biographical books on artists, one on William Bailey and one on Edward Hopper, possess the Strand brand of poetic critique. His affinity for the arts—in particular, painting—drew Strand to edit Art of the Real, a collection of essays on painters. Married twice, with three children, Strand may have written his children’s books as a reflection on his family life. Even his children’s tales are woven through darkened dreams and prophesies.
Strand died following a battle with liposarcoma in New York City on November 29, 2014, at the age of eighty.