Friday, December 5, 2014

I Wish I'd Written This

Eating Poetry
By Mark Strand (1934 — 2014)

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man,
I snarl at her and bark,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

This must have been one of Mark Strand's earliest published poems, as I seem to have loved it for a very long time now. I also remember him as having written excellent articles on poetry which helped me pass my university exams. But I didn't know the rest of his poetry.

He was an important American poet, who — as I'm sure many of you are aware — died six days ago. When I looked for a poem to use in paying tribute, I found that his work has a characteristic bleakness of mood. The Poetry Foundation refers to his "recurring theme of absence and negation". 

I think Eating Poetry must be one of his best-known works, often anthologised. If possible I'd have liked to give you something that was new to you, but this is the one I wish I'd written. I still adore it after all these years.

Wikipedia tells us:

Many of Strand's poems are nostalgic in tone, evoking the bays, fields, boats, and pines of his childhood on Prince Edward Island. Strand has been compared to Robert Bly in his use of surrealism, though he attributes the surreal elements in his poems to an admiration of the works of Max ErnstGiorgio de Chirico, and René Magritte. Strand's poems use plain and concrete language, usually without rhyme or meter. In a 1971 interview, Strand said, "I feel very much a part of a new international style that has a lot to do with plainness of diction, a certain reliance on surrealist techniques, and a strong narrative element."

All of which makes his poetry appeal to me in many ways, despite the tone. I remember in the past, when I was exploring some dark subjects in my own poetry, a reader saying to me, 'You must be a very sad person.' I was surprised. To me it seemed obvious that I had written the sadness out instead of holding on to it. Perhaps it was the same for Mark Strand; at any rate he doesn't seem to have been unduly miserable as a person.

He had a distinguished academic career, and served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress during1990-91. As well as a poet, he was an essayist, translator and editor. A painter in his youth, he also published books of art criticism. He won numerous major awards for his poetry, most notably the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. 

His poems are at PoemHunter and his Amazon page has his Collected Poems as well as many other volumes.

The Wikipedia article is rather slight, so I've linked his name, above, to the more comprehensive Poetry Foundation article. The New York Times obituary is, in some respects, even more illuminating. For instance it tells us that his interest in the visual arts was lifelong, and that for the last five years he had been making collages, using paper he made by hand. 

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Yes! Me too. Would you believe that this is the only Mark Strand poem I know? I will follow your links for more. I enjoyed your reflection on writing out the sadness, etc. That's what I do. If the poem has a character who is sad/mad/etc--then it is an attribute I gave them partly to lay it down for good.

    1. Yes, I would believe that! It is only now that he has died, and for the sake of Poets United, that I have hunted up more of his work. I love the way writing these columns extends my own knowledge and enjoyment of poetry.

  2. Though I heard that Mark Strand died, I really was not at all familiar with his work. I did enjoy the poem you shared...and I do like the concept of 'eating poetry.' Thank you, Rosemary.

    1. Yes, I think any poetry lover can relate to that wonderful opening verse!

  3. I, like Mary, had heard of his passing but I am not really that familiar with he and and poetry but I do really like Eating Poetry. Fantastic share Rosemary thank you.

  4. I was familiar with this poem but not with any others. I always find it so fascinating that some people are blessed with multiple talents and excel at them all. Thank you Rosemary for this post which alos serves as a tribute to a most talented person.

    1. It seems to me extraordinary that between the ages of 75 and 80 he was making not only collages but the paper he used for them!

  5. Thank you so much for this post ... I have been consumed with prep for a play that opens this evening. I didn't know of his passing and have only read a bit of his poetry. I am completely inspired to read more, much more.

    1. Good luck for the play! I hope you enjoy the rest of his work too.

  6. I love a poem like his that blows the doors off convention and just goes for the guts and glory of it all. A highly enjoyable read. Thanks for the information about him, too, Rosemary. It is remarkable that he was still creating paper and collages at 80. Yay!

  7. Rest in peace Mark Strand. You are absolutely right about this poem Rosemary. While reading through it, I couldn't help but wonder what his inspiration did he come up with such an ambiguous piece. I'm left with questions wondering who the librarian is and why there are dogs in the library and also why the speaker (who's a human male) would snarl and bark after eating poetry with ink running down the corners of his mouth. Works like this requires the imagination to run wild and the brain cells to burn from all the analyzing and such. It's so the poem we'd all wish we had written therefore making this a great post for my Friday leisure reading!!! Hey everyone!!! I just posted a poem about Christmas on my page. Please stop by and if your curious about my condition, nothing fatal...just that I still need prayers. love you lots!!!

    1. I can understand him romping with joy, though, after reading poetry!

  8. This is the only one of his pieces that I really know--I love the way he uses plain diction to create these images. Very cool write. Thank you Rosemary!

  9. " To me it seemed obvious that I had written the sadness out instead of holding on to it." Yes--exactly! I can't tell you how much this made my morning.

    1. I'm glad it did. I guess poets understand poets, through our common experience. The reader I quoted was not a poet.

  10. "writing the sadness out..." are the perfect words.

    We mourn the loss of a talented man but, oh, what a mark he left.

  11. Oh, it resonates with the short cartoon/movie I recently watched. Share with PU here:
    Thanks Rosemary x


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