Jack Gilbert (left) and Mark Strand are two towering poets whom I admire greatly. They both write in clear, plain, direct language. They both travel deeply within, and exhibit a piercing, keen intellect. You could say they are also both pre-occupied with themselves, the I, but they are oriented on different axes. Here is a famous poem by Strand, Keeping Things Whole.
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Some of the elements present here are typical of Strand’s work. These are, a focus on self, but in the context of absence and insecurity. There is also a sense of loss, but kept at a distance. It is quite revealing that Strand who had once studied painting, before focusing on poetry, wrote a famous book on the great American painter of isolation and alienation, Edward Hopper. He observed that Hopper’s characters seemed ” trapped in the space of their waiting.” Strand and Hopper share that feeling, and a sensibility, where the surface of either the poem or painting is a kind of screen that creates a necessary barrier to the external world that protects the inner self. Let’s contrast this with a poem by Jack Gilbert, called, Finding Something
I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
I sit on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s
telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down
on a blue sea and the small white ferry
that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
Michiko is dying in the house behind me,
the long windows open so I can hear
the faint sound she will make when she wants
watermelon to suck or so I can take her
to a bucket in the corner of the high-ceilinged room
which is the best we can do for a chamber pot.
She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.
With simple language and a beguilingly lyrical setting of the scene, Gilbert brings us directly into an intimacy almost too anguished to bear. We are led so quickly from the outside, into the deepest heart of human experience, that we are stunned, breathless in shock and awe. “It is this lyrical mix of anguish and grace that make Gilbert’s poems so rewarding, and so heartbreaking.” As James Dickey said, ” He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go; from that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion. Gilbert is the rarest of beings, a necessary poet, who teaches us not only how to live, but to die creatively, and with all meaning.”
Mark Strand has been a very prolific poet, and has won every award there is to win: Fulbright and MacArthur Fellowships, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer, and been Poet Laureate of the U.S. Jack Gilbert has only published five books in the last fifty years, and two of those have been in the last five years. He has won prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer twice, but is hardly known to the general poetry reading public. He is considered a “poet’s poet.” He has spent much of his life, living abroad, and therefore been out of mainstream media attention.
Both Strand and Gilbert give us startling insights into themselves and ourselves. Strand always presents a polished, cool surface. He is insightful, and provokes stimulating thought, though is often, slightly aloof. Gilbert throws us deep into the muck of life, but always with an incredible touch of lyric grace. Strand gives us deep thought, Gilbert deep emotional insight. They both constantly delight, and are two great examples of why we need to read poetry.