Poetry: Mark Strand & Jack Gilbert, The Head and the Heart of the Journey Within.

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
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
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.

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14 Comments on "Poetry: Mark Strand & Jack Gilbert, The Head and the Heart of the Journey Within."

  1. kathy says:

    Both such beautiful poems. Haunting, and accessible to the reader.

    • David Leeds says:

      I agree. I think it’s crucial for poems to be accessible. Poetry is a combination of clarity, specificity and mystery. For me lack of accessibility means a failed poem.

  2. Thankyou David,for introducing me to these wonderfull writers…I didnt know them and i find both poems beautiful… ..
    Would love to read Strand´s book on Hopper…will try to find it…
    Your notes are always so interesting!

  3. RAJAT CHAUHAN says:


  4. Nicky says:

    Best part of their poems is clarity and simplicity..

  5. Love these poems. Thank you for bringing them to our attention. Yes, I agree it is important to read poetry, and when I do I feel enlightened. I’m always amazed by how much meaning can be achieved in such a short span of words. When it’s done well it’s a powerful form of writing.

  6. love these poems david such deep feelings so little words. such moving word. ah poetry

  7. David Clarke says:

    I appreciate two poets of note getting any blog coverage and I usually very much enjoy your posts, but I think you’re reading of Strand is really quite off the mark. First, this is a very early poem and it doesn’t necessarily submit to the best reading via the Hopper alienation theme. In fact it’s much closer to a self that that is not obsessive but in fact a critique of just that notion, it’s a dissolved self and then reborn if you like beyond the tyranny of the ego. As far as his language, it’s deceptively simple even at this point, but especially in his last three collections the language is anything but simple as are the images; they are full of mystery, ambiguity and verbal echoes that don’t fit into any ‘simple’ usage. This can all be challenged, but given that Strand himself read others poems with multiple passes if they are rich in meaning, he certainly deserves the same treatment. You might enjoy reading the interview with Strand conducted by Wallace Shawn.

    • David Leeds says:

      I’ll check the Shawn out. Thanks. I understand what you’re saying about Strand’s language. There’s no question his later work is more obviously ego driven, but I do feel, in this one, what you’re calling a critique of self obsession and rebirth in this poem is a bit like the old technique in Latin called “praetoridio”(sp.?) where the very act of saying your not doing something or don’t mean to say a certain thing, is actually doing what you say your not doing. I do also agree that what appears to be simple and direct language is almost always deeply layered. I have complicated feelings about Strand, so I guess that showed. In trying to keep things at a certain level in the post, I may have, indeed, over-simplified him. Thanks for your close reading.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard