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Notes on Mark Strand’s Talk at Dodge

Mark Strand Mark Strand in his session on craft talked about the controversy over Poet Voice. He had a different take than I’ve heard. I’m paraphrasing of course but he said that if one is speaking truly from the voice you compose in, the result is more authentic than if you try to read your poem under a convention of all poems need to sound conversational and prosaic in the air. Why should there be only one way to read a poem when on the page tehre are different ways to mark and break and shape? Clearly a poor reader impedes understanding with a stylistic affectation. But is it a matter of learning to hear a style of sound? He said Robert Lowell’s distinctive reading cadence and Louise Glück read in the rhythm they hear as they write. One must do as one is. The great elusive mystery is why you like what you like and narrowing in on what works for you. What’s personal in a poem is not what you say about your private life and private thoughts but the style and music of your poem that only you can do.

He also mentioned the common issue that young to craft poets are terrified of writing in a form, and reluctant to emulate another poet’s style and fear being influenced by the work of other poets on the basis of perhaps not sounding like themselves if they do. He pointed out that in free verse or conversation or whatever way you communicate, you still don’t sound characteristically yourself. It takes a long time to sound like yourself. He also said if you make a decision to write in a form, then do it completely. When playing tennis, you don’t lower the net by a foot and play with a racquet so huge you’re guaranteed not to miss the ball.

Strand was asked if he writes from feelings. “I don’t begin with a feeling. I don’t feel much. I mean obviously I feel. I live in a social world, but I write to create an artifact that will allow other people to feel.” (emphasis his). He (and a couple other people at other sessions, Rachel Hadas and, was it Oliver de la Paz or Bob Hicok?) quoted T.S. Eliot’s notion of “Emotions recollected in tranquility”.

De la Paz and Strand both remarked on how if you’re in an agitated state, it is hard to write well. Emotion impairs your judgement. You can draw on the emotional force later but letting depth of perception and perspective come helps make the poem more grounded and forceful.

When asked if he knows what subjects he’ll write about, Strand said, “if you know what you want to say before you say it, you become a secretary to yourself. It is much more remote” than if you write to explore and find out what wants to be said to get to the point when you discover what is next which is both surprising and inevitable.

Titles matter. They can make a good poem boring, or irrelevant or making a boring poem relevant. Easy to say, harder to perfect. I found it heartening how he said, 50 years into his poetry publishing career, that he recognizes he’s guilty of bad titles and he thinks he’s making a break thru. “My titles have become better and the poems worse” he said with his characteristic sort of quip-wink. I appreciated how in his reading later he read one old ballad of subway sex, a new poem and then, a few prose pieces. He has an easy sense of humour and amicableness that is disarming. When asked about songwriters vs. poets he said he felt they were a different breed: A song writer believes he is half of the operation or less while a poet believes he’s the whole show. He was asked about how he does his manuscripts and he said he writes until he’s tired of writing then he’s done, written out. He’s tapped and doesn’t write any poems for 2 or 3 years, doing other things in life.

He described how he has only once written a serial poem. He wrote 85 sections in 4 months and threw away 40 sections. It took him at least as long to order the parts as to write them.

I expect to get back to more notes on Dodge next week. Here are a couple dozen photos from Dodge Poetry Festival if you haven’t seen them already.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Pearl. This dovetails so well with some of what I’ve been thinking about & we’ve been talking about at the Wired Writing Studio. I’m going to post this on our discussion board.

  2. Would be neat to see all the craft sessions
    and see which resonates..
    I suspect different poetry-personalities have
    different best practices.
    That’s one of the longest experiences there, though!
    A lot to pick over.

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