The best american poetics

In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991, Mark Strand, my favorite guide in the sphere of aesthetics these days, uses his own personal background (which I guess will be recognizable for many of us) to illuminate the difference between poetry and prose.

Here is my attempt to summarize some his arguments:

My parents read non-fiction. They pursued information, not just for enlightenment, but also to feel in control of a world they had little say in. If one had the facts one could entertain the illusion that one lived in a fixed and static universe: One could banish uncertainty.

Poetry was not something my parents read for pleasure. It was an enemy. It would only re-mystify the world for them. Poetry clouds certainty with ambiguity. For readers like my parents, says Strand, poetry’s flirtation with erasure, contingency, and even NONSENSE, are tough to take.


It is not just that various meanings are preferable to a single dominant meaning: It may even be that something beyond meaning is being communicated.

The poetic language is mysterious and opaque, and even as it invites the reader in, it wards her off.



 Edward Hopper: Rooms by the Sea, 1951


Mark Strand (April 11, 1934 – November 29, 2014) was a Canadian-born American poet, essayist and translator. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1990 and received the Wallace Stevens Award in 2004. Strand was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University from 2005 until his death in 2014.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeanne says:

    Perhaps that is why some turn to poetry knowing full well life is never within reach. Poetry tries to make sense of the non-fiction in life.

  2. Harold Rhenisch says:

    I love Mark Strand. This love affair is about 40 years old now. He makes a sly comment here: “something beyond meaning.” Of course. But if one is in the poem, in the moment one is in the poem, “meaning” is not present. In that sense, the word “meaning” is an effect of the prose which his culture steers him into expressing these thoughts with. “Walnut shell” might do just as well, but to a prose culture it would be meaningless, although to a poet, well, the world! Tricky!

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