Convention is somewhat of a fundamental aspect of poetry, the same way that historical context can be fundamental to how nations construct themselves (in the mirror and on an international scale), and react to domestic and global events.
For poet Mark Strand, writing poetry seems to be a practice in forgetfulness, in divesting poems of convention – not in a way that makes his works hyper-experimental and incoherent – but exceptionally concentrated, essentially wittled down to their bare bones such that all that exists is what is written on the printed pages they take up, and the voice of the person speaking. Critic Linda Gregerson hits poignantly upon the solipsistic eye that rules much of Strand’s work, as he attempts to write each poem as universe unto itself:
“When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all distinguishing physical marks, save beauty alone.”
Strand’s poem “Always” seems to comment on what it’s like to write poetry in a vacuum, and even write life in a vacuum, “forgetting” the world and its history, its geographic implications and people, all as a means of making each poem a gestation period for a new world.
Always, Mark Strand
for Charles Simic
Always so late in the day
In their rumpled clothes, sitting
Around a table lit by a single bulb,
The great forgetters were hard at work.
They tilted their heads to one side, closing their eyes.
Then a house disappeared, and a man in his yard
With all his flowers in a row.
The great forgetters wrinkled their brows.
Then Florida went and San Francisco
Where tugs and barges leave
Small gleaming scars across the Bay.
One of the great forgetters struck a match.
Gone were the harps of beaded lights
That vault the rivers of New York.
Another filled his glass
And that was it for crowds at evening
Under sulfur-yellow streetlamps coming on.
And afterward Bulgaria was gone, and then Japan.
“Where will it stop?” one of them said.
“Such difficult work, pursuing the fate
Of everything known,” said another.
“Down to the last stone,” said a third,
“And only the cold zero of perfection
Left for the imagination.” And gone
Were North and South America,
And gone as well the moon.
Another yawned, another gazed at the window:
No grass, no trees…
The blaze of promise everywhere.
In my imagination, Strand and contemporaries like Charles Simic (to whom the work is addressed) are the “great forgetters”, all part of the school of “leaving out the world”, “jettisoning place” and context from their poems, all communing for one big world obliterating, late afternoon pajama party. But I can’t really decide how self-critical Strand is being, and how much he is relying on the irony in the imagery engendered to suggest two different readings. On one hand, there are these seemingly all powerful wise men; on the other, they are just “great” homebodies, “pursuing” the world’s history from a seated position, with their little wrinkled brows and rumpled clothes, deeming their pursuits “such difficult (although incredibly sedentary) work”.
Uncertainty about the level of cheekiness extends itself to an overall paradox of what it means to try “leave out the world” in writing. To what extent are readers expected to imagine that places are really disappearing from the earth in this poem versus disappearing from the mind of the characters, at the wrinkle of a brow or the simple “filling of a glass”? And how is it ever possible to forget the world, if you have to remember it to rid yourself of it; if you have to recall “San Francisco”, “New York”, “Florida”, “Japan” and “Bulgaria” in order to remove them in your consciousness.
In light of that duality, maybe solipsistic poets aren’t the “great forgetters”. We (a perhaps naive usage of a kind of royal/ global “we”) are.
“Always” may be commenting on global responses to global atrocities, wars, violence, and environmental catastrophes; responses fueled not by remembrance, but determined forgetfulness of historical scars. Strand’s poetry toes a fine line between suggesting that to forget is the more difficult and perhaps nobler pursuit that praising a Zagajewskian “mutilated world“, and suggesting that forgetting is futile, just a warping of the consciousness that inflict no healing.