When I first read and began thinking about The Year of Living Deeply one of my instant reactions concerned the impact I knew it would make on my consumerism. Now, I like to think of myself as someone who walks across this planet as gently as possible. The narrative that I like to tell myself is that I buy things when I need them, and I use them until they are no longer working, or fit, or have simply worn out. For example, if I have a jumper that I have not worn for a year, I explain, I will put it in a bin bag and take it down to Oxfam.

The problem is, this is not how I actually behave. I can think of like for like replacements of items of clothing which I have made in the last 12 months with not a donation bag in sight. I hold on to things. Like the footballing philosophy of the Premiership manager who instructs his team to always protect what they have rather than risk losing it, I hoard. And, to push the football analogy even further, I accumulate. Like those managers, I am always scouring the January (or any other time of year) sales for a quick stationery fix, or bargain in the GAP jeans department, or for just another check on that book which I hope might have come down to £0.01 in used and new. The internet, or rather, my addiction to it, has not exactly helped me in this.

As I said towards the end of last year the plan has not been going perfectly. Everything in me is screaming for some new fresh exciting poetry titles that I know will change my life (ditto that rather fetching Regatta Birchdale Waterproof in Seal Grey/Iron); but I know at the same time that there are books by Bo Carpelan and Mahmoud Darwish which I bought on impulse several years ago and have still not got around to opening. It is a struggle. And it isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. I need to admit it: I like stuff. As much as I say I don’t, I like owning and dreaming about and shopping around for things. Preferably nice things. Preferably lots of nice things.

What has all of this got to do with Mark Strand? I found The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) in the very week that I read David Cain’s Go Deeper, Not Wider post, which sparked my crisis of self-examination. Thanks to the very helpful ‘read an excerpt here’ button on the Knopf website, I read quite a large chunk of it without spending a penny. But I also knew that I needed to own this book. Like Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird or Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the entire thing seems to have been written in quotes that you just have to underline or copy down into your notebook right that instant before you forget them. Here is one: ‘Nothing else we read prepares us for poetry.’ Here is another:

‘What we want while reading a novel is to get on with it. A poem works the opposite way. It encourages slowness, urges us to savor each word. It is in poetry that the power of language is most palpably felt. But in a culture that favors speed-reading along with fast food, ten-second news bites, who wants something that makes you slow down?’

The book contains memoir; lucid and provocative readings of MacLeish, Ashbery, Rilke and Berryman, among others; and some laugh-out-loud dialogues on translation, Modernism and narrative poetry. Strand’s own considerable knowledge is refracted through the wisdom of writers from Jung to Valéry to Stevens, but always presented with the lightest and most humane of touches. Here is the latter, on his composing process of ‘The Old Woman and the Statue’:

‘While there is nothing automatic about the poem, nevertheless it has an automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was written what I wanted to do.’

Strand responds:

‘This is as precise a statement of what is referred to as “the creative process” as I have ever read. And I think it makes clear why discussions of craft are at best precarious.’

I would not be without this book. It is already a keeper. Just as I never want to travel too far from my copy of The Government of the Tongue or An Absorbing Errand, nor can I live without this Tardis of a book of less than 200 pages. It isn’t up for grabs. But I do need to ransack my shelves for something unloved (or unread), and take myself down to Oxfam, to make space for it.

 

Mark Strand: A Morning

Mark Strand: What it’s like to be human

Mark Strand: On Reading Poetry

In memory of Mark Strand