The Art of Poetry: Mark Strand at CCNY

A large crowd of students and faculty gathered in Shepard Hall to hear Mark Strand, the well-known poet, editor and translator.

Over the past fifty years, Strand has built an impressive resume. He has published over a dozen books of poetry, as well as books of prose and poetry translation. Strand was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1990 to 1991, and he received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1999. He has also taught at numerous colleges, and is currently a professor at Columbia University.

Strand first read from his book Hopper, which analyzes famous paintings by the American artist Edward Hopper. This may seem like a strange focus for a poet, but Strand’s original love was for art. He didn’t discover his passion for writing poetry until he was studying painting at Yale University.

Perhaps because of his background, Strand interprets Hopper’s paintings differently than most art critics. According to Strand, some critics theorize that we are drawn to Hopper’s paintings because of their distinctive early 20th century settings, or their themes of unhappiness and loneliness. Strand says that we are drawn to his paintings for a far simpler reason: composition.
Mark Strand. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois.

Strand read his pieces about four of Hopper’s most famous paintings: New York Movie (1939), House by the Railroad (1925), Stairway (1949) and Nighthawks (1942). (Nighthawks is also Hopper’s most parodied painting. Google it, and you’ll find dozens of spoofs that replace his diners with famous people and characters.)

In Nighthawks, Strand says, the viewer is attracted to a tension that is present in many of Hopper’s works. The tension is between two forces – the “urge to stay” and the “urge to go forward.” In Strand’s interpretation, the painting’s glowing diner invites the viewer to leave the dark city street and go inside. However, it also drives the viewer to keep traveling. The slant of the diner’s windows points the viewer toward a mysterious vanishing point, somewhere to the left of the painting’s edge. The viewer wants to go towards this point, but he also wants to stay with the diner.

During the rest of the reading, Strand read selected poems, including “Mirror”, “Elevator”, and “Harmony in the Boudoir”. In the Q&A, Strand discussed the breaks he takes from writing poetry. When the process of writing becomes tiring and the ideas in his poems become repetitive, Strand explained, he needs to switch to something else. Recently, Strand has come back to art as a form of rejuvenation. He is currently working on collages that “don’t have any meaning” — a nice change of pace from the rigors of poetry writing.

This event was part of the CCNY Master Series, which is currently in its fourth year. The purpose of the Master Series is to bring notable authors, poets, editors, and other members of the publishing industry to CCNY. It is organized by the CCNY Graduate English Department and the Simon F. Rifkind Center for the Humanities & the Arts.

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