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Poems in the late afternoon

The tall angular man leaning back against a wall near the front of the dark-paneled lecture hall listened with a calm and practiced air as his new departmental chair—Robert B. Pippin, the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought—introduced him to the fair-sized crowd scattered about Social Sciences Research 122, its mullioned windows open to the unusually warm late-afternoon air. It was the last Monday in October, and the occasion was an Inaugural Lecture in the Social Sciences.

Dressed in blue jeans, a black collarless shirt, and a black suit jacket, the gray-haired man heard himself described as a former MacArthur Foundation fellow, a former Guggenheim fellow, a teacher at universities from Columbia to Utah—most recently, he’d been the Elliot Coleman professor of poetry at Johns Hopkins University—and a former poet laureate of the United States.

Pippin didn’t say that a few years back the New York Times had called Mark Strand one of the three best-looking men among contemporary poets. Or that the poet’s move from Hopkins to Chicago (he was a visiting professor at the University this past spring) made headlines in Baltimore and academic gossip columns across the nation. Or that his onstage demeanor is both assured and wry.

No title had been announced for Strand’s lecture. Would he speak about the painter Edward Hopper, on whom he has written a much-admired monograph? Or on Kierkegaard, the subject of a course that he was teaching this fall with Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought? But the lecture turned out to be what everyone assembled had hoped it would be: a reading from his poetry.

More precisely, from his later poems. “I thought I’d read early poems,” Strand confessed as he towered above the wooden lectern, cradling a volume in one hand, “and then I thought, ‘Why do that? I like the later ones better.’” A rueful pause. “I know that poets are often wrong, mistakenly preferring their later work—mistakenly in every case except mine.”

Like his listening, Strand’s reading was simultaneously practiced and natural. His voice, although quiet and unforced, carried to the room’s far corners, overriding the chatter of passers-by outside the open windows; the occasional coughs, sighs, and snores produced by a late-afternoon audience in an unseasonably warm room; and a barking dog.

With inspired timing, the strong-throated dog chose to bark as Strand read the day’s last poem, the first section of “Five Dogs.” (“I, the dog they call Spot, was about to sing. Autumn/had come, the walks were freckled with leaves….”) But the canine could have sensed a kindred soul earlier in the reading, when the poet read “Eating Poetry.” It begins in a library, with the narrator in a mood of word-stained, carnivorous glee: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth./There is no happiness like mine./I have been eating poetry.”

To the poem’s sad-eyed librarian, such an excess of exuberance is as out of place as a bull in a china shop—or as a dog in a library. She screams as the narrator drops to his knees and licks her hand, but his wild gladness can’t be chained: “I am a new man./I snarl at her and bark./I romp with joy in the bookish dark.” Photo Credit: Readers would be hard put to find an issue from the past seven years without at least one striking photograph by Dan Dry. With this issue, Dan—who spent five years with National Geographic, is the official photographer at Churchill Downs, and can photograph Nobel laureates and cans of Spam with equal aplomb—joins the Magazine’s masthead as a contributing editor.—M.R.Y.

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