Mark Strand

The Weather of Words: Poetic Inventions

“A poem encourages slowness, urges us to savor each word. It is in poetry that the power of language is most palpably felt.”

Mark Strand (1934  –  2014) was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his collection Blizzard of One.

The Weather of Words is an endearing collection of prose and essays written about poetry and being a poet. It kicks off with “A Poet’s Alphabet,” a collection of meaningful words reimagined and repurposed.

A is for absence. It is sometimes—but not always—nice to think that other people may be talking about you when you are not present, that you are the subject of a conversation you have not steered in your direction and whose evolution depends on your absence.

Adding weight and materiality to abstract notions of time and place is a signature pattern of Strand’s writing, a formation etched in reverse by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who imbued vitality and meaning of objects beyond their materiality.

F is for fashion, literary fashion, which marks the writing of a period or an age, and which is virtually inescapable, as inescapable as its sister Death.

The Weather of Words is Strand and his poetry, clasped together and unfolded in front of us. It is a peek behind the curtain into his motivations, his inspirations, and his single point of beginning. From “Notes on the Craft of Poetry”:

I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of an individual poet’s conception of what is or is not a poem.

Artists digging into their crafts, unravelling the strands and knots that bind their work, are exceptional gifts to be cherished and overloved.1 From them, we—even Strand—take inspiration.

R is for Rilke, whose poems I read for inspiration of a peculiar sort, since what I get mainly when I read him is a sense of uplift, some lavish and ornate attempt to locate being, certain moments of ecstatic insight close to the truth, or what I believe to be true. I feel the unutterable has found a place in what has been uttered.

The uplift of Rainer Maria Rilke was universal, mainly due to his constant assurances and very clear understanding of the isolation of creative beginnings, something Strand touches on frequently. “But then you’ll never be able to earn a living,” Strand’s mother responds when he announces a devotion to poetry. Strand reminds her of the soul-feeding pleasures of poetry. Even the simple ones. One imagines he has Rilke in his back pocket.

E is for endings, endings to poems, last words designed to release us back into our world with the momentary illusion that no harm has been done. They are various, and inscribe themselves in the ghostly aftermath of any work of art.

John Steinbeck once lamented that no one invented words anymore. Indeed, a burdensome aspect of being is that we lack words—and thus communication—for the most unique but universal feelings, like longing for the impossible and feeling alienated when we try to step back into memory or resentment at spring for failing to be summer.

Poet David Whyte polishes a few tarnished words in his collection Consolations. Whyte’s “joy” is “a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting.” Strand’s definition in The Weather of Words is different but equally autobiographical: “J is for the joy of writing. As if there were such a thing.”

Perhaps this is why there are so many languages.