My friend Mark Strand died last week at the age of 80. I say "my friend" not because we were close. We were not. But because he was once a good friend to me at a moment when I needed one. I can say without exaggeration that he changed my life.
This is not an obituary. Others will do a better job of evaluating this Poet Laureate's life and work. His contribution and his place in American literature is assured. For me, it is the memory of a simple act of generous friendship that endures.
The year was 1963, and I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had been drawn across the Atlantic for the first time by a job at a grammar school, teaching French and German, and Mark's mother was a colleague on the staff. I was never happy as a teacher. It's a profession I admire greatly, but for me it was not a good fit. I have known since the age of twelve that I wanted to be a writer, a poet, and teaching was no more than a way of earning a living.
Mark came to spend that summer in Nova Scotia. His sister and brother-in-law were there too. Theatrical folk from Toronto, they opened the Neptune Theater in Halifax, bringing culture to the provinces, and hired me, during my summer break from teaching, as their house manager. A new world began to open up. And knowing Mark to be something of a poet---his first book, Sleeping With One Eye Open, was published the following year--I ventured to ask him to look at a handful of my poems.
Kindly, he read them. And more kindly still, suggested I'd do well in the Poetry Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he had recently graduated and was teaching at the time. He would help me. I applied. With his support, I was welcomed with a grant and a teaching assistantship, and moved to Iowa the following year. Lived there for four years, and completed a doctorate in Comparative Literature before moving to Southern California to teach in academia.
I spent some time with Mark at Iowa, but he was already by then in a different league--one of the teachers at the workshop, and on the way to becoming the justly celebrated poet he became in later life. I was in awe of him. The man projected a self-confidence I had never felt. His quiet, even gentle exterior belied, I knew, an inner strength that I could only aspire to. His every move expressed a confidence and self-assurance I wished I shared. It would be some time before I could begin to find my own path, and it would prove quite different from his.
We met once more in New York, years later. I'm no longer sure quite how it happened, but, generous as ever, he invited me warmly to visit him in his apartment. By this time, I had moved on from writing poetry to writing about art, and what I remember most about that visit was the impressive library of art books he had assembled. The apartment, it seemed to me, was a true poet's lair, a place where inspiration lurked in every corner and on every tabletop.
That visit was a short one, and was not to be repeated. But it was pleasure to follow his successes from a distance, and with gratitude for the change his generosity brought into my life. I read of his death with sadness and, despite the fact that we never knew each other well, a very personal sense of loss.