WHAT'S A POET LAUREATE TO DO? : According to Mark Strand, Just About Anything He Wants, Thank You

January 13, 1991|BILL THOMAS | Bill Thomas is co-author of "Lawyers and Thieves" (Simon & Schuster), a humorous look at the legal profession.

ALL OF A sudden, Mark Strand, America's latest official poet-in-chief, is sounding very Washington. A few hundred yards away, Congress is debating the federal budget, and here he is sitting in his book-lined study of an office across the street talking about taxes .

"Whenever I fill out my 1040 form, I usually just list my occupation as 'writer,' " he explains.

But that was before his employment status was upgraded. Now he's not sure how he'll describe what he does for a living. Maybe next time, he should be more specific, he says. He uncrosses his long legs and gives his squarish jaw a thoughtful stroke. "How's 'U. S. Poet Laureate'? No, wait a minute. 'Poet Laureate comma U. S.'?"

As he considers his new title, seeming to weigh each syllable with great care, a frown starts to wrinkle his brow. "Poet laureate. That has a slightly elitist ring, doesn't it?" he notes disapprovingly. "Hmmm. You know, on second thought, I'd better just stick with plain 'writer' instead."

For a famous poet with an above-average interest in economics, the edit makes sense on two levels. Why disorient your muse and get the IRS on your case all at once? "I guess I'm just getting used to this job," Strand confesses, adding a bit hesitantly that he still hasn't figured out what his job really is.

Mark Strand is the nation's fourth poet laureate, a yearlong post (often extended to two years) that was created in 1985 when Congress renamed the 54-year-old position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Chatting casually in his official digs, Strand is cool and easygoing, almost the exact opposite of his chiseled, brooding poems.

In England, of course, the tradition is centuries old. William Wordsworth was a poet laureate; so was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The British honor includes a generous guaranteed income for which appointees are expected to write poems for important occasions, versifying with equal dexterity on coronations, weddings, wars and funerals. Here in America, where the only poets with full-time salaries earn them at greeting-card companies, the poet laureate's role isn't nearly so well defined.

"That's probably because there isn't much popular interest in poetry, or good literature," Strand admits. "The junk people read is appalling. What's her name . . . Danielle Steel? She couldn't write her way out of a paper bag. Her use of language is a joke. She's just symptomatic, though, of a lot that's going on at the sub-literary level of the culture. Unfortunately, even with the title of poet laureate, there's not much I can do about it."

Strand published his first book of poetry in 1964. Since then, he has published seven more. In 1987, he won a MacArthur "genius" award. His poems, spare and elegiac, deal with themes typical of much modern literature--death, disorder and the disappearance of meaning. But it would be wrong to call Strand's vision despairing. On the contrary, his poetry affirms life and the imagination at the same time it recognizes the limits of both.

This is the first time that Mark Strand has ever made his living doing what he does so well. The careers of other famous poets bespeak the financial rewards of poetry writing. T. S. Eliot worked in a bank. Wallace Stevens was an insurance-company executive. For Strand, 56, teaching in the English Department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City is what usually pays the bills.

"Let's see," he says, searching his memory bank for specific numbers. "The most money I've ever made from a poem? Well, it would have to be something I sold in the 1970s to The New Yorker. They paid me $1,100. Big money in those days. It's big money today. They ran that one for two full pages. But $1,100 poems, I can assure you, are few and far between."

He's currently on leave from the university and living in Washington's Cleveland Park with his wife, Julie, who is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology, and their 7-year-old son, Tom. The nation's capital, with its penchant for bureaucratese, has never been known as a very creative town, especially during the last year, when funding for many arts, including poetry, has politicians fighting the way they once did over the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit.

"The government gives artists token pats on the back, and what artists need and want is real support," Strand complains. "Based on what poets get paid, most of them would qualify as homeless."

In his new job, which comes with a $35,000 annual stipend, Strand hasn't been asked to write any official verse, at least not yet. He isn't even certain that's a requirement. As far as he knows, he is supposed to give one yearly lecture and emcee a few special readings. Beyond that, he's free to do whatever he likes.

"That's the hard part," he says, acknowledging one of the great themes in poetry and in life--what to do when you can do anything you want.

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