Remembering Our Laureates

Mark Strand and Charles Wright, talking at Alice Quinn's Home. Copyright Lawrence Schwartzwald.

Mark Strand and Charles Wright, after Mark’s 80th Birthday celebration at the New School in NYC. Copyright Lawrence Schwartzwald.

As this year comes to an end, and a new one begins, I want to take a moment to remember a few people dear to the Poetry and Literature Center that passed away. Today I want to focus on two former Poets Laureate, Maxine Kumin and Mark Strand.

I had the good fortune of meeting both in 2010, at the Key West Literary Seminar. When I started my position here at the Poetry and Literature Center, and followed up with the former Laureates via e-mail about possibilities for the position and the office, Maxine wrote back with characteristic wit and insight:

I don’t think I have much to offer when it comes to efforts to broaden the outreach of literature, poetry in particular. Once, in the ’70s at a conference at the L of C devoted to the issue of making poetry more accessible, Howard Nemerov leaned across the table and whispered to me, “I say let’s not. Let’s keep it a secret.” It seems to me that poetry is healthy and out in the world to a degree that would have been unimaginable back then. My personal wish would be to see more poetry engaged with current events.

The following year, I had the opportunity to work with Maxine on our Poetry of America online feature. Her essay, “One Poet’s View of Social Change at the Library of Congress,” perfectly captures the challenges she faced in the position and the heroic effort she made to overcome them.

After our time in Key West, I meant to visit Maxine and her husband up in New Hampshire but never did–if only I’d made the trip! I was far luckier with Mark Strand, who spent most of the latter part of his life in New York. My wife and I saw him socially, and once he made dinner for another couple and us in his Chelsea apartment. It was a simple and elegant meal, and characteristic of his generosity. I also remember Mark had a fancy new decanter that he joked about pouring the wine into, with his great sense of humor.

The other great memory I have of Mark, which I’ve been returning to since news of his death, is of his 80th birthday celebration in New York this past October. Usually I have to coordinate the literary programs I attend, but that time I was happy to sit back in the audience and take in the great celebration of Mark and his poetry. Afterwards, there was a big party at the home of Alice Quinn–my beloved former boss at the Poetry Society of America. So many of Mark’s closest friends were present, including our current Poet Laureate Charles Wright. I shuttled back and forth helping to serve wine, and then champagne, until Alice gave a toast and we all sang happy birthday. Right after, Charles gave Mark a big pat on the back, which for me beautifully captured their friendship–starting from their time as students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and continuing for over half a century.

As part of the literary world, I have seen how much such friendships matter, and how the Poetry and Literature Center and other such institutions are built on them–built on a shared sense of love for the art and dedication to creating, sharing, and promoting it. To me, Maxine Kumin and Mark Strand were living examples of how poetry connects us, strengthens us–and their examples will surely live on.

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