What’s the Idea?

What’s the idea of this enigmatic heading? What’s the idea of poetry, perhaps? Or what’s The Idea, a poem by Mark Strand? Let me provide a little background to the poet which might shed a little light on both questions – at least from his perspective.

Mark Strand was born in Canada in 1934. Before becoming a poet, he worked as an artist (some reviewers describe his work as ‘painterly’ – I wonder if you will agree with this). The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Mark Strand describes his poetry thus:

Characterised by its simple language and surreal imagery, it is situated in the shadowy line that forms the border between what we accept as reality, and what is just beyond our grasp.

Mark Strand himself has this to say of the type of poems he writes:

At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. Not only do they fix in language what is often most elusive about our experience, but they convince us of its importance, its truth even.

I am intrigued by this claim. I like the idea of fixing elusive experiences. As I walked through the apparently white countryside last weekend, I was struck by the colours in the snow as the sun sank lower. Might a poet have been able to capture not only the beauty of the moment, but also the inner emotional landscape of the observer? Rather than flounder further, let me present Mark Strand’s poem. Is there anything you recognise in this wintry scene? What do you make of the ending?

The Idea

For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we think we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.

In the News

T S Eliot Prize 2009

The shortlist for this prize has been announced. It’s one of the biggest literary prizes to be won in Britain – previous winners include Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney. The Today Programme on Radio 4 has featured readings by each of this year’s shortlisted poets. Follow the link to find out more about the poets and listen to the readings.


I look forward to your comments about The Idea and your suggestions for other poetry or extracts which you would like to see on Books At Bibby Line Group.


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Filed under In The News, Poem of the Week, Poetry

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