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When people are spiritual in spite of themselves

Mark Strand's "A Poet's Alphabet of Influences" at the Words and Images exhibit at the Phillips Gallery in 2004.
Mark Strand's "A Poet's Alphabet of Influences" at the Words and Images exhibit at the Phillips Gallery in 2004.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archives

This is not the kind of Faith page column that will draw in readers.

It’s a column about a dead poet and his society.

Those words alone should send readers piling through the exits like fourth-quarter Jazz fans.

Still, I feel it’s a column that needs to be written.

Mark Strand, who passed away last weekend, was among the finest poets of our era.

He came to the University of Utah in 1981, down on his luck, burned out and emotionally parched. He left 13 years later, rejuvenated enough to win a Pulitzer Prize and become America’s Poet Laureate.

And while in Utah, he created a Camelot of literature, bringing in at least four Nobel Prize winners and countless other literary lights.

He could also be a difficult and complicated man.

Like his poems, Strand always seemed to hover just out of reach of our understanding.

He annoyed me several times, once by giving a story to a rival publication that I felt I deserved and once by publicly thrashing a Quaker poet I admired deeply. Then he would turn around and do something wonderful and gracious, like allowing me, a second-tier writer for a regional newspaper, to shoot the breeze for an hour with literary masters like Raymond Carver and Derek Walcott while he — Strand — waited patiently in the hallway.

Living in Utah among the Mormons sharpened Strand’s self-image as a nonbeliever, though he was, to my mind, spiritual in spite of himself.

He loved European cathedrals and had a secret admiration for the poems of an old Unitarian, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Strand was contemplative, and his poetry carries an aura of “otherness,” an impression that it is not of this world.

I’ve seen such things in many people. Some people have a spiritual nature despite all they do to disguise it. And I see that, I think, because I was that way. During my more colorful years, when I was campaigning to become mayor of Babylon, friends would tell me I could protest and stamp my feet all I wanted, but at heart I was a spiritual guy. They were right.

And in the case of Strand, I wasn’t the only one who saw that. Harold Bloom, America’s resident intellectual, included Strand’s poetry in his anthology “American Religious Poems.”

After a Salt Lake City reading not long before he died, I asked Strand about being in Bloom's book. He hemmed and hawed a bit from the podium and threw a couple of sharp elbows Bloom’s way. Afterward, he chided me for asking a question that required a treatise of 300 pages to answer. Then he signed his latest book for me, including a sweet and playful inscription that — to my mind — still feels tinged with grace.

When I heard of Strand’s death, I went back to the poems Bloom included in his anthology of religious verse. One poem, “White,” begins: “Now in the middle of my life, all things are white.” It ends with these lines:

And out of my waking

the circle of light widens,

it fills with trees, houses,

stretches of ice.

It reaches out. It rings

the eye with white.

All things are one.

All things are joined

even beyond the edge of sight.

Mark Strand showed me many tender mercies during his tenure in Utah. And I think his poetry will be part of the American grain for many years to come.

May flights of angels sing him to his rest.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com