When I was twenty years old, I walked into a classroom and found Mark Strand waiting for me. He was a tall, tanned man who was radiating joy. The three students in the room were radiating fear or, more accurately, existential panic. I had just returned to college in Baltimore after two months in Israel and, before that, eight solo months in Paris. At some point during those months abroad, I had decided—for reasons that I still cannot explain entirely—that I had to learn about poetry. I was already interested in language, in writing, in story, or what I thought those words meant; but one afternoon, sitting in daily grammar class, a requirement of the deeply discounted housing-and-tuition deal with the Sorbonne that made my stay in Paris possible, I suddenly realized it was absurd to try to become a writer of any kind without poems.
I remember feeling so overwhelmed by this most basic, alarming truth that I left grammar class before it was over and walked straight to a bookstore a few blocks away to explore its poetry section. I went without a jacket, into the gray rain. The poetry collections, when I reached them, were lovely, expensive editions, elegant in a French way; I wanted them all, but I was constrained by my nearly empty bank account. I was cold and wet. So I turned around and returned to the classroom, which was by then empty, and walked through my temporary home at the Foyer International des Étudiantes, where nearly everyone was French or Francophone. My neighbor Céline, whom I liked, reacted to my request to borrow her poetry by moving her long, dark curls out of her huge, moody, eyeliner-lined eyes and then lecturing me about love and men and words and her problematic boyfriend from her tiny town in the south of France who didn’t understand what passion meant. This was the prelude to lending her copy of Rimbaud to me, what she had to say before getting up to slide the glass panels of her antique bookcase aside and take the book out.
On the one hand, Céline explained with stiff formality, sitting very straight on her perfectly made bed and holding her precious Rimbaud—still not giving it to me—she was happy I could read French well enough to read Rimbaud, unlike the American she was forced to share a room with, who was only interested in her nails. What is it with Americans and nails? On the other, Rimbaud was dangerous and could change, or ruin, my life. He had nearly made her lose hers. I accepted the lent copy with her warning; the pages were soft, well read, smoothed.
I had been eyeing Céline’s beat-up Rimbaud for months.
After that I read Baudelaire, while sitting next to a life-size nude statue, a copy of Michelangelo’s David, in the cramped and cluttered apartment of an older gay man named Georges who had been hired to help American students deal with Paris, and who would not stop talking about spleens, hearts, and other body parts as I read. Unlike Céline, Georges wouldn’t let me take his copy. Instead he sat and watched me, smoothing his thinning, dyed-red hair whenever I turned a page. Occasionally he got up to cook something in the kitchen or offer me a drink, never forgetting to tell me it was important to garder la ligne, a polite way of saying I needed to watch my weight. He wore boots that clacked as he walked, and was slightly bow-legged. He was evidently fond of plants, which were everywhere. He insisted on making comments on the superiority of French poets every few minutes. He quoted Valéry, who said a poem was never finished, only abandoned; he praised Apollinaire. And as he talked, I decided that when I returned to the United States, I would try to learn about poetry in English, preferably in a setting without strange smells emanating from a kitchen or statues blocking the light, a place free of weight-loss advice from a man who subsisted on wine and cigarettes and enthusiasm. In the meantime I let Georges take me to Versailles with a bunch of other students, where he talked nonstop about beauty and how it outlasts us all. I now realize how right Georges was, how much he gave me, and how useful was Céline’s serious insistence that Rimbaud could ruin or save a life—but at the time I counted the minutes until I could take a normal poetry class in an actual classroom.
There was only one problem with my grand plan: I was not a poetry major. The lone poetry class that fit into my schedule that fall in Baltimore was an Advanced Poetry Workshop, open only to majors. Worse, it had several prerequisites, and a fierce secretary enforcing them. My only hope was to get the professor to sign my permission slip. The secretary—my nemesis throughout my undergraduate years, a woman who forced me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. in those pre-Internet days to wait in line at the Writing Department office in order to have a chance at snagging a place in the always-popular workshops—told me there was no chance of this happening. I had naively committed the cardinal sin of declaring myself a fiction concentrator years before, which meant I could never take such a poetry class. There was a strict separation between the genres; there were enrollment caps. No professor would let me take an Advanced Workshop with no prerequisites in the genre, she insisted, least of all Mark Strand. But I grabbed the slip off the secretary’s desk, walked down the hall, and opened the door.
“I’d like to take your class,” I said to the very tall man standing there. It was about twenty minutes in.
“You want to take my class?” he asked, incredulously.
“Yes, I want to take your class,” I said.
“You want to take my class?”
“Yes! I want to take your class.”
“Then where do I sign?” he asked, smiling wide. I handed him the slip, and he signed with a flourish. I looked down: it said M. Strand.
I was in. I sat there and looked around. Two terrified boys and a placid-seeming girl I knew slightly. They all seemed stupefied, afraid to speak.
“I’m here for the health insurance,” Professor Strand said to me, nonchalantly, as if the others were not there. “Why are you here?”
“I want to learn about poetry.”
“You want to learn about poetry?”
I had no idea who M. Strand was. I did not know he had won the Pulitzer Prize and that his books were important to thousands of poets. He seemed like a real person, in jeans and a polo shirt: no suits for him. He had deep ridges in his face, and he looked like someone who spent time outside. Hiking, maybe. Camping. I did not know how lucky I was to have him as my first serious poetry teacher. It was all scheduling, all chance. When the workshops began, the two male students cried. They wanted praise, and Strand wanted—I don’t know what he wanted, but it wasn’t to dole out praise. But what workshops they were. In one, Strand tore my poem in half, lengthwise, and showed me how much better it was, way shorter. He had shown me how half a line was often better than a whole line. Another day he said, “How many languages do you speak?” When I told him three, he said he should be able to hear that in my poems. Another time he asked, “How old are you, anyway?” and when I answered, “Twenty,” he said he wanted to hear that in my poems, too, and to come back next week with a poem that sounded like a twenty-year-old had written it. I went back to my apartment and tried hard to write like myself.
I sat in the humanities building coffee shop and felt hot breath on my neck. Professor Strand was standing over me, in his clogs, which only made him taller. He was standing very, very close. That semester, I wore my purple suede clogs everywhere; I sometimes think the clanging bonded us. We were two tall people in clogs, clomping.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m reading for my art history class.”
“Why? You don’t have time for that. You should be reading poetry.”
To Strand, reading poetry was urgent, necessary, a matter of immediate concern. He made me feel I did not have a minute to waste. Once, during the class break, he insisted on taking me to the campus bookstore. With a special look of joy, a manic movement, he piled book after book of poetry onto the shelf near the cash register. But there were also books he did not want me to have. When he saw a Yevtushenko volume on the bottom shelf, he said, “I want to sneak in here at night and burn this Yevtushenko.” I stared at him. “I want to burn all the Yevtushenkos wherever they are found.” But other than that, Professor Strand wanted me to buy everything. There must have been three hundred books at the register.
“Okay,” he said. “Buy them.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“I don’t have the money for all these books,” I said sadly. I was on financial aid, the oldest of five children. I had borrowed the money for books for that semester, and I could not borrow more.
“But you need these books,” Strand said. “You have to have them.”
He was crushed. Dejected, we walked back to class together as the bewildered bookstore clerk stared us down. Later, he gave me a handwritten list on yellow legal paper of poets to read. I spent the two years after college reading the works on that list, borrowing most of the books from the library. Many of the poets on that list did not write in English. Strand started me off reading translations, reading the world. He was the opposite of Georges, who only believed in French poets, who was a patriot of a reader, a nationalist. Strand believed in beauty, wherever it was found.
When the class ended, I went to the hallway outside Professor Strand’s door and read the grades on the wall. Suddenly I felt hot breath on my neck, from on high. With the clogs he was six foot six, maybe six foot seven. At least I was standing this time.
“Are you here to complain about your grade?” he asked.
“It’s beneath my dignity.”
My answer seemed to please him. I had received a B; not bad. He had given others Ds. Suddenly, Professor Strand opened the door to his office—across the hall—and threw me into a chair. He locked the door. “I didn’t realize you were a senior,” he said glumly.
“What did you think I was?”
“I thought you were a junior. I thought you had another year.”
There was a short silence.
“What will you do next year?”
“I’m going to apply to graduate programs in art history.”
“No you’re not,” he said. “You’re going to continue in poetry.”
“You think you have time, but you don’t have time.”
I looked at him. He seemed pained, as if he was trying to tell me something crucial.
“Listen,” he said, in a serious tone that startled me. “It is hard for everyone, but it is going to be especially hard for you. You will have to get over religion, and you will have to get over language, and then you will have to get over yourself. But if you continue, poetry will make you happy.”
He rattled off some names. Jorie Graham, I remember. I recognized her name as one of the poets he had taught. Other names I did not recognize.
“Who are these people?”
“Poets. I knew them when they were young.” He sighed. “I knew them all.”
There was a long silence. I could see he was trying to tell me something he thought was very important. He was trying, and I was not understanding. I didn’t know who or what he was talking about; I had taken one poetry class, and I was going to get a Ph.D. and be a scholar somewhere, and I would write short stories. I just wanted to learn about poetry so that I could write better stories. And here was this man in clogs shaking his head at my plans, telling me I would have a hard life ahead. That I would continue in poetry. That I would write poems.
“How do you know all these things?” I asked.
“Because I am old,” he said, “and I know.”
I didn’t know what to say. We sat there quietly for a few minutes. I was afraid to get out of the chair. Would he throw me back down into it? I didn’t know, in that locked office, that I would turn that phrase, I am old and I know, over and over in my mind for years, along with the strange and accurate prophecy: You will have to get over religion, and language, and then you will have to get over yourself.
“Do you know how hard it is to write a good poem?” he asked me, finally.
“That first poem you wrote was a good poem. The others were terrible. But it doesn’t matter. You can write a good poem. That’s what matters.”
He tried to convince me to go to Iowa, telling me he would fix my poems to make them ready, but at the time I felt—how embarrassed I am to type this now— that Iowa was not a good place for a Jewish girl. I couldn’t imagine what I would eat, for instance. Of course, I did go to Iowa, eight years later, and I ate just fine. But first I returned to New York, where I tried to take time off, to get a job on Wall Street, earn some money, and pay off some loans. I requested brochures for Ph.D. programs in art history, as I had planned, and I tried not to continue in poetry. After all, I had only written one decent poem. But that urge I had felt in Paris, living so far from everything I had known—to learn something about poetry—did not go away. The need to read was inside me. I took poetry classes at night at the New School, and I made my way through Strand’s list. After two years of working nine to five, of suits and schedules, of poetry at night, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I read in the newspaper that there would be a memorial to the poet Joseph Brodsky at the 92nd Street Y. The participants were Susan Sontag, Derek Walcott, and Mark Strand. The cost was ten dollars, a fortune for me at the time. I went and stood in line to buy a ticket, exhausted from an entire day of editing stories about the bond market. An older woman tapped me on the shoulder. “Would you like a ticket? My girlfriends and I go to these events, but one of us can’t make it tonight.”
I smiled at her and nodded yes. I have never been so grateful for a ticket in my life.
I sat with the cheerful older ladies, but the event was sad. Brodsky was one of the poets on my yellow legal pad list, and now he was dead. Gone. I remember Walcott crying on the stage, Sontag sighing, Strand in obvious pain, visible even from a few dozen rows away. It was not a good time. I don’t think the ladies I was sitting next to had ever read Brodsky; they just went to whatever the Y had on the program, on the designated day of the week.
At the end of the memorial, I went up to the stage.
“Do you remember me?” I asked.
“Of course I remember you,” Strand said, from on high. “Did you read that poem I suggested? ‘Palaces,’ page thirty-six.”
Professor Strand had remembered the exact poem by Aleksandr Kushner, another one of his recommendations. Two years had passed, and he remembered the page number. Kushner, who shared my last name but was not related to me, was a Russian poet, and the work was hard to find, so Strand had suggested I steal it from the library. “They won’t miss it,” he said. “You need it.”
Instead I made some copies. I studied “Palaces.” I studied many other of his recommendations, from many countries and many faiths. And I looked for different editions of poets he recommended; because of that habit, I found Joseph Brodsky’s introduction to the poems of Aleksandr Kushner, a beautiful one-page essay. I also kept in mind Strand’s advice on how to read.
“Do you know how to read?” he asked me, one day, during the class break.
“I think so.”
“No you don’t.”
He claimed he knew how to read because he was fifty-nine years old.
“First you read all the poetry by a poet—not just the poems in an anthology. Then you read all the prose. If there are letters, you read those. Then you figure out who his friends were; read those people the same way, all the poems, all the prose, all the letters. Then you read the enemies—read them the same way, all the poems, all the prose, all the letters. That’s how you read a poet.”
I tried the system out. I didn’t do it for every writer, but for the ones I really wanted to know, I read the whole way through. And reading Strand’s way made me feel like he was nearby, always. October 2014 in Chicago I was too exhausted to go hear Strand and Renée Fleming, a sublime pairing of words and music; I was sure I would see my former teacher soon, anyway. I was still battling post-concussive syndrome, and I knew the trip downtown would be hard. I had seen Strand about a year before, at a gallery opening of his collages in New York. Yes, he was still making art at eighty. Yes, it was Rosh Hashanah, and I was marking it at art galleries, with my dear friend, a painter. And Strand always seemed to return in my life, through his physical presence and through his books, even though his gorgeous poem “Farewell” insisted this: It is true, as someone has said, that in a world without heaven, all is farewell.
Maybe. Whenever I was lost, whenever I could not figure out what I thought, I read something by Professor Strand.
I trusted his exquisite taste. I trusted his ability to never be boring, to identify excellence, to tell the truth, and to laugh at the plentiful absurd. The wisdom of reading the prose as well as the poetry led me to the sublime prose of Marina Tsvetaeva. He was right: It was hard for everybody, and for some people it was especially hard. Tsvetaeva lost a child to hunger, and herself to suicide. And it was, in fact—as he had predicted—very hard for me. For years I oscillated between languages, struggled with religion, and couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the self in and out of the work. My writing seemed to take forever. I injured my right hand, my writing hand, then broke twelve bones in my foot. My identity was stolen, twice. My car disappeared from the street. I had no housing luck. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, I hit my head, suffered a concussion, and lost the ability to read. But as Strand had foreseen, I continued with poetry, broadly defined, and it made me happy.
I kept writing through it all.
When Professor Strand died, not long ago, I was devastated. I was silent. I found out on a Saturday night, the separation between the holiness of the Sabbath and the business of the work week. I knew it: This was a separation, the beginning of my writing life without Professor Strand. There were many memorials to Strand as a poet, but not to Strand as a teacher. Maybe that is because what Strand taught happened behind locked doors; but I believe what he taught matters. I believe it was about more than health insurance. From the day I turned the doorknob in Baltimore, waving my yellow permission slip, Professor Strand walked me into the palace of poetry. I am sure he did this for many others, as great teachers do, but he made me feel that the entire legacy of poetry depended on me finding and reading some translation of a Russian poet whose name I could not pronounce and whose work was entirely out of print and available only through interlibrary loan from the clerk who worked from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. exclusively. But he was wrong about one thing. He was not old, and he never was. Instead, he was the white-haired, deep-smiling man who helped make my life into my life, and without a doubt, the youngest older person I have ever known.