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Poetry Moment: Mark Strand was feeling anxious

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When Mark Strand was a student at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, he was worried about nuclear war with Russia, among other things. The Pulitzer winner and former National Poet Laureate wrote his poem “Sleeping with One Eye Open” in 1962. “It speaks to a certain anxiety,” he told an American Public Media interviewer.

Right now, his anxiety speaks to a lot of us who are worried about the country’s future, the health of our families and friends, the economy, among other things. So, with Strand as our guide, let’s just embrace our insomnia for a bit, shall we?

Strand’s poem is written in a ragged form, both tightly knit and discomfiting, conducive to restlessness. The endings of the longer lines are echoed in slant rhyme on the short lines, like a caught breath. There’s echo and recall to each line, not exact and rollicking rhyme. Strand would dream up networks of rhymes when “bored in class,” he says in the full interview HoCoPoLitSo taped just after his reading to our audience in 1991. He laughs when telling some of his favorite rhymes to fellow poet Henry Taylor on The Writing Life: “He brews/high-brows,” “Gauloises/galoshes/goulashes.” Sadly, Strand never wrote a poem rhyming goulashes and galoshes.

Modeled on Louis McNeice’s rhyme scheme and form in “Sunlight on the Garden,” “Sleeping with One Eye Open” is woven together with rhyme, but riddled with dread.

Literature professor James Hoff, in his paper titled “ ‘Sleeping with One Eye Open’: Fear and Ontology in the Poetry of Mark Strand,” wrote, “Strand is keenly aware of the tenuous nature of our lives, and the title of his poem–the title also of his first book–seems to suggest a preferred ontological state, a way of existing where the ever-present, often frightening mysteries of the world are both revealed and created.”

The last few months have found me awake late at night, concerned with the tenuous nature of our lives and startled by the “fishy” light of the moon, as Strand describes it. His sleeping poem isn’t reassuring or sleep-inducing, with its open-ended ending: “Hoping/ that nothing, nothing will happen.” There’s no rhyme for “will happen” and we’re left in mid-rhyme, suspended.

Many of us are lying awake at night, bleary-eyed, hoping that tomorrow morning will be better.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


SLEEPING WITH ONE EYE OPEN

By Mark Strand

Unmoved by what the wind does,
The windows
Are not rattled, nor do the various
Areas
Of the house make their usual racket–
Creak at
The joints, trusses, and studs.Instead,
They are still.
And the maples,
Able
At times to raise havoc,
Evoke
Not a sound from their branches
Clutches.
It’s my night to be rattled,
Saddled
With spooks. Even the half-moon
(Half-man,
Half half dark), on the horizon,
Lies on
Its side casting a fishy light
Which alights
On my Floor, lavishly lording
Its morbid
Look over me. Oh I feel dead,
Folded
Away in my blankets for good,and
Forgotten.
My room is clammy and cold,
Moonhandled
And weird. The shivers
Wash over
Me, shaking my bones, my looses ends
Loosen,
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,
Hoping
That nothing, nothing will happen.


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