Poet Strand pays homage to the discipline he left behind
By Eric McHenry
Mark Strand is one of America's most accomplished poets, and for that he thanks the painter Neil Welliver.
Prefacing his March 2 reading in the SFA Concert Hall, an event celebrating new BU exhibitions of works by Welliver and Josef Albers, Strand said his first encounter with Welliver's work was definitive: it practically drove him from painting.
"I admired a painting of his in the office of the
secretary of the art school at Yale," said Strand, who was a graduate
student of painting at the university in the mid-1950s, when Welliver
was a young instructor. "And I wondered instantly if I were in the right
place. I thought perhaps I'd made a mistake by pursuing painting. Well,
"Looking at that Welliver painting had a lot to do with my becoming a poet," Strand said. "So thank you, Neil. If you were a worse painter, I would be painting still."
Despite exchanging the paintbrush for the pen, Strand has continued to be drawn to, and compelled by, visual art. Along with essays for exhibition catalogues and three books of art criticism, he has written numerous poems in response to paintings. His BU reading, with generous selections from his 1999 Pulitzer prize winning volume Blizzard of One (Knopf, 1998), reflected this enduring commitment. It included a pair of villanelles inspired by the paintings of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and a poem dedicated to Welliver himself, who was in attendance. Taken from a suite entitled "Five Dogs," the poem seems to voice the same rejection of compromise and naïve optimism that characterize Welliver's work:
I no longer wait in front of the blistered,
Welliver lives and paints in relative seclusion on 2,000 wooded acres in Maine.
Strand, a former U.S. poet laureate, was introduced by the current occupant of that post, CAS Professor of English Robert Pinsky.
"We're here to celebrate a friendship in art," said Pinsky, "and a deep correspondence between arts."
Pinsky called Strand's poetry "plangent while amused, daring and emotional, with a kind of calm poise," and suggested that those qualities "are related to the fact that Mark Strand is also a wonderful painter."
The superficial similarities between poetry and visual art, two forms of descriptive composition, are easy enough to grasp, Pinsky said. "But I think the connection is deeper and more conceptual than that," he contended, "a matter of revelation emerging from the perfection of form . . . Mark's poems are worlds with their own laws, as I understand paintings to be."
Like Welliver, Strand was attracted to Yale by the prospect of studying with Josef Albers, a profoundly influential abstract painter, printmaker, and photographer. BU Chancellor John Silber, who gave the evening's opening remarks, said that Welliver's mature work "reveal[s] in part Albers' influence.
"The vision, however, is entirely [Welliver's] own. He is unlike any landscape painter who has come before him."
In addition to the two poets, Silber introduced the theme that both would examine further -- the interdependence of disciplines.
"I have not observed Neil's development merely as an artist over the 50 years since I first met him, but also his development philosophically," said Silber, who, like Strand, befriended Welliver at Yale in the 1950s. Welliver's paintings, Silber said, reflect "his wide reading in philosophy, physics, and poetry, and perhaps especially in poetry. Poetry, he has said, is essential to his work as a painter. For this reason, it is entirely wonderful and appropriate that Mark Strand, who shares Neil's view on the relation of painting and poetry, is here to read to us in preparation for our visit to the exhibitions."
Josef Albers in Black and White will run through April 9 at the BU Art Gallery. For more information, call 353-3329. Neil Welliver: Recent Paintings and Prints can be viewed through April 2 at the 808 Gallery. For more information, call 358-0200.