In the spring of 2021, I received a message from Bernard Schwartz, the director of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, regarding a literary mystery. While looking through files at the Y, Bernard had discovered a galley proof from The New Yorker, dated January 12, 1995, of an unfamiliar poem by the late Mark Strand. Our business department confirmed that The New Yorker had bought the poem, “Wallace Stevens Comes Back to Read His Poems at the 92nd Street Y,” in May, 1994. But the work was never published, not in the magazine or, it seems, anywhere else, not even in Strand’s “Collected Poems.” Now, with permission from Strand’s estate, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Kevin Young, and I are excited to usher this long-lost work into print for this year’s Anniversary Issue.
“Wallace Stevens Comes Back to Read His Poems at the 92nd Street Y”—written some forty years after Stevens’s death, and twenty years before Strand’s—imagines the titular poet’s reappearance on the earthly plane, and, specifically, on the Upper East Side. This idea also underpins the contemporaneous “The Great Poet Returns,” which Strand published in The New Yorker in November, 1995, and in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Blizzard of One.” But, from their shared premise, the two poems diverge. “The Great Poet Returns” takes the perspective of a witness to a miraculous reading delivered posthumously by an unnamed poet. In “Wallace Stevens Comes Back,” Strand adopts the persona of the eminent modernist himself to meditate on ephemerality, endurance, and the relationship of poetry to both. The poet’s voice—Strand’s via Stevens’s (or vice versa)—exists somewhere between here and the hereafter, the lyric creating a liminal space, within and outside of time.
Stevens was an early and essential influence for Strand. Whereas some poems strive to present a “slice of life” or a “moral,” Strand told Wallace Shawn, in a 1998 interview for The Paris Review, Stevens exemplifies “another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world.” (Poetry as reality augmentation, perhaps.) In “Wallace Stevens Comes Back,” Strand’s Stevens seems to have been not entirely of this world, even while alive, yet also in thrall to it: “In the days / When it could be said I was one of you,” he confesses, “I loved / The beyond as somebody only can who is bound // By the earth.” As it turns out, “the erasures of heaven” are stifling to poetry, which is necessarily entwined with mortal affairs—even and perhaps especially for poets, like Stevens and Strand, who embrace the abstract, the surreal, the sublime.
A poem may outlast its author, but an in-person poetry reading—like the one for which Strand resurrects Stevens—is an inherently fleeting event. Both Stevens and Strand did in fact read at the 92nd Street Y in the course of their respective careers; in 1997, Strand, among other writers, even read a set of Stevens’s poems at a celebration for the Library of America’s release of Stevens’s collected works. He described being “amazed and charmed” by Stevens’s ability to “encode the act of writing in his poems”—that is, to make them about their own making, as much as anything else. “Wallace Stevens Comes Back,” like much of Strand’s work, has a similarly reflexive quality, exploring the formation of ideas and foregrounding the mind’s movements. Meanwhile, the notion of the reading reminds us that poetry emerges, too, from the body. Every performance of a poem is a unique combination of sound, rhythm, and breath that—if we’re lucky—may be remembered, even recorded, but in itself cannot be preserved.
In the same Paris Review interview, Shawn asked Strand, “Do you care whether you’re read after you’re dead?” Yes, Strand said, “but that’s projection. . . . I mean, I’d really like to be alive after I’m dead. That’s all that is. I don’t think it will make much difference to me when I’m dead whether I’m read or not.” Strand treated his poems not as entries to immortality but as part of poetry’s eternal present, where language renders possible a simple yet rare magic, a moment of communion. “So much for the past. May the worst of it fall by the wayside / Tonight,” Strand-as-Stevens says, in the final lines of this recently resurfaced poem. “May other more intricate powers convene. / May the words that I speak be the ones you hear.” ♦