The Seven Last Words by Mark Strand 1934-2014
Yesterday at noon Matt and I were reading the Sunday Globe, and he said to me, “Do you know the poet Mark Strand? He died. He was 88 years old. It says he was an atheist.”
Today I have been reading some of Mark Strand’s poems and thinking about the atheism thing. I read the obituary in which the atheist lines from the poet were reported, by his daughter as I recall. The report is that he said things about never having visited heaven and never receiving a visitor who had been to heaven, etc. I found myself thinking how ridiculous and bereft of imagination even our best artists can be. Turned in one direction ( in this case to poetry) they might be honored creators of art, by their peers at least. Turned in another direction (to religion) they are not wise (putting it in the kindest possible way).
Imagine a devout and pious factory worker, automobile mechanic or farmer–steeped in the music of the liturgies and the psalms and the gospels–being interviewed about the solipsistic and pretentious work of a contemporary poet.
Religion is in part the name we give to the poetry of the ages that belongs to all of us, to elites who, as the obituary continued, worship at the altar of art (a glib and snide comment) and commoners, the rest of us.
The point made about Thoreau a while back on this blog is the same one to be made about Strand (not intending to put Strand in a class with Thoreau): Gifted artists have God within them even if they would not agree with that assessment. However, these artists–and those who comment on their work–should somehow be advised not to blurt overgeneralized inanities about “religion”. Religious people have done and continue to do bad things. Horrors have been perpetrated in the name of God. The Crusades come to mind, of course. Atheists do bad things. Horrors have been perpetrated in the service of atheistic Communism and Nazism, to give two examples.
Here is The Seven Last Words by Mark Strand. I recall reading it a number of times. No matter what he or his daughter or anyone else writes, the man was not an atheist in the sense of being “without God”.
The Seven Last Words
The story of the end, of the last word
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
Someday some one will write a story set
These are the days when the sky is filled with
To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
Back down these stairs to the same scene,