Early September in New York is full of more art openings any one person can keep track of, let alone attend. I spent last night popping between a handful of carefully chosen ones, pedaling along, courtesy of my finally working CitiBike card. As I was walking from the last opening to grab a slice I walked by a show and noticed a name I recognized out of its usual context. The opening was clearly about to end, but I popped in.
Mark Strand studied painting at Yale with Josef Albers, but I was unaware that he was still making visual work. I checked the press release: yep, the same Mark Strand. I wandered through, wondering which of the many white haired men he was.
I found him, but not because I recognized him. A woman recognized me from a show I was at earlier in the evening. She chatted me up, and in the process pointed him out to me. He was a tall thin white haired white man, wearing a rumpled white linen coat. I approached him while he held hands with his wife. I told him the story:
I asked him if he remembered visiting a small high school in Portland, Oregon in the mid 90’s. He said yes he did, and asked if I was there at the time? Yes, I told him, after his reading he came to my English class. I was a junior. We had just finished 25 page research papers on American poets. He asked us to go around the room and tell him who we had written on.
When it was my turn I told him I had written on Walt Whitman. “Whitman’s not much of a poet!” he retorted, pausing, looking at me, inviting me in to spar. I defended Whitman to the best of my abilities. I don’t really remember exactly what I said, as my memory has encoded and re-encoded the exchange. What matters is that in the version I am left with, I held my own against the former poet laureate. Last night I told him I argued for the importance of plain verse, and that Whitman’s catalogs were as great and various as America itself.
He was smiling. A kind of taught mouthed smile. I couldn’t tell if he remembered or not, and frankly why should he, but he clearly recognized himself in the story.
After I finished, he leaned in a little bit and said: “You know, you were right about Whitman. I’ve come around on him.” He smiled, showing his teeth. And his wife sweetly lead him away to the post-opening reception for which they were late.