Constructed as if written in the format of an actual handbook, ‘The New Poetry Handbook’ is Mark Strand’s list of rules on reading and writing poetry. Indeed, each stanza is numbered, keeping in accordance with the overall instructional theme of the poem. But there is more to it than that.
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The New Poetry Handbook
BY MARK STRAND
1 If a man understands a poem,
he shall have troubles.
2 If a man lives with a poem,
he shall die lonely.
3 If a man lives with two poems,
he shall be unfaithful to one.
4 If a man conceives of a poem,
he shall have one less child.
5 If a man conceives of two poems,
he shall have two children less.
6 If a man wears a crown on his head as he writes,
he shall be found out.
7 If a man wears no crown on his head as he writes,
he shall deceive no one but himself.
8 If a man gets angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by men.
9 If a man continues to be angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by women.
10 If a man publicly denounces poetry,
his shoes will fill with urine.
11 If a man gives up poetry for power,
he shall have lots of power.
12 If a man brags about his poems,
he shall be loved by fools.
13 If a man brags about his poems and loves fools,
he shall write no more.
14 If a man craves attention because of his poems,
he shall be like a jackass in moonlight.
15 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow,
he shall have a beautiful mistress.
16 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow overly,
he shall drive his mistress away.
17 If a man claims the poem of another,
his heart shall double in size.
18 If a man lets his poems go naked,
he shall fear death.
19 If a man fears death,
he shall be saved by his poems.
20 If a man does not fear death,
he may or may not be saved by his poems.
21 If a man finishes a poem,
he shall bathe in the blank wake of his passion
and be kissed by white paper.
Analysis of Strand’s “The New Poetry Handbook”
Given the entire format of the poem, it is as if Mark Strand is using ‘The New Poetry Handbook’ to invoke a certain form of inquisition in his readers. Although at first glance it may seem like the rules in question are regarding the interactions between a man and a poem, as the reader further strides in, he or she may feel that these guidelines actually reflect the truths of life.
For example, the first two stanzas start with ‘1. If a man understands a poem’ and ‘2. If a man lives with a poem’. More than the relationship between people and poems, it resembles that between people. Perhaps, the aim of the poem is to correlate personal relationships with literary ones to show how poetry has the ability to construe more than just words. It is alive and very much human.
The stanzas are also placed in a semi-consecutive manner. For example, in stanza 8 and 9, Mark Strand discusses the consequences of being angry at a poem; if he resents poetry, he will be looked down upon by men but if he still continues to be distant, he will be left alone by even the women. The relation between stanzas 14 and 15 may best show another example: if a man praises his competition, he may have an attractive paramour but if he praises his rivals too much, he may risk losing his paramour to a rival. By correlating these stanzas, Mark Strand puts emphasis on a basic moral. The moral is that while it is generous and sincere to be appreciative of someone, losing focus on yourself may result in losing the limelight altogether.
Each stanza or pair of stanzas is, in a way, a word of wisdom. These wisdoms help you achieve self-realization in life; at the same time, they prove the important role poetry plays in arranging the ethics of our lives.