LENOX -- Moonlight touches Stockbridge Bowl, where Edith Wharton, who never swam in fresh water, would canoe with Walter Berry. On a September night she might stand in the doorway to the terrace with the lighted room behind her, and friends half-hidden in their chairs, calling to her to come out, to talk about Walt Whitman.
She will not see their faces clearly unless she comes out to them and sits with them until her eyes adjust to the light.
It feels like a movement in a Mark Strand poem.
This weekend, he will stand there himself. The Mount will welcome Wordfest to Wharton's house and gardens with an evening of poetry on the terrace, an evening of emerging writers competing with good humor, and an afternoon with a man established at the core of the last five decades, at least, of contemporary poetry.
Mark Strand will read new work and old on Saturday. National Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-prize winner (for his collection "Blizzard of One"), he is now a collage artist with a show this month at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art gallery in New York.
In his studio in Spain, he makes his own paper, dyes it and shapes it, glimmering silver and black and evening-sky blue -- dusky colors familiar in his poems:
"I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world ..."
In his "New and Selected Poems," patterns form. A man stands in the street watching a house where a man looks out a window. Mirrors, and mirror images carry a dislocated sense of being outside the body. People become wind, blown away from each other.
"Everything is internal. I carry a world inside of me," he said by phone, as he walked in New York. "The decor is made up of places I have been -- Nova Scotia, where I spent childhood summers. ... When I was in Utah, the mountains made their appearance."
He is careful to create a tangible, liveable space, so readers will know clearly where things are, without overdescribing it.
To shape a poem, a poet mixes sounds as an artist mixes colors.
"The world will take you only so far," he said. "Time spent writing is the dominant time."
In his work, memory of time with others becomes abstract and simplified. He wants a writer or reader encountering a poem to have a quiet, open space to take it in.
On Friday, the night before his reading, a group of emerging young writers will offer their work in an evening of energy and humor -- and reflection. In a "Literary Death Match," four writers -- Rachel Shukert, Steve Almond, Brando Skyhorse, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz -- will read aloud before three judges -- novelist and Williams professor Jim Shepard, comedian Ophira Eisenberg and Brooklyn, N.Y. blogger Jason Diamond -- who will give impromptu responses.
The event echoes Strand more than the name suggests at a glance.
"When it comes to finding judges: Kindness is our number one," said the show's founder, Adrian Todd Zuniga, by email from Shanghai. "Kindness may sound boring, the way ‘nice' is tabbed as boring, but it's not. It's about soul. Kindness is about the juggling of compassion and empathy, which is never more brilliant then when it's mixed with what we look for second: funny. ... The real trick to being a judge, though, is saying what you experienced with honesty."
Strand describes the pleasure of responding to poetry as slow-growing, deep-rooted: "You can come to it over and over. There's always something left you haven't gotten hold of that draws you back. There's a black hole in the middle of every poem."
Someone reading a poem engages with mystery, letting it become a part of life
"Most people don't want mystery in their lives," he said. "They want romance, but that's not the same thing."
He and Zuniga both wrestled with a world where Internet sound-bites, tweets and jokes compete with poems and stories.
"I don't think people think of books as boring," Zuniga said. "They think of them as time consuming. And why read 300 pages when you can have a great laugh by watching ... YouTube? ... The answer, of course, is that a book will give you more. Books are the most important things on the planet. Nothing can match them. But you have to give to get. In equal parts. I feel like we're moving towards an era where people realize that again. And books will be at the fore, again. I'm a believer in that."
Strand once wrote that a good poem will meet the reader only half-way. On the phone, he considered the balance a poet keeps, to be clear and still to keep that inescapable mystery.
He recalled Seamus Heaney in "North" and "Death of a Naturalist."
"The sense of what he was talking about is inescapable, but he didn't make his poems analyses," he said.
They held marvels, the bog women, his father's farm.
He recalled Dylan Thomas saying
" 'In my craft or sullen art
exercised in the still night
when only the moon rages
and the lovers lie abed
with all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light ...'
"Most people say ‘what's the guy talking about' " Strand said; "still, one can sympathize with the attitude -- understand how it feels to labor at something for the love of it, even though it's not appreciated."
Zuniga appreciates it. Creating a show based around performance, he relies above all on the strength of the writing.
"We'll always ask a great writer to be part of the show over anything else," he said. "It will carry an audience. ...
"The electricity that amps our show is one of discovery. You come to see Jim Shepard judge, you leave in love with Brando Skyhorse. You love Steve Almond from his New York Times pieces, and you leave excited about performance poetry because of Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. ... To discover a writer and be moved ... that's the great stuff, now."
If you go ...
What: Poetry on the Terrace -- David Giannini, Jessica Fisher, Mark Hart, Owen Lewis, Ellen Watson, and Charles Coe
When: 5:30 tonight
Admission: free, book Swap
What: Literary Death Match
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Admission: $12 in advance or $8 for students, $15 at door
What: Reading by Mark Strand
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Information: (413) 551-5100, EdithWharton.org