Mark Strand

Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand

‘Keeping Things Whole’ was published in 1964 in Strand’s first collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open. It includes many of the elements that Strand’s writing is best-known for. These include surreal images, clear and precise language, and a focus on the theme of absence. Anxiety is another prominent theme in the work, seen through the speaker’s desire to be noticed when he never is. 

Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand


Summary of Keeping Things Whole 

Keeping Things Whole’ by Mark Strand is a complex and curious poem that describes the speaker’s interpreted invisibility within every facet of his life.

This short poem provides the reader with only a few sentences with which to come to an understanding of the speaker’s state of mind. As well as how he considers his presence in the world. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, he’s invisible. When he leaves, the air feels back behind him as if he had never been there in the first place. Plus, he adds, by moving, he’s able to ensure that everything stays as it was. His absence does not fragment or upset the world. He moves in order to keep things whole.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Keeping Things Whole

Keeping Things Whole’ by Mark Strand is a short poem that contains three stanzas of varying lengths. The first is seven lines, the second is six, and the third is only four lines long. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, a technique known as free verse writing. When reading the poem, the line breaks become very important to understand the speaker’s emotional state and accurately interpreting the content of ‘Keeping Things Whole.’


Literary Devices in Keeping Things Whole

Strand makes use of several literary devices in ‘Keeping Things Whole’. These include but are not limited to enjambment and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example, the image of the speaker’s absence, as seen in the absence of “field” and the air moving in to fill the space where his body had been. These are both evocative and usual images that should stimulate a reader’s imagination. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Enjambment is quite obvious in ‘Keeping Things Whole’. One of the best examples is the transition between the first three lines of text. 


Analysis of Keeping Things Whole

Stanza One 

In a field

I am the absence

of field.


In the first stanza of ‘Keeping Things Whole,’ the speaker begins by defining for the reader what he is. He states that he is “the absence”. This is clearly a curious way to define oneself but it tells the reader a lot, right away, about how this speaker moves through life. When he’s present somewhere, it’s like he’s not. Anywhere he goes he is “what is missing,” as the last line of this stanza states. 

The speaker says that he is the “absence /of field” when he is in a field. He refers to a “field” as “of field,” rather than “a” or “the” field. It is something general and he is using it as only one example of what his life is like. 

He speaks about his state of being simply and clearly. It is not something that surprises him or deeply moves him, at least at this moment. When beginning this poem a reader should notice immediately how enjambed the lines are. It was Strand’s choice to put line breaks into this poem in order to accurately convey the speaker’s tone. The phrases are broken in unusual and surprising places often helping the reader move quickly from one line to the next. The last lines of this first stanza are incredibly sad. He states that wherever he is, he is “what is missing”. While there aren’t a lot of details in this phrase it’s clear that he is isolated.


Stanza Two

When I walk

I part the air

and always


The second stanza of ‘Keeping Things Whole’ is one line shorter than the previous one. It is made up of one continuous sentence that is split between the six lines. He states that when he walks the parts the air and then that same air always moves to fill in space where his body had been. 

Again, these lines are not filled with detail but they do show how sensitive the speaker is to the part he has to play in the world. The way he lives now is the way it’s always been and the way he believes it will be for the rest of time. 


Stanza Three 

We all have reasons

for moving.


The third stanza of ‘Keeping Things Whole’ expands beyond the speaker’s personal experience and uses the third person pronoun “we”. He describes in only four lines how we all have reasons “for moving”. He is speaking about “we”, as everyone who has ever lived in the world, and everyone has a different motivation for continuing on. 

The next two lines provide the reader with his reason for moving. It is “to keep things whole”. By moving, he’s able to keep things as they’re supposed to be—whole. The empty space behind him fills back in and any fragmentation that his presence brought to the landscape is healed. At the same time, he moves to keep himself whole, or at least attempt to find that wholeness. There are several different interpretations of what he could possibly mean in these final lines. No matter what one’s interpretation is, it’s clear what the speaker is feeling is complex and multilayered.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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