Mark Doty is frequently lauded as one of the best American poets writing today, and I certainly concur. His manner of looking at the world is that of regard, an intellectual gaze that insists on detail and beauty, and taking the time to examine. He’s prolific, with about seven is it? eight? volumes of poetry, not including his award-winning New and Selected (which is a great place to start). And three books of memoir (centering around the death of his partner from AIDS, growing up gay, and dogs and loss, respectively). And a meditation about art history. And a little poetics book too (one of Graywolf Press’s lovely “Art Of” series). And an occasional blog.
When Doty annoys, which can happen every once in a while, it’s because of an overdosing of description, a too-mannered-ness. “Dammit, too much elegance!” one perhaps wants to yell on occasion. Or maybe, sometimes, “Cut to the chase!” But mostly he’s wonderful.
My Alexandria was my introduction to Doty (his third, I think, collection, published in 1993). The first poem in it has been one of my favorites since I read it (freshman or sophomore year of college), “Demolition,” which watches a building being taken down by a backhoe, its shy metal scoop, “a Japanese monster tilling its yellow head / and considering what to topple next.” That poem has one of my favorite poet-profound lines, “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us.”
Doty is adept at describing an image with which you are already familiar, but doing so in such a beautiful way, as in the poem “Broadway,” also from My Alexandria,
[…] Then, on Broadway, red wings
in a storefront tableau, lustrous, the live macaws
preening, beaks opening and closing
like those animated knives that unfold all night
in jewelers’ windows.
(The poem on the printed page has a staggered indent, but WordPress doesn’t allow such things in a quotation block). The macaws, though, are also “lined up like the endless flowers / and cheap gems, the makeshift tables // of secondhand magazines the hawkers eye / while they shelter in the doorways of banks.” Doty presents a clear view, but sees it thoroughly.
The jellyfish poem I measure all other jellyfish in poems against, “Difference,” describes the creatures in the bay shallows this way,
[…] is it right
to call them creatures,
these elaborate sacks
of nothing? All they seem
is shape, and shifting,
and though a whole troop
of undulant cousins
go about their business
within a single wave’s span,
every one does something unlike:
And then it’s followed by a list of “like” images — “this one a balloon / open on both ends” and on through “a troubled parasol.” The poem moves in and out of concrete images and abstract. The jellyfish look like “a rolled condom” but they are also “sheer ectoplasm / recognizable only as the stuff / of metaphor.” He asks, “what’s lovelier / than the shapeshifting // transparence of like and as: / clear, undulant words?”
Lovely, detailed — these are words you’ll think while reading his poetry. Lustrous, sheen, billowing, pearl, translucent, flank, exhausted, lush, absent, laquer, embrace — these are words you’ll read frequently in his poetry. In fact, in a poem called “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work” in 1998’s Sweet Machine (the shorter of two with the same title and general premise), said critics wonder if he can’t ever use any other words than words like glaze and luster, “all that sheen,” and the poem replies, “—No such thing, / the queen said, / as too many sequins.”
In the longer “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work” he asks “—What else to do / with what you adore // but build a replica?” His specificity, except when it’s annoying, is wonderful. The green of a crab’s shell in “A Green Crab’s Shell” is “Not, exactly, green: / closer to bronze / preserved in kind brine, // something retrieved / from a Greco-Roman wreck.”
I heard Doty read and lead a tour at one of the Seattle Art Museum’s crazy (and crazy-popular) Remix events last year, and he seemed exactly like a poet should be, which is silly, of course, there are tons of ‘kinds’ of poets, but he certainly embodied the ideal of an erudite, witty, caring, professorial, slightly jet-lagged and having mic troubles but still grand kind of poet.
Other favorite Doty poems:
“House of Beauty,” (which riffs on the form created by Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “Visit to St. Elizabeth’s“)
“Theory of the Soul”
“Theory of Multiplicity”
“Theory of the Sublime”
“Lilacs in NYC” (what an erotic poem that one is!)
“Door to the River”