Tuesday 20 March 2012

Poetry discoveries; Mark Doty and Atlantis

What Keats would have seen
The best poetry discoveries can be like the most startling news: you remember the moment - not necessarily where you were, as with news, but how it felt.  Thinking about this just now, I realised that I have a rather poetic mental image of such moments, which I’ve never surfaced before: standing on a mountain top, looking into a long landscape of golden hills, with sea in the distance...  Is this because of Keats' ‘realms of gold’, or did it come first? 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific - and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise -
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ probably got internalised in my teens, by when I already had a taste for standing on the top of non-metaphorical mountains.  Keats hadn’t yet been on his tour of Scotland when he wrote the sonnet. 

Mark Doty’s Atlantis gave me such a moment, some years ago.  He was new to me.  I opened the book and read the first poem, ‘Description’. 

My salt marsh
- mine, I call it, because
these day-hammered fields

of dazzled horizontals
undulate, summers,
inside me and out -

how can I say what it is?
Sea lavender shivers
over the tidewater steel.

I could go on like this.
I love the language
of the day’s ten thousand aspects,

the creases and flecks
in the map, these
brilliant gouaches.

But I’m not so sure it’s true,
what I was taught, that through
the particular’s the way

to the universal:
what I need to tell is
swell and curve, shift

and blur of boundary,
tremble and spilling over,
a heady purity distilled

from detail. ….

I was overwhelmed by the way the language itself spills over from one tercet to the next, and the way Doty pulls the poem back from such rich description to pose his question - and then lets rip with yet more of it.  Also by the sense of moving through a world of metaphor upon metaphor.

I got lost in this whole book - imaginatively, luxuriatingly lost as you can get lost in real life, in a city or among fields or mountains, or somewhere at night, in a way that can be very freeing.  (Unless bad weather is coming and you need to find the way down.) 

In the late 90s, a couple of years after Atlantis, Doty was interviewed in the Cortland Review and said this, when asked why people keep returning to poetry.

My guess is that somehow poetry is a vessel for the expression of subjectivity unlike any other; a good poem bears the stamp of individual character in a way that seems to usher us into the unmistakably idiosyncratic perceptual style of the writer. I think we're hungry for singularity, for those aspects of self that aren't commodifiable, can't be marketed. In an age marked by homogenization, by the manipulation of desire on a global level… poetry may represent the resolutely specific experience. The dominant art forms of our day - film, video, architecture - are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.

The salt marsh feels like Doty’s edge of things.  Maybe that’s one reason it is so appealing.  A lot of the book is set on the edge of land and sea;  also life and death, his partner’s dying.  There’s a good review of Atlantis in the Boston Review which sets it in the context of Doty’s earlier work.  It remains my favourite book of his (followed by Theories and Apparitions), and one of my favourites of all contemporary poetry.  It’s as if the intensity of the emotions he was going through took his writing to a different level. 

Atlantis is published by Cape.


  1. An enjoyable piece – and it's reassuring that this posting and Longenbach's review cover many of the same points as my recently completed M Phil on Doty. Too many people who should know better are dismissive of Doty's work viz Sean O'Brien's spectacular exercise in point-missing in a TLS review of Atlantis (29/11/96) headed 'Nothing needs to be this lavish'. He complains that 'the most striking feature of Atlantis is its self-conscious prolixity’ and regrets that poems ‘which aim to be meditative too often end up as self-indulgent blather’. Longenbach, by the way, is the author of an interesting little book in Graywolf's 'Art of' series called 'The Art of the Poetic Line'.

  2. Thanks Stephen. The strange thing is, I can see exactly what O'Brien means! Perhaps it's a matter of taste... maybe even with political undertones? Would love to see the whole review, if you've got it (can't read it online, as it's subscribers only). Doty's work is always self-conscious, isn't it. Does it make sense to say, he's self-consciously self-conscious? In some of his work, I find this problematic. But the poems in 'Atlantis' seem to transcend all that.