|What Keats would have seen|
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
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
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.