Mark Doty’s manner is almost as lively as his poetry. As he recites, he performs a series of poses: clutching the podium with both hands, balling his fists, crossing his legs, pointing his index finger, driving his shoe-toe into the floor. He reads us just a few pieces, but these selections stretch from atoms to the cosmos. Such are Doty’s poses, and his poems— expanding and contracting and expanding again. He is a turbulent performer and poet, but it is evident that the poet’s universe is gleaming and beautiful, and that he casts each word with relish.
On Thursday, Oct. 3, Doty presented the 2019 Elizabeth Bishop Lecture at Vassar. Doty visits as a Distinguished Professor and Writer-in-Residence at Rutgers University, Newark. He has received the 2008 National Book Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Guggenheim Fellowship. Professor of English Paul Kane introduced Mr. Doty by introducing the lecture’s namesake poet. When Kane was a student, Elizabeth Bishop visited his poetry writing seminar and delivered a series of riddle poems about birds. Being “ornithologically challenged,” the class couldn’t solve any of them. “But, it’s a bluejay,” chided Kane, imitating Bishop. “My dears, it’s a thrush.” If Mark Doty had been there, he said, he would have saved the day because he is “alive to all forms of life around him.”
During the lecture, Doty offered a variety of verse and a prose poem, and much context—which was helpful, considering the microcosmic, hyper-focused parts of his work. “A Display of Mackerel,” for example, forms a long, skinny column on paper but reads out loud like a cloud, more vaporous and vast. As with most of his poems, it started small. Doty was in a Stop and Shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, leaning over the display of market fish, contemplating mackerel. On the drive home he wrote this ode of sorts on a grocery bag. He described their gleaming like abalone (“Iridescent, watery/prismatics: think abalone,/the wildly rainbowed/mirror of a soapbubble sphere,/think sun on gasoline.”), then considers their sameness and selflessness. Every mackerel, Doty blurted, expresses the same iridescence such that they are purposeful and happy. By being yourself, you are “doomed to be lost.” Which would you prefer?
In this way, grocery store musings became a commentary on the costs of individualism. Doty is good at taking a microscopic moment or image and giving it philosophical significance and surprising scale. Other subjects of his work included a pet store in Salt Lake City called Pets R Us, where the poet observed a “billion incipient citizens of a goldfish Beijing,” and a terrier called Little George who ruled Doty’s Chelsea apartment despite being no bigger than a toaster. Doty told us that he used to explore New York City in the full, as an “apotheosis of human,” before he started writing about the particulars of Chelsea. Take the poem “Magic Mouse,” about a street vendor’s toy. Despite the humdrum subject matter, he reflects that both the seller and the mechanical toy demonstrate an amazing persistence and resistance.
His work is so verbally rich; I imagined the writing process to be painstaking and sporadic, even aggressive. He buzzed with energy as he recited, bent over the microphone and driving his hand in the air for emphasis, giving the impression that he was composing on the spot. I cursed the theatrical and fake calm I’ve come to expect from spoken word—because this was far better. Matching his enthusiasm, the audience giggled and gaped at his readings. I felt a certain satisfaction seeing listeners’ responses before my eyes, hearing their sighs, nods and approving breaths as Doty delivered each line.
The poet, a mix between Mister Rogers and mad scientist, not only presented his poetry, but also reflected on his writing process. Before reading his ode to the aforementioned toy mouse, he lamented the decline of American vernacular: “Television and mass media have homogenized the American voice so much, there’s no regional specificity.” During the subsequent Q&A session, Doty discussed process. In keeping with their excitement, the crowd was filled with writers. One listener asked about his creative tempo: “Is [writing your poems] more like vomit or gestation?” He responded that it varies. There are times of allegiance to his process, when he undergoes “writing fetishes,” depending on the potency of the impulse. He has a prose book about Walt Whitman coming out in April; once he fully understood his subject matter, he said, it was like tuning into a voice, and he could hear a tone for that voice, and once he got there he could write. “If you write only one way,” he quipped, “you might end up writing the same thing.”
Alumnus Raphael Kosek ’75 asked Doty about prose poems, a modern literary “trend.” He told her that it is nice to relieve the pressure of a poetic line through this medium. She said after the lecture, “If there is a line [between prose and poetry], it’s probably blurred, but poetry is ultimately about the truth of a moment or consciousness.”
Along these lines, Mark Doty mused about grocery stores, did some philosophical inquiry and prompted much discussion about contemporary poetry. He pays attention to the microscopic, mackerel and toy mice, but also contemplates the cosmic.
With his upcoming memoir, he further explores consciousness, big and small, through prose. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life,” comes out in April 2020.