Poetry, Mark Doty Says, Is the True Guarantor of Individuality

By Glover, Michael | New Statesman (1996), May 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Poetry, Mark Doty Says, Is the True Guarantor of Individuality


Glover, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


It was two years ago that I first read a book by a remarkable young American poet called Mark Doty. He was completely unknown in this country. His poems had a compassionate, lyrical urgency, a descriptive and metaphorical power that was more exciting than anything I'd read from America since the death of Robert Lowell in the 1970s.

Last month Doty came to Britain to lodge in a converted pigsty at the Arvon Foundation in Totleigh, Devon, and do what he regularly does at the University of Utah: teach poetry to aspiring poets. He is one of a species that is common in the United States, but rare and often regarded with some suspicion over here: the professional, tenured poet.

His schedule at Utah is relatively light he teaches two days a week from January to June. But the rest of his income comes from workshops and fees for his many poetry readings, as well as from grants and book royalties. In Devon, he says, it was "very intense". With 16 student poets, he "spent all day, every day, doing workshops and writing exercises, talking about poems, reading poems - theirs and mine."

Isn't it bad for poets to spend so much of their time thinking and talking about the art? Shouldn't they have some life outside poetry so that, when they return to it, they have something to write about?

"What's good is that I get to participate in a conversation about the art," he said, when we met at the Poetry Society in London's Covent Garden. He speaks in a gentle, insistent voice. "Of course, talking about poetry and writing it are two very different things, but there's something about that dialogue between teacher and student that is nurturing for me as a writer. I enjoy that kind of structured contact with other people and their stories, with their struggles to shape themselves on the page."

Reading poetry to audiences, he says, helps his writing. "I learn about new poems in the process of reading aloud. You listen differently when you're reading to an audience - it's as if part of you is in that audience listening to that new poem. You hear weaker lines, glitches, rhythmic problems, and that helps in the revision process. Of course, the real work of poetry happens when one reader is alone with one book because, when we read a poem by ourselves, we can stop and start, daydream about what we've just read, take time to examine. What you hear in a poetry reading is always the skin of a poem. You can't apprehend the depths and complexities of a good poem when it's simply read to you once."

He thinks of himself "as a literary writer with roots in a tradition that values complexity and a certain sort of thickness of language; a poetry I hope that can't be gotten in one hearing."

But why was poetry worth listening to anyway? Why was it so humanly valuable? "Poetry is a kind of distillation of individuality amidst a world where the unique, the one-off, is at some risk. Driving through Devon this morning, I was startled to come upon a branch of Staples, an American office supply chain, a store that you can walk into in almost any medium-sized city in the States. Let that stand for the universalisation and standardisation of so many kinds of experience. Poetry is absolutely resistant to that . . ."

So poetry is a bulwark against consumerism? "It is in a way. Of course there is a tiny degree in which poetry can be commodified and sold, but it can also of course be endlessly xeroxed, published on the Internet, memorised and possessed by many people. And what is a poem but a sort of replica or model of an individual process of knowing, and since each of us knows a little bit differently, and each of us has that combination of voice and internal rhythm and ways of seeing which are capable of making something idiosyncratically and unmistakably ours, then the poem keeps putting the self into the forefront in a way which is profoundly valuable . . ."

Poetry, then, establishes a kind of world-wide community of interior lives? …

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