One Art


Mark Doty (b. 1953)

In my heart I feel that the only real beauty is broken beauty, fallen from the ideal. Perhaps I feel that way simply because the world has death in it, and therefore all perfections are limited.

On the back cover of Mark Doty's "Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight," a volume bringing together his first two published collections of poetry, there is a blurb that any poet would die for: "If it were mine to invent the poet to complete the century of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, I would create Mark Doty just as he is, a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music." Incidentally, that is Philip Levine speaking.

Doty was born in Maryville, Tennessee, on August 10, 1953. His father was an army engineer, and the job required one move after another. Doty grew up in suburban neighborhoods of Tennessee, Florida, California and Arizona. Describing himself as a "chubby smart bookish sissy with glasses," Doty was both an outsider and a nonconformist. The point where he first made contact with poetry was Tucson, Arizona. A high school teacher introduced him to the poet Richard Shelton. Doty reminiscences: "I went to Dick Shelton's house in the desert to help clean out his garage, and his wife, Lois, was at the piano when I walked in, playing Kurt Weill and singing 'Pirate Jenny' from The Threepenny Opera in German. I felt a window had opened onto another world."

Doty entered the University of Arizona and took a BA at Drake University in Iowa. In 1980 he earned a master's degree in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. It was during this period that he met Wally Roberts. The couple lived together for twelve years. Roberts's demise from AIDS in 1994 was the concluding point of a central period in Doty's life.

"My Alexandria" (1993), Doty's third book, was written as Roberts's situation was getting worse. The title makes reference to a principal literary influence, the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. At the core of "My Alexandria" is the anticipation of death, accompanied by a tenderness that permeates everything. Here, Doty confronts the hurt of loss as seen through the "window" of AIDS. The book's moral strength and scale of courage brought Doty eminence on both sides of the Atlantic. "My Alexandria" won both the Los Angeles Times Book Award (1993) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (1994), and Doty became the only American to have won England's highly coveted T. S. Eliot Prize (1995).

"Atlantis" (1995) disclosed more of the couple's lives on the verge of loss and also spoke tenderly if not pathetically. It received the Boston Review Poetry Prize (1996) and the Lambda Literary Award (awarded annually to the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans literature). A critically acclaimed volume, "School of the Arts" (2005), was followed in 2008 by "Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems," which won the National Book Award.

Doty was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller and Whiting Foundations, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts. In January 2011, he became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Representing the Academy, Gerald Stern said:
There is not a finer, more delicate, more sublime poet writing today in the English language. It's a poet's job to show us what we knew but never saw before; and it's a poet's job to tell us over and over what love is. Doty is this poet.

I have selected from "School of the Arts" a piece that can be regarded as fairly gloomy. ("I found it very painful to write that poem," Doty admitted.) Schopenhauer notoriously remarked that it would have been better if we hadn't been born in the first place. He then added: "[D]eath is the great opportunity no longer to be I." In the first lines of the poem it looks like the poet is heading in that terrifying direction. But then we realize that jumping in front of a train out of a longing for death may not be on the table; perhaps Doty is only testing, in the eye of his mind, the limits of his existence. And such contemplations can make him more resolute; strength of will can emerge from the pressures of his murky thoughts. As he affirms in another poem, "I couldn't love any world but this."

Doty's homepage can be found at
Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) is a major figure not only in Greek poetry but in Western poetry as well. He lived for most of his life in Alexandria and wrote his best verse after he turned 40. His last activity before dying was to sketch a circle on a blank page and then put a period in the middle.
The Schopenhauer quote is from "The World as Will and Representation," Dover Books (1966), originally published as "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung" (1819).


Oncoming Train
I hate that moment when the train's coming
into the station, hurtling, inviting, so ferocious in its forward momentum,

the most dangerous thirty seconds of my day, twice every day,
sometimes more; sometimes I have to steady myself against a pillar

on the platform, or stand at a distance, against the back wall,
in order to feel that I will more firmly resist the impulse.

Not that I want to be dead, exactly, and certainly not
that I want to suffer, I have a great deal to live for --

But the idea of simply stepping out of forwardness
-- that moment is the clearest invitation and opportunity

to strike against time, to refuse to accede, to win some power

over what no one controls. I'm not proud of this,