Member Dispatch: Preparing for Doty

Ed. note: Rebecca Snow is a longtime member of Lighthouse--a poet and fiction writer with a novel forthcoming from Conundrum Press. Thanks for this contribution, Rebecca! You've got to love a writer who gives a spoiler alert in her discussion of poetry.

Preparing for Doty

by Rebecca Snow

[caption id="attachment_5164" align="alignleft" width="199"]This along with Doty's memoir FIREBIRD will be discussed on Saturday. No advance reading required. This along with Doty's memoir FIREBIRD will be discussed on Saturday. No advance reading required.[/caption]

When I am reading an author for the first time, I avoid reading anything much about them. I don’t read a lot of reviews or blogs (like this one!) unless the writer becomes a favorite. I like to start with the original text and see where it takes me, but in case you’ve already read some Doty or don’t mind reading a little about him, here’s my take so far. Now that I’ve read several Mark Doty poems, he is already a favorite. I will be reading a lot about him in the future, and I’m more than excited to hear him read in person at Lighthouse’s upcoming event.

I have so enjoyed the discovery process in reading his Fire to Fire, for example (spoiler alert), how much he plays with and pays homage to Rilke, my long-time favorite poet. The first allusion I noticed was subtle, which made it all the more fun when I found more obvious ones. “Silence in the hall” from Doty’s “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” echoes “Silence on the staircase” from Rilke’s novel. The line’s effect was so immediate and singular, a clear Rilkean moment, it couldn’t just be the similar wording: Doty’s poem must have lead me up to it, the words filling the right space at the right time. When I reached the poem’s last line, “Still time to change,” I smiled big. Yes, you sneaky devil (I should really say angel), we still have time to follow Rilke’s order, his famous line: “You must change your life” at the end of his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I had to go Google the two poets at that point and yes, Doty and Rilke are found together on the same page all over the internet. Here’s a good Doty discussion on Rilke’s Apollo poem and “the sharpest last minute turn in sonnet history."

“A Green Crab’s Shell” refers to the Apollo poem as well, in a very Doty-playful way: “We cannot / know what his fantastic / legs were like.” I had the most fun with literary allusion, though, in Doty’s “Apparition” poem about the Peacock (he gives several poems the same title “Apparition” in the New Poems section). This poem features references to Blake’s Lamb vs. Tiger, Rilke’s Swan, Rilke’s Apollo, and Doty’s original take on the Peacock, a brilliant and comical existential study on Why, God? “Did he who made the lamb / make this imperious / metallic topknot shivering / above an emerald field”?

It’s thrilling, for me, anyway, to discover an author recreating pieces of moving, classic literature into new, revelatory images. But Doty does more than juxtapose his own imagination with classic poems, and he is more than just clever, fun, observant, and existential. Each of his poems takes us far into a place most poems don’t take time to go. I have never read so many longer, contemporary poems that work so well and inspire me to quit over-pruning my own poems. As mentioned in Lighthouse’s Writers Studio description, Doty doesn’t settle for the quick, clever ending. He often starts with a focused setting and then takes us not just across the landscape but through ever-more-interesting tunnels and up incredible but always limited heights. He keeps our feet on the ground. Unlike many of Rilke’s lines that toss us into the stars, Doty says, “I can push no further into the thinning air, / perched at a ridiculous and frail slip of masonry / holding together or apart two enameled narwhal tusks / aimed at the next, at the forwardness, / at the limit of praise” (“Theory of the Sublime”). And it doesn't end there; he returns from the heights and arrives where he started, transformed. He shows us how Rilke’s admonishment to change is possible. When we read through (or listen to) a whole and marvelous poem, we can begin to understand.

I want to see, now, how skipping the quick resolution and allowing stanzas to grow might lead me to a much more interesting place than my poems have reached so far. Doty’s poem “Theory of Narrative” almost made me want to quit writing fiction and just focus on being a poet—but no, not yet, not quite. I still have much to learn and enjoy from writing both. With thanks to the upcoming Writers Studio event and to Lighthouse instructor Lynn Wagner for recommending Fire to Fire, I have discovered Mark Doty and am already much changed.

In advance of the Writer's Studio event, Lighthouse is offering a free book talk on Doty's memoir Firebird and Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems. Join Michael Henry and Lynn Wagner this Saturday, May 11, at 10:00 AM, for fruit, bagels, donuts, and Doty! RSVP on FB here, or by e-mailing info at lighthousewriters dot org.