Poets You Should Know About: Mark Doty, the Painter

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Adjectives. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em, as every writer knows. Therefore, cut them out—at least, that’s often the advice in writing workshops. But Mark Doty lays them on like paint, eagerly swamping his verbs and nouns in glimmer and iridescence, like the fish who are “all exact expressions/ of the one soul,/ each a perfect fulfillment// of heaven’s template.” It’s this piling of words that gives his poems their particular richness: he invites us into a world we can live in. We can slow down to observe the fish “barred with black bands,/ which divide the scales’/ radiant sections// like seams of lead/ in a Tiffany window.” And slowing down also lets open up—like “A Green Crab’s Shell,” which opens “to reveal// a shocking, Giotto blue”—the hidden metaphysical depths of things. From, for instance, the green crab:

not so bad, to die,


if we could be opened

into this—

if the smallest chambers


of ourselves,


revealed some sky.


This is a particular trope of Doty’s: to focus intently on one thing until its hidden possibilities are revealed. The fish turn out to be “flashing participants”, who “don’t care they’re dead”, “bolting// forward, heedless of stasis.”

But Doty can also take in a big canvas and lead us to the critical elements. So, for instance, “Mercy on Broadway”: there are vendors selling live turtles, there are hip-hop kids and Latin girls, there’s Doty and his new lover, and it’s all held together by his cool, smart language until you’re lost in the thicket of detail. But Doty pulls us out of it, saying “somebody’s going to ride out/ these blasted years,” he reaches down a hand and lifts us out of the trees to see the whole forest. And then we see that desire, not the end of desire, connects everything. “I want what everybody wants,/ that’s how I know I’m still// breathing.”

Thus the laying on of detail, which allows us to taste, touch, and feel the world, as unadorned nouns and verbs don’t, and, which can get sloppy, at its best is painterly, magnificent. We sniff, repulsed, at the “salt-stain spot”, “where men/ lay down their heads”:

shroud stain, negative


flashed onto the vinyl

where we push something

unyielding skyward

from “At The Gym”


And yet, we’re strangely entranced. It must be all those adjectives, luring us towards something unpleasant yet pulsing with life: “Power over beauty,/ power over power!”

Doty transforms his workout bench into a factory where the soul is forged: “Here is some halo/ the living made together,” he writes of the sweat-spot left on the cloth, and the same could be said of his poetry. He transforms even the utterly banal into a painting, finding in everything something worthy, intelligent, and uplifting.

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