Mark Doty began honing his craft as a poet during the 1970’s but did not publish what he considers his first collection of poetry, Turtle, Swan, until 1987. His third collection, My Alexandria, was published in 1993 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. The volume also won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United Kingdom. With these honors, Doty has established himself as one of the leading American poets of his generation. He has been praised by fellow poets and critics alike for his ability to convey compassion for those who are in need of healing, those who have fallen through the cracks of society. Throughout his poetry, Doty always has strived for clarity of purpose, for a precise vision that is welcoming for the reader.
He also does not shy away from uncomfortable subject matter. Doty was devastated in 1994 by the death of his lover, Wally Roberts, from complications related to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). His 1996 memoir, Heaven’s Coast, details the tortured experience of losing Roberts to AIDS. As in his poetry, Doty found a way to move on, to come to terms with loss in the act of writing. Doty understands that without the creative outlet he would not have survived such a loss. Doty published his fourth collection of poetry, Atlantis, in 1995. The volume concerns itself with the havoc that comes from major tempests loosed upon the world. For all that is left in ruins, it points out, there is a new beauty that has been created. The poet recognizes the rage that comes from loss and devastation, but he is mature enough to realize that grief can lead to an unexpected cleansing of the soul.
Over the years, Doty has forged an extraordinary body of work that speaks to the core of what makes the human spirit tick. For his seventh volume of poetry, School of the Arts, he wrestles with the eternal themes of release and renewal. Always graceful, even in the darkest and most bitter of moments, he searches for the reservoir of resiliency that keeps humankind moving forward. There are twenty-seven poems included in this collection. A number of poems have “Heaven” in the title. In each of these poems, the idea of heaven means something different. In the poem “Heaven for Stanley,” heaven is involvement in the creative process, in moving forward. The Stanley of the poem is the great American poet Stanley Kunitz. It is revealed in the poem that Kunitz is an avid gardener. Doty recognizes that there can be no better way to illuminate the creative process than by describing what a gardener does. As Doty sees it, Kunitz “could be forever pleased/ to participate in motion.” The garden is “all furious change,” and the gardener would have it no other way. One poet comes to the realization that another poeta master poetfinds heaven in the “budding and rot and then the coming up again.” The abstract heaven, the religious heaven, does not come into play. Doty is more interested in the heaven that can be found down here on Earth, in the act of creation. As he sees it, art and literature can serve as a form of salvation.
For this collection, Doty has stripped down his poetry. All unnecessary contrivances have been removed and the poems whittled down to bare essence. The poet has arrived at middle age without the distractions of youthful exuberance. There is a subtlety in Doty’s poetic voice. How the passing of time can overwhelm a person if he or she does not make peace with the past is one of the central themes of the collection. It also is obvious in School of the Arts that Doty has allowed a more relaxed approach to his poetry. The poet has concluded that perfection in anything is nearly impossible and that as he wrestles with middle age there must be a way to temper...
(The entire section is 1588 words.)