Mark Doty’s poems in Fire to Fire, winner of the National Book Award, are about the large issues of life: human mortality, the transitory beauty of nature, the transformative influence of human aspiration, and the power to realize that aspiration. A self-described poet of the sublime, he has cultivated a style combining plain-spokenness with the elevated diction that often characterizes the sublime.
That Doty has a “democratic” sense of the sublimevalidating the struggle of all creatures toward something larger than themselvesaccounts in part for the great popularity of his work. He shows ordinary people confronting what he has called “the raw fact of our inadequacy in the face of the world,” but reaching out to become allied with forces vastly superior to human nature. This inclusive notion of sublimity is consistent through the eight volumes of poetry represented in this collection. The poem from which this book takes its name“Fire to Fire,” first appearing in School of the Arts (2005)includes these lines: “If I were a sunflower I would be/ the branching kind,/ my many faces held out/ in all directions . . . ”
The new poems are contained in the first section of the book, titled “Theories and Apparitions,” which was published in Britain as a stand-alone volume. The first poem of that section, “Pipistrelle”named for the most common of Britain’s fourteen bat speciesillustrates Doty’s proclivity for appreciating diverse perspectives without exalting one above another. This habit even diminishes any sense of rivalry with other poets, as he describes himself and a friend writing in two different veins (the friend’s “lyrics” and Doty’s “tale”) about their sighting of the small creature, which could be counted as one of the “apparitions” in the title of this section. The opening lines belong to the friend: “His music, Charles writes,/ makes us avoidable,” meaning that the bat’s sonar keeps it from bumping into objects. Doty, in contrast, calls the bat an “emissary of evening,” An emissary would not avoid but would seek out those for whom a message is intended. Doty decides that this encounter “is my personal visitation,” and the thought humbles him: “. . . I with no music/ to my name save what I can coax/ into a line, no sense of pitch,/ heard the night’s own one-sided conversation.” This is Doty’s poem, so he continues “filling in the tale.” Reflecting upon bats, he realizes that “Only some people can hear their frequencies,” and he is one of them. Just so, not everyone can hear all the nuances of a poem. Then comes a passage that reveals Doty’s distinguishing intellectual modesty: “Is it because I am an American I think the bat came/ especially to address me, who have the particular gift/ of hearing him? If he sang to us, but only I/ heard him, does that mean he sang to me?”
In “Pipistrelle,” as in much of his work, Doty uses an everyday experience to enter by small steps into deep questioning and meditation. Soon, however, he becomes concerned that he may be reading too much into the experience, inspiring though it may be. Does his poem, he wonders, tend to “worry my little aerial friend/ with a freight not precisely his?/ Does the poem reside in experience/ or in self-consciousness/ about experience?” In the midst of such fervent questioning, the natural setting in which he and Charles saw the bat exerts a calming effect, and in the end he is left with what appears to be a simple contrast between self-conscious art and the natural phenomenon that inspired it: “Listen to my poem, says Charles./ A word in your ear, says the night.” Doty’s preference between the two seems pretty clear; yet he leaves the contrasting viewpoint intact, undiminished in force. Elsewhere he has written, “It’s a very large and capacious house, American poetry. I have no desire for everyone to work in the same way.”
In keeping with this philosophy, Doty has chosen a simple, straightforward formgenerally, unrhymed stanzas from two to four lines long, each with three to four beats. One can barely detect any craft in his work, so skillfully does he make the difficult look simple. His work represents a return to formalism, not form for its own sake, but as an avenue to depth of thought and feeling. Despite his seeming artlessness, he is not the heir to the spontaneous Beats; indeed, Doty says that while he respects spontaneity, his own poetic practice is “quite the opposite.” Thus, he does not fully subscribe to Jack Kerouac’s theory of “spontaneous bop prosody” or Allen Ginsburg’s “first thought best thought,” but he believes in “sitting” with the poem as long as one can endure any attendant pain. Developing writers, he says, often stop too soon, believing they have finished a piece, but actually they are just avoiding emotional discomfort. He is wary of finishing a poem too quickly so that it presents only “what is...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)