Mark Doty 1953-
(Full name Mark Alan Doty; has also written under the pseudonym M. R. Doty) American poet, memoirist, essayist, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Doty's career through 2002.
One of the most renowned American poets to come of age during the late 1980s, Doty has earned distinction for his elegiac, colloquial verse and his emotionally resonant evocation of personal loss and sorrow, particularly as informed by the AIDS crisis and his experiences as a homosexual man. In collections such as Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), Doty cultivated a conversational style, using elegantly rendered images to illuminate small epiphanies lurking within the natural world and everyday experience. After the death of Wally Roberts, Doty's companion of twelve years, the ever-present themes of mortality and loss in his work became more pronounced. His award-winning volumes My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995) are considered among the most compelling works to emerge from the AIDS epidemic. Doty has also authored two memoirs, Heaven's Coast (1996) and Firebird (1999), which have both won critical acclaim and a wide popular audience.
Born in Maryville, Tennessee, Doty grew up near various Army installations in the American South and West where his father, a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, was employed. In Firebird, Doty describes his estranged relationship with his father, a difficult and frightening figure, and his mother's descent into alcoholism. While in Tucson, Arizona, Doty was introduced by his high-school drama teacher to poet Richard Shelton, an important mentor who fostered Doty's literary passion. During his high school years, Doty struggled with his emerging homosexuality. At age eighteen, confused and apprehensive about his sexual orientation, Doty married poet Ruth Dawson soon after graduating from high school. He then enrolled at Drake University in Iowa, where he earned his bachelor's degree. Shortly after graduating, he and Ruth cowrote and published several chapbooks of poetry. By the end of the decade, however, the marriage had fallen apart and the couple divorced in 1980. Doty subsequently moved to Manhattan to live and write as part of a larger gay community. He worked as an office temp, finished a master of fine arts degree at Goddard College, Vermont, in 1980, and met and fell in love with Wally Roberts, a department store window dresser. In 1987 Doty published his first book of verse, Turtle, Swan, to excellent reviews. Two years later, Roberts was diagnosed with AIDS, and Doty's concern for his lover's health was reflected in the darker poems of his second volume, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight. In 1993 Doty published My Alexandria, which was selected for the National Poetry Series by Philip Levine and won the National Book Critic's Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, making Doty the first American to win the award. Roberts succumbed to a viral brain infection early in 1994, and his passing was commemorated in Doty's next volume of poems, Atlantis, which won the Lambda Literary Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, and the Ambassador Book Award. Finding it difficult to write poetry after Roberts's death, Doty turned to prose in Heaven's Coast, a memoir of his life with Roberts, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. Throughout his career, Doty has taught creative writing and poetry at various schools, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Utah, University of Houston, Goddard College, and the Iowa Writer's Workshops.
Doty's acclaimed first volume of poetry, Turtle, Swan, embodies many of the hallmarks of his mature verse—the poems are long and narrative, written in free verse that is both accessible and lyrical. In the poem “Rocket,” for instance, Doty uses the image of a rusting sandbox to conjure forth the mysteries of childhood as well as a sense of both sadness and wonder at the changes wrought by the passing of time. This sense of nostalgia and loss would continue to pervade Doty's work and become one of his major themes. In “A Replica of the Parthenon,” Doty links the symmetry and ruins of the ancient world with his memory of childhood games, the death of his grandmother, and the paradox of verisimilitude. In Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, Doty continues to explore the thematic terrain staked out in Turtle, Swan. The work is divided into three untitled sections: the first deals with issues of childhood, particularly relationships between children and parents, the second explores adult relationships, and the third examines the transitory nature of all human encounters. As in Turtle, Swan, the poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight are largely autobiographical narratives marked by solid imagery and moments of epiphany. While Doty's homosexuality is central to the poems of Turtle, Swan and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, his experiences as a gay man are presented as simply another part of the natural world, rather than a focal perspective in itself. In My Alexandria, however, Doty's gay experience came to the forefront, as the work was largely his response to the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. A sense of loss pervades the volume, and death—in one form or another—is present in nearly every poem. However, poems such as “Becoming a Meadow,” “Brilliance,” and “Fog,” in which Doty chronicles his and Roberts's fateful tests for HIV, Doty draws as much attention to the joys of life as the sadness of its parting. The title of the volume alludes to the home city of Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, whom Doty invokes explicitly in the poems “Chanteuse” and “Days of 1981.” Doty continued to examine themes of mortality and transience in Atlantis. Many of the poems are set in Provincetown, Massachusetts—Doty and Roberts's adopted hometown—and the maritime setting provides much of the imagery Doty uses to evoke an elegiac sense of impermanence and loss, as in “At the Boatyard,” “Fog Argument,” and “Grosse Fuge.” At the book's core is the six-poem title sequence in which Doty chronicles Roberts's illness and passing.
While Doty's critical reputation rests mainly on the strength of his poetry, his prose memoirs serve as an integral and equally important component of his oeuvre. In Heaven's Coast, Doty recalls his loving relationship with Roberts and his struggle to deal with the reality of Roberts's HIV-positive diagnosis and his devastating decline. The collage-like narrative, which incorporates dream journals, diary entries, poetry fragments, and excerpts from literature and letters from friends, mirrors the uncertainty and acute disorientation experienced by Doty during the ordeal. Doty's next volume of poetry, Sweet Machine (1998), marked the passing of his preoccupation with mortality and his reengagement with life and the living. Though a third of the book's five sections pays homage to those who have died, including poets Lynda Hull and James Merrill, the true focus of the book is found in poems such as “Mercy on Broadway” and “Metro North,” which are set in a gritty, bustling urban milieu. Poems like “Favrile” explore the beauty and artistry of decorative textiles and objects d'art as a meditative point of departure. Though maintaining an eye for surface detail, the poems in Sweet Machine also display a resistance to overt ornamentation and fastidious metaphor, as addressed in “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work.” One of the poems from Sweet Machine, “Murano,” which discusses the glass artistry of the Italian island of Murano, was published as an individual work in 2000 with accompanying photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Doty's second memoir, Firebird, recounts his formative years from age six to sixteen, including his coming of age as a gay man. Besides offering a poignant and often darkly humorous recollection of his childhood and adolescence, the book is also a meditation on memory, particularly the way in which one is shaped by early events and how such memories can become sustainable narratives. Doty followed Firebird with another nonfiction work, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001), which takes its name from a painting by seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Davidsz de Heem. A departure from his previous works, this extended seventy-page essay is part art history, part meditation on art and objects, and part memoir, all written in richly poetic prose style and covering a wide range of subjects. In Source (2001), Doty's sixth volume of poetry, he explores post-AIDS renewal and gay eroticism with his characteristically vivid, meditative, and graceful verse, set against the backdrops of Manhattan, Provincetown, Vermont, Key West, and Latin America. Doty has also published Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal (2002), which pairs one of his essays with photographs of Venice, and edited Open House: Writers Redefine Home (2003), a collection of nineteen essays from different authors that examine the concept of “home” in America.
While Doty's memoirs have been considered an important part of his body of work, his poetry has attracted the majority of his critical and popular acclaim. Since the publication of Turtle, Swan, Doty has established a reputation as an enormously talented young poet whose verse exhibits a maturity in advance of his age, a judgment that was further supported by Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, which has earned him favorable comparisons to Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. Though some reviewers have found his early verse to be overly glib or shallow, My Alexandria has been widely praised as Doty's most emotionally engaged and technically mature work to date. Commentators have asserted that the redemptive, often exultant tone of My Alexandria offers a rare note of hope and optimism for AIDS sufferers and the gay community at large. Atlantis has also received a positive critical reaction, particularly due to Doty's ability to evoke nuanced descriptions of the natural world. However, several critics have contended that Doty is often too detached or preoccupied with surface details, complaining that his insights and metaphors are sometimes facile or formulaic. His supporters have countered that these characteristics are not faults, but simply consequences of the style in which Doty has chosen to work. Furthermore, many commentators have argued that Doty's attention to exterior surfaces is a technique for inferring deeper interior meanings. Such reviewers have also asserted that if Doty's verse lacks either rigorous formal concerns or verbal pyrotechnics, it is because his verse is rooted in colloquial diction and a lyrical, direct style. Despite such debate, Doty has been frequently lauded for his use of language—both as a rhythmic and musical tool—and his striking ability to evoke luminous displays of loss, grief, and transcendence.