Mark Doty 1953-
Contemporary American poet, essayist, editor, and memoirist.
The following entry provides information on Doty's career from 1996 through 2002.
Doty is an award-winning poet and one of the foremost chroniclers of gay life in America, especially of the personal and social devastation experienced by gay Americans during the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. His poetry is widely praised for the way it at once intimately addresses and transcends his experiences as a gay man, sharing personal emotions as salient to the whole of human experience. Inspired by and compared to the poets C. P. Cavafy, James Merrill, and Robert Lowell, Doty has also written about nature, the search for beauty, and the value of poetry in coping with grief. He has also written acclaimed memoirs of his childhood and of his relationship with a partner dying of AIDS. Doty taught at several colleges and universities and is the author of many essays, some inspired by the visual arts.
Doty was born in Tennessee in 1953, and grew up in the suburban sun belt, living in Florida, southern California, Arizona, as well as Tennessee. His father was a civilian employee of the Army Corp of Engineers, and both parents came from a rural southern upbringing. He began writing poems as a youth and was encouraged by the interest shown for his work by poet Charles Simic, who had given a reading at Doty's high school. Doty began college at the University of Arizona, where he continued under the tutelage of another early mentor, poet Richard Shelton, with whom he had been studying since he was fifteen. At eighteen, Doty married poet Ruth Dawson and transferred to Drake University in Iowa, where he earned a B.A. Doty and Dawson jointly published chapbooks in the 1970s, although Doty has since disavowed those poems. In 1980, the poet earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont's Goddard College, but a much more substantial change occurred in Doty's life that year. Gaining confidence in his identity as a gay man, Doty divorced his wife of nearly ten years and moved to Manhattan, finding work as a secretary. In 1981 Doty began a relationship with Wally Roberts, a window-dresser at a department store, that lasted until the latter's death in 1994 from an illness aggravated by AIDS. The poet then began a string of teaching assignments that included stints at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Brandeis, and the universities of Vermont, Iowa, and Houston. Doty began his publishing career in 1987 with the collection Turtle, Swan. After Roberts was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, Doty wrote many poems addressing the emotional ravages and social effects of AIDS and of illness in general. Such poems make up his 1993 collection, My Alexandria, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and earned him Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry, the first awarded to an American. His memoir Heaven's Coast (1996), which dealt with his life with Roberts and the latter's illness and death, was widely praised. Several other works have followed, including collections of poetry, essays on art, and a second memoir, Firebird (1999), which tells of his childhood and adolescence. He has received grants and fellowships from numerous institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, Merrill, Lila Wallace/Readers Digest, and Rockefeller foundations. Doty has continued to teach, most recently at Hamilton College, and he still maintains a residence in Provincetown.
In 1999, Doty told an interviewer for The Atlantic that “in my heart I feel the only real beauty is broken beauty, fallen from the ideal. Perhaps I feel that way simply because the world had death in it, and therefore all perfections are limited.” Doty's poetic subjects have often been beauty and the tension between substance and style. In early works like Turtle, Swan he exhibited a deft craftsmanship and described events from the perspective of an openly gay man, which, according to Mark Wunderlich, showed Doty “becoming the first post-Stonewall gay poet to emerge as a major voice in American letters.” Both Turtle, Swan and his second volume of poetry, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), were well-received by critics for poems of clarity and vivid description. But it was with My Alexandria that Doty achieved wide acclaim. My Alexandria chronicled the losses of friends and the struggles of his lover Wally as he died of AIDS. This volume was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was a finalist for a National Book Award. Accomplished poet Phillip Levine even chose this volume for the 1992 National Poetry Series. His other works include Atlantis (1995), a collection full of descriptive poems about nature which won the 1996 Lambda Literary Award; Sweet Machine (1998), in which Doty applied his gift for description to urban scenes and represents, in Doty's words, “a turn toward participation in the world”; and his latest volume of poetry, Source.
David Bergman, writing in Gay and Lesbian Review, praises Doty as “one of the few poets who is both central to gay poetry as a movement and an important figure in mainstream poetry.” Critic Mark Wunderlich calls My Alexandria a tour de force, “perhaps the finest in-depth literary investigation of the AIDS crisis.” In the New York Review of Books the British poet James Fenton notices the influence of Cavafy and Lowell as he pays high compliment to My Alexandria, saying the volume “hangs together so beautifully that it seems like a single orchestrated work.” While generally positive, critical response to Doty's poetry has not been unanimous. In the New Criterion, William Logan has twice dismissed Doty's work, concluding that Doty has “a narcissism all his own” and “isn't able to turn loss into poetry, he's only able to make it ‘poetic.’” In a review of Atlantis for the New Yorker, Helen Vendler was less cruel, but she still found him prone to sermonizing and stunting bracing passages with inert rhythms. “Doty's narration,” wrote Vendler, “smoothes out pangs, smoothes out anger in its wish to be, above all, graceful.” It is often stated that Doty's love of beauty and desire to create exquisite lines constricts the raw emotion one would expect to accompany the grief and loss about which he often writes. Doty's effort to reconcile beauty and loss was perhaps best summed up by Vernon Shetley, who wrote in the Yale Review that there is “clearly a big talent at work in these poems; Doty may have to learn to distrust himself a little for that talent to be fully realized in his poetry.”