Mark Doty Doty, Mark (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Turtle, Swan 1987

Bethlehem in Broad Daylight 1991

My Alexandria 1993

Atlantis 1995

Island Sheaf 1998

Sweet Machine: Poems 1998

Turtle, Swan and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight 2000

Source 2001

Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee's Search for Selfhood (criticism) 1981

Heaven's Coast: A Memoir (memoir) 1996

Firebird: A Memoir (memoir) 1999

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (essays) 2001

Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal (essay) 2002

Open House: Writers Redefine Home [editor] (essays) 2003

James Fenton (essay date February 29, 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Fenton, James. “On The Frontier.” New York Review of Books 43 (February 29, 1996): 52-3.

[In the following essay, poet Fenton lauds Doty for learning from Lowell and Cavafy that an experience is made representative through devotion to the particular.]

On January 15 this year, Valerie Eliot presented the third annual T. S. Eliot Prize to the American poet Mark Doty for his collection My Alexandria. The previous two winners, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon, were from Northern Ireland, and many a British poet will be wondering when his turn will come. The fact is that several London literary prizes have an international definition of their scope of...

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Helen Vendler (essay date April 8, 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “Comic and Elegiac: Two Poets and the Question of Tradition.” New Yorker (April 8, 1996): 101.

[In the following essay, critic Vendler reviews Atlantis and a work by August Kleinzahler and finds Doty occasionally capable of evoking empathy despite the inert rhythms in his work.]

The names August Kleinzahler and Mark Doty are by now recognized by people who follow contemporary poetry: Farrar, Straus & Giroux has recently published Kleinzahler's fourth collection, “Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow,” and HarperCollins has issued Doty's fourth, Atlantis. Both poets have laid claim to a personal style: Kleinzahler's is...

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Mark Doty and Mark Wunderlich (essay date December 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Mark Wunderlich. “Interview with Mark Doty.” Cortland Review (December 1998): 1-2.

[In the following interview, Doty discusses trends in recent American poetry, how events in his teens led him to pursue writing, and how being gay affects style and self-presentation.]

[Wunderlich]: In an article you published in the Hungry Mind Review about your experience as a judge for the Lenore Marshall Prize, you discussed your hopes for the future of American Poetry. I'm wondering if you could talk a little more about that. Also, and this may be impossible to answer, but I'm curious to know what vision you have for the future of your...

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Mathew Welton (essay date January-February 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Welton, Mathew. “Creating Things.” PN Review 25, no. 3 (January-February 1999): 68.

[In the following essay, the author praises Sweet Machine even though he finds Doty's graceful and effective lines occasionally dragged down by overly forceful language.]

What Mark Doty does best in his new collection is the same thing he does best in his previous books; simple descriptions, the ways he represents things perceived, are brief and direct, bringing the poems immediately to life. For example, in ‘White Kimono’ a shipment of old robes is ‘thunderheads / of pine mounting a stony slope / tousled fields of embroidery’; ‘costumes for some Japanese //...

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Mark Wunderlich (essay date spring 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wunderlich, Mark. “About Mark Doty.” Ploughshares 25, no. 1 (spring 1999): 183-89.

[In the following essay, the author provides a good overview of Doty's life and career up to the publication of Firebird, with a focus on how AIDS effected Doty's personal life, memoirs, and poetry.]

A summer visitor to the Cape Cod resort village of Provincetown, Massachusetts, is liable to see just about anything walking down Commercial Street, the town's main drag and zone of street theater. From muscle boys with shaved chests and nail polish to Portuguese fishermen in waders to a drag queen wearing a G-string, metal helmet, and gold body paint, the possibilities...

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Hugh Dunkerley (essay date winter 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunkerley, Hugh. “Unnatural Relations? Language and Nature in the Poetry of Mark Doty and Les Murray.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 8, no. 1 (winter 2001): 73-82.

[In the following essay, the author emphasizes Doty's descriptions of nature and use of metaphor to “lead us back to a sense of a lived, embodied experience in the world.”]

          What can words do
but link what we know
          to what we don't
          and so form a shape?

—From “Difference” by Mark Doty

In an essay entitled “Nature and Silence,” Christopher Manes makes an important connection between language and our...

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David Bergman (essay date May-June 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bergman, David. “Source.” Gay & Lesbian Review 9, no. 3 (May-June 2002): 37-8.

[In the following essay, the author declares that Doty is an aesthete with a “very queer turn-of-the-century belief that art and literature are different from other objects and can bring a kind of salvation, or at least a balm to the spirit.”]

Mark Doty is one of the few poets who is both central to gay poetry as a movement and an important figure in mainstream poetry. I don't mean to suggest that gay poets aren't part of mainstream poetry, but most of them, like John Ashbery or J. D. McClatchy, have not made the issue of their sexuality an important or explicit topic of...

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Joanne Rendell (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rendell, Joanne. “Drag Acts: Performativity, Subversion, and the AIDS Poetry of Rafael Campo and Mark Doty.” Critical Survey 14, no. 2 (2002): 89-100.

[In the following essay, the author notes “an abundance of references, images and illusions to drag” in the poetry of Doty and Campo, but she questions whether their poems are as subversive as some would think.]

Gendered acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means … these acts and gestures, articulated and...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Doty, Mark. “Cold Dark Deep and Absolutely Clear.” In Sorrow's Company: Writers on Loss and Grief, edited by DeWitt Henry, pp. 121-35. Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2001.

Doty considers beauty and death upon the AIDS-related death of his partner Wally.

Glover, Michael. “Poetry, Mark Doty Says, Is the True Guarantor of Individuality: Interview by Michael Glover.” New Statesman (May 30, 1997): 44-5.

Brief interview in which Doty discusses his family, his early development as a poet, and how the focus of his poetry has moved from explorations of grief to a reengagement with the world.


(The entire section is 450 words.)