School of the Arts
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1588
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 anxieties that could undermine any form of peace of mind. There is always the process though, always the need to struggle with personal insecurities. No one can get through life unscathed.
School of the Arts reveals a new maturity of the poet and the person. He juggles such themes as change and loss with the dexterity of someone who has grown wiser with the passing of years. The five “Heaven” poems give the collection an invisible structure, a foundation from which to turn in all directions. The poet does not impose a heaven on these poems but allows loved ones to conjure up their own vision of what heaven would be for them. The poems “Heaven to Beau” and “Heaven to Arden” are concerned with two marvelous dogs. It is obvious in each of these poems that Doty has a great respect and love for his pets. Dogs appear in other poems in the collection as well. In “Ultrasound,” the poet speaks with great poignancy about an important visit to the veterinarian. There also is a wonderful understated power to the poem “Stairs,” in which his elderly dog Arden must now sleep outside in the garden because he can no longer climb the stairs and sleep at the foot of the bed. Over time, Arden had to make do with the garden, learn to make the most of the situation. A new routine was established, and a new phase was just around the corner. Although it broke the poet’s heart to watch his dog attempt to climb the stairs, he observes how Arden adjusted to his failing by forgetting that “he ever wanted to” climb “something so awkward.” Arden would “wedge his muzzle/ into a hole he’d made in the sliding screen door,// push it to the left, and sleep all night in the garden,/ on the gravel beneath the spread of a Montauk daisy.” The dog had found a solution to the changes that come with the passing of time.
For his memoir Firebird (1999), Doty found the courage to delve into the tortured past that was his childhood. His father was a monstrous figure, and his mother became an alcoholic. At an early age, Doty learned how grief can play a major part in daily life. Over time, he learned that it was possible to have a new beginning out of the grief of the past. For him to survive, it was mandatory for him to rise above circumstances. During his high-school years, he wrestled with his sexual orientation. For all the turmoil of these years, Doty found salvation in art and literature. He became fascinated with poetry. He has stated that poetry can be best described as a “door into the inner life.” For Doty, creativity would become his “life-raft.” Because it is almost a given that life will be hard at times, the poet found it necessary to look to poetry to serve as a “way to keep our spirits going in the face of difficulty.” There is comfort in the very act of creation. As Doty sees it, art and literature can make life bearable. Out of the struggle of his family life, out of the struggle of coming to terms with being gay, the poet rose out of the ashes like a firebird. He found stability in literature, in books, and in being creative.
The creative spirit beats strong in the School of the Arts. Most of the twenty-seven poems included in the volume have been published previously in respected literary publications such as Lyric, The New Yorker, Rattle, Shenandoah, The Threepenny Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Three of the poems from School of the Arts had been commissioned by a foundation or institute. Throughout the collection, the reader is introduced to the world of Doty as the poet observes birds in flight, the wonderful faces of those who make New York City such a fascinating place, a small-town art auction, gay bars, the pleasure of gardening, aging dogs, and a plane that comes very close to crashing. Out of each of these observations or experiences, Doty illuminates the agony and the ecstacy of the human condition. There is no cheap sentiment, no easy solution to what ails individuals. There are poems that speak about mortality, but Doty does not allow them to slip into platitudes. He honors those loved ones who he has loved and lost. He recognizes the need for a “school of the arts” that will teach him how to carry on in the face of tragedy. The arts have given Doty much to savor. At an early age, he learned the value of art and literature. Ever since, Doty has attempted to be a credit to the creative process, to pass on what he has learned about how to live a dignified life. Doty has dedicated School of the Arts “To God.” Faith is never far away from the surface in the collection. For Doty though, faith is not a blind exercise. He always is the skeptic, and seems to live in a tangle of both the spiritual and the erotic. Doty always seems to be contemplating whether faith can fit squeezed between the bookends of joy and despair. He lives in the world with true passion and continues to find reasons to be creative. Out of his willingness to remain vulnerable to what the world around him has to offer, Doty has crafted the intelligent and powerful collection of School of the Arts.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43
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The Daily Telegraph, April 16, 2005, p. 10.
Gay & Lesbian Review 12 (November/December, 2005): 45.
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The Virginia Quarterly Review 81, no. 4 (Fall, 2005): 295-296.