This month has been rich with reading, poetry and fiction. But I’ve settled on non-fiction for my February choice: Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Words.
I’m grateful to poet Tamar Yoseloff for alerting me to the Art Of series published by Graywolf Press. Each short book focuses on a single aspect of writing. As their blurb declares, ‘The Art of Series is meant to restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.’
The Art of Description is illuminating and a delight to read. Doty’s distinctive, thoughtful but conversational, voice speaks right off the page.
I have a favourite quote from Doty on description from years ago. I often use it in workshops. It comes from an interview that poet Carole Satyamurti did with Doty in 1997 for Poetry Review. [Vol 87 No 2 Summer 1997]. Here it is:
“Poetry for me is always a process of inquiry. If I knew what I thought, if I knew what I felt about what compels me in the world, I doubt I would write a poem. That part of our minds which makes metaphor proceeds ahead of us, and the metaphors seem to know more than we do about our emotional lives, about our ideas. What I see first is the vessel which contains feeling and thinking, and my work as a poet is to, as it were, lean against the given, or put pressure upon those images that strike me, in order to ask them to yield their meaning. I almost always begin with description and find myself moving from descritption ino questioning and meditation, which in turn lead to the poem’s larger dimensions. If that process isn’t completed, the poem usually isn’t completed either. The world doesn’t need another description from me!”
In The Art of Description, Doty explores the idea of ‘putting pressure on the images’ in forensic detail.
When our attention is caught by something in the world – why that thing? Why the compulsion to capture it in words? That is the first move of many a poet and storyteller. Doty shows why that simple act of naming and recording, though crucial, is only the beginning. The image alone won’t produce the work.
He offers a brilliant close reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Fish,’ in which he tracks Bishop’s catching of the fish [the ‘vessel’] and the subsequent pressure she puts upon that image. Doty goes through the poem, line-by-line showing how Bishop thinks through the texture, details and associations of that founding image - a consciousness in process.
Freud in his, The Interpretation of Dreams, refers to dream images or ‘pictographs’ as having an obvious or manifest content/meaning and a less obvious or latent meaning. Excavating the dream means questioning the trains of thought/association from manifest to latent.
Writing is a kind of waking dream. Certainly the images that tug at us and want to be written down are but an opening. Like the icons on your computer desktop, click on the image and more is revealed. The Art of Description is a fine meditation on that process of image selection and exploration.
The last section of the book is called ‘Description’s Alphabet.’ Using an A-Z structure, allows Doty to offer playful and witty nuggets; some are mini essays, others shorter aphorisms. For A he writes: "Description is an ART to the degree that it gives us not just the world but the inner life of the witness."
This is a gem of a book, not only for poets, but for any writer. Highly recommended.