The Lessons of Objects: An Interview with Mark Doty

Andrew David King
December 12, 2012
Comments 3

More than anything, Mark Doty seems to me an investigator of objects—of the things and beings that clutter the world, the microcosms inside microcosms inside our macrocosm. In his work he serves as an interpreter of these forms (many of them arbitrarily or socially imposed), exporting them for our viewing and examination; he looks at a panorama or a scene the way a scientist looks at a cell: with purpose but skepticism, teasing out hypotheses with a slow but faithful clarity. This tendency to examine the histories of things, the trajectories of how they came to be, appears beyond his poetry: his book-length meditation, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy, is a remarkable and sustained meditation on not just the intersection of painting and poetry but on the role of art in life. Doty also participated in the Significant Objects project, in which renowned writers invent backstories for random items, which are then auctioned off for charity. His “significant object”? A group of fish-shaped spoons. Even kitsch such as this turns out to be rife with potential in his hands, deft at sieving the extraordinary from the ordinary—or, in this case, perhaps supra-ordinary.

In an interview last year with Smartish Pace, Doty recalled his encounter with the great poet William Stafford, a man also concerned with the interactions between entities, the fables written in them. He was 17, then, and a “dedicated surrealist” intent on showing Stafford a packet of his poems. Stafford told him that he had a feeling the poems were in heaven, still, and not on earth yet. Between his teenage years and his ascension to a mainstay in the contemporary poetry scene, Doty, if anything else, has managed to tug his poetry to earth and anchor it there. Perhaps because of this original tendency— as Stafford pointed out—his poems seem to originate somewhere other than their locales. His poems describing nature, at their best, are “otherworldly” in some way, fresh if they had been written by an extraterrestrial visitor to this planet (I’m reminded of a passage from Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows, where he describes the singular beauty of an orchid as alien). And in many ways they are: throughout his poetry is an implicit acknowledgment of the divorce between human consciousness and nature, how they appear to clash and be coextensive in turn. When I read the opening of Doty’s “With Animals,” I can hear the echoes of Stafford’s famous “Traveling Through the Dark” as he laments the deer from behind the headlights of his car. But Doty’s engagement with nature, with the world of things, is more an act of self-discovery than the mapping of an external world. He is no solipsist. And not only are his eyes open to the layers of existence, of consciousness, but his ears record the sound of that origami unfolding. “What color is / the underside of skin?” he asks in “A Green Crab’s Shell.” The eponymous object has been cracked open by a seagull to reveal a “shocking, Giotto blue,” and Doty continues: “Not so bad, to die, // if we could be opened / into this— / if the smallest chambers // of ourselves, / similarly, / contained some sky.”

In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, though, he’s not smashing any shells open, but noting what’s already there (“Some days I’d find shards of china on those shore walks, as if I’d been offered a bit of that blue to keep,” he writes, echoing the above-quoted poem.) Observing is a profession for him. And while animals of all sorts prove fascinating—finches, for instance, make an appearance in the title poem of Fire to Fire; goats show up in “Pescadero”—it seems that the daily object is the one that fascinates him most. In poems like “To Joan Mitchell, “White Kimono,” and “Lilies in New York,” Doty lets his hands be caught in the vises of objects—canvases, long silks, the necks of lilies—that just as often beckon the brush and palette; “Nocturne in Black and Gold” is titled after Whistler. In others, like “Door to the River,” he takes up the voice of the dialectic between writing and art. Titled after the de Kooning poem of the same name, it begins, “He means, I think, there’s an out, // built of these fistfuls of yellows.” While much of Doty’s work maps the perimeter of the passageway from selfhood to objecthood, he also presses against it, tries to puncture the screen keeping each from each.

Beginning with a touchstone work by the Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem, Doty moves through a reflection on permanence and perspective, taking the still life as his starting point. Everywhere, the joys and frustrations of vanishing entities—people, ideas, furniture, trinkets—are probed. But this is no new obsession; Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a seventeenth-century student of the chemistry of painting, is quoted as lamenting in Still Life: “It fades, it bleaches, it goes away!” What doesn’t go away is Doty’s eye, which magnifies and scrutinizes everything from the single-subject (at least we think, until we get to the circus of colors) specificity of Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus to memory and its “rich associations of scent and flavor,” as if the scent of the painted lemon’s pulp “were some fragrance the light itself carried.” The senses conspire into synesthesia. “I have wanted to escape or deny the body,” he confesses in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. “I have loved the art that defies limit, that reaches for a scale beyond the human.” Beyond the human, it turns out, is where so much else is; the distinction, though, is not always tenable. James Elkins, writing in What Painting Is of Sassetta’s fourteenth-century Madonna, reminds us that even the divine is manifested from the powders and dyes made from mined materials. “Thus it is light built of earthly things, and in this way somewhat like ourselves,” Doty observes. If Wallace Stevens is correct in “Prelude to Objects” that in a museum “each picture is a glass, / That the walls are mirrors multiplied,” then the felicitous encounters Doty chronicles take place in the Louvres of the everyday.

The relationship between poetry and painting is an ancient one, rooted in the parallel histories of the word and image—two breeds of symbol. “To write of painting, or the fine arts in general, in a book about description in poetry, seems so natural as to be obligatory,” says Willard Spiegelman in How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry. And to write of the still life, at least for Doty, bears special significance: such paintings, he reasons, offer us “a principle of attention” and invite “a faith in the capacity of the object to carry meaning,” a sense “of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world.” They teach us that knowledge can be seen. Though differentiated by the parameters and natures of their materials, poems and paintings bisect much of the same territory. “What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable,” as is a painting, Doty writes. Then: “To think through things: that is the still life painter’s work—and the poet’s,” writes Doty. “Both sorts of artists require a tangible vocabulary, a worldly lexicon. A lexicon of ideas is, in itself, a phantom language, lacking in the substance of worldly things…” Here one can hear a ripple of Williams, the ruts of red wheelbarrows in the mud. And also a tinge of Bachelard, his exaltation of intimacy.

Doty’s paean to the subjects of our focused attention isn’t the only one of its type. After visiting an antiques fair in Brimfield, Massachusetts—at which he bought a wooden box—Richard Todd pauses for a moment of praise in The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity. “At such moments you reflect: There are so very many errant things in the world, and thank God for the prisons in which we keep them, for closets and attics and chests of drawers. For boxes.” But while we might think we imprison objects, objects go on traveling through their own universes. In “The World of the Aesthetic Object,” Mikel Dufrenne claims that the aesthetic object, in the act of signifying, “does not exist to serve the world. It is, rather, the source of a world which is its own.” But at the same time it is one of the best-lit windows into the a world that is not solely ours but shared with all its corporeal inhabitants: from bodies to boxes of notebooks. Together we are all, as he puts it, “citizens of the great community of the disappearing.” So what use, in the face of such a calamitous disappearance, is still life—what use are any artworks at all? Doty has an answer to this cynicism: “As advocates of intimacy, as embodiments of paradox, as witnesses to earth, here, this moment, now,” he writes. “Evidence, thus, that tenderness and style are still the best gestures we can make in the face of death.” Billy Collins claims there’s only one subject in lyric poetry, which is “that you have this existence and at the end of it you’re going to experience non-existence”—and that because of this “you’re struck with the fact that existence is full of particulars like a breadbox or a girl’s ponytail or a cup of soup, whereas non-existence would seem to lack these particulars. So that the poems are kind of urgent recognitions or celebrations of the particular around us that we are leaving as we speak.” In the still life, Doty finds not a protest but a resistance to this void, a movement against its current composed of singular, unitary things. Such a separateness, he argues, is artificial: it bleeds into a “poetry of relation” in which all things converse, in which connectivity takes hold. Doty summons a whole metaphysic thusly: “What is documented [in the still life], at last, is not the thing itself but the way of seeing—the object infused with the subject.” A strange but sensible sort of pantheism—“these tulips and snails, grapes and cheeses are, at last, human bodies, if bodies could flower out.”

This summer and fall, I exchanged questions with Doty about Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, the marriage and divorce of poetry and painting, vanity, Frank Bidart, reality and its representation, the pleasures of quiddity, and ekphrasis—among other things. Our conversation follows.

The Kenyon Review: Can poems, too, preserve the particulars of the world in that “realm of perfection” that the still life manages to achieve? Or is there something about the visual image that reaches to more primal a place than the textual?

Mark Doty: Let me say first that this question makes me look forward to the questions to come. It’s a good one. I think what poems do is preserve something of the flavor or texture of subjectivity; that’s why they give us the uncanny sense of presence we get when we read, say, Whitman. There is the voice of a man long gone, and that voice has not vanished from the earth. But the visual has a different quality, in that instead of giving us language and inviting us to see how one perceiver saw, let’s imagine, dewdrops on rose leaves, that perception is rendered in a far more precise, physically evidencing way. Language can’t do that, which is why poets are forever jealous of painters. And they are envious of us, of course, for what only we can do.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

KR: You write about your partner Wally’s passing in terms of the space of the house you shared, how his death contributed to its accumulation of lived experience, which you described as a palpable vibrancy. Later, you note that the great Dutch still lifes have a sense of “unmistakability” about them, that their creators didn’t need nor intended to press each work into individuality. How do you think objects (or spaces, and the objects they contain) come to possess these, say, auras of lived-ness; is there something universally relevant, even archetypal, about a particular thing and its passage through history? Does “significance” need active maintenance, or do you think it resolves itself?

MD: I would say that there are two sorts of auras here—the resonance of the known (My mother loved these plates, and handled them again and again) and that of the unknown (Someone handled these plates). They aren’t the same, and yet one partakes of the other; the less intimate form contains the resonance or suggestion of intimacy, even if we never knew the people who used that bridle, or relied upon that hammer. The specific significance of any thing will fade. Someday no one will be alive who knew my mother, and whoever I give these plates too will be gone, and any narrative attached to the things will go with them. But when things are used long enough or held closely enough, I think the sense of a narrative attaches itself to them. Just last week I was in Munich, and my partner and I were in a wonderful antique store where every single thing felt alive with story. Though it no longer matters whose.

Jan Davidz. de Heem, Still Life

KR: At one point, you write about going back to the Met for the third time to look at the de Heem painting for which the book is named. You locate it, but it’s different than you recall, and it’s been moved to a another gallery and retitled; your memory of the thing both conflicts with and informs how you encounter it. Does poetic memory work in a similar manner—and is this fallibility ever problematic? To put it another way, in a 2003 interview with Poets & Writers, you said that both the memoirist and the poet “are in fact balancing three different kinds of allegiance—to one’s own sense of reality, to the esthetic needs of what one’s writing, and finally to one’s ethical sense, the need to treat others responsibly.” Where does memory—and its representations and interpretations—fit into this?

MD: Oh, I just had a painful experience with this, also in Germany. There’s a splendid Jan de Heem in the Alte Pinoketek in Munich. It couldn’t be more different than the serene one my little book centers upon. There’s a big bouquet, flowers of many seasons, one or two of them shriveling; it’s set against a dark background, and on the same table or ledge are also a crucifix, a skull crowned in laurel leaves, a key, a few other small objects. The astonishing thing is the bowl of the glass vase in which the flowers sit. It draws blackness from the backdrop, punctuated by the vertical stems, and the space seems slashed by the dramatic splashes of reflection on the glass—maybe some window frames, some unreadable smears of brightness. It’s a wildly turbulent sphere, and it’s the center of the painting; your eye can’t stay away from this black ball of trouble.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Flower Still Life with Crucifix and Skull

When I saw this painting first, I think it was on the opposite wall of the gallery, and I don’t remember it being covered with glass. Maybe it was just a different time of day? Whatever the case, it’s now so obscured by glare you can’t see it all at once, but only examine a bit at a time, and the experience collapses. I was so excited to see it again, and this second viewing was totally disappointing.

I really want to write about this painting. But now, does the second viewing have to correct or balance the first? Am I even capable of leaving the second experience out? I often quote the conventional writerly wisdom that one’s allegiance needs to be toward the truth rather than the facts, but I find myself often caught up short by fact; what happened insists upon itself. I think this is a good thing, in that it prevents one from deciding too soon what something means, or prematurely choosing an emotional truth. The insistent nature of fact creates complexity.

Jan Davidz. de Heem, Still Life with Parrot

KR: On encountering a painting by Osias Beert, you describe it as “made of memory in that it represents a poetic field of objects arrayed against the dark… a fixed distillation of emotion.” “Against the dark”: I’m interested in this phrase for how it crystallizes the sense of immediacy in still lifes while intoning a sort of necessary resistance to mortality (and here one can read the phrase as echoing Thomas), and I’m also interested in knowing if you think it has some sort of poetic equivalent. Maybe the white of the page, though that seems paltry; is there an analogy to be made here?

MD: Words against silence, absolutely.

The difference is that silence isn’t necessarily intimate, and the warm brown-black field behind many still life paintings produces sense of interiority, of human company even in the absence of human figures. But that Munich de Heem I mention—there the background is black-black, chilly, yawning.

KR: About the importance of intimacy, you say, “We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” Is this any model, maybe, to view the act of creating ekphrastic work? There seems to be something about ekphrastic artworks that express affinity—often a direct communication with the piece being written “from,” or in response to—while also saying I’m here; you’re there. There’s a connection, but it’s not duplicative. Is the intimacy of ekphrastic work of a different sort than that of its non-ekphrastic counterparts?

MD: I would hazard that good ekphrastic writing says I’m here, you’re there, whereas the weaker stuff says here we are. It is tempting to try to take possession of a work of art, and to claim that one knows it, but it’s a bit like claiming to know just what an animal thinks, and in truth you can never know what it is to be a dog. I just saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which has got some awful narrative flaws, but that tiger is just so gloriously a tiger, so other all the way through, even in the amazing moment when the boy takes the sick and struggling creature’s head in his lap.

Anyway, I’d say that the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation. There’s an essay of Cole Swenson’s where she calls this “writing with.” That is also a way of bringing a work of art into the realm of time, since we change as we look and look again, and one thing painting cannot do is incorporate the passage of time, as music or poetry do.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Eucharist in Fruit Wreath

KR: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is a composition with its own particular, meaningful structure. You blur the line between first-person narrative and aesthetic theory in such a way that I’m unable to shunt the book into any easy category. You also have a section of lyric call-and-response: “Where is Jan Davidsz de Heem now? / On the wall. In the book. / Of what country is he a citizen? / Light’s commonwealth.” What are your thoughts on these modes of criticism, especially in interaction? What does writing the “I” out (if this is even possible) bring to a treatise, and what does writing it in do? Does academic discourse, with its de-emphasis on the anecdotal, lose something irreplaceable about the experience of art?

MD: What’s more alive, sensory and visceral than visual experience? Of course it’s intriguing to theorize about art, but the danger of subtracting the subjective, perceptual experience of the viewer is that you wind up with intellectual structures that bear little relationship to that experience. I like finding out all that a viewer brings to the experience of looking; one of the functions of art seems to be to bring memory and desire to the surface, to invite the making of connections. Why shouldn’t writing about art make use of all that? There is a place for purely theoretical criticism—the conversation of specialists—but there are readers hungry to think about art, to engage with thoughtful, accessible writing that considers works of art within a broader human framework than most academic writing allows.

And, some of the finest art criticism I know was written by poets: Frank O’Hara on David Smith, Charles Simic on Joseph Cornell.

Circle of Adriaen Brouwer, Portrait of Jan Davidsz. de Heem

KR: Not to get too reductive—but if there are a few paramount insights poetry can lend to painting, and painting to poetry, what would those be?

MD: Whew. I suspect the answer to that question is a book in itself. What painting possesses that poetry cannot is an immediacy that bypasses the intellect; consider the difference between blue and the word “blue.” They can’t be the same. Yet what poetry can do is dive into the interior, make a record of the subjectivity of the maker in a more precise, directed way. And, as I said, poetry can occupy the dimension of time, which is unavailable to the painter except perhaps through working in series.

In a way, I suspect the difference between these media has to do the degree to which individuality is held in suspension within the work, how the signature of selfhood is preserved. When you read, say, Rilke, you are so brought so much within a way of seeing; you can’t read it without partaking of the Rilkean. I don’t think is true of at least a good deal of painting—looking at Jan de Heem, you have an experience of objects, of a time and place, of human warmth and presence, but how much this is attached to individuality remains an open question.

On the simplest level, the poet in the gallery learns to look and look, and that long attention will be rewarded; the painter dreaming over the poets’ book learns how swiftly looking might lead away from the visible world and into the less known interior.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Fruit, Flowers, Glasses and Lobster

KR: You mentioned that you recently found a spectacular Jan de Heem in Munich, one you’d never seen before. In Still Life, you talk about the routine of museum-going as a continual act of discovery, of uncovering a sort of mimetic narrative; can you tell me more about that, and how that influences your experience of seeing (whether it occurs in chapbooks or in art galleries)?

MD: You make me consider what it is I’m doing when I go to a museum, which is something I very much like to do. I think I am floating, as it were, waiting to see what will seize my attention; in a museum I’ve visited before, it may well be something entirely new; in an unfamiliar place, I am waiting for that experience of fascination, delight or vexation which signals that something I’m seeing contains news for me, mirrors back a question or problem with which I’ve been occupied, though I may not even know it. In that case of that “new” de Heem, it’s something to do with the relationship between beauty (those lush, almost supernaturally lavish flowers) and the magnetic pull of chaos, the magnetic storm-swirl of death. I don’t think you can really call this picture a momento mori—who can forget death if it’s a dark pulsing ball in the room with you, sucking the moment into itself? It’s more a question of how you might hold enough back from it in order to remain in the now. So—is that what I’ve been thinking about? I’ve always written about the mortal and the evanescent, but I will be sixty in eight months time, so maybe that subject has gained a different kind of impetus.

Jan Davidz. de Heem, Still Life with Motto and Lenten Food

KR: Jasper Johns: “A painting should be looked at in the same way that we look at a radiator.” Warhol, on his Campbell soup cans: “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing and that was it.” And you: “We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near us.” Are objects a way to get at something, or can they be meanings unto themselves? Are these options at odds, or just two ways of saying the same thing? Is Goethe right to want a painting by Willem Kalf instead of the treasure it depicts?

MD: When Kalf lavishes his attention on one of those elegant cups made from  a nautilus shell, he is in a way doing what Rilke prescribed in the Duino Elegies and translating the object into himself, creating what some translation of that poem calls “an invisible re-arising in us.” I do think that this is more subtle and beautiful than the cup itself. I don’t know which is more fragile.

Meaning, Goethe’s statement seems to suggest, lies in our relation to the world, the greater value lying not in things themselves but in our experience of them, in the way they’re incorporated into human lives. The real treasure, then, is the act of treasuring. Can there really be, for us, such a thing as “objects in themselves”? I guess so, in the case of things that resist containing meaning. There’s a little poem of Brenda Hillman’s called “Styrofoam Cup” in which she keeps quoting Keats, “Thou still unravished….” What can a Styrofoam cup be butunravished? And endlessly replicated, and thus pretty much incapable of mattering to us. I wonder if anyone can treasure one of those? That takes me to that moment in one of Frank Bidart’s poems, when the speaker has his dead lover’s cigarette butts in an envelope, and takes them out as relic and fetish; they have become necessary, beautiful, heartbreaking.

Jan Davidz. de Heem, Still Life with Bird

KR: There’s this gorgeous moment of revelation at the end of your poem “Door to the River,” where the speaker, after battling with the promises and limitations of both the de Kooning and the natural environment, lies prone in the field: “…for that astonished instant // hung on the other side, permitted / entrance to the steep // core of things you think / of course this is what death // will be. Fine.” There’s an eschatology suggested here: that all culminates in a return to the world of objects. Does this insight affect your own writing process? If still lifes are steps toward acquaintance with things, when does art step away from things—and should it ever?

MD: I think “the steep/core of things” is the same place as the world of objects, but seen from a different position, from a heightened or privileged vantage point. That’s what that poem reaches toward, the gift of a moment of being poised at the brink of that other perspective, seeing a little beyond the limits of ordinary selfhood.

I think art makes steps toward that sort of perception—something broader, more generalized—all the time, but you can’t stay in that perception, can’t live there. Maybe if you’re Buddha.

The most beautiful account of this worldview I can think of is Section Six of “Song of Myself,” in which Whitman gives us all those metaphorical equivalents of grass, then finally settles on describing it as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” That figure launches a matchless meditation on materiality, a consideration of how glorious it is to be in circulation, as matter, and how this is different than anyone had supposed, this participation, and—in what might be Whitman’s finest moment—“luckier.” The marvel of this passage is that it both does and doesn’t step away from the world of things; we are matter, and will always be, and if one stands at an appropriate distance, there is no more joyous possibility.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Flower Garland with Portrait of William III of Orange

KR: For the Significant Objects project, you wrote a story about a hypothetical fifteen-year-old who pilfered a set of fish-shaped spoons that intrigued him, pairing physical things (the spoons) with a fictitious background (the story). With objects, how much does authenticity matter? Does it matter at all? Writing about a faux-period chair in The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, Richard Todd says, “What’s the difference? If the chair had the beauty of the original and the illusion of centuries of wear, is it not in itself a glorious object?” Do you agree with what he implies?

MD: That was an interesting assignment, to be given an object and then assigned with making up some significance for it. I never felt so much like a fiction writer. It’s a little uncomfortable for me, that position, but I enjoyed it, too. I am not at all sure what authenticity is. Of course I understand that things can be real or not, but on an emotional/experiential level, one generates the authentic all the time; it’s an experience of participation, isn’t it?

KR: Though the first Dutch still lifes “are texts of abundance,” you write that they moved toward something “certainly more poetic,” more invested “in the poetry of relation” than in showcasing abundance as such. At various points in Still Life you appropriate the vocabulary of text to talk about painting (Coorte’s image of the shells is “a poem of difference, of strangeness”; Beert’s painting has poetry because it is “a community of separate presences”), or vice versa. Given this, how far does a “poetry of relation” stretch? What demarcates what one genre of art from another, and should there be any demarcation at all?

MD: It’s interesting to me that I used those terms there, since I am (often) something of a maximalist as a poet, and I identify the paintings as increasingly poetic as they become increasingly minimal. I think what I mean is something like what I spoke of above in relation to Willem Kalf’s painted cup: when there are just a few things “on stage” in the still life, our attention is focused on the relation between them, and on our relation to each of them. There’s nothing else there, in Coorte’s painting of a few gooseberries; you really do have to think about gooseberries, and light passing through them, and the color green, and the intimacy of being alone with that little flourish of fruit.  One thing poetry is, I’d say, is a relation between a set of terms. Whitman puts “grass” and “graves” on the same page, and then his great poem is a working out of that relation, the framing of an equation.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Vanitas

KR: “Vanitas” is a term that shows up with some consistency in your writing—you describe yourself as “possessed by vanitas” after you find yourself drawn to a striking china plate in Still Life; in “Paul’s Tattoo,” you write, “All is vanitas, / for these two arms.” Relatedly, you talk of de Heem’s lemons as “all freedom, all ego, all vanity.” Taken literally, vanitas is Latin for “vanity,” but it’s also a genre of seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes containing emblems of death. I was wondering if you could tell me about the significance this term has for you—does it fluctuate between these two meanings, or mean something different in your mind?

MD: I go right to Ecclesiastes—vanity, vanity, all is vanity—and think of the way our huge concerns, the dramas of personality, are revealed as self-absorption and fleeting stormclouds in the face of mortality. You think your little self so large, says the whirlwind in Job, that great fierce current of life which barely deigns to see us. In truth I think vanitas paintings are often a bit clunky and heavy-handed; I dislike taking the object-as-themselves aspect of still life out of the picture and reading everything as an emblem. That’s what one of the things that’s so potent about the de Heem in Munich—sure, there’s a skull and crucifix, which would be pretty hard to miss, but the potent thing is that inscrutable sphere of blackness. There’s the poetry.

There, is by the way, one very funny and wonderful vanitas picture in the collection of the Getty. It’s by an Italian, Dosso Dossi, and it depicts the naked Fortuna sitting on a big bubble that is very soon to pop. It’s a relief to see the subject treated with a sense of play.

Dosso Dossi, Allegory of Fortune

KR: Still life “is refuge, consolation, place of quiet. The world becomes bearable, apprehensible because so many elements have been subtracted from it.” In a milieu of accumulation—Facebook friends, Twitter followers, “likes”—how might this accretion be resisted? How does one, when writing poetry, find the right balance between gathering and dispersing?

MD: Contradiction and paradox tend to be the most reliable means of describing the world. I love those still lifes that allow for rest, a space for “quiet breathing” beside the loved, studied presence of a loaf of bread, a slice of ham, a knife. All one needs sometimes is a bit of pearly gray light on a table. But no one could live on that diet. It’s also human to like the jostle, the carnival, the whirligig and the big party.

The right balance seems to have to do with the particular needs and intent of any given poem. I listen, myself, for going too far in one direction—I put things in, the poem says no, I am unhappy with this accumulation. I take things out, the poem begin to feel malnourished, wraithlike. I think you just listen, take steps, make missteps, pay attention.

I often have my students do multiple versions of a single poem—favoring, in different ones, the spare or the full, lean diction or richness of language, a singular focus or a plurality of associations. It’s a way to learn to listen to the “ought-ness” of your own poem, and also to get a feel for the multiple possibilities any impulse to write contains.

KR: “Painting creates silence”; portraits, though, brim with speech—what of poetry and sound? Does poetry interrupt this quiet, or create its own?

MD: I would say portaits brim with near-speech; they are always about to.

One ambition of poetry, certainly, is to create a reverberant silence in its wake, one that means more or differently than the silence that preceded the poem.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Festoon of Fruit and Flowers

KR: The de Heem painting your collection borrows its title from asserts that “the world is a dialogue between degrees of transparency,” and that “there can never be too much reality,” stunted though our forays toward it might be. Zbigniew Herbert suggests that such paintings “increase the store of reality.” Do you think that the work of the still life is primarily clarifying, or tasked with re-populating the world with its own objects, so to speak?

MD: Hmm—is an object seen anew a new object? One could argue that de Heem’s oysters so clarify and shape one’s perception of those shells that they are never the same thing for one again. I don’t know. A painter I know, Richard Baker, read my still life book and produced a whole show concerned with martini glasses and strips of lemon peel; the lemon, for him, clearly became something new. I think that speaks to the work of poetry as well—if the poem can rinse dullness from things, refreshing our perception so that the moment comes alive, the strange fact of our being here is again made strange… Well, what more could we ask?

3 thoughts on “The Lessons of Objects: An Interview with Mark Doty

  1. I kept thinking about the “perspective box” with which Mr. Doty introduces his memoir Firebird. That was such an ideal metaphor for his recollections.

  2. Thanks for the lovely and thoughtful exchange here. I would suggest that the ‘most alive, sensory and visceral’ experience is when the full body is engaged, that is, in dance. why privilege the visual; as we have “seen,” even our rhetoric is shot through the tyranny of visuality. for example, in ekphrastic writing, the possibility of experiencing time passing (i.e., the body, wasting) in these vanity pictures is quite available, imho, as you both later point out so well. the painting might best be described by dancing, where temporality completely envelopes both the mode and object of aesthetic delivery.

  3. Lovely interview. I recalled, while reading Doty’s comment on the ekphrastic, T.S. Eliot’s comment that we are called not to evaluate a work of art we love but to become it. And was it Valery who claimed that we take a work of art we love as ours, and that is how we know it is beautiful? Sorry, I can’t accurately remember the quote but its meaning has stayed with me.

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