Measured Abandon: Mark Doty’s The Art of Description and Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness

Jeremy Bass

Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2010. 137/167 pages. $12 each.

The Art of Description/The Art of RecklessnessAttention. Description. Subtext. Ending. For the past five years, Graywolf Press has been releasing instructional titles under its Art of series, each pocket-sized guide an exploration of one writer’s thoughts on a “key, but sometimes neglected, aspect of creative writing.” Less an imitative set than a collection of separate excursions, each book in this series charts a course through a craft topic guided by the particular inclinations of its author. The two most recent releases, The Art of Description, by Mark Doty, and The Art of Recklessness, by Dean Young, continue this tradition, offering tools and inspiration that are as distinct as their authors’ sensibilities.

It may be tempting to view these books as halves of an opposing pair, for one holds tenaciously to its mission while the other does its best to subvert all expectations of single-mindedness; but they fit rather like adjoining slopes, one complementing the other’s tendencies like inverses in a mathematical equation. Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word sets the stage with a familiar scene—fireworks on a dock—and an accompanying imperative—the urge to describe that scene. Only after delineating his argument across four sections does Doty venture into more associative territory, closing his book with an alphabetical lexicon that steers its way through various terms associated with his subject: Hunger and Juxtaposition; Language and Art. Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force, tackles an unwieldy subject by throwing all verbal force and energy into play from the get-go, attempting—in the course of 167 pages—to wrestle its opponent to the ground. Young begins in abandon and ends there, enlisting along the way a diverse array of poems, artistic movements and historical episodes in his cause.

“It sounds like a simple thing,” Doty begins, “to say what you see” (3). Of course it is not simple, and Doty’s mission is the dissection of that difficulty, pulling apart the strands of what is “simultaneous and layered” (3) so that he can better understand his reasons for writing in the first place. The book’s four essays—“A Tremendous Fish,” “Remembered Stars,” “Instruction and Resistance,” and “Four Sunflowers”—explore the act of description in the work of various poets across history. “A Tremendous Fish,” a study in diction and how a poet’s choices indicate an overall character of thought, is a classic line-by-line analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” Doty’s sense that the descriptions in Bishop’s trademark poem offer “a precise portrayal of the one who’s doing the looking” (21) is accurate both to the nature of description and to the temperament of a poet for whom a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” (23) was what was most desired in and necessary for the creation of a work of art.

“What descriptions . . . actually describe, then, is consciousness” (33), Doty continues in “Remembered Stars,” as he delves into the poems of Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Hart Crane. Doty expands his vision as he moves through this second essay, focusing not so much on the description of a single object but on the very act of naming, how that act becomes an active process in thinking “closer to being commensurate with reality than ordinary speech” (44). “Instruction and Resistance,” a brief six-page interlude, illuminates those qualities whereby a description, by resisting “too easy a knowing,” can “instruct us in what is here to be seen” (47). The last essay, “Four Sunflowers,” deepens this inquiry, exploring the ways in which resistance to “conventional associations” can reveal “some aspect of the speaker’s psyche” (62). If “poetic description wants to do anything but reinscribe the already known” (63), Doty says, then our forays into what we see are really forays into what we are trying to say for the first time, our search to find “terms commensurate with the clamoring world” (8). In “Description’s Alphabet,” Doty constructs what at times becomes a meandering list of alphabetized words (Beauty, Color, and Desire; Synesthesia, Tone, and Uncertainty) that provides a construct—however contrived—for what is otherwise a freeform meditation. While it is a whimsical, even enjoyable conceit, this final section reads more like an extended epilogue than the triumphant finale it means to enact. True to its generative conceit, The Art of Description is a firework: gripping and colorful, it can’t help but fizzle out at the end.

If Doty’s mission, quoting Lyn Hejinian, is “to close the gap between ourselves and things,” then Dean Young delights in the discovery of such spaces. As Young says, quoting the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp: “it’s better with the cracks” (17). Warning: if you are the type who dog-ears pages at every inspirational or provocative quote, then your copy of The Art of Recklessness may soon become too cluttered with folds to navigate with any degree of certainty—though this may be exactly what this book demands. Far from an instructional manual leading from one point to the next, Young’s Recklessness communicates in momentary bursts of inspiration. Some paragraphs seem to be constructed from clusters of quotations and lists of aesthetic ultimatums alone:

You can tell it’s late because we prefer the songs of Orpheus after he’s torn apart. Pattern as much a deficiency as a realization. No one gets to count forever. When you slice yourself open, you don’t find a construct. Bloom rhyming with doom pretty much took care of Keats. Already I feel the flowers growing over me, he said, looking up at the daisy design on the ceiling. Wire in the monkey’s diencephalon prints out a wave most beautiful. Open form prone to mouse droppings just as closed to suffocation. The river swims in the fish. The girl ties back her hair in a universal gesture. “The world of dew / is the world of dew / and yet, and yet” (Issa). A menu isn’t a meal. “Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Breton said that and know when to shut up, I’m saying that. (87)

But this is recklessness we’re talking about, and Dean Young—no stranger to his subject—wants us in the pitch and thrall of it. Despite his claim, in the final pages, that “I was hoping that at some point I would figure out what this book is about” (153), there is a method to the madness; once you spend several pages in the free-form epistolary proclamation that makes up the first half of this book, you’ll never want to leave.

When Young calms down (slightly) about halfway through, it is to guide his readers through an energetic but elucidated history lesson, exploring the ways in which the aesthetics of certain stylistic trends in art and writing inform his argument. Romanticism led to Impressionism from which exploded Dadaism, against which Surrealism launched its claims, etc., etc. But Young is out to connect these movements at their ragged ends, to show how the presence of the primitive—what he deems the essence of the imaginative life—continued to stir the collective creative pot century after century. Following this, Young finally buckles down to some close reading, looking at Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and finally to Whitman before launching (again) into Surrealism.

“We began where we began,” Young quips, “and there shall we end” (153). At the core of Recklessness is a fiery desire to uncover the meaning of why we write poems, what makes them truly exceptional, and how we can harness our inner wildness to surprise ourselves again and again. It may be misleading to think there can ever be an “art” to recklessness—what poem is not, by its very nature, a carefully controlled and modulated intention, even if the surface intends to give the impression of a lack of control? But Young manages to avoid this quagmire for the most part, focusing on recklessness as a necessary part of the creative process itself rather than as a necessity in the appearance of the finished work. If a work of art appears reckless, it is because it intends to do so, not because it has abandoned intention.

“To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart” (3), Young’s first page begins, and his goal is ultimately to harness the primitive, raw, sexual energy that surges from the wellspring of artistic creation, against which “prescription and intention are traps” (4). But he is careful to stipulate that all energy and no conduit make Dean a cranky boy: art is inevitably a balance between forces, and where there is fire there must be control. “The struggle of art is that it’s always one thing AND the other” (44), Young says, and his own book provides the perfect example, a creation born out of the expressive desires in the urge to speak, and the materiality of the language that comes—when we unhinge it—almost unbidden.

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