It shouldn’t be news that a person who grew up in a migrating armed forces family carries with him a sense of isolation and need to make connections to the world.
But when that person, in adulthood, turns the issue into the foundation for high art, it becomes so.
That’s the case with Mark Doty, interviewed recently as he took on the post of Poet In Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills Long Island.
Doty, who follows in the footsteps of such international figures as Robert Bly, Sharon Olds, June Jordan, William Stafford and Yevgeny Yevtushenko to the prized position, has turned his lifelong concern for connecting with the world to good advantage, published as he is by the most prominent houses in the world of poetry, and recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, and Whiting foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Through all that, however, his quest remains essentially personal.
“I’m interested in how we make connections to the world and move beyond isolation,” he notes, “to communities, and with other people and species. Poetry is a way for me to discover this in myself – I find my experience is incomplete without that.”
He seeks the ‘connected moment’ out in the most mundane and most exalted of situations, raising those experiences, through poetry, to iconic power.
“It’s there all the time, in the most common things, but we get numbed by habit or routine,” notes Doty. “It’s in the play of a dog, a delighted child, or the light in the eyes of one we love.”
Poetry is a ‘safe’ place to discover that power. “Someone’s poem is a place where they have permission to say anything, we can meet them on a genuine level and engage in a close conversation with a stranger.”
The dislocation of being an ‘Army Brat,’ a commonly held term for his kind of childhood experience, had its down side. But it also offered advantages, at least in cultivating the introspection so useful to a poet. “It taught me to be resourceful, it taught me to emphasize the inner life,” says Doty.
Not that he has been unable to establish a connection to a region he can call his own. Doty’s lived in the Northeast for some thirty years now – New York City, Provincetown and more recently in Springs, out on Eastern Long Island. It’s a place he’s happy to call his permanent home. “I don’t plan to move anymore,” he says. “Writing is moving.”
These days he’s more interested in gardening – he has a perennial garden he’s working on hard in Springs, where he feels an aesthetic lineage to such 50s era artists as Jackson Pollock and Frank O’Hara.
One recurring issue that appears in Doty’s poems is the idea of mutability – how individuals are vulnerable and imperfect, and how they are able to transform themselves. “We all become changed, scarred, by time,” he says. “We clothe ourselves to present our desirable selves. Figuratively, we put on attitudes. Make art of a fabricated edifice.”
What, then, is the naked self, as opposed to the clothed self? Which is the real you? Is the performed self real? Yes, says Doty, it is, in a way, though he’s not averse to posing a question like that in his poems, and letting the reader come to a conclusion.
Its an issue that ties him to Whitman, says Doty. “Whitman transformed himself from Walter Whitman, the newspaper man, into Walt, the Good Gray Poet. One time, Thoreau went to visit him in Brooklyn, and walking back to the ferry , was astonished at how many people shouted out ‘Hey, Walt!” as they passed. “Thoreau was shocked, he thought the poet should be remote from society,” said Doty. “But you see Walt saw the great American poet as a person who could be the incarnation of the spirit of democracy, the celebrant of community, interested in everybody. And that’s what he turned himself into.”
Whitman’s motivation? “He believed his poems could have a profound impact on American life, that he could help foster a new democracy founded on love of comrades,” says Doty. “It would be very difficult for a poet to do that today. But in our day, at least we might believe that an artist can live more fully, by creating and expanding the self. To live more authentically, and be more alive.”
As for Doty, he’s comfortable with a more modern, 21st century version of that – being able to distill the interior self and present the outer self. “I want to examine the distinction between the outside and the inside,” he notes. “We have a long set of understandings about that. The real as authentic, the false as artificial, glitter. I see it as a distinction between being and seeming. The exterior life is performance, but as Ashbery says, the surface can be our visible core, we can enact ourselves.”
There’s no such thing as too many sequins, says the drag queen in one of Doty’s poems. But in a deeper sense, he adds, ‘it depends on what you do with the sequins.’