Mark Doty’s own definitions of beauty

December 18, 2009

By Theresa Senato Edwards

Mark Doty’s book School of the Arts (New York: HarperCollins, 2005; London: Jonathan Cape, 2005) is a delightful array of thought-provoking poems, some of which tell great stories. His “Letter to God,” in particular, has a great underlying story about why dogs sniff each other’s rear ends.

In fact, Doty’s thematic thread in this book is dogs: his perception of dogs, especially his own pets. To write “the poetry of dogs” with so much insight into their nature and instinct is not an easy task, yet Doty masterfully shares with his readers some truly profound realities and even absurd possibilities of dogs, to Doty, a rare species.

There is one series, “The Vault,” that almost doesn’t fit because of its sexual nature (most of the other poems are not sexual). However, it makes its way among the others, showing an animalistic nature of humans, another species visited in this book.

More specifically, I begin to understand the collection as a whole when I see the mixture of instincts, both human and animal. One poem, in particular, that really elaborates on this mix is Doty’s “The Pink Poppy.” This piece is inspiring, as it takes the concept of beauty (what could be considered cliché) and explodes its meaning into places never gone before in quite the way that Doty writes them—places engulfed by human, animal, and even plant instincts.

Doty uses distinct imagery to open up all possibilities to write unconventionally about beauty. And he floods the page with the color and strength of the poppy, showing its own form of beauty in relation to the frail innocence of his dog, which Doty also sees as beautiful. Doty writes:

     Poor Arden’s [his dog] hiding under my desk;
     when the thunder comes he seems to constrict himself,
     and then a few moments later he’s breathing heavily,

     deaf as he is, holding himself taut in vigilance.
     The poppy’s erect
     and undulant in the rain;

     a sort of terrestrial jellyfish,
     wavering blot like a shape on an old film,
     light spot in the eye after something bright,

     ragged central polyp of seed
     —dark nipple-colored anemone—
     held up like a sexual display . . .

     Blake: Exuberance is Beauty. (lines 18-30)

Along side Doty’s dog, Arden, we see the triumph of the poppy as Doty’s metaphors paint not only a colorful picture but also share with readers the fact that strength and acceptance of place are beautiful. Unlike Arden, who in his instinctive innocence, tries to remove himself from the storm, the poppy accepts its place and remains beautiful despite its surrounding elements. To Doty, the poppy displays a true sense of exuberance—a youthful energy that can physically withstand certain circumstances —as he ends this section quoting William Blake’s definition of beauty.

And Doty builds from these images, using metaphor to present other forms of beauty that are linked to instinct. He reminds us about time and our instinct to question its hold on life:

     Dangerous, to hate the thing that brings you all of this:
     that flower wouldn’t blaze if time didn’t burn,

     my golden dog rusting now under the roof of the garden
     wouldn’t have been either—no flecked ruffle
     of the jowl, inner lip pink and loose . . .

     And Arden: old pink muzzle sniffing now at the rain.

     Brief, but no one wishes it never. (41-47)

The flower cannot question time; it only becomes more beautiful before dying because of time. Doty’s dog, too, cannot query what time has done to his body and his stamina. Therefore, the dog, like the poppy accepts the circumstances. Even the instinct of humans is to accept time’s burning motion. Like the lifespan of the flower and the dog, our lives, too, may be considered “[b]rief, but no one wishes it never.” No one who has truly seen and felt the beauty that Doty writes of in this poem wishes to argue the dichotomy of time’s existence: that with time an essence grows aware and becomes beautiful, yet with time that life also becomes frail and dies.

We can accept the dualism in this poem, in particular, because of Doty’s use of metaphor. He understands our instinct to question the attributes of time, yet because time is an abstraction, Doty provides us with clear pictures of the poppy, his dog, even the rain. His lines are clear, and his comparisons unique. We accept what Doty says about beauty, and he does not rehash age-old philosophies. He compares the simplest of life—a flower’s short show of exuberance and a dog’s aging—to the most profound—acceptance of death and acceptance of life.

Works Cited

Doty, Mark. School of the Arts. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

This poem can also be found in Doty’s book, Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: HarperCollins, April, 2008),  for which he won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008. 

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