"It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see," Mark Doty begins. "But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes . . ." Doty finds refuge in the sensory experience found in poems by Blake, Whitman, Bishop, and others. The Art of Description is an invaluable book by one of America's most revered writers and teachers.
"To use words at all is to use them figuratively," says Doty in his writing guide, part of Graywolf's "The Art of " series. As both a National Book Award-winning poet (Fire to Fire) and accomplished memoirist (Dog Years), Doty is not only qualified but uniquely articulate on the subject. How does a poet create color? Landscape? Context? Saying "blue" or "field" means different things to different people, and also falls short of encompassing any kind of atmosphere or significance. "Poetry's project is to use every aspect of language to its maximum effectiveness, finding within it nuances and powers we otherwise could not hear," he says, and in order to capture the "texture of experience," the poet must be aware of what is actually in front of him or her, both physically and metaphorically. Because the simple act of looking involves interpretation, descriptions are, in a sense, "self portraits" no two people see the same way, so the poet inevitably puts him or herself into each and every image. For Doty, the art of description is mostly "a balance between terms, saying what you see and saying what you see."