When I was at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-90s, Mark Doty came to teach for one semester. All the second-year graduate students fought tooth and nail to get in his class. First-years had to sell off their first born to get a shot. At the time, I was probably heard to ask, "Who is Mark Doty?"
That's because before Sarah Lawrence, the only living published poets I knew where Howard Schwartz and Steve Schreiner (my teachers from the University of Missouri), Tom Lux and Alice Fulton (because Steve Schreiner introduced me to them) and Philip Levine (and I don't know how I heard about him).
When Philip Levine finally came to read at Sarah Lawrence, he walked right by me, I felt like I had just experienced a celebrity sighting. What a silly thought: a celebrity poet.
Anyway, after moving to LA and diligently attending each Los Angeles Times Festival of Books every spring, (literally, the Cochella of books....if you want to see a million people in one place buying books, this is the biggest book festival in the universe), I got to know Mark Doty who was there year after year reading in the poetry nook. I grew to be quite a fan of his very funny, comforting and touching reading-style. On the Festival of Books panels, (real head-food, those free panels), his comments were also embracing and brilliant. I loved him! I could then see why the poetry students at Sarah Lawrence drew blood over the chance to get into his class. I wish I had been more savvy and aggressive back then too.
And then I read Dog Years. What can I say about Dog Years. It is indescribable. If you have a dog and love literary memoirs...walk, don't run to this book.
I have his book of poems Atlantis, much of which is about his lover's death from AIDS. I think what I love about Doty's poems are the way his brain gravitates toward particularity. From "Grosse Fuge" talking about his dying lover:
Mostly he looks away, mouth open,
as if studying something slightly above
and to the right of the world.
...or the end of the poem "Breakwater," his ability to be obliquely specific:
now that we have come to rest,
as mysteriously as ever,
as nearly perfect a shape
as ever we'll discern.
or from "Atlantis," his heartbreaking and arresting similes:
and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
If I could be the Dead-head-esque groupie of a poet, I would drive from town to town to be the obsessed fan of Mark Doty. But I have no time for this because I am committed to tracking the never-ending farewell tours of Cher.